When The Force Was With Me

May the 4th is the “May the Fourth Be With You Day”, a celebration of all things Star Wars.  I have always loved the movies (at least, the first three) and like young Luke I wanted to be a Jedi, among other things.  Maybe you don’t believe in The Force or things like serendipity.  I am here to tell you that, whether you believe or not, I was touched by the Force and directly by Star Wars in a way I could not have anticipated in a million years.  This is the story of when and how that happened, a story of adventure, and friendship and serendipity, something that seemed to mark my F-14 career.  

In April of 1982, I was a F-14 Radar Intercept Officer in VF-51 (the Screaming Eagles, the oldest squadron in the Pacific fleet and the fleet squadron that had hosted Neil Armstrong, whom I idolized),  and the squadron’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO) when we sent a small cadre of aircraft to NAS El Centro, California to participate in a Pacific fleet air-to-air gunnery competition. For the days (not counting a day to transit in and one to transit back out and back to Miramar), we flew at least one hop a day and sometimes two, each flight lasting only an hour, to shoot the Tomcat’s 6000 rounds per minute 20mm Vulcan cannon at a rectangular canvas banner with a big red dot in its center being as it was being towed by another aircraft.  RIO’s typically don’t get trained on such things, but I had personally flown the “squirrel cage” pattern from the front seat of a T-2 many times, so I knew it’s in and outs.  I was crewed with Stan O’Connor; and I always loved flying with Stan; he was not only extremely capable (as he proved during this competition) but he always appreciated what his RIO would bring to the table, and that included here.  I knew we were getting a lot of hits, but I couldn’t know we would win the whole thing (and I’m talking the whole Pacific fleet competition) until later.

A gun banner as it appears in the ai
A Vf-51 crew counts the hits on a banner. Buzz Johnson, the squadron commander, is walking across the end. Stan is the really tall guy standing on the right with his hair blowing in the wind.

During one of the days we were there, I got a telephone call from the station PAO who said that a Star Wars movie sound crew wanted to come out and take some recordings of our operations and aircraft and would somebody come escort them.  I wasn’t flying that day, and I was the PAO, so I dutifully grabbed my camera bag and ran out to the flight line to meet them.  Along with the station PAO were two guys named Gary Summers and Ben Burtt who were hauling all their recording gear on their backs.  

The station PAO couldn’t resist getting a photo of me explaining to Gary Summers what they were seeing and what we were going to be doing, especially considering the very personal “callsign” I was wearing.

Me and Gary Summers.

I escorted the two of them over to one of the aircraft we were loading up and took this picture of them recording it. Garry Summers is on the left, and that is Ben Burtt on the right.

Gary (left) and Ben (right) record the sounds of a VF-51 crew loading our guns.

They also recorded an aircraft starting up for a hop and went out to the runway with another escort and recorded an afterburner takeoff.  When they got back, they shared with me that the sound levels from the afterburners had saturated their equipment, and they didn’t think they’d get anything useful from it. 

While they had been out there, I purchased a couple of squadron patches (a VF-51 logo and an F-14 “triangle” patch we wore on our flight suits’ or jackets’ right shoulders) and gave a set to each of them.  I mentioned I had bought them for them and if they had any spare StarWars patches, I’d love to have one in return.  They didn’t have anything like that with them (but much later that Ben Burtt would actually follow up and send me something), but they mentioned they were filming a Star Wars movie just down the road (toward Yuma), inviting me out and telling me how to get there.

I didn’t have a car, but my good buddy Doug Blum did.  (He had driven out from Miramar.) So, a day or two later, with no idea of what they were doing or what we might see, Doug and I quietly got in his car and drove down the highway, turning off onto a non-descript dirt road that seemed to wind nowhere out into the desert.  We rounded a bend and this is what we saw as well as some “no entrance” signs.  We pulled over just outside them to try not to draw any attention, though I was ready to say we had been invited out and throw out celebrity names (Ben’s or Gary’s) if we got challenged. 

Our view of Jabba’s Desert Barge in the desert near Yuma, AZ.

At the time, we had no clue what we were looking at.  As you can see in that shot, there wasn’t any activity.  

We started seeing folks milling around in the next half hour.  

People start showing up.

They were gearing up for something.

Starting to look more like a film set…
Actors and film crew get visible…

I was shooting these pictures using an Olympus OM-10 SLR and a telephoto lens.  We were too far way to hear much, but it was obvious they were about to start shooting. 

Just before the shot…

The set got really quiet.  We saw a male and a female swing off the barge on a rope, heard a bell ring, and then heard the crew start clapping.

Luke swings off with Leah and just hangs there…

After we saw the movie, we would realize we had seen part of the climatic scene where Luke rescues Leah from Jabba the Hutt’s barge.  In this last shot, you can see Luke, Leah, Chewbacca, Lando, and (should be) Han.  

But back then, we couldn’t put it in context.  And we had spent a couple of hours out there and only saw them shoot one thing.  It was going to take a looonnnggg time for them to shoot an entire movie at that pace, and we went back to El Centro unimpressed.

What we had seen and how it all lined up I wouldn’t come to understand until over a year later.  We were deployed on the USS Carl Vinson when the movie was released as “Return of the Jedi”.  (The movie had been originally titled “Revenge of the Jedi” but rumor had it that someone decided that Jedi’s didn’t take revenge so the name didn’t fit.) Our voyage had started on the east coast of the United States, taken us into the Caribbean and then across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean (where Doug died in night time aircraft accident; see my blog entitled “Night Flying”), back out into the Atlantic and around the horn of Africa to drill holes in the Indian Ocean while standing guard in the Persian Gulf with an eye on the shores of Iran (among other places).  At the end of a couple of months in the I.O., the ship was headed to Perth, Australia for shore leave when I got assigned to a detachment at NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines.  Each squadron on the ship had one or more spare airplanes stashed there and each squadron would rotate one pilot or aircrew to keep the airplanes exercised so they could fly out to the ship if needed.  So, I was sent out on a COD to Diego Garcia where I spent a couple of days before picking up a ride in a C-141 that took me to Clark Air Force Base.  After a tiring night getting through Philippine customs, I rode a bus through the jungles and hills to Cubi, set up on the outer edge of the city of Olongapo, unofficially known by most sailors as the “adult Disneyland of the free world”.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure out or find someone who can tell you why that was.

I spent a couple of months there flying in VF-111 and VF-51 F-14’s with Doug Law (VF-111) and then Corey Glab (whom I had crewed with in VF-51), getting to know the night life in the town, and talking on the phone and via mail to a contact at NASA’s Johnson Space Center where I was trying to get a job.  “Return of the Jedi” hit the islands as the ship grew closer and my time there was coming to an end.  There was a kiosk set up in Olangapo where the proprietor would sell copies of first run movies on Beta video tape for around twenty bucks, and I was asked to go see what I could do about getting a VHS copy of the movie.  I knew I would pull off quite a coup if I could get it done.  So, I went out into town and “talked” (by offering him cash above and beyond his regular price) the proprietor into seeing if he could get me a copy and putting it on VHS instead of Beta.  A couple of weeks later, it was done, just in time for me to toss my prize into my duffle bag stuffed into spare space in the rear of the canopy.  As long as we didn’t blow the canopy or eject, it was certain the movie would get on board.

