By lex, on Tue – April 12, 2005
July 19th, 1983.
Man, that was a long time ago.
I’d gotten past the first major hurdle of the student naval aviator’s career: The dreaded FAM-13 safe-for-solo check ride. There were hard questions about how the airplane (a T-34C Turbo Mentor ) was constructed, what systems ran off the batteries, which ones required generator power, how the prop governor worked. A simulator check, for those emergencies too dangerous to model in actual flight.
And then the check ride itself. Grueling in itself of course, but all the more so for what it represented – the first real test. The first opportunity to really fail. Self-imposed stress was a major hurdle in itself.
Looking back, I do not think this was accidental, although we didn’t realize it at the time. One of my classmates realized that his check ride wasn’t going very well – he predicted (probably accurately) that he was going to fail. So he darted his glance around the cockpit, looking for a way, any way at all, to not incur the dreaded “down” that came with a failed check ride. We knew that there was some number of downs, somewhere between two and five, that would result in the student failing out of flight school – we never knew exactly which number it might be, at any given time – the range ebbed and flowed as the “overage” of students was reduced by attrition and refreshed by recruitment in an alternating fashion. But everyone knew that you didn’t want to get your first down. That would pop the balloon – the instructors would talk about you, and how you had fouled up. And they would laugh, which would be OK. But they would remember your name, which was not.
My friend’s eyes fell upon the overspeed governor test button, right there on the dash. Pressing it on and off simulated a loss of prop governor function. The instructor pilot took control of the plane, declared an emergency, and landed the aircraft as soon as practicable. Congratulating himself, no doubt, on his superior judgment and airmanship. Oh, and by the way, “incompleting” the check ride. Which was much better, for my bud, than getting a down might have been.
So he told us with some relish the story of how, in doing so, he cheated fate, and forestalled the inevitable. And in doing so, lost more than a bit of respect in our eyes. He was… diminished, somehow. This was perilously close to cheating, a thing we do not condone under any circumstances countenance. We are trained to take our lumps.
I got through my check ride with one CAPT Wehrle, USMC, according to my logbook – I have no memory of him or the event whatsoever. All that I can say is that I passed – there is only one FAM-13x in my logbook.
And now, I awaited my first solo – my first time in command of a million dollar aircraft. The logbook reflects that I had at that point 17.1 hours of flight time.
A solo required certain kinds of weather. We students were not considered qualified to dare ourselves in instrument meteorological conditions – we needed clear skies, and good visibility. These were often only transiently available in the middle of a fetid Pensacola summer, when the thundershowers might roll in one after another for weeks at a time. We had to wait, all of us that were qualified for our first solo. We had to wait for days, rocking back on our folding chairs on the flight line, scanning the skies, sipping our third cups of coffee. Growing more concerned with each passing day.
You see, after three days had passed, a safe-for-solo check expired, and the student would have to take a “warm up” flight with an instructor. There were tales to spare about students who had successfully passed their first solo check, and failed the ostensibly more relaxed warm up. No one wanted to join that list.
The weather broke in time, just in time as it turned out. And we ran to our machines like our forebears had run to theirs at the battle of Midway, with just as much earnest enthusiasm, and impatience. Twenty students ran through their pre-start checklist as quickly as possible. Twenty engines cranked over, and twenty aircraft taxied in something approaching good order to the hold short of the active runway. Your humble scribe was first in line to go – he was quite proud of himself for his efficiency.
He was also just a little bit uncomfortable, personally. That third cup of coffee might have been just a bit too much. The bladder was sending out over-pressure signals which were still glowing but a dim and dark red. It would be OK, he determined: Once he had safely slipped the surly bonds of earth (how much longer could it be now?) and climbed to altitude, he could trim the aircraft up for level flight, grope beneath his seat for the relief tube which vented overboard, and take care of business.
And yet the clearance to take the runway was not forthcoming. There was a delay Something was clearly wrong.
At last the tower spoke up and told the assembled throng that the winds had shifted, and that as a consequence, they were changing the duty runway. Each aircraft would be required to turn around, the tail-most first, and head to the new runway for takeoff. And like the good book said, those who were last would be first, and those who were first, would be last. And so it was, selah.
And so as I went from being first in line for departure to last, the dim maroon bulb burning in the back of my consciousness grew to an alarmingly bright crimson light which kept attempting to thrust itself right front in my occipital orb. With nineteen students going off ahead of me at two-minute intervals, things were headed for a difficult pass. No – it would not do.
I reached down to find the relief tube – the harness was too tight. I loosened my straps, attempted again – Eureka!
Never having used the thing before, I examined it carefully – it seemed pretty straightforward – a funnel with a spring valve at its narrow base, where it attached to the hose going overboard. You filled the funnel up, and pressed the valve button. No muss, no fuss.
I unlimbered the necessary personal gear to effect what was growing into a minor emergency. At the very point where I was ready to make my contribution however, the first plane in line would be cleared for takeoff, and I had to take my feet off the brakes there on the rudder pedals, where I had firmly braced them (students being proscribed from using parking brakes) and taxi forward a few more feet. Once stopped, I’d get myself rearranged and ready for the task at hand when the whole process would repeat itself. Over and over again. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and increasingly frustrated, all at the same time.
Finally, I was number one at the hold short – one more try! But no – I was cleared for takeoff. Well, no more fooling around. I took the runway, did my run-up checks on the engine, and started my roll.
It wasn’t until I’d reached rotation speed when I realized that in my haste, I had not completely stowed all loose gear. And I remember thinking, as the wheels broke the pavement, that I’d better not crash and burn right here.
I mean, there would be an investigation, all evidence would have been examined – and what would people think?
“Man – he really enjoyed that first solo!”