WORDS ON TRAINING - 12 September 2013
Northern Pintail on Ice - Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
About 20 years ago we lost a fighter because the pilot didn't fly the aircraft out of the situation it was in. The young pilot flew his aircraft into a regime completely within the flight envelope of the aircraft but rarely visited by anyone. He was flying the aircraft the way he was taught, to maximize its performance. He was being aggressive to gain an advantage against his partner, just as he was encouraged. Yet, because of his inexperience, he let his aggression fly his jet just a little harder than he had before, leading to a situation he had never previously experienced -- he ran it out of airspeed going straight up. The result?
The unfortunate pilot applied what he thought were the right recovery controls. The aircraft didn't respond the way he expected. He got to his predetermined ejection altitude and ejected. Fortunately, the pilot survived, but the aircraft was a total loss. The rest of the story: this could have been prevented if our pilot had received the same training as his older comrades.
This pilot put his aircraft in an extremely nose high, low speed situation in the middle of 1 versus 1 training against another fighter. The result was what we call a tailslide. If you can imagine flying your aircraft straight up and running it out of airspeed, you can imagine eventually the plane is going to fall the way it came. If conditions are perfect, it'll fly directly backwards the way it came, i.e., the tail slide. (By the way, flying backwards through your own jet exhaust in a 50,000 lb. jet is pretty cool, among all the cool things you can do in a plane.)
Most aircraft are not supposed to fly in these conditions. This specific fighter was designed to be inherently stable and difficult to depart controlled flight. The jet would almost always seek stable conditions, where the pointy end would fly forward if you let it even if it was going backwards like at the start of a tailslide. It's a flying quality we call "care free." But, not all is care free.
Unfortunately for this pilot, the jet swapped ends in a disorienting though entirely predictable manner. It flipped backwards, head over tail, then stabilized nose down inverted with our pilot upside down hanging in the straps. While this isn't that big of a deal if you're expecting it, our pilot had never been there before. To make it worse, his disorientation was accentuated by a little known flight control characteristic where the aircraft would try to seek level flight.
Being inverted, this meant the plane was actively pushing to level flight upside down in a subtle fashion. This made the pilot hang even more in the straps, leaving him confused and out of sorts, to put it mildly.
For those who haven't flown inverted, it's uncomfortable. Me? I hate it. It's not fun. Some people live for this. I'm not included in that group. In fact, I do what I can to minimize flying upside down, having my eyes bulge out due to negative g's. Our unfortunate pilot was in a completely unrecognizable situation. Even though the plane was flying perfectly, the situation was unfamiliar to him and he devolved to what he was taught in such an unrecognizable situation: "smoothly neutralize controls and release." It was probably the wrong thing to do in this situation.
All of this was happening quickly. It was dynamic, making it hard for our pilot’s mind to process what was going on. Even though the airspeed was slow, the aircraft was losing altitude quickly. The airplane was doing its thing, which eventually would have turned its parameters into something the pilot could recognized. Unfortunately, the plane reached the minimum ejection altitude with the aircraft seemingly out of control (unrecognizable flight condition), so he ejected and survived unscathed.
Here's the thing: This mishap was completely preventable.
All the pilot needed to do was judiciously move the stick back to counter the negative g push caused by the aircraft's flight controls. He merely needed to pull a little on the stick to keep himself from being uncomfortable hanging in the straps. The aircraft would have responded. He would have immediately recognized the aircraft was flying and then would have recovered the jet using familiar control inputs.
Unfortunately, he didn't because he lacked the exposure to these conditions. He was in unfamiliar territory. He did what he was taught, but what he was taught wasn't enough.
How did we let him get into this situation? I assert it was because, during initial training for his aircraft, he didn't get the opportunity to see how it would act in these situations with the oversight of an instructor.
Once upon a time, we used to do training that exposed new pilots to tailslides in this aircraft. But, somewhere along the way we dumbed down the training--not letting the airspeed go to zero or letting the aircraft fall backwards--so that no students were being exposed to these relatively benign but unusual flight conditions. He had a lack of exposure in other words. If he had just a little bit of this training before his mishap he might've realized, "Hey, I just need to pull back on the stick to recover from this because the airplane is flying even though it doesn't feel like it."
I think the problem we have as aviators, especially experienced aviators, is our inability to justify these training opportunities to folks who simply don't understand. It is hard for us to justify valuable yet intangible experiences to someone who is only interested in the dollars and cents. We have a problem relating why it's important our young pilots have broad exposure to many unusual flight conditions -- like sliding backwards in mid-air -- because if your aircraft can do it, it certainly will happen. Of course, flying backwards in your aircraft may not be a possibility, so insert your own flight condition like, say, stalls and stall recoveries. Then, you'll be able to relate.
I bring all this up because there is a general assault throughout our aviation professional communities against our training programs. Today's fiscal problems make these programs easy targets because training is expensive. The problem is we don't train enough already, as evidenced by the many mishaps attributed to pilot actions (or inactions). The challenge for us is this: How do you demonstrate the importance of these programs to those who can't understand aviation the way you do? How do we promote the importance of training that exposes pilots to many environments? How can we make it easy for decision makers to connect the dots about the importance of this?
When it's all about dollars and cents, the nuanced value of such training is difficult to quantify. We, the experts in this field, must articulate the importance of such things so it resonates with the non-expert. In the context of the themes of my last couple of articles about art and aviation, it is the same challenge as explaining the value of the Mona Lisa to someone who doesn't know art.
These are difficult and challenging times in the aviation business. Unfortunately, most people are not like Steve Jobs, who once said, "Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's not important." Our task is to show those who don't understand how important these things are.
northern pintailsandhill crane