The night we sat down to see the movie….and we would be the first people aboard the ship to do so… we watched a grainy but discernible picture that had this strange habit of panning left and right occasionally to pick up things of import.  It was pretty obvious how they had gotten us the film; they had smuggled a video camera into the theater and simply shot the whole thing.  Since the resolution of a typical TV screen back then was a lot less than that of 35mm film, the camera couldn’t pick up the whole screen, and hence the panning to bring it all in was necessary.  But we didn’t care; we were watching the newest Star Wars movie and that was all that mattered.

Later in the movie, when there was a close-up of Luke on the screen, the black image of a fly crawled next to Luke’s face and he didn’t flinch.  I quickly realized the fly was not part of the movie but was actually crawling on the screen Luke was being projected on.  And suddenly I knew how they had gotten a copy in VHS and why the picture was sooooo grainy; they had shot a copy of the movie using a Beta format video camera, then played that on a TV, while re-recording it with a VHS format video camera.  Nothing if not ingenious… But, again, it didn’t matter.  We had a copy of “Return of Jedi” and no one else did.  You see, movies were circulated among the squadrons for entertaining the troops, and each week a different squadron rotated to the top of the stack and got first pick before rotating down to the bottom.  I never saw the copy of the movie I got after we saw it; my impression was that for weeks after that the squadron had traded it off to there squadrons for the right of first pick.

I left the Navy some months after that and did get a job training astronauts at Johnson Space Center.  About a year later, I got a letter in the mail from Ben Burtt; he had tracked me down and sent me a letter and two patches labeled as being from “Revenge of the Jedi”.  Somehow and regrettably, that letter and the patches has gotten lost; but it said a lot about Ben Burtt, and to this day, I appreciate the trouble he went to just to be courteous.

Looking back on it now, I am so grateful for what happened and that I got to be a part of it.  It was all given even more import when Doug died during a late night flight in the Med (See my blog “Night Flying”.). Oh, and there is one other thing…when you watch “Return of the Jedi” and you see the scene when Han, Luke, and Leah are jumping to light-speed in the stolen Imperial shuttle, listen closely to the sound of the shuttle’s engine spinning up; I’m fairly certain it’s the sound of an AWG-9 radar getting ready to slew from stop to stop as it performs its Built-In Self-Test before a crew takes it out on a gun hop.

Low and Fast – No Good Will Come

On two occasions, I have observed a local pilot with a very distinctive aircraft buzz buildings, aircraft, and people. One of them was while sitting in front of my hangar at Pearland Regional where he sidestepped right from runway 14 to overfly a hangar at less than 100 feet and pass near a man and woman out of a Citabria that had been in the pattern in front of him and had stopped at the fuel pumps for gas. (See “Pushing the Margins”). The second incident was at a local airport where we and the other pilot had gone for lunch. We were taxiing out when he was taking off; and as he lifted off, he immediately rolled left to buzz the restaurant full of people behind us (and cockpit video in my airplane captured the liftoff and the beginning of his turn). Not only that, but we had seen him get in the aircraft with several family members. He had put a whole lot of people at unnecessary risk, all for the sake of ego and a thrill.

You can’t hang around Pearland Regional without seeing, sooner or later, RV’s or warbirds making high speed passes down the runway, often with smoke on. I actually have no problem with that on occasion, but really wonder a pilot who cannot land without “making a pass” first.

I get it that flying is a lot of fun; and sometimes that kind of flying is a lot of fun. But when you take it to extremes and/or are putting other people at undue risk with your behavior, sooner or later, no good will come of it.

The blog title paraphrases the title from an article I am about to introduce which was written by a fellow pilot and ex-Navy A-6 Bombadier/Navigator (B/N). It is posted in Air Facts and is his cut on the practice of flying low and fast in our airplanes. While flying low and fast was the bread and butter of the A-6 community in particular, every tactical aircrew is trained to do it and at some time has done it. Most of the time, it was part of or solely in support of a mission, but I would be lying to say that sometimes it was not fun. And dangerous as hell. His article discusses both the safety and legal aspects of the practice; and I consider it something all pilots need to chew on: “Low and Fast- A Bad Combination” by Jeff Edwards.

Isn’t Side Stepping Straight-Forward?

You’re on base leg and you notice a white Cessna sitting at the hold short for the landing runway.  As you round the corner and enter short final, the Cessna taxies forward to take the runway.  You immediately hit the throttle, pull the nose up to the horizon to accelerate and then raise it slightly to climb as you do, raise the flaps a notch, and announce on the radio that you’re going around.  You’re about to overfly the conflicting aircraft; so, in the name of safety, you decide to sidestep.  But which way do you go?

I overheard a debrief where this was being discussed and the student was being told that he could pick either side. And that seems to be borne out by this statement from the Airplane Flying Handbookon page 12-18: “If the go-around was initiated due to conflicting traffic on the ground or aloft, the pilot should maneuver to the side so as to keep the conflicting traffic in sight. This may involve a shallow bank turn to offset and then parallel the runway/landing area.”   The direction of the sidestep…indicated by the shallow bank turn…is not specified.

What I had been taught and always understood was that you sidestepped to the right.  I still believe that to be the best move for a couple of reasons.  First, most pilots sit on the left side of the cockpit in this country, so sidestepping to the right generally gives one the best opportunity to observe the conflicting traffic.  But a better reason is what FAR 91.113 (f) says about what’s legal when overtaking another aircraft: “Each aircraft being overtaken has the right of way and each pilot of an overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well clear”.

I found a forum discussion where another CFI claimed that the rule applied only to actions taken in flight and therefore didn’t apply in the pattern.  I could buy that if it weren’t for this quote from Advisory Circular 90-66B “Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations” : “Throughout the traffic pattern, right-of-way rules apply as stated in § 91.113.”

Standard traffic patterns at non-towered fields use left hand turns; side stepping to the right puts you on the side opposite to the direction the aircraft will turn if it is remaining in the pattern.

Of course, Advisory Circulars are not regulatory in nature and only provide recommended practices.  But it shows you what the FAA thinking is.  Doing something else may be perfectly fine but it also may subject you to a violation.  I have read of cases where pilots were prosecuted for overflying..buzzing another aircraft, specifically..and they quoted the overtaking provision I quoted as rationale for prosecution.

The other thing to note is that the Advisory Circular applies to non-towered airport operations.  While I’ve never had a controller issue me a go-around command with a sidestep direction, if they give you one, you are under an obligation to do as commanded unless you are unable for some reason. 

But whatever you do, don’t overfly another airplane on the runway.  The FAA considers it bad form; and it could ruin your day if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Aerodynamics for Pilots

Problems with teaching aerodynamics to pilots or STEM students have been systemic for years; from my perspective it started with a high school physics teacher’s group that started pushing for “Newton only” educational approaches. It’s not that you can’t get there (i.e., from a “Newton only” approach) but that approach is more appropriate for an engineering audience than for the general public. It also illustrates a lack of understanding about the reciprocal nature of the flow field or that Bernoulli’s equation is derived from the analyzation of properties of a particle in a streamline using Newton’s Second Law. Claiming that Bernoulli based explanations, used for years as a simplified explanation for teaching aerodynamics, is wrong is as misguided as claiming that Bernoulli alone is sufficient; they each are incomplete without the other and, in many ways, actually depend on each other. Combined with the pseudo science and incomplete public understandings of technical subjects that often exist and get made popular by the Internet, there is incorrect material now being taught by major pilot education organizations, including AOPA, the Civil Air Patrol and, sadly, the FAA.

