There Are No Old, Bold Pilots
By Col. Dick Hefner, USAF (retired)
Former pilot (C-141, B-52 D/G, C-5 A/B)
“There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots!”
I’m now in the category of “old” pilots, but as I start my series for 20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com , I cannot help thinking of the times when making into that distinguished category may not happen. I’m sure every pilot thinks he or she has “cheated death” at some time during their flying career…some of us, more than once. And, quite honestly, we probably arrived at those less-than-desirable situations not because we were necessarily being bold … maybe we were just young and lacked experience, but we made it!
My first serious, potential encounter with the “grim reaper” happened towards the end of pilot training while flying the Air Force’s T-38 and enjoying the challenges of formation flying. We were nearing the end of the 53-week program and those silver wings were just around the corner. Today’s mission was a 2-ship formation and my instructor was flying lead with another student while I was solo and on his wing. During our pre-brief, we discussed various ways to correct an overshoot on a rejoin. Sliding to the outside of the turn during a turning rejoin and killing the airspeed was the most common way; however, I remember talking about the joining aircraft doing a “roll” to kill the airspeed and tighten the rejoin.
Briefing time over, time to go fly. We taxied out, took off in formation, and headed to our “barrel” over Georgia for formation practice. Our barrel was a circular area that topped off at 20,000 feet and bottomed out at 10,000 feet. Other aircraft were not allowed to fly in the barrel and Air Traffic Control had cleared us to use that airspace to practice any maneuvers we wanted to do. I hung on tight, keeping my reference points centered as the lead T-38 smoothly accomplished a variety of maneuvers. Unfortunately, during one of the maneuvering, I got a little close and lead called a breakaway either to insure contact was not made or to force me to accomplish the circling rejoin maneuver.
Lead called for a right circling rejoin at 18,000 feet and established a steady turn to the right. I set up for the intercept. As I closed on lead, I could see I had too much airspeed and would need to overshoot, kill some of the speed and then slide back into position … unless I could perform that roll maneuver we had discussed during the pre-brief! As I slid past lead with too much airspeed, I decided on rolling my airplane. My roll should have taken place to the right after I passed underneath lead. Unfortunately, I had not given this maneuver a lot of thought and I rolled my T-38 to the left!
Rapidly moving my head to the right as my plane rolled to the left, I quickly realized there was no way to maintain visual contact with lead, so I moved my head back in the direction of my turn. Whoa … instant vertigo! Everything started spinning. All of a sudden, seeing lead was the least of my problems. My instruments made no sense to me, and with a cloud deck at about 23,000 feet and a second deck near 10,000 feet, I could see neither the ground nor the blue sky. I was struggling with getting the plane back to wings level and I could not tell up from down. After losing about 5,000 feet, I finally got my 38 in level flight at about 13,000, but my head was still spinning, I could not see the ground and I had trouble interpreting the attitude instrument indicator (ADI). I concluded I was upside down and needed to roll the plane to right side up. Bad move, I was actually right side up and rolling it back to inverted sent me spinning once more.
I knew the Air Training Command’s rule during this phase of training was to bailout if you did not have the plane under your control and you were descending though 10,000 feet. I was descending and I remember seeing 11,000 go by on the altimeter. I had one last shot. Get on those instruments and believe them. I was able get the plane level once again. And this time, I kept everything stable until my head cleared. As I looked out the top of the canopy, I could see the Georgia landscape through wisps of clouds. This time, I really was upside down. Slowly, ever so slowly, I rolled the plane right side up. Safe… blue sky above me, no bail out!
Now, where was lead! Suddenly I could hear lead’s voice yelling over the radio. He saw me descending in a relatively uncontrolled, spiraling manner and knew I was in trouble. He said he was trying to keep me in sight and was giving me verbal instructions on how to level out my plane; however, I never heard one of them. When he saw me climbing back through the lower deck of clouds, he gave me his position and directed another rejoin. This time I set up a very precise intercept angle and accomplished a perfect rejoin. We immediately headed for home.
After we touched down, my instructor complimented me on the tight formation I flew during our return to our home base. I was never asked if I busted the 10,000 foot bottom or what altitude I descended to before I accomplished my recovery. However, my instructor did suggest I drop off my flight suit at the closest cleaners on the way home. Hefner 1; Death 0