Tuesday, March 7, 2006


I had been in the military for eight years before I knew someone personally who was killed in an aircraft mishap.

The details of this account are probably going to be sketchy, since the Air Force prohibits discussing details of accidents outside of the military. Everything I can relate is pulled from news releases that went out after the accident.

C was my formation partner at Pilot Instructor Training. He was what the Air Force has designated as a "First Assignment Instructor Pilot," or FAIP. These guys were usually disgruntled at having to stay in the pilot training environment after having been students there for a year already, but they were also generally really good pilots. Compared to me, who hadn't been in the cockpit of a T-37 for eight years, the guys who never really got out were stellar...

C finished PIT at the top of his class. He was a great guy, fresh out of college with a six month old kid at home and a young wife. We both arrived at Del Rio a little nervous to be flying with students but excited to be there.

On the 29th of January in 2002, things weren't going too sepctacular for the wing in general. The night prior, students in the supersonic T-38 (the aircraft students flew enoute to fighter billets) were performing their night solo sorties when one of them blew a tire on the runway, shutting it down. At the same time, T-38's were out in the training areas when one of them accidentally coasted through an area of heavy icing and flamed out one of their engines. They spent several thousand feet in efforts to finally get it restarted.

The next morning, the 30th, was a seriously windy day. On one of the first takeoffs of the day a student was performing a "wing takeoff" (when two aircraft take off simultaneously next to each other) when a gust of wind blew one too close to the other. The instructor took the aircraft and aggressively veered back, dragging a wingtip down the runway. Fortunately, the aircraft was only slightly damaged and the IP flew the plane back uneventfully. Flying continued.

Later in the day, I was flying one of my first student sorties when a call went out to immediately land all Laughlin aircraft. Traffic backed up and the pattern immedately saturated with planes all trying to get in line. By the time I had landed and shut down in the chocks, the skies were silent. Off in the distance a tower of black smoke reached int the sky.

C had been flying at our overflow auxilliary field about 30 miles away in a remote area of Texas. While in the final turn (a descending 180 degree turn to land) his aircraft was steeply banked and crashed into the ground. Niether he nor his student survived.

There were a million different theories as to what caused C to ride it in. Unfortunately there is no way to be 100% sure. The T-37 was made and designed to spin exceptionally. While this aspect makes training at altitude better, it increased the risk pilots faced while at slow speeds and close to the ground (like landing). We were trained extensively in how to handle this and to prevent it, and in 1200 hours I never once came close. Unfortunately the T-37 was never equipped with a "black box" flight data recorder, as the T-6 is. So any time there was an accident we had to guess what happened.
What I do know is that C left behind a young family. You don't hear about these types of things in the news much--there's no exciting enemy out there sometimes. Sometimes the enemy is just bad luck.
I'll never forget how eerie that was--a dead silent ramp that only moments before was filled with screaming aircraft.
We sat for a few days while they tried to determine the cause of the crash. Three days later we were given the green light to start flying again. The students were scared initially.
What I told them is what I believe, and what I would want if I ever were to die in an aircraft accident. "You honor them and their memory, and all pilots who have gone before, by getting back into that aircraft and taking to the skies again--knowing the risks that we all take. He's up there in heaven right now saying 'cleared for takeoff.'"

1 comment:

  1. That must have been a difficult time for you. I feel lucky never to have lost a friend and colleague.