By lex, on August 31st, 2004
Yesterday we talked about losing your cookies (not that kind) in the cockpit.
Once I lost a pen.
It can seem like such a small thing, to drop one’s pen in the work place. You might do it once or twice a week, if not more.
But it’s considered really bad form in the cockpit of a carrier jet.
You see, in the Navy, as in most of the other armed services I suspect, there is a tradition of “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” This is not merely (but it is also) the mark of a culture which values order and discipline – it is a necessity.
Once you’re strapped into the ejection seat, it’s hard to bend over and pick something up that fell to the floorboards. The shoulder restraints tend to hold you back, and the survival gear gets in the way of a truly good bend over. The difficulty is this: Murphy’s Law is alive and well at all times in aviation. A pen that is not in your pocket, or in your hand, will find a way in time to migrate to that one place that it can really least afford to be. That might be a flight control bell crank, or a throttle quadrant slide bar, but whatever it ends up being, it can cause a real mess. Numerous aircraft have been lost over the years because a US government Skillcraft pen has somehow found its way to somewhere it shouldn’t be and then got in the way of someone doing what he was supposed to be able to do, but couldn’t because of that pen.
It’s called “FOD in the cockpit,” the FOD acronym standing in for Foreign Object Damage. And it’s a big deal, and if you can’t find it before you land, the jet is down.
Because of the way things which are not restrained by harnesses and the like tend to get flung around during catapult shots and arrested landings, loose objects can move almost maliciously to places they don’t belong – it can take hours, if not days, before the cockpit is thoroughly turned out (including removing and re-installing the ejection seat) and the object either found or consigned into the “never was” category. For the maintenance folks, who give a pilot a perfectly good airplane in the often vain hope that he will return it in at least as good condition, this can cause a great deal of heartache and despair.
For the squadron CO, who is counting on having the aircraft for the next mission after you’re done screwing around with it, thank you very much, it can be a matter of great importance. And trust me, if the skipper finds it interesting, you’re eventually going to find it fascinating, if not downright riveting.
Mostly, over the years, I learned to tie my pen to my kneeboard with a length of parachute line – that way if it dropped, I could retrieve it. Just like hauling up a fish!
But one day, my US government Skillcraft pen came apart, having come unscrewed at the center barrel, and dropping small pieces of itself all over the place. Some of these pieces I recovered in my lap – some went down to where I could not instantly reach them. Being a conscientious pilot, and cognizant of the concerns both of the maintenance folks who worked for me, and the CO for whom I worked, I determined that greater efforts were required.
I safed my ejection seat, and unstrapped my shoulder harness, the better to lean over and blindly grope around on the deck. No luck, the little pieces maddeningly evaded my probing fingers… what to do?
Just then, the local sea range called me up, asking me to relay a rather complex series of instructions from the ship to the shore. My attention was thoroughly diverted to this important task for several moments.
When the task had been done, I recalled my FOD in the cockpit conundrum. Suddenly a blinding flash of insight!
When I was an instructor in the mighty T-2C Buckeye, we used to do a maneuver called the “Zero airspeed recovery.” I’d briefed my student on the procedures: A smooth pull up to 60 degrees nose high in the vertical, followed by reducing the throttles to idle. As the airspeed decayed through 60 knots, she’d gradually push the nose over at half a g – no less! – and recover to the horizon with full power.
In execution, she performed the pull up and throttle reduction flawlessly. At the peak climb angle, as the airspeed dropped through the target band, she started to push over, but too hard! We went to a slightly negative g, causing a mass of fetid water from some Mississippi rainstorm to pool above my head in a shimmering, glutinous mass, trapped against the canopy’s curvature. I hesitated for a moment, wondering what to do. In my moment of hesitation, she remembered my warning against going past a half g, and reapplied aft stick. The pool above my head cascaded down into my upturned face.
Purely as a means of demonstrating to the student the consequences of her action, I took control of the jet. Once again, up, up into the sky we pointed the nose. Again, as the airspeed decayed, I pushed over – this time to negative half a g. Once again, the malodorous water collected and pooled above my head.
Somewhat differently this time, I put the speed brakes out. The sudden deceleration caused the water to rush forward, to her cockpit. She gazed up at it wonderingly, raising one gloved hand to touch the oily mass.
And I reapplied the g. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. We were a team, my student and I. If one of us was going to get soaked with filthy water, it was only right that both of us should share the honor.
But now those memories came cascading back – The best way to get the loose assembly of pen parts up where I could reach them was to do a variant of the old zero airspeed recovery, pushing over hard enough to get the gear to float up where I could grab it at my leisured ease. If necessary, I could even use the speed brakes to break them loose of whatever might be holding them down! It was brilliant, and I privately congratulated myself on my experience, insight and acumen.
I got a good bundle of knots up on the jet. No sense fooling around, 450 knots should do it. I pulled the jet nose high, not quite 60 degrees (no reason to spoil all that airspeed), rolled inverted and shoved the stick forward. Hard.
Forgetting, for the moment, that I had removed my shoulder straps.
One hundred and eighty pounds of expensively educated, carefully selected, expertly trained, knife-in-the-teeth, God-and-country fighter pilot slammed into the canopy overhead, helmet first, at a high rate of speed. That I did not actually pierce the canopy, exposing myself to vicissitudes of high speed fate and wind blast was no doubt due to the efforts of some one hundred and thirty five pound, over-educated, pencil-pocket-protector-wearing engineer. Who probably could never had anticipated such buffoonery in the design process, but went ahead and built in provisions for it anyway. And whom I never got to thank.
Moral? Nah – there’s no moral to this tale.
It’s just another sea story.