When flying airplanes, our hands play a vital role in airplane control, but we have to ensure that they are doing the right things at the right times. When actions with our hands get disrupted from the task they are supposed to be performing, something else gets done; something gets done wrong; or something is not done at all.
In the mid 1970’s, I was a T-38 Instructor Pilot/Check Pilot at Vance Air Force Base (AFB), KEND. During their six months of training in the T-38, Air Force student pilots had to pass three checkrides to earn their wings. In order, the checkrides were: Contact, Formation, and Instrument/Navigation. Each checkride included a ground evaluation relating to that checkride and covered emergency procedures, aircraft operating limitations, and general knowledge questions.
For Contact checks, we evaluated aerobatics (e.g., loops, Cuban-8s, Immelmanns) and recoveries from traffic pattern stalls as well as from “upset situations”, i.e., high-speed dives and slow-speed, nose-high attitudes. Pattern work evaluated normal landings from an overhead pattern as well as one of three landings from a simulated emergency.
The emergency patterns and landings were flown as “touch-and-goes” and were either a single-engine, heavy-weight (SEHW) straight-in approach flown immediately after initial takeoff, or a no-flap from either a straight-in approach or from an overhead pattern.
Phoenix, Arizona, USA – May 13, 2013: United States Air Force (USAF) Northrop T-38 Talon jet trainer aircraft from Holloman Air Force Base at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport in Arizona.
SIDEBAR: T-38 overhead traffic patterns (see below) begin on ‘initial’ at 300 kts. upwind and directly over the landing runway at 1,500’ AGL. One-third to half-way down the runway, a level 60-degree banked turn is made to downwind. In that turn, the speed-brakes are lowered and power is reduced. The reduction in power combined with the parasitic drag of the speed-brakes and the induced drag of the G-loading (2 Gs to maintain level flight) slow the aircraft below the gear limiting speed (240 kts.). Rolling wings-level on downwind and approaching the ‘perch’, the aircraft is configured. The ‘final’ turn is initiated from the perch and is a nose-low, 180-degree turn so as to arrive on final approach one mile from the runway threshold at 500’ AGL. From there, final approach speed is flown until nearing the threshold where power is reduced to idle and the airplane is flown to touchdown.
The pattern airspeeds are based on 1,000 pounds, or less, of fuel remaining. For every 100 pounds of fuel above 1,000 pounds remaining, 1 kt. is added to each of the basic pattern speeds. Gusty winds call for adding one-half of the gust factor to final approach and touchdown speeds for any approach and landing. As an example, winds at 20 knots gusting to 30 means an additional 5 knots.
NOTE: The T-38 fuel gauges are calibrated in pounds, not gallons, THANK GOODNESS! – “Hmmm, I have 261 gallons remaining, JP-4 weighs 6.5 pounds per gallon, 261 times 6.5… … carry the six?… …is π necessary? AAAAAAAARGH!!”
Using 60% flaps for touch-and-go landings and full flaps for a full-stop landing, the basic pattern speeds are: 175 kts. in the final turn; 155 kts. on final approach; and touchdown at 130 kts. For a no-flap pattern and landing, you add 15 knots to each of the basic speeds. NOTE: Final approach speed for a SEHW can be more than 170 kts. on final with a touchdown above 150 kts.
BACK TO THE STORY: My first experience with the mismanagement of hands came on a Nigerian student’s Contact check. Before we briefed, he rolled some dice to determine the flight profile; his “crap-shoot” tasked him with the aerobatics he was to fly in the training area. In addition to a normal overhead pattern and landing, he was to fly a no-flap overhead pattern and landing as his emergency landing.
From taxi to takeoff, to the aerobatics, stall and upset situation recoveries, the flight was outstanding. This young man was acing his checkride including the return to Vance AFB for the patterns and landings, but that’s where the “wheels came off.”
On initial, the student announced he was going to fly his no-flap overhead pattern first. We had 1,800 pounds of fuel as we entered the pattern for runway 17R. At that weight, our no-flap pattern speeds would be 198 kts. in the final turn, 178 kts. on final and 153 kts. at touchdown.
Part of every checkride evaluation is airmanship, a subjective grading item, so I didn’t say anything. Although the winds were light, I would have flown a normal pattern first so I could get a feel for the winds in the pattern. Once the student satisfactorily flew the no-flap as well as a normal pattern and landing, I planned to make some touch-and-go landings to maintain my back-seat proficiency.
The student made a right-hand turn to inside downwind and lowered the speed-brakes using the slide-switch on the #2 throttle under his left hand. From the rear seat, I could then see him extend his left arm in reaching for the gear handle with his left hand. At that instant, however, the runway controller – a T-38 IP in the Runway Supervisory Unit (RSU) – advised us of another T-38 in the pattern that might be a conflict. Noting the traffic was not a conflict, the student dropped his left hand to the #2 throttle, keyed the mic button with his thumb, and acknowledged the call. That muscle movement took the place of him lowering the gear handle – OOOPS!
But the gear-warning horn didn’t activate as it only activates when below 10,000’ MSL with the power less than 96% and the airspeed is less than 210 kts. We only met the first of those criteria as we came off the perch. It’s also worth noting that I was already guarding the stick and throttles in the back seat. As this was a checkride, I had to allow the student to continue until I felt things could get worse. I didn’t have long to wait!
