By lex, on November 24th, 2004
When it’s all going horribly wrong…
When I was a young lieutenant junior grade, I was a flight instructor in Meridian, Mississippi. Some of our students were foreigners: Their countries paid their “tuition.” Sometimes we found that language barriers presented an obstacle.
We had Spanish students, for example. From Spain, you know. They fell into two categories, in terms of airmanship: Brilliant, and execrable. We determined over time that the brilliant had been selected for our flight school based on their superior skills, while the execrable had been selected based on their superior connections. Over time, we began to realize that the longer and more hyphenated the last name, the more difficult the student.
But it was none of our duty to perform a quality control function – their training had been pre-payed, and we were to get the product through the pipeline, no matter how hard it was or how long it took. I personally felt a trifle guilty about that, since they’d head back to Spain and fly AV-8A Harriers. Which aren’t exactly like riding a bike – the USMC crashed something like 100 of the first 122 they bought, and killed a lot of pilots along the way, before the AV-8B came along, with its more reliable engine and superior flight controls. But anyway.
I had a Spanish student once on a night instrument flight that kept falling below glideslope on the ground controlled approach, or GCA. At first, the controller would call, “below glideslope, going further below.” Ultimately, you’d hear, “Well below glideslope. Well below glideslope and holding.” While it’s maybe instructional to hear that in a nice, warm simulator, it’s never good to hear that, in the actual airplane, especially at night. Because the trees were still down there, even when you couldn’t see them. And a good way to find out exactly where they were was to troll around “well below glideslope.”
So I took the jet both times and told my man that it simply wouldn’t do to go trolling around well below glideslope. On the third attempt, it happened again, and I ran simultaneously out of patience and courage. I took the jet back, landed it and taxied to the line, intending to give my student a “down.” In the debrief cubicle later on, he projected an air of wounded innocence when I told him that he simply wasn’t to go that low on final: “The controller said ‘Well below glide-a-slope, si?””
“Yes,” I answered cautiously.
“‘Well,’ this means like ‘good,’ no?”
“No,” I replied. “In this case ‘well’ means like ‘bad.’ Think of it as being ‘bad’ below glideslope, very bad…”
But the seed of doubt was placed in my mind, and I called the flight an incomplete rather than a down. Which, considering the policy on failing foreign students, was a distinction without a difference, now that I reflect upon it. But anyway.
We also had a couple of Taiwan students. We were told to call them “Taiwans,” not “Taiwanese,” the latter apparently referred to pre-revolutionary natives of the island, rather than the mainland Chinese who ultimately settled there, missing, as it turns out, the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” More’s the pity, I suppose.
Of the two of them, one spoke impressive English and was a superior student. The other, whose name was Li, was superior in rank, and was impressively monoglot. Which is not at all the same thing, when that fluency is not in the language being used for instruction. He was a notoriously difficult student, much given to nodding thoughtfully in pre-flight briefings and then hurling the plan into the dust once airborne.
One night we were flying a night familiarization mission at nearly 30,000 feet with him in the front and me in the pit when the “Canopy” light suddenly illuminated. Any warning light is always brighter at night, but a Canopy light can really get your attention, at 30,000 feet at night: It could be a precursor to losing the canopy, which at that altitude would be very bad indeed – that familiar, warm, comfortable cockpit could suddenly become a shrieking maelstrom, and what’s worse, the air blast could work the upper ejection handle out of its mount, pulling it aft and launching you into the night air without the comfort of an airplane to land with. Or not, you couldn’t know. All you could do was lower your ejection seat to try to get out of the windblast, assume the ejection position (feet on the rudder pedals, heels on deck, thighs on the seat pan, back aft against the seat, spine straight, neck aligned, chin ten degrees elevated, arms close aboard) and hope it didn’t suddenly happen.
The canopy didn’t immediately blow, so I bent my head slightly to the left to make eye contact with, Li, my Taiwan student, and relay to him the meaning of the light, when I heard and electric motor hum and observed his ejection seat lower, finally bottoming out at the end of its travel.
I guess he could read English just fine.
Moving down the road a bit, a few years later I was reminded of my Asian student late one night aboard the USS INDEPENDENCE. The “Indy” was an awkward brute, as carriers go. A hard ship to love, for so many reasons. One of which was that there was no jet blast deflector behind the number four catapult.
This may seem like a subtle issue, almost arcana, but it meant that traffic headed for cat four had to wait behind cat three’s JBD on the way to the shuttle. One day, in fact, I saw an F-14 attempt to hit the brakes behind cat three on worn non-skid just as an A-6 went into tension (i.e., full power) on cat four. When the tires found no purchase, the Tomcat rolled right into the A-6′s jet blast, which of course, promptly blew the F-14 over the side.
Or half of it, anyway – the RIO in the back of the F-14 shrieked “Throttle back, throttle back you’re blowing us” (in a voice of wounded outrage just like a little girl, to his everlasting shame and frequent reminder), while the A-6 crew did what they were trained (quite rightly) and maintained full power, in case the “shooter” pulled the trigger on their cat shot. No use to go over the bow at idle. That’d be a very short flight, and anyway you’re not responsible for what happens behind you, once in tension.
So the Tomcat got its nose blown over the side before the shooter could suspend the catapult. When the F-14′s nose went up over the deck edge, and then down towards the deep blue sea, the pilot had his personal ejection criteria, and pulled the handle, shooting first the soon-to-be-chided-for-the-rest-of-his-professional-life RIO out of the jet, and following (very) shortly thereafter himself. Both were safely rescued by the waiting plane guard helo, a bold airman climbed up into the growling fighter (which had gotten hung up on the deck edge) and shut the engines down, and my own wingman, somewhat amazed by all the preceding activity, remembered to look upwards just at the last moment to see the F-14′s several hundred pound canopy (jettisoned during the ejection) spinning lazily back down towards his own head.
Which would have made the day even more exciting still, but fortunately the wind over the flight deck pushed the canopy far enough aft to miss his jet entirely (although he still ended up shutting both motors down, to prevent the debris from damaging his engines).
Which all is a long, terrible convoluted prelude to the night I was sitting behind cat three, waiting for cat four while an A-6 tanker with five fuel stores went into tension, in preparation for launch. No sooner had his engines reached full power than a fuel leak from the over-pressurized wings caused everything below the wingline to essentially catch fire. In that this fire was fuel-fed, and in that the tanker was carrying a very great amount of fuel, and in that this was all occurring about 25 yards away from my jet, I found this whole tableau terribly exciting.
The A-6 crew shouted “Suspend, suspend, cat three!” on the radio, while the least creditable voice in my internal monologue silently disagreed, crying, “Shoot him, shoot him!”
Stress has been defined as the modern human’s reaction to the fight or flee syndrome – I couldn’t really come out and ask the catapult officer to shoot the flaming A-6 into the night (no matter how relieved I might have been to see that happen). Nor could I really shut down and run away – it simply isn’t done. And there’s no language for a third choice.
So I very quickly trolled through my memory banks, recalled Major Li, of Taiwan, and his language barrier, and silently lowered my seat all the way to the deck, hoping for the best.
Because you can learn from anyone.