"Situational Awareness" seems to be a fighter pilot buzz phrase that has caught on everywhere in aviation and, it would seem, the world writ large. The first time I heard the term was at Squadron Officer's School in 1984.
SOS was what I soon discovered to be "captain's charm school," where young Air Force captains learned to be better officers and were groomed to someday be majors. For me it was an exercise in learning to deal with my non-flying peers. Fortunately I had a few friends from school there, most of whom were fighter pilots.
"Keep your SA going," they would say, "you never know where the next threat is coming from." The threat in SOS was in the form of the instructor cadre, of course, but the lesson was a good one. You've got to be completely attuned to your situation in life, at all times. If you really want to know about it: Normal Procedures & Techniques / Situational Awareness. But for now, back to our story.
As soon as I learned the term, I got a practical application for it in the cockpit. . .
There I was, a brand new instructor pilot sitting in the middle seat in the belly of a cramped United Airlines DC-10, flanked by my copilot on one side and navigator on the other. Only the engineer was left, a few rows back. We were en route from Hawaii to Dallas, to pick up our recently repaired bird. We were, as much as we hated it, we were pax.
I had done this a few times before: the pick up the repaired bird bit, as well as the middle seat in an airliner flanked by crew mates. This would be my first time in charge of one of these aircraft deliveries, and I thought it a promotion of sorts. They entrusted me with bringing an airplane home after extensive maintenance. I studied the aircraft manual with renewed vigor, thinking this august duty called for a sharpened set of skills. Of course to the squadron I was just a warm body who had the requirements on paper to bring the aircraft home. The airplane would be fine, I knew.
The copilot, Captain Mikey Gilson, was a newbie to the squadron. I flew one of his training sorties and wasn't impressed. He was a nice enough fellow, but seemed to take things less seriously than he should. Most of the old head pilots already hated him, he collected enemies as if they were rare stamps. My first encounter with him set things off on the wrong foot. He had heard I was the only surfing pilot in the squadron and singled me out for surfing advice.
"Don't," I told him, "the base policy is against pilots surfing, so I've stopped."
"They can't do that," he protested, "what right do they have?"
"You are in a squadron of fourteen pilots flying four aircraft," I said, "you injure yourself you impact the mission. They put the policy in place after one of our guys broke three ribs and punctured his lung. The wing king says the next guy to do that will get a court martial."
Mikey stomped off after that without a word. Over the weeks to come I noticed his pale skin darkening and short blonde hair turning the green tint we locals often saw with our ha'ole surfing brothers. I knew Mikey was surfing. He had poor SA.
I thought the navigator, Captain Marcia Malvo, was everything Mikey was not. She was disciplined, polite, and seemed to know her job backwards and forwards. Though a bit overweight, she had a nice smile on a symmetrical face framed by a short black hair. She was easy to like. I had only flown with her a few times on training missions and never really saw her in action as a navigator, but my first impression was that she knew her stuff. Always trust your first impression, I've heard. Maybe my SA wasn't so good after all.
The engineer, Staff Sergeant Brian Paul, was the only one of the bunch I really knew well. He was assigned to my crew and I was, in Air Force terms, his rating official. So far his ratings had been poor. After one month as his boss, I had to bail him out of jail for drunk and disorderly. I was allowed to "take a stripe," without any higher review, so I did. This demotion reduced his pay and he was furious. Two months later I was called to see him in jail again for beating his wife. I let him spend the night in jail and started the paperwork to get him tossed out of the Air Force. The squadron intervened and simply took another stripe. From that point on, Brian was always punctual and technically competent in the cockpit. He worked hard to stay out of my way. His SA was improving.
We spent the night at a local Holiday Inn, just a mile or so from Dallas Love Field. The airplane had been in depot maintenance for almost a year, getting each engine rebuilt and most of its structure treated for the corrosion sticking to its ribs from years of Hawaiian salty air. The Air Force had a team of test pilots assigned to fly and approve every Boeing 707 for flight, and they said this maintenance effort was routine and did not require a test flight. All we had to do is fire it up and bring it home.
Routine. I thought maybe a full mission planning brief with the crew would be in order, but we didn't do those things in our squadron. In fact, to do so would be less than manly, as our pilots often said. It was routine. Perhaps it was a lack of testosterone on my part, but I spent the night going over the flight plan, fuel logs, and navigation charts. Without putting it in so many words, I was improving my situational awareness.
It was a beautiful December 7th, Pearl Harbor day, in Dallas Texas. The air was a bit chilly for my Hawaiian bones but the sky was cloudless and the wind right down the runway. They had the airplane ready for us, hooked up to an air cart with all the paperwork on board and ready to go. I boarded and sat with the plant manager and signed each piece of paper put in front of me. It was like buying a house.
Sergeant Paul finished his exterior inspection and the weight and balance forms and put those in front of me to sign.
"How's she look?" I asked.
"Two wings, four engines, ten tires," Brian said. "Sir," he added.
"Let's go to Hawaii, then."
Photo: B-707-123B Cockpit, from Deutsches Museum (Alexander Z), Creative Commons.