The first real move I saw to battle this inaccuracies came in the form of a book published over 5 years ago entitled “Understanding Aerodynamics: Arguing from the Real Physics” by Don McLean and published by Wiley Press. I discovered the book a couple of years ago as I endeavored to wade in to combat what I felt were the technical mis-explanations that gaining traction. My work with McLean’s text has been two-fold: first, to shore up my own understanding of aerodynamics and make sure I had a better handle on the actual physics, and secondly, to find an approach that I get would help me create a “simple-enough” yet technically and physically accurate explanation that would tie together all I had learned over the years. With this blog tonight, I am releasing my first salvo in this effort, a .pdf of a stand-alone presentation entitled “Aerodynamics for Pilots“. (Click the link to download; it’ll take a few minutes as it is a 14MB file.) Like Mr. McLean, I am a believer that every technical subject can be taught at a simplified level most people can understand without making it technically inaccurate, something not always done by groups and organizations dealing with the public and teaching about aviation and spaceflight. While this presentation is aimed at general aviation pilots, anyone who’s interested in how lift is created and how it is used to fly airplanes hopefully will find it educational.

I will eventually put a video version of it up on my You Tube channel; but for now, feel free to download the pdf and read it. If you’d like for me to present or discuss this with your group or class or have any questions or comments, please contact me at: afoster@theandyzone.com.

Night Flying

Author’s Note: This is a long piece…not originally written as a blog but as a story…about 18 years ago. I am republishing it here in memory of my good friend, Doug Blum. The impact of his death on my life can’t be overstated, and I have recently been blessed by being contacted by one of his cousins who was also in Naval Aviation with us some years later.

Flying an airplane at night takes no different skill than flying it in the day. Or so they say. I take out my tiny, black, metal flashlight with its red light lens and shine it on the instrument panel before me to assure myself everything is there. I point the light at my checklist which I remember calls for me to shut the airplane’s door. There is one, it is on the other side of the passenger seat, and I am held so tightly by seat belts and shoulder harness I can’t lean enough to reach it. To prove the point, I fumble my checklist and drop it on the floor in front of the passenger seat. My hand reaches through empty space after it, well short of the goal, to prove I can’t get there. Like I must do with any of life’s problems, I relax, sit up straight in the seat, pull the slack out of the shoulder harness so I can move, and then bend down and fetch my checklist and slam the door shut. I am in my safe little metal cocoon now, ready to go.

For a moment, I stare out the Plexiglas windscreen at an ocean of black, feeling the cool air spill through a small port in the window at my left shoulder. In front of me, the silhouettes of other airplanes, metal ghosts in the night, wait for resurrection underneath a moonless, cloudless sky. Moments ago, before I got in this airplane, I had been looking at a needle-line of trees lit from behind by the orange glow of Houston’s city lights and petrochemical plants. How light it still was here even in the dark! I have seen nights so black I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Could I really call this a night flight? If I were flying out at sea like I used to or out at my favorite home, the desert wilderness of Big Bend National Park, or even in the small town where my Missouri fiancé lives, it would be as dark as sin, whatever that is. But now, now that I am sitting in the airplane trying to let my eyes adjust to the dark, trying to see the small instruments and switches I am about to activate, that self-derision goes away. I point my red light flashlight at the checklist and begin going through its steps…check cabin door closed and latched, seat belts and harnesses fastened, lights and electrical equipment off, parking brake set.

It is time to move on to Engine Start.

Time to move on. That thought is running through my subconscious, for what lies in wait for me on the ground is scarier than any night flight could be. I hope. My life appears to be headed for change. Big change. Change so scary I can’t stand to feel it, even though thinking about it comes easy. The fear is running through me like an electrical charge, held back from any conscious acknowledgement by my own defense, and I know it. I am trying to forget it here, trying to escape its grasp for over an hour, to escape the self-doubt and questioning that always comes with following one’s heart, one’s gut…to lose myself in the air and the preoccupation of flying this airplane. To forget for one hour that without this change, my fiancé and I will go our separate ways, forget the investment in Love and Life we have made with each other, and let go of a special opportunity to grow. An opportunity that my mind is arguing with every step of the way. Linear, logical, it solves the world’s best problems in that way, never admitting for a moment that Life itself is neither linear or logical nor makes any sense. Yet, if it did…if it could figure out what it all means except to me, I would be in very big trouble.

Throttle forward one half inch. Master switch on, and the airplane springs to an electrical life. I turn on the cockpit lights and adjust them so I can see the instruments, flip on the electric fuel pump, and listen to its agonized whir. The engine is still hot and doesn’t need priming. I yell “CLEAR PROP!” in my high, breaking voice (not likely to inspire fear or confidence in any pilot or passerby–if there was any) and then hit the engine’s starter. Out the window, the ghostly prop spins, the starter groaning at the load, and the engine growls awake. I pull the throttle back a little so the engine is at the proper idle, pushing my feet against the brake pedals as I hold her tight, not trusting the parking brake alone even though it’s doing the job, and shine my light on the engine oil pressure gauge. Its little needle is in the green. I turn on the airplane’s flashing lights, turn the electric fuel pump off and check the engine fuel pressure. It’s good and the engine is still running. Engine Start is complete.

My headset has been sitting on my shoulders, wrapped around my neck like a pet cat. With the engine safely started, I pull it up over my ears, positioning the headband so it presses comfortably on top of my head, and say “Test, test, test” to no one but me to make sure it is working. At the speed of light, my own voice traverses the distance down the chord, inside the airplane’s avionics, and then back to me. I turn on the radios, check them and the panel that controls them to make sure I don’t talk to some nasty air traffic controller who will yell at me. Not that there are any out here. I am flying out of an “uncontrolled field”, named that way because there is no control tower, and as many things in American society are, out of a reference point to government authority. Here, the pilots handle traffic separation by procedure and radio communication, and we do a good job. Most of the time. There is always the ten percent, as they say who don’t get the word. I don’t care as long as it isn’t me.

Taxi Checklist. Radios are on and set to the right frequencies; the transponder–a device that lets Houston air traffic controllers see me on radar, is on and set to ALT so they know how high I am; exterior lights are on. Reaching down, I release the parking brake, and the airplane rolls forward with no more urging. I push on the right rudder pedal and the airplane’s nose swings right, pointing into the darkness punctuated by the brief, passing white and red lights of cars whizzing down the road perpendicular to and just beyond the end of the runway. I have the airplane’s landing light turned on; the white, one-eyed monster paints the ground in a hazy white ellipse in a vain effort to push back the amoeba of darkness trying to swallow us up. I taxi forward, heading toward a explosion of white light coming from the airport lobby’s long, rectangular windows. The light seems like a blast from another world. Inside that other earth, the green cinder block hangar that is the airport’s business office, I see two young women. One is slender with hair beyond her shoulders, and the other sports a medium build and hair that stops short. The slender young woman looks like she is working behind the counter and is not paying attention to me. The other is staring, out at me, out into the darkness, out into eternity. I wonder what she is thinking about it and then jerk myself back into my moving, threatening reality. This is no time to think about anything but flying.

