Saturday, May 15, 2010

Freedom's cost

Wow, I'm really sorry it's been a couple weeks since I've updated last. This is the part of phase II when the 12 hour days really matter though. For the past several weeks ever since we soloed, we have been opted for Navigation and Instrument Academic classes/computer based training, emergency procedure as well as instrument simulator sorties, and Contact flights as well as instrument flights (following our Final Contact checkride). The pace is bearable, but you really have to focus on taking every day one event at a time. You might have an academic class or test in the morning for an hour (which, if you fail 3 tests in a row, you'll probably wash out), formal brief 5 minutes later followed by stand-up or shotgun questions, then you'll run to the sim building to brief up an instrument sim ride, fly it for 1hr + 15min, debrief for a half-hour, then run back to the flightline in time to eat a PB&J sandwhich for 10 minutes before you have to get ready to brief your contact flight in the afternoon. After briefing, flying, and debriefing the contact flight, you're usually pretty worn out; but it doesn't stop there. Academics are still in full force, so we usually have to accomplish a computer based course on our down time in that 12 hour period. By the time ths is done, it's time to clean up the flight room and prepare for formal release at the 11 hour 40 minute mark...just in time to leave the building by 12 hours into the duty day. Yeah, it's a rush, and you usually have a sense of numbness after it's all done, but there's still dinner to be made (or microwaved!) and studying to be done before you hit the sack and repeat the process the next day. That's what the last several weeks have been like for 11-05, so now I'll rewind and get into some of what has specifically been happening these last few weeks.

Two weeks ago, I had my eyes opened...I think a lot of us did. If you recall, there was a T-6 incident that resulted in a solo student ejecting about a month or so ago. It brought a lot of attention, and safety became the focus for all T-6 pilots. Well, on Monday we almost had another major incident. A guy in my class came in to land on 17L at Vance after a successful Area solo. He entered the pattern normally, configured the aircraft for landing, and started his final turn to the runway. Little did he know his nosewheel was cocked to the right 6 degrees off centerline. We have a hydraulic system on-board that is responsible for keeping it centered when the aircraft is off the ground, but his wasn't working properly for whatever reason. After landing on his mains, he let the nose wheel contact the ground and was about to apply his brakes when the aircraft jolted suddenly to the right. He applied full left rudder when the aircraft lost traction and began to just drift as if it were on ice. His right main gear went off the runway by about a foot before the nosewheel finally centered itself and the T-6 began tracking again. The investigation showed that it was simply a maintenance fault, and the pilot did a superb job of keeping the aircraft on the runway as best he could. We dodged a bullet.

Tuesday, another friend of mine was Area solo when he entered a 4G loop and began to grey out. He unloaded the aircraft to prevent GLOC, but unfortunately the aircraft was pointed straight up and losing airspeed rapidly. He subsequently lost control of the aircraft and entered a power-on inverted spin. Luckily, he just happened to know the correct procedures for recovery and applied the correct control inputs. This is something we never practice because it should never happen. Unfortunately on Tuesday, the stars aligned and he had to get out of an inverted spin. It was an emergency because the engine isn't designed to go through the strains of a spin at any power setting above idle. He came back and told the supervisor of flying what happened - my guess is they took the aircraft off the line to make sure it was ok...we dodged another bulet.

Thursday was my Final Contact checkride. This is the last ride of the first half of T-6 training...I had to prove that I was capable and proficient in all my aerobatic maneuvers as well as some of the other "stalls and falls" that we do. I went into the flight fairly confident I would pass and do reasonably well, provided the winds would cooperate! We took off from Vance and headed out to the Area to get all my aerobatics out of the way. If I remember correctly, I just had to do a split-S, Cuban 8, and Lazy 8...the rest of the maneuvers were stalls and slow flight. After finishing up all of that, my IP stayed quiet like a normal check IP does and we headed off to Dogface (our Aux field) to do 2 landings. All I had to do was get a Simulated Force Landing down on the ground and a No-Flap landing. It wasn't supposed to be too hard.....we have almost 7,000 feet of runway at Dogface! I was excited at this point because I knew it wouldn't take long...just 2 landings and you're done!

