Monday, February 6, 2006

Off-Road Solo

My recollection of El Tigre's spinning episode garnered a record-breaking hit day for me (largely due to a pick-up from Smash, once again), so I'll continue on with another experience of mine.

My last duty in pilot training was as the Assistant Director of Operations, with my primary responsibility being student training. What this translated into was that any student that displayed a less than 50% chance of being able to successfully solo was sent to me for their checkout. I would like to think it was due to my stellar instructional abilities, but I have a feeling it was more because no one else wanted the responsibility. They usually ended up passing on to the rest of the program, but occasionally a call to end the student's tenure as a pilot had to be made. It was the ones that were right on that edge that I was tagged to fly with the most.

As you could have probably guessed, Tigre was one of those students...

His big turn to solo was up. Plagued by a horrible case of airsickness, he had fallen way behind early on in the program and was the last student in the class to solo. Most of the instructors, though they thought his attitude was amazing, did not expect him to go up alone. We were scheduled for the first go of the day--just a flight around the pattern to decide once and for all if I was going to get out.

Almost immediately it wasn't going well. Normally on these flights I would turn my interphone off, so there was no sound whatsoever in the cockpit except what the student was saying and hearing, with the intent b eing that this was a safety check, not an instructional sortie, per se. Within ten minutes of flight I was back on the mike telling him what to do. After 30 minutes, I had just about had enough.

The weather has to be at certain minimums in order for Air Force students to go solo. When we took off it was right on the edge--by the mid-point of the sortie it was rapidly deteriorating due to increased winds. If the weather fell too far, I wouldn't be able to get out and Tigre would have another shot that afternoon. As if in answer to a prayer, the radio call went out changing the airfield status to "Dual," eliminating any chances of the solo sortie happening that morning. Had the weather not changed, I would have had to fail him.

"You just got a break," I announced, taking the aircraft and ending the sortie. He knew as well as I did that it hadn't gone well.

That afternoon we tried again. The winds had calmed and the sky was a deep blue clear. The sun was shining on Tigre's hands, as well, as he deftly flew around the pattern without any assistance from me. After performing his requisite landings, I took the jet and looked at him.

"You ready?" I think it kind of caught him by surprise--he didn't think I was going to let him go.

After taxiing back into parking, he left one engine running as I jumped out. I gave him some last words of advice and some guidance.

"Three landings and call it a day," I shouted to him over the engines. His helmet bobbed up and down in understanding. Student's nametags had only their names on them, while qualified pilots had their perspective rating wings displayed above theirs. I reached over and ripped his velcro nametag off, slapping my own senior pilot wings in its place. "Bring those back," I shouted, and jumped out.

Over by the squadron there was a picnic table on the flight line that was a common gathering place for students watching their buddies solo. Since Tigre was the last, almost the whole class was out there. Not many instructors took part in the tradition. I'm not sure why. I went to every student's that I soloed. Listening over a handheld radio, I watched as the tweet, now so completely far out of my control, zip around the pattern. He was doing a good job at his radio calls and it seemed to be going well.

"Pogo 50, gear down," crackled over the radio two times over the course of the next 15 minutes. Pogo was the callsign students adopted on the initial solos. It still cracks me up. I waited for the last one: "Pogo 50, gear down, full stop." Good boy, I thought. Calling it quits like I asked.

The runway at Del Rio sloped up and over a slight hill at its mid-point. From our vantage position we could only see halfway without jumping up on the picnic table and craning our necks. After Tigre touched down I watched as he rolled out over the hill. I switched the radio off and got ready to pat myself on the back for another solo under my belt.

Then a firetruck went by.

Not too out of the ordinary. No lights or anything, and emergencies happened here all the time.

A tug-truck lumbered past. I started to get uncomfortable.

One of Tigre's classmates was on top of the table with binoculars watching the rollout. I looked up at her uneasily.

"Sir, there's an aircraft off the runway down there." I closed my eyes and turned the radio back on.

"Laughlin inside runway is currently closed due to aircraft departing the prepared surface. All aircraft are restricted to low approaches only until further notice." I sprinted inside.

As it turns out, he was ok. The safety board decided that there was a fault in the braking mechanism in the plane, even though I saw no problems with it when I checked them myself only 20 minutes earlier. Good on him.

Air Force policy is that if there's ever a mishap the first thing they do is take some blood. When he got to the hospital they drew some blood and looked at his nametag for the information. Fortunately it was clean, since it was my name that went on the vial they took from his arm.

That night we were discussing the incident in the formal briefing that we had at the end of every day. This class, in particular, had shown a lack of discipline and work ethic in the first months of pilot training. I took this opportunity to go off on them as this was a possible contributed to Tigre getting into the bind in the first place. In all of my flying experience I had never had a feeling of dread as I did when I saw firetrucks chasing down a student that I had just cleared solo. With tears filling my eyes I swore to them that I would never have that feeling again as an instructor in basic pilot training. It was the only time I ever cracked while I was there.

It never happened again.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. I really enjoy these, it makes me think for a long time. Keep these coming!