Turning left, I drive my airplane up to the run-up area, a small ramp of asphalt next to the runway, and spin the airplane around to face parallel to the runway. Setting the parking brake again, I flip my checklist to the next page in pursuit of my next thing to do. The Before Takeoff Checklist. I review it once because I know its actions will come fast and I want to be prepared, a philosophy I wish I had learned before I began practicing life. Which is passing quickly. Soon, it will be gone, and me with it. Then, I’ll probably be wise.

Ready. I run the throttle up. The engine growls, and I can feel the airplane trying to surge forward. I hold her tight, checking oil pressure, oil temperature, fuel pressure, before singly switching off each of the engine’s two magnetos, each firing her spark plugs, and watching the engine rpm drop to a specified tolerance. Within limits. I pull the propeller controller back a little and hear the prop change pitch and see the engine rpm drop and put it all back like it was. The propeller is working, so I check the vacuum gauge (an engine vacuum pump runs some of the instruments), the ammeter to make sure the electrical system is okay; and, satisfied that all is well, I pull the throttle back so the engine comes to an idle. After I check that windows and doors are shut, that my flight controls move like they are supposed to, that my instruments are set, the transponder is on, and turn on the electric fuel pump again, the Before Take Off Checklist is complete. I am almost ready to fly.

Sticking my small flashlight and my checklist under my right leg, I push the throttle up a little and step on the left rudder pedal. Like an obedient horse, the airplane pirouettes, allowing me to search the black skies for the flashing lights of an approaching airplane. Seeing no one, I complete the circle and point my nose and my airplane’s at the runway, its end marked by a small green light on each corner and its edges marked by white lights that draw an outline my mind completes. I turn on the landing light, its small ellipse of whiteness, of surety, outlining little more than what I can hit in the first few yards. The rest of the runway disappears into a black hole.

Any takeoff is a test of faith. As I move out toward the center of the runway, I spin the airplane left as I smoothly add power. Just after the nose is straight down the runway, which I can tell because the white lights are spaced on equal sides of my nose, the engine is at full power. The air is cool, and her power is good. Almost before I know it I am passing 60 mph, flying speed, and I pull back on the yoke and we lift into the air. Runway lights and dark tree lines fall below, replaced quickly by a panorama of lights, mostly yellow and white, that push outward to form a horizon. I make a radio call telling other pilots I am turning right as the altimeter hits 700 feet. Already the houses below me are starting to look like toys. My reality has shifted. I am alone up here. Alone with my thoughts. Alone with my fears. Only my skills and this machine, if it doesn’t burst into pieces before I get home, will bring me safely back to earth.

I push the nose down and pull the throttle and propeller back a bit, climbing very slowly and accelerating toward the southeast. Above me at 2000 feet is the floor of controlled airspace, what we pilots know as Class B. If I fly into it without air traffic control permission, the FAA will do nasty things to me and my pilot’s license. So, I stay below it until I cross the road at the airport’s southern edge and then climb again, knowing that the floor has itself climbed up to 4000 feet. I point the airplane toward a field we use to practice maneuvers, a field that there are no lighted structures on, and whose location I know from experience and blackness. I am truly flying toward a void. On purpose. Lights below mean businesses, houses, and people who might be bothered by my maneuvers even though I can quite legally do them overhead. It’s better not to buy trouble, except in my relationships with women, where I do it all the time.

Those who say that flying at night is no different than flying in the daytime have never done it. I feel strange, out of place, like I am not supposed to be here and am unsure what I am doing. This is called feeling rusty. I am and it shows. While I flew at night only a month or so ago, I have not flown this airplane at night for about 90 days. I feels like it’s been two years. Even the ground looks strange and unfamiliar. I see lights outlining a round tank and a small plant on the east side of a highway below and feel lost even though I know right where I am. I don’t remember seeing that before. It may have been there for years or may have been built last week. In Houston, there is no way to tell. Every square inch of green in the city is being bought, developed, paved over, industrialized, condo-ized, and suburbed faster than you can blink. The Gods That Be will not be happy until every dollar is wrung out, every piece of grass gone, and every chance of skin cancer is yours for the taking. And it is.

Back to my flying. The yellow, muted, lighted stacks of petroleum plants that make up Texas City are in front of me. Beyond, black land fades to blacker water split by a small snake of light connecting to Galveston Island, itself a sliver of lights separating me from the Great Blackness beyond. The Gulf of Mexico. Like another ocean I used to night fly over long ago…

I joined Naval Aviation as a Radar Intercept Officer flying in the back seat of an F-14, then the U.S. Navy’s premiere fighter. “I hate night traps” was one of the first things I heard. I didn’t understand. As a pilot myself, except for the actual “coming aboard”, I knew most of it was instrument flying, something I was good at. I had heard that there was nothing blacker than being airborne during a moonless night at sea, but living in some kind of city, big or small, all my life, I didn’t know I had never seen dark. Until I did. Until we launched out one moonless night under an overcast sky into the heartless depths of what maps and navigation systems said was the Indian Ocean. When we came back, the ship was a small light, swimming in a blackness that had no end, no up or down, no left or right. It just WAS. DEEP. BLACK. FEAR. Procedure and instruments brought us back alive night after night, where we would plunge in less than a second from a world of air and engine noise onto a metal world, bathed in a pallor of yellow light, filled with creatures bearing goggle eyes and multi-colored vests using hand signals to tame the controlled violence that the ship was. Night after night. Most of us came back alive. But then there was Doug. The best friend I didn’t know I had until he was gone…

We were on the U.S.S. Vinson, a nuclear-powered, Nimitz class aircraft carrier, in the Meditteranean sea. The ship was on her first cruise, and we were conducting war games as training and to prove the ship’s mettle. Aircraft launchings and landings were running around the clock. I had come in from a night flight just before midnight and immediately gone to bed. The darkness of sleep swallowed me, chased away too quickly by the sound of the stateroom phone ringing in my ear at 5 a.m.. I had overslept. The squadron duty officer was rousting me on the phone.

“You’re briefing has already started,” he said.

“I’ll be right there,” I said, groggily. Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I slapped on my boots, zipped up my flight suit, and ran down to the squadron’s ready room. We were flying two crews on my event; and though I wasn’t flying with my good friend and usual pilot, Corey, there was an empty seat right next to him. I sat down there and was listening to the briefer talk about an ongoing search and rescue which I thought was part of the games until I heard him say that the crew of an S-3, and anti-submarine twin jet, had spotted debris in the water.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I said, tapping Corey on his arm.

Corey didn’t hear me, hadn’t felt me. He was glued to the briefing. So, I hit him on his arm again. Harder.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“You don’t know?” he said, startled.

“Know what?”

“Doug and Zack flew into the water.”

Navy airplanes start an approach to the ship at night in a way that is very similar to airliners stacked in bad weather at an airport. The ship gives you a holding altitude at a specified point, and you are supposed to be there at a certain time and begin your approach at a certain time. To the second. Most of the time, you hold fairly high. You descend down to only 1200 feet and level off, fly level there until intercepting the ship’s instrument approach, and then begin a slow, controlled approach that takes you to within three quarters of a mile where the pilot uses a visual aid called a “mirror” (we called it “the ball” because it looked like a ball sliding up or down). Doug never got that far.

