MEA CULPA - 20 February 2014
Moonrise on Mono Lake - Lee Vining, California
I've flown the T-38 off and on now for 25 years. In that time, I've collected about 1500 hours and about as many sorties. Lots of those hours were spent giving instruction to someone new to the plane. By any measure, I'm pretty experienced and certainly don't have room for excuses if things mess up. As much as I might wish otherwise, experience doesn't prevent me from screwing up, ever. Last week I over-sped my flaps while on a touch-n-go. I exceeded the flap limit by three knots. It wasn't a student pilot's fault. It was me on the controls doing something I'd done literally thousands and thousands of times before. While we might think of these types of things in the domain of less experienced aviators and not so much associated with old heads like me, I did it clear as day.
I was giving a new Flight Test Engineer her orientation flight in the T-38. It was her first flight in a high performance aircraft. She had already finished the Airmanship program, which was five flights in a Cessna 172. Our mission was about taking her exposure up a notch. This was her first flight all alone in the backseat, complete with helmet, mask, and g-suit. It's a big transition for most folks because the environment is so different than anything they have done before. Between the helmet and mask making even the least claustrophobic person feel cramped, the g-suit squeezing their guts, and the act of flying upside down, lots of new FTE’s have a terrible time on their first flight. Nope, not Scrappy. She did fantastically well, which only makes what happened later more frustrating.
We finished the flight out in the area. Scrappy was great. Now, back in the pattern, I was talking through all the mental processes that should be running through her head — where we were, what the plane was going to do next, watching the fuel, the speed, and knowing how fast we were supposed to be while in the pattern. It was all normal stuff. As is our procedure, I did a full-flap touch-n-go, which worked out beautifully. As is also our procedure, I repositioned the flaps to 60% while accelerating for the next take-off. After being airborne, I raised the gear at the right time, then promptly forgot the flaps. At least I forgot about them until it was three knots too late.
In case you haven’t flown the T-38 or any high-performance aircraft, let me explain: in the pattern, you never directly reference checklists. You don’t look and read what you’re supposed to do. You just do. Time is better spent looking out the window than spent in-cockpit staring at a procedure you are so familiar with. Of course, something happened and I forgot the dang flaps.
The real impact of hurting the plane like this is it’s “downed” until the flap mechanism is checked. As is the case 99.9% of the time, maintenance found nothing wrong, which doesn’t make what I did (or didn’t do) any easier to accept. Because the plane was “down” for two days, we lost a day of sorties that plane could have flown. This has the biggest impact, since our Senior class is a week and half behind schedule and not getting much better.
Scrappy - I didn’t have to teach her much. She new exactly what happened. In fact, as I pulled the throttles, just too late, she was trying to warn me from the backseat but couldn’t think of the words. In debrief, she said she noticed the overspeed about the same time I did. That meant a couple of things to me: first, that she knew what the limits were, which she’s not required to know at this stage in the curriculum; second, she was watching for it but wasn’t quite there to really save the day. Both of these tell me she’s well on her way to being a great FTE.
There’s not much more to tell. As we say, it was pure buffoonery. No one wants to be associated with such things. I certainly don’t. But, let me point out to any of you new or old aviators: if you think it can’t happen to you, think again. No one is exempt from making mistakes. I was reminded of that first hand a few days ago.