This book is set at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland and tracks Eddie's progress from a newly hired Gulfstream III (C-20) pilot, to aircraft commander, and to the wing's chief of safety.
— James Albright
Of course he had already flown as a Boeing 707 examiner pilot and a Boeing 747 instructor pilot. But the 89th trains to a much higher standard and forces everyone to start over. Eddie started over and learned what Experto Crede really means. He ends his tour at Andrews as the 89th Airlift Wing Chief of Safety. After that, it was off to the Pentagon where he was in charge of the wing's aircraft operating, maintenance, and procurement budget. Every chapter and every lesson builds towards Eddie's realization about the true nature of Experto Crede. That realization, to this day, shapes how Eddie looks at the very nature of learning through experience. Good and bad.
What's it like flying in this environment? Here is a sneak peak . . .
“Nutcracker fail,” I heard from the right seat. I looked down, just forward of the throttles and my right knee. His left index finger was on the test switch, which showed our left system was green and the right system was not. This would be a problem.
Most airplanes need some kind of wizardry to figure out if they are in the air or on the ground and it isn’t as easy as looking out of a window. (The answer has to be correct day or night, good weather or bad.) The answer – ground or air – is critical. You certainly wouldn’t want to be able to retract the landing gear on the ground; that would ruin your paycheck. But you would be very unhappy if a thrust reverser deployed while in the air; that would ruin your life.
The designers at Gulfstream gave us a switch on each main landing gear that was actuated by two arms that swung open as the aircraft lifted off the ground and swung closed as the aircraft returned to earth. To the designer’s eye the two arms looked like a nutcracker and in the Gulfstream III that is what those switches were called: nutcrackers.
Both switches had a vote, but the vote was rigged in favor of being in the air. If either switch decided it was in the air, the aircraft’s many systems would conclude they were in the “air mode.” (Even if it wasn’t.) If both switches agreed that the airplane was on the ground, it was indeed in the “ground mode.”
The reason for this paranoia sat on top of the airplane’s wings where six panels resided. These panels were called ground spoilers because they popped up into the air stream and spoiled much of the lift produced by the wing, increasing the weight placed on the wheels and the effectiveness of the wheel brakes. You didn’t want this happening with the airplane still in the air. The first Gulfstream jet ever lost, a GII, crashed in 1974 because of a malfunction of this very system. Our GIII’s nutcracker system was virtually identical to that of the lost jet. We were still at 3,000 feet and those spoilers were an immediate threat.
“Charlie, pull the ground spoiler circuit breaker, behind me, row C, column 9,” I said. “Hank, run the nutcracker fail checklist.” Flight Engineer Technical Sergeant Charlie Halston reached behind my head to pull the circuit breaker, ending the threat of our Gulfstream’s ground spoilers inadvertently deploying and forcing our airplane out of the sky prematurely. Lieutenant Colonel Hank Richards, a fully qualified aircraft commander but sitting in the copilot position, opened his checklist to the page in question. I knew he had the checklist memorized and that our squadron expected us to run it by memory. But we both knew this could be life and death; the checklist exists for a reason.
“Ground spoilers off,” he began and then rattled off the rest of the checklist. Hank had twice my Gulfstream experience but clung to the, “Ah shucks” persona favored by many Air Force pilots. I had always thought him to be lax in systems knowledge. “If the nutcracker stays in the air mode you aren’t going to have any nose wheel steering, no anti-skid braking, and the landing gear safety solenoid is gone. You may, or may not, have thrust reversers.” Perhaps he was sharper than I thought.
I watched as the glide slope pointer centered, double-checked the disabled ground spoiler switch, and pulled the throttles back a full knob-width. “Full flaps,” I said. “Well, we’ve got all eleven thousand feet of runway, but only the middle thirty feet are plowed. The braking action is fair and we’ve got a ten knot direct crosswind. We are worried about an inadvertent ground spoiler deployment when the throttles hit idle. We are worried about directional control on a snow-covered runway with a crosswind because we don’t have nosewheel steering. We are worried about braking without anti-skid. We’re worried about the gear collapsing if we hit too hard. Is there anything else we are worried about?”
“That’s plenty,” Hank said, a slight tremble telling me he wasn’t so “ah shucks” anymore.
“Do we have any other options?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“No,” he and the flight engineer said together. The forecast was for snow and nothing more. Sometime between our takeoff from Cincinnati and our arrival the entire east coast was shellacked in snow, sleet, and then more snow. Andrews Air Force Base, sitting just eleven miles southeast of the White House, stayed open throughout, managing to keep a narrow strip of runway open for its aircraft arriving from all over the world. We were the last of ten arrivals for the night. Meanwhile, the civilian airports were closing, one-by-one. Just as we began our instrument approach, the last one, Washington National, threw in the towel.
“You got enough fuel for three tries,” the flight engineer reported, “but not enough to go anywhere else.”
“Before Landing checklist is complete,” Hank reported finally. “I’m glad I get to watch this.”
“I’m going to put the airplane down gently right on the numbers,” I said. “Engineer will get the speed brakes. I will go to idle reverse on the engines, but no more. We’ll get a feel for directional control and I’ll try to do that with ailerons and rudder only until I can’t. Then I’ll go for the brakes. The airplane is going to weather vane left. If it looks like I am losing it, Hank, take the engines from me and use right reverser if we got it, left forward thrust if we don’t, to keep us on centerline.”
“You got it,” he said.
“Charlie,” I said over the interphone, “we haven’t briefed anyone else. If I say the word, you take charge of everything aft and get the passengers out of the airplane, off the runway, and keep them together. How many we got?”