The story goes that the ship launched them out on their event sometime after midnight. Doug had made it out to his patrol station some distance away when the ship realized they were sailing into fog and they wanted everyone back aboard before they did. So, they told everyone to come back. Earlier than planned. For Doug, that meant he had a lot of gas he had to get rid of. The Tomcat couldn’t take the stresses of a landing with a lot of gas aboard. Since Doug always liked to burn gas rather than dump it, he pushed the throttles into full afterburner, making the run back to the ship faster than the speed of sound. (A helluva a fun thing to do!) He arrived back at the ship when he was supposed to but with too much gas. Slowing down to something like 400 knots (about 460 mph), he began the approach and leveled off at 1200 feet like he was supposed to. But he still had too much gas. So, he asked the approach controller if he could do a couple of three hundred sixty degree turns to buy some time and dump some more gas. The controller approved. At 1200 feet and 400 knots, he did the first to the left and reversed to the right. In the middle of the second turn, radar contact was lost.

I never saw or heard from him again.

I also never saw the official accident report. We were told that after examining the radar tapes, looking at the speed and radius of turn at constant altitude, that Doug had pulled four g’s in the turn. Such forces and the reversal of turns probably had given the crew vertigo; and in his disorientation, he flew them into the water.

But Doug was too good for that. Flying was his life and soul. And where was the backseater during all that? Asleep at the wheel? I couldn’t buy it. Not as the sole explanation. There was one other thing I never heard anyone talk about, something I and every Tomcat crew has probably personally experienced, which was the fuel dump valve sticking open. That was a problem you had to solve and solve quickly if you wanted to stay airborne. And if cycling the switch didn’t work, the way you fixed it was to open a circuit breaker on a panel forward of the pilot’s right knee. If Zack was focused on the diverging fuel quantity and Doug was reaching forward to open the circuit breaker, he could have easily, unnoticeably, eased the stick forward and knew nothing until he felt the shock, the transition, and he was Moving Toward the Light.

Doug’s death shook all of us. Me, to the core. I was already getting restless, thinking about where to go on my next tour of duty, trying to decide whether to stay in the navy or get out. When Doug died, I suddenly knew I didn’t want to die as a warrior. I was there because I loved to fly, because I wanted to fly in space, not to kill. But a professional killer is what I had become. I didn’t want to die one.
Time to move on.

But underneath it all, was the fact that Doug had been night flying when he died. Look what happened to him.

Despite that, eighteen years later, I turn, looking for other airplanes in the vicinity. Seeing none, I slow my airplane down to maneuvering speed and roll into what a “steep turn”. Sixty degrees angle of bank. Two g’s. I practice balancing power, bank angle, and pitch to hold as close as I can to sixty and maintain my altitude, and then reverse in the other direction. Like Doug did, I do turn left then right. Happy with my performance, I pull the power back, drop the landing gear, and drop the flaps, slowing the airplane down until a red light and a small horn tell me I am nibbling at a stall, something I can tell from the feel of the airplane anyway. I hold the airplane there, making small turns while I hang on the edge of flyability; and then satisfied with that, I push the throttle to full, slowly raise the flaps, raise the landing gear, and transition back to a full cruise at 145 mph, which is slow for a jet but fast for a light airplane. Turning west, I check my altitude (I’m at 3000 feet. The Class B is at 4000 feet.) and decide to do stalls. Takeoff stalls first. I slow the airplane down to climb speed and then point the nose upward and add power. Once stabilized at climb speed, I pull the nose up, up, up…to get her slow enough to stall. Well above me I see what appears to be a jet heading out of Houston; I turn on my landing light just to let him see me. The nose buffets and drops slightly when I force the airplane to stall; I release pressure on the stick. The stall ends and I adjust the nose to get a climb going again.
That done, I pull the power back and turn back toward my field, which I have flown away from. I slow the airplane down, drop landing gear and flaps, and pretend I am landing. I slow the airplane to a stall, let the nose buffet and drop, recover with full power and raising the flaps and then the landing gear. With my self-imposed, in-flight maneuver series complete, I head west, making my way back toward the airport. I see its beacon and the runway itself dimly, miles away to my north, awaiting my return. I could turn in from here and fly straight toward it; but in deference to flight time and to set up for a recommended FAA entry, I fly the airplane until I am just east of I-45 and parallel it. The airport is hard to see from here because of all the lights around it. Only familiarity allows me to pick it out with just a glance.

A few moments later, I am in the traffic pattern abeam the runway. I perform my landing checklist and fly my descending rectangular course toward the runway. To keep the airplane aligned it once I line up, I am flying with left rudder and right wing down. There is a crosswind, a wind blowing ninety degrees to the runway. Unexpected, but No Big Deal. But why is the runway so dark?
Sometime between takeoff and now, the landing light had burned out. I normally practice no landing light landings and no instrument light landings and no instrument and landing light landings. It was No Big Deal, except I hadn’t planned on this. I wasn’t in control. Which always turns on the fear inside my head. I know how to defeat it. Just let go.

I landed without a problem, even if a little firmer than I liked. But what did I do now? I brought the airplane to a full stop on the dark runway. The light was not legally required. This was the second time in a couple of weeks I was trying to re-qualify for carrying passengers at night. The FAA required three landings to a full stop every ninety days. The last time I had flown it I had grounded the airplane for a broken airspeed indicator that was legally required. Part of me, the part that wanted to be perfectly safe, maybe the smarter part of me, said to taxi back in, shut down, and call it a night.

I checked the trim and praying that there wasn’t a coyote or deer on the runway, pushed the throttle forward and took off again. And again. And again.
The third time I landed, taxiing back to the hangars at a pace slower than I could walk. The airport’s taxiways are not lighted. Using a small flashlight but mainly the light from the red and green position lights on the low wings, taxied back to the dark hangars and unlit rows of airplanes without hitting anything.
Once again. Night flying.

In life, we all do a lot of night flying. As I buttoned the airplane down and walked back to my truck, I thought about the night flying I still had to do. My upcoming marriage (I hope. I’ve been in a broken engagement. Even though in my soul I know this will happen, my fears still creep in, not content to relax until the fat lady sings, if then). The necessary change in career that it will probably bring. Possible economic ruin. The unknowns of friends, family, and locale. The fear of failure. The fear of the unknown. All those things that night flying represents. All those things I do anyway–unless I am already dead–even when I am afraid. And I usually am. Maybe I need to be.

Pushing the Margins

Me, my wife, and our dog Jedi were sitting out at the airport in her Ford Explorer and eating a Chick Fil A supper while listening to the CTAF and watching whoever happened to be in the traffic pattern. That evening, there was a rather unique warbird working the pattern. It was all alone until a green and white Citabria entered the downwind midfield in front of it. The Citabria touched down, turned off mid-field, crossed the hold short, and turned to taxi down the parallel taxiway. The warbird pressed down final with its landing light on, suddenly sidestepping to the right of the runway and leveled off at about fifty feet. It roared past a hangar at just above rooftop level and then cut back toward the taxiing Citabira which was turning into the fuel pumps. While it wasn’t clear whether the warbird pilot was saying “hello” to someone he knew or whether he was showing his irritation at the Citabria pulling into downwind in front of him, it was the most dangerous and immature display of airmanship I have ever seen out there, and that’s saying something.

About a month later, we were out there holding another fast food soiree as we watched a Maule angle itself across the taxiway leading out of the hangar area, and the pilot got out. A Cessna 172 taxied over to it, nose to nose, and a young man and woman got out to be arranged by a female photographer who started shooting pictures. It looked to us like an engagement or wedding photoshoot in which the groom, bride, and probable best man were all or mostly pilots. When it was done, the Cessna taxied off while the Maule started up, taxied the short distance to the runway, and took off mid-field. The Maule rolled a couple of hundred feet, broke ground and then performed a hard right turn which took it directly over aircraft, buildings, and us at about 100 feet altitude.