I entered the pattern but had to quickly break out because there was a traffic conflict between us and another aircraft already established. I was the lower priority, so I flew to another entry point when I heard the most disturbing radio call I could possibly imagine. I heard "[unintelligble] 41, Canopy Blown, request closed!".... This instructor was shouting as loud as he could over the radio because all you could hear in the background was 160 mph winds and a 1100 shp turbo prop engine. There was no canopy to protect the crew from the heat off the exhaust stacks pointing straight at them, no protection from the brutal winds, and no way of knowing if the aircraft would be able to keep flying. At this point I was pointed back at the runway and could see the aircraft off the departure end of the runway. I could feel my own heartbeat in my ear from having heard what I thought was my Assistant flight commander's callsign. Bison 41 was my assistant flight comm's callsign, and I had just flown with him the day prior. Now I thouht I was watching him trying to fly a crippled aircraft back to the runway...probably ready to eject any moment. I was just waiting to see the parachutes....there was no way they were gonna bring this thing back! I would later learn that the wind was so strong, it was pushing the student's head down below the glareshield...a not so ideal body position for ejection. Had they ejected, he probably wouldn't have made it. So the only option really was to try and land it. We watched the plane limp it's way back onto the runway and could see emergency vehicles being dispatched from the fire department moments later. The entire time I was praying for them. They emergency ground egressed, and were transported to a hospital to be treated for some cuts they received after the canopy had shattered. At the time though, I couldn't tell if they had gotten out of the aircraft when we flew over the runway. All I could see was the T-6 on the runway, canopy rail still attached to the jet, but missing the transparency. I was definitely worried I had just witnessed my assistant flight commander and some other student in my class get severely injured. I would later learn it wasn't the case....this was a different crew from a different squadron.

Now that the emergency terminated on the runway at Dogface, the field was closed and we were forced to head back to Vance to get those landings in. I remember talking to myself, thinking "Alright, just calm down bro. If you're in combat, and you witness a friend of yours get shot down, you're gonna have to still keep your head on straight and finish the mission. That's what you gotta do here. Put it behind you and focus on what's ahead." I couldn't stop thinking about what I had just witnessed, and also started thinking about my own canopy. We didn't know what happened or what caused their canopy to come off, but I started to worry if it was some sort of maintenance problem. What was keeping my canopy on still?! I was definitely rattled, but kept flying towards Vance knowing what was waiting for me. When dogface closes, everyone is forced to do patterns either at Woodring or Vance. When it gets really busy at Vance, it takes 3 or 4 times as long to get your required landings in because everone tends to get in everyone else's way. The first landing I attempted was my SFL. I climbed to 3000 feet over the runway, reported my position, and began my turn back to the runway with a simulated dead engine. I thought I had my position nailed, but the 20 knot winds down the runway were pushing me away from usuable concrete...not good when power is not avaiable to get you back. I ended up coming up short and had to go around. I tried it again, only once more to come up short with the same problem...winds. At this point, I was really worried if my check IP would even pass me if I couldn't land an SFL within the first two tries. I knew I probably only had one more chance to get it right, so I climbed up to my position, pulled the power, and this time pointed the nose straight at the runway. There was no way I was going to come up short again! I kept it tight, and found myself 500 feet above the runway less than a quarter mile away. I rolled in all the flaps I had and slipped the aircraft down. Because of the winds, my groundspeed was really slow. We were descending but not going forward very far....we call it "riding the elevator." But since I flew it so tight, I was able to put it down on the runway...relieved but still afraid I wouldn't pass. I flew my last pattern and gave it to the check IP for the full-stop. Long story short, he still gave me an excellent overall even though my pattern work wasn't great. Praise the Lord...another checkride done!

Because of the week we had, T-6s were on stand down on Friday; leadership gave us a break from flying to think about all that has happened. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I realized how dangerous it really is to fly...even in the Air Force with top-notch maintenance and a good aircraft. I thought about how this event had affected me; it showed me the real cost of freedom. Yes, we lose brave men in combat on a weekly basis. But what about in training? The cuts and scrapes that crew received from their shattered canopy is a physical representation of the risk in training...thankfully it WAS only cuts and scrapes from shrapnel. It's a risk most Americans will never learn about. They'll never learn about those 45 seconds that crew had to fly while enduring the high winds from the propwash and heat from the exhaust. That's a fraction of the cost of what it takes to keep us free. Is it worth it? It's worth it enough for me to keep flying. Should people be a little more aware of the risks and sacrifices people endure to keep them free? We do what we do so that nobody else will ever have to know what it's like to witness something like that. I'm not saying people need to appreciate the military any more than they already do. I'm saying people should appreciate the freedom's they have more than they already do. I know I will.

In my mind, the same goes for freedom from sin. So often do I take for granted the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. But God used this experience to make the cross a little more real to me. He sent his Son to die on the cross and pay for my sins because there's nothing I can do that could possibly pay for them. I'll never know what that was like. God doesn't want me to...but what He does want for me is to appreciate that freedom from sin and use that freedom to come closer to Him.

This last week was mostly sims and academics. I had my first instrument flight on Wednesday...had a TON of fun! Instrument flying is a lot of work, but very rewarding. It's head game, and I'm looking forward to my cross country flight next weekend! Until next time....

John 15:13

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