Definitely More Than An E-Ticket

If a few readers of my blog have kept up with my posts, they may recall my mentioning being in pilot training in the United States Air Force.  I never did complete the training….another story… I quit (“Self-initiated Elimination”, as it says on my old documents…SIE).  I did so after completing the first two phases of training, and was just entering the T-38 supersonic jet phase.  All this was back in 1969.

Anyone who is interested can find a lot of information on the history of USAF pilot training on the web, so I am not going to say much more about the program of those days.  I do want to say, with the deepest respect, that I admire those guys that went on to get their wings, a few paying the ultimate price in Viet Nam.

The second phase of training we went through was in the T-37 jet, pictured here.  One can see it is not a large aircraft, and was a two-seater, side by side seating, with the student in the left seat, instructor on the right (or no instructor if one was flying solo). The aircraft had a long and successful history in the Air Force training program, but was phased out in 2009.  It was a cool aircraft to fly, although not very fast, and as I recall we always stayed below 300mph in the practice areas in West Texas.  It also was the only jet in the USAF inventory in which spin recovery was practiced.  I do not know whether spin recovery has even been practiced since the Tweety Bird (its nickname) was taken out of the inventory.

Spins and recovery from this little bird was much more exciting than any Disneyland E-ticket ride.  I would say, “infinitely” more exciting really.  Spin practice was the one thing I literally dreaded, and I am sure most of my fellow students felt similarly, but frankly I never liked even roller coasters, and doing spins in this aircraft had the added “feature” that if you really screwed up, you would in fact, be splattered in the red west Texas farm land.

Spins in any aircraft that are spin rated, are entered by stalling the aircraft.  Nose high, throttles back, bleeding off airspeed while pulling the stick or yoke all the way back.  The aircraft then stops flying, loses all lift, and becomes a falling object.  Tweety would fall at a rate of 10,000 feet per minute.  We practiced spin entry around 20,000 feet above ground level, so in two minutes from entry if you had not recovered, you were blended with dirt.  Since a recovery involves pulling out of a dive, you really had to be recovered well above ground level, especially if their were any hills around, and in west Texas there were a few.

In the Tweety, as you stalled the aircraft, nose well high, stick all the way aft, you would slam the rudder to the wall in the direction you wanted to spin.  To recover you would let the aircraft spin one turn, push the opposite rudder pedal to break the rotation, then slam the stick forward to the stop, neutralize rudders, and recover from a steep dive.  That description may not be verbatim procedurally, but gives an idea of what is going on during this very fast pilot “intervention.”

The first time my regular instructor told me to do a spin/recovery, after he had showed me a couple, I was really uptight.  I did not like the sensation I had just experienced at all.  But I was determined to master this, and be a real Air Force pilot.  So I stalled the plane, did the entry correct, but the recovery was harrowing to say the least.  I hit opposite rudder, but did not bring the stick back to neutral, allowing the nose to stay down and go past vertical so we were entering an inverted situation.  Fortunately, for us both, the instructor was a really cool head.  He had gone straight to instructor school out of undergraduate pilot training, had not gone on to fly in anything else, and had a perfect feel for this aircraft.  He said, “I’ve got it!”, which meant for the student like me, let go of all controls, and he gently nudged the plant into upright dive recovery.  To this day I praise his cool headedness.

One day I came my instructor and I were getting out of the bird after a flight, and I think it was one of the airmen chocking our wheels who informed us that one of the planes had crashed, “they think they were in an inverted spin.”  The practice area was right adjacent to the air space we had just left.  That freaked me out, and certainly did not help my new fear of spins.

However, I was now in a training situation where if I couldn’t demonstrate the ability to do spin recovery, then I would be washed out.  I knew what was in store, more of those damn spins!  As I recall my next flight was with a veteran combat fighter pilot, an African American guy, several years older, I think he held the rank of captain, and I believe he was a graduate of the famous Tuskegee University, home of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black fighter pilot unit to fight in WWII.  So we went up and went through a few things, some of the aerobatics which I enjoyed and could execute fairly well (such as loops, et cetera), and then came the spins.  I knew this was it, pass or FAIL.  I guess it was a combination of his stern demeanor, like “kid, don’t bullshit me, you have to do this,” and my own pride, but we did two spins, and I did not kill us.  Several days later I went for a final check ride with our instructor lead pilot, another fighter pilot, a grizzled, short fellow, rank of major, and I demonstrated proficiency.  Oddly, on our way back to base, we got an engine overheat light on one of the two engines, so he took over, as we didn’t know if we might be bailing out soon.  But we made it ok, a false alarm likely.

Several years after I left active duty, I was enrolled in graduate studies at a university in Dallas, and walking into a class one evening, I found an empty seat, looked to my right, and would you believe, it was my old instructor pilot, the guy to saved the day (and our lives).  I said do you remember me, looking somewhat sheepish no doubt.  He said, yes, I remember our spins, and we both sort of chuckled.

I had always been bothered by a nagging, latent fear of the sensation of doing spins, so along about this same time I decided to get certified in a single-engine propeller craft, like the Cessna 172.  I made a point of getting a friend of mine who I worked with, who was a pilot, to take me up and we practiced spin recoveries.  It was nothing as stomach-turning as in the Tweety, but it gave me the confidence to go out solo and do spins.  To this day I am glad I did.  We have to overcome our fears in life.