As pilots, we get a bit complacent about altitude restrictions and flying safe altitudes at small airports because we are landing an taking off where our proximity to the ground and facilities is a fact of life. But in both those incidents, the pilots involved were acting without regard to the safety of others in the name of convenience, testosterone, or both. It’s easy to think that the restrictions within FAR 91.119 don’t apply; but there is nothing in the regulation that exempts operations at airports. My bet is if either one of the unsafe operations we observed had resulted in an accident, violations of parts of that regulation would have been used in the administrative actions and lawsuits that would have followed, assuming the pilots survived.

An area where the regulations are not so crisp has to do with what constitutes a ‘safe” distance on the runway between aircraft when approaching to land. Where I see issues surrounding this come into play the most are at non-towered field patterns and runways. While good practice dictates a go-around if another airplane is on the runway, there is nothing in the regulations that requires it. This too often results in impatient or impetuous pilots pressing their margins when another aircraft enters the pattern ahead of them or they have to land behind another aircraft whose approach speed is slower. An aircraft on a 60 knot approach is moving at 101 feet per second. If you assume a stopped obstacle and you’re 500 feet behind it, you have 5 seconds to react, brake, and stop. Even a 1000 foot margin gives you only 10 seconds to get her done. Grass or soft runways may help or hurt by either helping the airplane stop or preventing any braking from being effective, respectively. Many times, you make the decision to continue based on what you believe the pilot in front of you intends to do; but he/she can change his/her mind or have to deal with something unanticipated, regardless of where you are. The pilot in front of you only has to fly their airplane; as the following pilot, you are totally responsible for where your airplane is and what it’s doing, even if the pilot in front of you doesn’t do what’s anticipated. A radio call only announces a pilot’s intentions and doesn’t guarantee you anything. So, there’s good reason for going around when anyone is on the runway as you approach touchdown at a non-towered field.

Believing your expertise will keep you safe while pushing your margins will generally require you, at one time or another, to prove it. And if you’re lucky, someone will post a cell phone video of your performance on Facebook, You Tube, or Twitter, and it will go viral while escaping the attention of the FAA.

NOT “UPWIND”!

My wife, my dog, and I often sit out at our airport in the car and eat a fast-food supper in the evening; and when we do, we often have a handheld radio tuned to the traffic frequency (i.e., CTAF = Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) to listen to the “going’s on”. You never know what you’re going to see or hear sitting out there, and I recently noticed a spate of pilots performing touch and go’s while calling they were “upwind” on the climb out. In all my years of flying, I had not noticed that becoming a problem before, so I decided to go look into why it might be happening. Obviously, the pilot had never paid attention to the traffic pattern diagrams or terminology used in the Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) and, worse, somebody may have trained them to say that. So, I spent a little time reviewing what the AIM and some other publications that provide pilot training might be doing. But, before we take a look at what I found, let’s talk a little about why using straight- forward and standard terminology when talking on the radios is important. If you don’t think it is, you can unplug from this discussion now and turn off your radios anytime you’re flying at a non-towered field. You’ll be better off because you’ll be totally dependent upon your Mark II eyeballs and not get sucked off looking in the wrong place or confusing other pilots who are listening to the radio for advisories and really do care.

Talking on the radios is not a skill all pilots take value or pride in, as we all know when we hear someone clobbering the frequency with a monologue that would compete with the best of the late-night talk shows and demonstrates to the world their lack of training. While using the Mark II eyeball is ALWAYS required for collision avoidance and is a pilot’s primary tool, using the radios to improve pilots’ situational awareness in the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport will always improve one’s odds of survival and even of having a good time (just not at the expense of everyone else listening on the CTAF). I realize, too, that my training as an F-14 Fighter RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) is kicking in here, since the RIO generally spoke to Air Traffic Control for the airplane, and both my superiors and my pilot deeply cared whether I communicated like a professional. That meant thinking about what I said before I keyed the mike, making my communications crisp to get on and off quickly while also getting my point across or relaying information quickly but accurately, and doing it in a way that made us sound “Sierra Hotel”. Part of getting there is by using standard terminology. When we don’t, we can make the other pilots guess what we mean. They might guess wrong. Sometimes that might just irritate or inconvenience us; but sometimes it can actually put us at risk, exactly what using the radios is trying to avoid.

So, let’s start looking at that standard terminology and what it’s supposed to be. We’ll start with the Airman’s Information Manual’s (AIM) part 4-3-2. While this section discusses operations at a field with a control tower, the make-up of a traffic pattern is defined generically. Here’s the picture it presents.


Here’s how it defines what we’re looking at: “The following terminology for the various components of a traffic pattern has been adopted as standard for use by control towers and pilots (See Figure 4-3-1):
1. Upwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the direction of landing.
2. Crosswind leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its takeoff end.
3. Downwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the opposite direction of landing.
4. Base leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its approach end and extending from the downwind leg to the intersection of the extended runway centerline.
5. Final approach. A flight path in the direction of landing along the extended runway centerline from the base leg to the runway.
6. Departure. The flight path which begins after takeoff and continues straight ahead along the extended runway centerline. The departure climb continues until reaching a point at least 1/2 mile beyond the departure end of the runway and within 300 feet of the traffic pattern altitude.”

There is no graphical depiction of the departure leg in the above figure, but there is one a few pages later:

So, when taking off from a runway and climbing out, calling you are on the “Upwind” is NOT correct! When you do that, pilots approaching the airport, on the downwind, or even on the ground can be suckered into looking for you at any point except where you are. Even if they think they know who made the call, the uncertainty created causes a distraction, something no one can afford if they’re on downwind, reconfiguring their airplane for landing and performing their landing checklist while trying to keep everyone else in sight.

The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge also uses the same diagram above with the same terminology we have been discussing. Look at how the graphic shows the use of the term “departure”.

“Upwind” is nowhere to be found.

So, just how has this practice come into play? It probably is one of those common usage/myth things, started by someone (and maybe even trained by someone) who didn’t know better. Or didn’t care. Maybe the assumption is that since the nose is pointed as the same direction as “upwind” and you’ve got power on, it’s the same. It’s not. Your position is directly aligned with the runway centerline, you are NOT flying parallel to it. (Your closest argument to being correct would be on a go around in which you had side-stepped to the right; but I would not personally call “upwind” for that case since my lateral displacement from the runway is rather small.). Frankly, if I heard a radio call telling me an airplane “was on the go” from the takeoff runway, I would consider that call more accurate and likely to lead to a better result even though it is non-standard. (It still tells me where to look.)

But when I looked into it, I realized there was some training material put out there by a pilot’s organization that could be contributing to the problem. It is AOPA’s “NON-TOWERED OPERATIONS” brochure, which includes the following graphic:

With the number of pilots and CFI’s involved with this organization, you gotta wonder what made them comfortable codifying a practice inconsistent with FAA usage (i.e.,the AIM and the Pilot/Controller Glossary). My own experience with the organization’s training materials is when they start off with a disclaimer or an excuse, you can bet it’s wrong. (Don’t get me started about their Aerodynamics training. It fits that pattern.) I would contact them to suggest they correct this; but I’ve done it before and they’ve blown me off. I’m sure the argument will be they were just telling you that folks were doing it; if that’s it, it’s not clear. Additionally, for new pilots trying to learn this stuff, it can be misleading. There really is NO reason for it to be there at all. You gotta have some boundaries and discipline somewhere.

