I gave a check ride to a Challenger pilot a few years back who knew his stuff and seemed to have the swagger of a military pilot. I asked him about that and he, somewhat embarrassed, told me that he washed out of USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training thirty years ago and has made it his life's work to prove his UPT failure was the Air Force's mistake. I suspect he was right.
But I also remember that the washout rate was very high back then — 43% in my class — and that I came very close to the same result because for one week, I was . . .
“Hey Eddie,” Willie said while overtaking me in the squadron hallway, “you got signed off for solo last week?”
“Yeah,” I answered, trying not to be smug about my early accomplishment. I did pretty well in the T-37, our first jet trainer, and now things were looking pretty good in the supersonic T-38. I was starting to think a set of Air Force pilot wings might actually find their way onto my chest.
“Can you talk me through the final turn?”
Willie was a natural pilot, something I am not. He flies by feel and some other inner instinct. I fly with memorized procedures, geometrical angles, and mathematical equations. I wasn’t sure I could speak his language, but we were all in this year of pilot training together. We had already lost twenty pilot candidates and we each wanted to see the losses stop.
Not those kinds of losses. With the year only half over, Air Force pilot training bases had already suffered two fatalities in the final turn and more than a handful of ejections. Those kinds of losses we knew were inevitable. It was the washouts we feared. Historically most washouts took place in the T-37, where our two dimensional brains were introduced to the three dimensions of aerobatics, spins, and dog fighting. Once you mastered that, the company line went, the T-38 should be easy. Not so, in our first month in the Talon the final turn washed out three more lieutenants.
“Sure,” I said with an ice cream sandwich in one hand and our training manual in the other, “let’s sit down and hash it out.” For me the final turn was just a matter of following procedure and flying with a light hand. You roll the aircraft crisply to forty-five degrees of bank and absolutely no back pressure. The nose falls of its own accord and when you get to about twenty degrees of pitch you pull until the wings start to buffet. “The key,” I told Willie, “is you are pulling the nose around the turn, you pull hard enough to buffet the wing into a moderate stall. You aren’t banking around the turn, you are pulling the nose around the turn.”
“Oh, I see.” I wasn’t sure that he did. With my nearly six months experience as a jet pilot, I was starting to notice some guys had an inner sense about how to do things. Guys like Willie would be great pilots in any aircraft, once they got the inner secret down. I would never have that inner secret, but so far my method was working for me.
The next day I was riding the flight line trolley back from a flight with my instructor, Captain Harvey Gray. Harvey was a lousy instructor, but somehow what he was teaching was getting through. Today’s lesson was navigation. The ramp trolley stopped next to another T-38 where Willie and his instructor boarded.
“You got the final turn down solid,” Willie’s instructor said with a smile, “next we are going to work on the roll out. Then, when you’ve mastered that, we’ll nail those landings. One step at a time, Willie, that’s how we do it!”
After we hung our parachutes and made our way to the flight room, Harvey sounded like a new instructor. “Good job today,” he said, the first compliment I’d ever heard from him. “I am going to sign you off on navigation.”
I smiled at the thought of getting so far ahead in the program. Most the class was still working on getting signed off solo and here I was finished with the next block of training.
“Tomorrow we are going to fine tune the landing pattern,” Harvey announced, “starting with the final turn.”
“What?” I said in a bit of a shock, “why are we doing that?”
“Because that’s how we do it.”
The next day I flew the final turn just like I always did and Harvey said nothing. I rolled out and landed the airplane just like I always did and all hell broke loose. “Too hot!” yelled Harvey, “we’re going to try that again.”
I pushed both throttles to full military power, rotated the nose, raised the landing gear, and pulled up to another closed traffic pattern. I replayed the landing in my head and realized that I touched down about 700 feet down the runway. The book said we were shooting for 500 feet. I vowed to do better.
“Too hot!” he yelled again, this time even angrier. Landing after landing I got the same result and Harvey’s voice grew hoarse with exasperation. “I don’t understand what your problem is,” he yelled, “this should be easy!” For the first time in pilot training, I was unsure of what I was doing.
Harvey gave me a failing grade for the day with “Landings too hot” written in several blocks. It was my first ever "hook" on a grade sheet and it stung. I went home and memorized the aircraft technical order landing procedures anew. I would do better.
I did not: Harvey gave me a second failing grade. Now I would have to fly with another instructor and risk washout. How the mighty had fallen, I thought. A week earlier one of the best pilots in the flight was asking my advice on how to land the aircraft, and now I was about to wash out for landings.
Wash out. The thought filled me with dread. So far we had washed twenty pilots out of the program. The causes were usually listed with sterile summaries: “failure to control aircraft in spin,” “loss of situational awareness in formation,” or “manifestation of apprehension.” That last one was the worst. It meant, simply, fear. And we all suspected fear was the root behind all our washouts.
Our first couple of pilots washed out because they couldn’t hold on to their lunches after first experiencing high-G maneuvers or the disorientation from spins. After our first fatality a few more left voluntarily; fear of the most basic kind. But after the first ten or so washouts it became clear the biggest fear was fear of washing out. And now I had that.
On my next flight I made sure the wheels touched brick number one on every single landing. No more hot landings! The new instructor said nothing and simply handed me my grade report: “Landings too hot, recommend final evaluation.”
Now I was not only afraid of washing out, I was confused on every aspect of the landing. What was I doing wrong? I was forced to sit for a few days and as more members of the class were signed off for landing I was getting advice from all quarters on how to stop landing hot. But it didn’t make any sense. The techniques they were offering wouldn’t help.
The day came for my “final evaluation,” potentially my last flight piloting an Air Force aircraft. The instructor told me to relax and just fly the airplane the way my grade book said I had done just a week prior. Piece of cake, he said.
I put the wheels down on the very first millimeter of that runway and smiled internally, knowing I had nailed it.
“Why did you do that?” he asked from the rear cockpit. “You fly such a good airplane and everything was perfect until you got over the end of the runway and you just forced the airplane down. Why?”
“I don’t want to land hot,” I explained as I pulled the nose around for the second pattern, “Captain Gray says I land too hot.”
“You don’t know what ’landing hot’ means,” he asked, “do you? Try it again.”
I pulled the aircraft around the final turn again and aimed for the threshold, flaring for the landing as usual.
“Hold it off,” the instructor yelled, “not yet.” I did as instructed. “Now.” I put the aircraft down and he whooped in glee, “perfect.”
“A hot landing,” he explained as I pulled it around again, “means you have too much speed when you touch down. By shooting for brick one, the way you did on the first pattern, you only make matters worse.”
The “final evaluator" signed me off and wrote a note on my copy of the grade report that didn’t appear on the original. “Remember, if you don’t know what something means, ask. You can't do anything in life well if you don't master the fundamentals first. You can't master the fundamentals until you define the terms.”
So why is this important? Approach speed is often, but not always, based on 1.3 VS and provides a bit of a margin over stall. While the equation for landing distance can be complicated, assuming a given deceleration provides interesting clarity:
Any increase in landing speed has an impact on landing distance squared. Landing ten knots hot, say 130 versus 120, while only an 8 percent increase in speed, ends up increasing landing distance by 17 percent!
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