“Eight pax and five crew, sir,” he said. “I’ll take care of everything behind the cockpit.”
“Passing a thousand,” Hank said. The altimeter slowly unwound, and I watched as the vertical velocity needle settled on 600 feet per minute, right where I wanted it. The needles were centered and our ground speed was right at 120 knots. I had a decision to make at 100 feet above the runway, this being a Category II instrument landing system approach. The math always came easy to me. My decision would be made in another 900 feet, which would be 900 divided by 600, which equals 1 and a half minutes or 90 seconds. Ten seconds later we would be on the ground.
“A needle width right,” Hank said. The math was easy, but keeping the needles centered in the crosswind made things hard. The autopilot wasn’t dealing with all the variables as well as the engineers who designed it had hoped. My left thumb moved a half-inch to the red disconnect switch and fired the autopilot from its appointed duty. I dipped the left wing into and out of a gentle bank.
“Everything’s centered, Eddie,” Hank said. “Five hundred feet and I don’t see anything.”
Decision in 400 feet; just hold on for another 40 seconds, I told myself.
“Winds 270 at 10,” tower offered, perhaps trying to help in the last half-minute. “Ceiling is right at 100 feet and visibility is a half. Braking action fair, reported by a vehicle. Reminder, only the middle 30 feet are plowed.”
“One hundred above,” Hank said, “still nothing.”
That would be ten seconds, I thought. The smallest needle on the altimeter continued its relentless move south.
“Lights!” he said.
I looked up and saw two white lights, then a row of lights, and then the runway. It was still snowing, but the runway centerline lights shone through a few inches of powder. There was clearly a path of less snow in the middle but the texture on either side was wrong. A foot of snow, maybe. I set the left wheels down first, then the right, and the nosewheel came down on centerline. I felt Charlie’s hand slide under my right arm to grab the speed brake handle. I pulled up on the reversers to their locks, waiting to hear the familiar click-click of the safety catches releasing, telling me I had thrust reversers at my disposal. I kept them at idle, not wanting to complicate the directional control problem to come or to obscure my vision from the snow kicking forward. I could see no more than a quarter of the runway.
“One hundred twenty,” Hank said, “good reverse.” I felt the reassuring thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of the nosewheel hitting the centerline lights of the runway.
“I’m moving five feet to the right,” I said, “give me some room when we lose rudder effectiveness.”
“Good idea,” Hank said. The main landing gear were 14 feet apart. We had a lane of 30 feet. On centerline, the wheels were 8 feet from the snow; moving right 5 feet gave me 3 feet of cushion. The math comes easy. My right leg was slowly extending, coaxing the rudder to the right, which aerodynamically pushed the tail left and kept the airplane going straight despite the wind.
“One ten,” Hank said, “VMCA in ten.” Our minimum control velocity, VMCA, with aerodynamic controls only was 100 knots. Below that point we couldn’t guarantee aircraft control without ground controls. That was normally the nosewheel steering, but that wasn’t an option for us. I had to keep in the lane of cleared runway. Having either main landing gear hit the wall of snow would cause it to dig in, pulling the airplane violently to that side. At this speed, we would cartwheel for sure. My eyes were right over runway centerline, so the airplane was about 5 feet to the right. The math . . .
“One hundred,” Hank said, “starting to move left.” My right leg reached the limit of the rudder; there was nothing left. Left. That is the direction the nose started to move. I pushed the top of my right foot to extend and actuate, lightly, the brakes on the right landing gear. Thumpa-thumpa-thumpa.
“Ninety,” Hank said, “on centerline.”
“You got half the runway behind you,” Charlie said.
The brakes would have started all this at ambient temperature, around -5° centigrade. As the friction between each moving disc and each stationary rotor increased, they would heat up and become more effective. Too much pressure and they would lock up. The electronic anti-skid would then kick in. But without the nutcrackers, our anti-skid system was questionable. A locked brake turned the tire into an ice skate. Hold what you got, I thought.
“Moving left,” Hank said. No more thumpa-thumpa-thumpa.
The crosswind! The rudder was becoming less effective at keeping us pointed down the runway but the vertical fin was becoming more effective as a weather vane, trying to point us off the runway. More pressure on the top of my right foot. “Correcting,” I said.
“Eighty,” Hank said, “almost on centerline.” My right leg started to throb from the pressure and I wondered if I had all the pressure the right brakes would take. The limit was 600 psi on a dry surface, but this wasn’t dry. I pressed harder, but the nose resumed its drift to the left. I lifted the right reverser handle and pulled up, guessing a few inches would be enough.
“Sixty,” Hank said, “starting to run out of runway.”
“Three-thousand left,” Charlie said.
In the Boeing 747, we would double the distance remaining in thousands of feet and multiply that by ten to compute an on-target braking. Sixty knots was perfect for a dry runway and normal brakes with three thousand feet remaining. The math came easy. We didn’t have a dry runway nor normal brakes. I started to flex my left leg muscles and add more right reverse. Thumpa-thumpa-thumpa.
“Forty,” Hank said. “Thirty, twenty, ten.” I felt the nose bob unceremoniously as we came to a stop. The two landing lights cast their oblong shapes, equidistant either side of the runway centerline lights. The snow, blowing from left to right, obscured the end of the runway, perhaps a thousand feet ahead of us. I knew the Secretary of State, seated thirty feet behind me, might be unhappy with the drama of our arrival and I might have some explaining to do. But we were stopped.
“Experto Crede,” Hank said.