Or maybe you don’t. It is up to you.

More Than Just Airshows

Today was National Aviation Day. CNN highlighted the day by writing about some of the major airshows left in the calendar year, one of which Connie and I plan to attend (i.e., MCAS Miramar). While I personally highlighted the day by taking the CTSW out for a short flight where I reviewed power on and off stalls, turns about a point, S-turns across a road, and power-off landings and captured it all with an on-board Go-Pro. I would love to have had a Young Eagle or an Eagle flight to do. I didn’t, but doing those flights is one way I give back and try to show others that aviation has more to offer them than they might think.

Last evening, I attended an Educator’s Evening at Lone Star Flight Museum. I was invited not because I am a volunteer there but because I am one of the Young Eagle coordinators for EAA Chapter 12 meeting at Ellington and I had participated in a Young Eagle rally held at the museum about a month ago. Kenneth Morris is the museum’s Director of Education and Outreach and our host for the evening.

Kenneth and I are both ex-Navy. He has shared with me he considered his time in the Navy as a “life-changing’ experience, and that is how I feel about my time in the service as well. It was my Naval service that opened the doors to my involvement in both civilian and military aviation and, eventually, paved the way for my involvement in manned spaceflight. Those were things I dreamed about but didn’t know or initially think there was a way in for me, a geeky, non-athletic kid from a lower middle-class family without a lot of resources to help any of those dreams out. I initially got to college on scholarship and by working my way through, though due to my own emotional immaturity and limited resources, that began to collapse during my sophomore year. It was a college program for Navy enlisted personnel that enticed me in and ultimately did become my bridge to a better life. I started out as an Airman and a jet engine mechanic and finished as a Lieutenant flying the backseat of an F-14. While I dared dream of being an astronaut, it became clear I wasn’t going to get the type of military assignments I needed to enhance my chances. Still, my experience and education (aerospace engineering) opened the door to the next best thing, i.e., working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center as a flight controller and astronaut trainer (mainly the latter). A decade of that (which included learning how to fly and teach how to fly space shuttle ascents and ascent aborts) led to another fourteen years as an operational safety engineer with shuttle and part-time work today with various NASA programs.

At heart, I am a teacher, which is why I have a Light Sport Flight Instructor rating and why I have been trying for the past few years to use my experience to give back. A few months ago, I started volunteering at the Lone Star Flight Museum as another extension of that, and I really love the place. It is more than a museum; it is a place to learn and grow. For many of us, it is a place to share with others our passion about aviation and, in doing so, hope to inspire people to learn, dream, while they’re having a good time. It makes aviation a means to execute the present as well as a hopeful door to the future.

Aviation affects everyone in some way, whether it is through the airline seats you purchase and use to see family or take vacations, the packages that get shipped to your doorstep overnight, the emergency flights that carry your loved ones quickly to critical hospital care, the TV helicopter that shows you how to get to work on crowded Houston freeways, the helicopters that pull you out of your flooded homes, or, for some of us, the replacement for the car that makes distant family visits possible and practical in otherwise too-short slices of time. In other words, it is as varied and multi-faceted as life itself.

No matter how you slice it, aviation is a lot more than just airshows.

Charting a Better Course for LOC Training

In my last blog, I talked about the changes to stall training in the new ACS and how they looked when you put them in a hazard reduction precedence sequence in addition to the arguments Rod Machado is making against them. I believe that the best solution to reducing LOC accidents in general aviation is going to be BOTH some new or additional design solutions AND a proper approach to training, which I’m not convinced the new ACS approach affords. Part of the reason is that I believe it is based on standards coming down in the new Part 23 which puts more emphasis on design solutions and warning systems (the weakest of the design controls) and most of the aircraft we fly today simply don’t have those systems. But I also believe that the current training regimen does pilots a disservice because it is only PART of the answer and that the recent gains in Part 121 accident reduction point in the right direction.

In the February 2018 edition of Flying magazine, there’s a great article entitled “Loss of Control: The Persistent Risk” by Rob Mark that discusses what was done and how it contributed to a positive result, quote: “Some 65 safety enhancements appeared on the CAST (Civil Aviation Safety Team) list published in 2007, with 10 of them devoted to loss of control. One specifically called for advanced maneuvering training to “prevent and recover from hazardous flight conditions outside of the normal flight envelope”. It goes on to detail that the ICAO published a manual on Upset Prevention and Recovery Training. All of this points to going in the OPPOSITE direction of the new ACS at least in philosophy if not in actual practice. (As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the new test standards are tied to having equipment in your airplane that most do but is NOT required and may not even exist.)

The other statement in the article I consider especially telling is this one: “Anytime a pilot allows their aircraft to become a sort of airborne tail wagging the dog, a departure from normal flight or loss of control is usually not far behind.” While such an event could be caused by a pilot simply not exercising authority, I believe it often lies more in line with a loss of situational awareness whether due to misplaced focus (which could be from overconfidence, a lack of confidence, or not knowing what to do) or some type of distraction that the pilot allows to take him/he there. If that is true, then the new ACS seems more of a “slight of hand solution” since it emphasizes a reaction to a stall warning in the same environment as we have conducted stall and slow flight training in the past, i.e., a controlled environment in which the pilot knows and is in control of what is happening.

So, let’s talk about what would be a BETTER training approach than our current course, one that fits in with what we know does work and that fits the actual flying environment pilots are operating in.

(1) Pilots need to be taught (and tested) to respond correctly at the first indication of an approach to a stall (which could be a warning system activation or an aerodynamic indication, i.e., buffeting or sluggish control response). That is what the current Private Pilot ACS specifies; the argument seems to be about whether 10 knots away from that is really sufficient…and I’m not convinced you learn or demonstrate much there. Having a pilot demonstrate he can get out of the situation when the stall is nibbling at you is a lot more meaningful. For this ACS standard, you could move the approved speed range to +0 to 5 knots above the stall, though since it’s 0 to 10 the DPE and CFI can still them there. (“0 to 5 ” is probably the region where an asleep pilot is most likely to wake up.)

(2) Continue to train and test pilots in the slow flight (back side of the power curve–everyone needs hit that point in slow flight where more power does nothing–and experience really sluggish control response) through recovery after the stall. If you want to know why, go back to the “Anytime a pilot allows their aircraft to become a sort of airborne tail wagging the dog…” statement. Failure to teach these things plays into that scenario. CFIs and Examiner’s can handle the “desensitization” argument by emphasizing that disregarding any stall warning devices is NOT something you want to do; considering the limited exposure most pilots have to this type of training, I wager this approach would be MORE effective than sticking our heads in the sand and saying “you can’t do nothin'” which is NOT true if there’s enough air underneath you and it demonstrates mastery through the entire regime.

(3) The FAA and the GA alphabet groups can put their heads together and come up with an Upset Prevention and Recovery program that would be the most effective if it was mandatory before or shortly after getting an initial pilot’s rating and every so many years thereafter. Yes, that would be very controversial (like spin training used to be and is now done only for CFI applicants) and I know getting a rating and keeping it is expensive enough, but it all depends on how serious we are about LOC reduction. The use of simulators here (and for recommendation #4, next) can reduce both the risk and cost as well as be effective if the fidelity is good enough.