Coming off the perch with no flaps and flying at more than 200 kts., our turn radius put us at risk of overshooting 17R. The student noticed this and pulled more back-stick to prevent the overshoot which is when our jet shuddered!
I said, “I’ve got the airplane,” and rolled wings-level, raised the speed-brakes, shoved the throttles into afterburner, and told the RSU controller, “We’re on the go!” I didn’t say it at the time, but this checkride was over at this point!
On our go-around, we actually flew between the RSU and the runway itself (see the airfield diagram above). At the departure end, I requested clearance for a closed pattern. The RSU controller approved it allowing me to climb immediately onto downwind for a full-stop landing.
After returning to the squadron (and cleaning up my shorts), the student reported to my office and I started the debriefing by asking if he knew why I had taken control of the airplane. He acknowledged he was overshooting and added he was initiating the go-around. I replied, “Ok, what else was wrong?” He couldn’t answer that, so I responded, “you never lowered the landing gear.”
Shocked, he blurted out, “that’s not possible!” I picked up the phone, called the RSU, and asked to speak to the controller. When he came on the line, I identified myself, gave him the callsign we had been using, and also apologized for my earlier fly-by. I asked him to tell the student what he had seen and then handed the phone to the student. As he listened, the look on his face became one of sheer astonishment. Dumbfounded, he handed back the phone and we then spent some time talking about flying the airplane first and communicating second.
While I busted this student, he passed a re-check with another check pilot. As a matter of practice, check pilots rarely flew more than one of the three checkrides with any one student and we never flew a re-check with any student we had previously failed.
PS: The student passed his re-check and eventually earned his wings.
Another incident of hand mismanagement happened to Geno who was a classmate in my A-10 training course. During our training, we made numerous flights to the gunnery range to drop bombs and fire the GAU-8 cannon – and we got paid to do it!
We normally carried six BDU-33s and a several hundred rounds of 30mm ammo. The BDU-33 is a 25-pound practice bomb easily loaded by a single munitions tech. They aren’t explosive but contain a small white phosphorous charge that releases a puff of smoke on impact making it easy to spot where they hit. They are a lot cheaper and easier to handle than the 500 pound Mark-82 or 2,000 pound Mark-84 bombs used in combat. With the same ballistic characteristics as their much bigger brothers, they’re an excellent training tool.
On this day, an instructor briefed the three of us for a range mission west of Tucson, AZ. Geno was number three in the flight and I was number four. We were going to fly “pop-up” attacks dropping a single BDU-33 on each bombing pass.
“Pop-ups” are initiated from low altitude with a steep climb from the Pull-Up Point (PUP) to acquire the target (hence, ‘pop-up’) and to also achieve sufficient altitude (1,500-4,000’ AGL) from which we rolled-in on the target. Our dive angles varied from 15 to 30 degrees. The steeper the dive, the steeper and higher we popped-up. Rolling-in at the Pull-Down Point (PDP) was a steep turn (120-135 degrees of bank) to get the airplane diving at the target.
At the PUP, you informed the other flight members of your position. As number four, I transmitted, “Four’s Up!” You made a second call at the PDP; I transmitted, “Four’s In!” That second transmission also told the range control officer you were diving at the target at which point he would clear you to drop your bomb once he saw you were properly aligned, i.e., NOT pointed at him!
After taking off, we flew a low-level (~500’ AGL) tactical formation to the range where we took spacing from the instructor in the #1 aircraft – putting approximately a mile between each aircraft. Flying at 100-200’ AGL and going 300+ kts. on our approach heading, our PUP was a state highway we crossed at a 90-degree angle.
Approaching the PUP on my first pop-up, I noticed a recreational vehicle had stopped on the shoulder of the road directly under our PUP. “Ma & Pa Kettle” were standing by their “Kettle-Mobile” enjoying the airshow. But that soon came to an end!
When Geno initiated his fourth pop-up, he didn’t make his “Three’s Up!” transmission, but he did make the next one, “Three’s In!” The reason he failed to make that first transmission became apparent as I approached the PUP for my fourth pop-up.
Nearing the Kettles, I noticed they were scrambling to get in the Kettle-Mobile and hit the road! Instead of using his left thumb to press the mic button on the #2 throttle under his left hand and saying “Three’s Up”, Geno (with the control stick in his right hand) used his right thumb to press the “pickle” button which drops/fires the selected weapon. It worked as advertised and a BDU-33 was dropped.
Odds are Geno still said, “Three’s Up!”
Geno’s BDU-33 sailed right over the Kettle-Mobile and a puff of white smoke, perhaps 50 yards beyond where Ma & Pa stood, marked where it landed in the Arizona desert. They must have figured they were now the target and they weren’t going to stand for that! Making good on their get-away, they had a story for the Kettle-kids.
Bottom Line: First and foremost, it’s imperative that we use our hands to fly the airplane, i.e., manipulate the flight controls, throttle(s), and gear/flap handles. When it’s appropriate to do so, our hands accomplish other tasks like twisting dials, mashing buttons, or flipping switches on the sundry cockpit control panels. However, we must never let one action take the place of another, (and possibly more important) task!