I was at a safety panel recently where I was asked to summarize in one word what I think is most needed by the next generation of pilots and it reminded me of something I thought of when flying for the first time with a safety officer. That was in 1979 flying a T-38 when the safety officer in question waited for me to taxi into a congested area so he could hit the start switches which disabled the nose wheel steering. He chortled with glee as I wrestled to bring the airplane to a stop before hitting something. He thought it was hilarious. I thought he needed more discipline to do things more by the book and less for his personal entertainment.

Years later I amplified on the idea of flight discipline and adopted the following credo:

You need to have the discipline to know the rules and fly by the rules.
If you find yourself having to step outside of the rule book for any reason, you have to have the discipline to return back to the rule book as soon as it is safe to do so.

I found myself outside the rule book not too long after that. That’s when I heard . . .

— James Albright




"I'm blind!"


E-4B, Wikimedia Commons

In 1990 I was flying an Air Force Boeing 747, designated an E-4B, flying what was known at the time as a "Command and Control" mission. The airplane was a fairly standard Boeing 747 with additional plumbing to receive air-to-air fuel from a tanker and additional electronics to reach out and touch just about anyone in the world. We had a cockpit crew of four, a communications crew of ten or so, a security team, and three crew chiefs. Our day-to-day job was, we all understood, of the highest national importance. Of course that had nothing to do with me, my job was flying the airplane and leading the crew. The passengers downstairs were in charge of all that national importance.

As the pilot in command, what we called the aircraft commander, I had total authority when it came to safety of flight. The passengers controlled the mission and could dictate our timing, our destination, just about everything we did. But if I thought it would compromise our safety, I had veto power. But we aircraft commanders hardly ever did that. It was a part of our honor code to get the mission done. Good pilots could overcome just about any obstacle on the way to mission accomplishment. Safety, of course, permitting.

Mission, from the squadron's point of view, also included training. I had with me a recently qualified copilot and it was my job to show him how it was done, by the book. The book, our squadron book, emphasized safety first, but the mission was a very close second.

We tended to be just as cautious and safety-minded as any civilian outfit, perhaps more so because of the visibility of the airplane. Our standard operating procedures were patterned off the airlines and we certainly trained to a very high standard because some of the things we were tasked with doing were, shall we say, a challenge. That's where I found myself one afternoon, taking off into the worst weather I had ever seen as a pilot. I thought about telling the passengers we needed to wait a few hours to let the worst of the weather pass, but that would not have got the mission done on time. "Are we all okay with this?" I asked the flight crew. "You bet," they said as one. So it was gear up, flaps up, and keep an eye on the radar.

As is true in the civilian world, aviation managers lay down standard operating procedures based on experience and recent mishaps. One-day cockpit automation is your friend, another it is an evil that erodes pilot stick-and-rudder skills. We were in a phase of the latter emphasis and our squadron mandated that we hand fly the airplane from takeoff to level off, so that's what I was doing. It was very turbulent so I was "heads down," my eyes glued to the attitude indicator and doing everything I could do to keep the airplane right side up.

We were in the clear, dodging the green, yellow, and red shapes on the radar. The copilot was "heads up," as he should have been, keeping an eye out for other traffic and doing his best to validate the navigator's radar interpretation of the mess were in. The engineer was sitting between us, his hands on the throttles and eyes on the engine gauges. Our autothrottles were good for approach and landing back then, but not available for takeoff and climb. The navigator faced backwards in the cockpit, eyes glued to a radarscope.

"Need twenty right," the nav said over the interphone. The copilot asked departure control and moved my heading bug when our request was approved. I dipped the right wing down and tried to average out the turbulence to keep the bank under control. In my peripheral vision I noted the copilot was doing a good job of dividing his attention between the flight instruments and the view outside. What some pilots call "see and avoid," others called "lookout doctrine." I made a mental note for the copilot's gradebook, his lookout doctrine was excellent.

As I resumed my focus on the attitude indicator the entire cockpit was illuminated with a bright flash. Just a millisecond later there was a loud bang and then there was silence. I knew immediately we had been hit by lightning.

"I'm blind, I'm blind, I'm blind!" The copilot was yelling, almost incoherently but it was plain he was in full panic.

"I'm blind!" The flight engineer cried out too.

"Can anybody up there see?" the navigator asked, almost with the same level of hysteria.

"Relax everyone," I said in the contrived voice of composure many of us pilots practice in our sleep, "I can see and we are still flying."

I thought for a few seconds and realized I was flying solo in terrible weather, I may have two injured cockpit crewmembers, and most of my attention was spent keeping the shiny side of the airplane up. I reached over and engaged the autopilot.

"Nav," I said over the interphone, "take over the ATC radio, keep an eye on the weather."

The copilot and engineer both reported the burning sensation in their eyes was subsiding and they could again see. In another ten thousand feet of climb the weather was below and behind us so I disengaged the autopilot and resumed hand flying until we leveled off.

The flight engineer did an inventory of the electrical systems we had lost and reported we could get them all repaired at our destination but it might be wiser to abort the mission and head home instead. It was obvious what he wanted to do but he didn't get to make that decision. The copilot apologized for "losing it" and said he was okay to press on. The navigator said nothing.

I sat and thought for a while. I had already violated one squadron standard operating procedure by using the autopilot during the climb, but that was a wise decision. Now I had to make another, more important command decision.

I announced to the crew we would press on. There was more silence. Crewmembers, even military crewmembers, are taught to voice strong objections when they had them, but the aircraft commander makes decisions for the crew. I decided that maybe a stroll downstairs to show the rest of the crew that their pilot was not at all phased by this excitement.

As I unstrapped I must admit that I was feeling rather full of myself. There we were, in terrible weather, the airplane got hit by lightning and there was pandemonium all about. And yet I remained fully composed, flying the airplane. Yes, quite the stud.

As I got ready to exit the cockpit the navigator pulled me to the side and said something that haunts me to this day. I've heard these words since, but this was the first time and I think of it whenever something like this happens.

The navigator said, "When all about you have lost their heads and you remain calm, maybe you don't understand the problem."

That stopped me dead in my tracks. I turned to look at all the red and amber lights on the engineer's panel and realized, for the first time that day, that perhaps I didn't understand the problem.

We aborted the mission and flew home. Once on the ground we saw the black burn marks on our airplane's pretty white nose where the lighting hit, squarely just below the post between the two pilots' windshields. On the tail, where the lightning left, there was a hole on the horizontal stabilizer, about 2 feet in diameter.

It was a military mission, yes. But even a mission of "national importance" can wait when the command decision to press on or abort can mean the safety of all on board. In the years since I've had similar, perhaps not so dramatic, opportunities to understand the problem. When in doubt, my new motto goes, put it on the ground and consider your options.