(4) SAFE and NAFI (as well as other local CFI organizations) and individual CFI’s can take a look at formalizing training scenarios that emphasize conflicting priorities and distraction that put a pilot into near-LOC situations. Yes, this training is already required and we all do it; but have you ever seen any of this formalized? Might be a good idea and will help bring it to the forefront.

Lowering LOC is a goal everyone’s interested in, but especially us CFI’s. Give what I’ve said here some thought, and feel free to let me know what you think of it and bring forward your own ideas.

Stalling Stall Training; Thoughts on the new ACS Approach

If you’re a new student pilot or a flight instructor, then you know the FAA changed the PTS (Practical Test Standards) for Private and Commercial Pilots to the ACS (Airmen Certification Standards). This is equivalent to the bureaucratic reorganizations that routinely reoccur and propel every Federal agency forward, especially when a new administrator takes the reigns, for the purpose of “streamlining” operations and putting someone’s new footprint out there, usually without accomplishing any long-term change that anyone can remember. I’ve paid attention to it but haven’t worried about it too much as a Light Sport instructor, though I am now hearing they’re about to do the same thing to Light Sport, making me sit up and take notice. If you know anything about what was changed, then you know that the slow flight and stall recovery parts of the test standard were “renovated” in an effort to reduce Loss of Control accident statistics, the thing that has been the big push in general aviation for the past few years. If you’re a follower of Rod Machado, then you probably have seen his tweets about how he disagrees with those changes. You can read his arguments against it in this blog: “The Stall Horn Fallacy of Stall Prevention.” Frankly, I agree with him, not only because of the arguments he makes about the learning and training processes but also because I have serious doubts that, from a safety standpoint, it’s a push in the correct direction. I come at this subject as a pilot who’s been around for a while (and interested in aviation safety for quite some time) and as a Light Sport instructor and a manned spaceflight safety analyst. As you’ll see, when I use a space shuttle based safety analysis on this subject, it casts doubt on the whole approach. (Some of will reinforce the arguments Rod was making.)

I personally believe a pilot needs to be able to handle an aircraft in any attitude and that “you fly like you train”. I’ve always taken pride in my ability to handle an airplane in slow flight and right through the stall, something that has given me a better understanding of airplane control in these regimes; I believe in preparing for the “bad day”. So, when you tell me that I’m supposed to only train pilots how to stay out of stalls and NOT how to recover from them if they get into one, it makes me squeamish. It’s like asking me to stick my head in the sand and telling me to take my students with me. It’s not that I don’t understand why the new approach is the way it is; I believe it is tied to the new aircraft certification standards re-write. Part of it is based on the rationale that stall/spin accidents that kill pilots occur too low for any recovery to take place, so it’s a waste of effort to try. (Kinda like “that person has no heartbeat, so just forget CPR and call the undertaker”.) Putting more effort into teaching pilots stall avoidance is always a good thing to do, but the argument that not teaching stall recovery is the way to get there because it “desensitizes” pilots to stall warning systems is not the way to do it (nor do I believe that desensitization is the main issue; how many hours have you spent “disregarding the stall horn? Should full throttle ALWAYS be the response to a stall horn going off? What about on those days gusty days when you’re on the approach and it’s burping at you? Is that a built-in form of desensitization?) The new aircraft certification standards DO put more emphasis on designing in stall warning and resistance systems and also DO mesh better with the new ACS stall response training; but that does nothing for the rest of the fleet that doesn’t share those design features and probably won’t be in widespread use for a decade. Most of the current fleet was designed under Part 23.207 (B) that says: “The stall warning may be furnished either through the inherent aerodynamic qualities of the airplane or by a device that will give clearly distinguishable indications under the expected conditions of flight.” So, there is no requirement that says a stall warning horn has to be included. (I suspect current ASTM standards for Light Sport also follow this approach because my Flight Design CTSW does not have a stall horn or a light…)

So, now, let me educate you a bit on how I’d look at this issue as a space shuttle safety guy.

When looking at how to eliminate or control hazards (and the hazard we are talking about here is loss of control in the form of a stall/spin), the shuttle program invoked a philosophy known as the “hazard reduction precedence sequence”. The sequence consisted of the following approaches:
1. Design for Minimum Hazard – Eliminate the hazard by design where possible. (In our case, make the airplane where it won’t stall or is extremely hard to.)
2. Safety Devices – Reduce known hazards which cannot be eliminated by use of safety devices as part of the system, subsystem, or equipment. (Stick shakers and ballistic recovery systems are examples of this one.)
3. Warning Devices – Employ devices that provide timely detection of the condition and the generation of a warning signal. (Stall horn, audible warnings, lights or other indicators…including angle of attack indicators…fit this category.)
4. Special Procedures – Used when the above approaches do not reduce the magnitude of the existing or potential hazards. (Pilot response to a stall or stall warning fall into this category.)

This list proceeds from the point of the strongest control of the hazard (1) to the weakest (4). For the case we’re talking about, a pilot responding to a stall horn with power or angle of attack reduction will be using 3 and 4. These are the weakest of the controls, i.e., hold the least amount of risk reduction. That said, the reality of a lot of general aviation flying is that we depend heavily on pilot training to reduce risk because of the nature of our aircraft, i.e., low weight and sophistication. That said, the rate of loss of control accidents over the last several decades has remained relatively constant; and since we are primarily dealing with it via the weakest of controls, there is little reason to suspect that training (once we are in the scenario) will have little impact on the rate. I also suspect that there are very often other causal factors (i.e., distraction due to aircraft or operational issues) involved in getting into the “bad day” that any training approach will not address, other than the big one involving “flying the airplane first” and taking the rest of the chips where they fall. I have no knowledge of whether this was considered when looking at the LOC accident rates; I suspect they all stopped at the “pilot eror” point without the substantive digging necessary (if it can be accomplished at all) to nail down the true “root causes”, which often lie deeper than people can or choose to look.

While we’re talking about this, I want to pull on one other analogy from a shuttle safety approach, i.e, the idea of system criticality and how this new training approach affects it. Shuttle had three classes of systems’ criticality. They were:

Crit 1 – systems that if they failed could cause loss of crew or vehicle
Crit 2 – systems that if they failed could cause loss of mission
Crit 3 – systems that, while desirable, would not cause either loss of mission or loss of crew or vehicle.

So, let’s apply this to a general aviation aircraft in this scenario.

Our current approach to the criticality of a stall warning system (because there’s no requirement that a pilot to respond to it and because there its operation is not required for VFR flight) would make it a Crit 3 item. The main responsibility lies with the pilot to recognize his aircraft is approaching a stalled condition and respond accordingly if it gets into it, whether the stall horn is working or not. The new focus on stall avoidance and making the pilot’s response DEPENDENT on the activation of the warning device would RAISE the criticality of the stall warning system if it was assigned one. Since the pilot’s reactions are based on the stall horn (or other warning system) and the ACS committee considered this an emergency, the criticality of the system (if I were rating it) would jump to Crit 1! You don’t fly without a Crit 1 system being operable! Since there are no FAR’s in place that require a stall warning device to be operable. This suggests a disconnect between the training approach which assumes the device will be in place and operable and the aircraft’s required systems. There is much better integration with the new design standards; but for now, this approach is very premature, even if I were not against it for other reasons.