We are a product of our experiences, I am certain, and much of the methodical approach I give to flying today was shaped back then, on December 7th, 1984.
Over the years I have been given the job of flying aircraft after extensive work many times, but this day was my first. These days I do the exterior preflight myself and I take a lot of time doing it. Not so on this day, I took the engineer's word for it.
Now I like to look at the maintenance log and work orders to see what was done and then I question the guys who did the work. On try one, back then, I signed the paperwork and kept going. My aim was to get the airplane off the ground as soon as possible to make it back to Hawaii before nightfall.
Now I also give the engines a good run up and study the gauges for the slightest hint of power plant unhappiness. These extra precautions have saved me many, many times. But the precautions are useless if you don't take them.
"Takeoff checklist," I ordered from the left seat as I steered the airplane onto Love Field's westerly runway.
Mikey switched what needed to be switched, and toggled what needed to be toggled. "Takeoff checklist complete."
I pushed the four throttles to their approximate maximum rated thrust positions and lightly held my hand above while Mikey fined tuned each lever from below. "Power set," he announced.
The airplane accelerated smoothly and the speed shot up quickly past one-hundred knots. We used a series of speeds as decision points and the first was "S-1," the point at which we could lose an engine and continue the takeoff or abort the attempt and stop on the runway remaining. Either course would require we do everything just right, but engines almost never fail at precisely that speed. If the engine fails prior to that speed, you abort. The lower your speed, as compared to S-1, the easier that is to do. If the engine fails above that speed you continue. The more speed you have, the easier it is.
Nobody loses an engine at S-1, we hear. Of course it had already happened to me twice: once in the T-38 and again in the KC-135. But those airplanes were prone to that kind of thing. This was a Boeing 707. This was a good airplane.
"S-1," I heard over the interphone from the right seat and then "power loss on two," and then "no oil pressure on two," and then "there goes two."
I pushed a little right rudder to keep the airplane straight on the runway and glanced at the airspeed indicator. We still had twenty knots until I could rotate but we still had almost half the runway in front of us. Not too bad.
"Rotate," Mikey called as that magical speed came.
As the airplane left the runway and the altimeter started to climb I saw Mikey reach down for his checklist. "Gear up," I said, "you can get that later." He lowered the checklist and raised the gear handle.
"Throttle for failed engine," I said as if reading it from the checklist, "cut off." Mikey pull the number two throttle over its detent.
"Fire switch isn't needed," I said, "trip the generator."
Mikey and Brian confirmed they had the right switch and did so.
"Flaps up," I said, "declare an emergency and tell them we want an immediate landing at Carswell."
Mikey made the call and I turned the airplane a few degrees to the right to set up for a left base turn to the Carswell Air Force Base north-south runway.
"We should get to a holding pattern," Mikey said, "so we can catch up on these checklists."
"Do you know why the engine failed?" I asked.
"No," he said, "but we haven't run the engine failure, after takeoff, climb, descent, or approach checklists."
"The only checklist you need," I said, "is the before landing checklist. I don't know why the engine failed but after these guys have been working on them for a year I am worried about the other three."
Mikey grumbled, as he often did, but complied. "I think this is a mistake," he said as I turned the airplane to align with Carswell's runway. "We should hold," he said as I ordered he extend the landing gear and another notch of flaps. "Can we land at this weight?" he asked.
"Your takeoff data says we can," I said, "and the runway at Carswell is long enough. I looked it up last night."
At about five hundred feet I glanced around the cockpit and everything seemed to be in order. "Full flaps," I said.
"You're the boss," Mikey answered while pulling the flap lever to its last detent.
I landed the airplane and taxied to the ramp.
"Pilot," the navigator spoke for the first time, "we were airborne for five minutes. Do I still need to add five minutes for taxi?" Ah, a joke. I laughed and look back to see her grin. Mikey too had a smile on his face.
The Air Force mechanics tore through the airplane and found each engine's oil reservoir caps were sitting in their positions without being tightened. The number two engine spewed all of its oil overboard, the other three had each lost about half their capacities. The number one and two engine fuel lines were also loosely fitted, causing the number two engine to quit and the number one to spew fuel into the cowl but luckily away from the burner cans and exhaust nozzle.
"You're lucky you didn't lose all four of them," the chief of maintenance said to the four of us, "you guys did pretty good."
In a squadron where macho was the key word and style points were awarded for acts of manliness, we very rarely commented on another pilot's pros or cons. Mikey made an exception. "That was pretty neat," he said, "I learned a lot today."
"Me too," I had to admit.
When we got back to Hawaii I was sent off on another trip and Mikey had full reign of the squadron to tell the "There I was" story over and over again. By the time I got back the story had been embellished to the point where it was steeley-eyed Chuck Yeager himself wrestling the wild, bucking beast to the ground. Of course that isn't true. The engine loss, takeoff continued and the engine-out landing really were routine. The fact we got the airplane on the ground before losing the other three was pure luck and timing. The timing was provided by good old fashion SA.