‘A Day in the Life’ of an Air Force Student Pilot

T-37 1

Photo courtesy of MilitaryFactory.com

Only 2 months into flying the Air Force’s Cessna T-37 primary jet trainer, I learned one of my biggest lessons from the 52-week journey known as Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT); flight discipline.

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On this day, October 12, 1994, I was a student pilot at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma about to fly with my seasoned instructor pilot, who sat directly to the right of me in the side-by-side, cramped T-37 cockpit. With a 4 a.m. show at the squadron earlier that morning, taxiing out for takeoff at 11 a.m. felt like it was already late afternoon.

Tweet cockpit

Photo from Wikipedia

The flight’s objective was to give the instructor pilot a demonstration of my acrobatic flying prowess in the skies just north of Enid, Oklahoma. The mission profile would include; loops, aileron rolls, split-S, Cuban 8, cloverleaves, barrel rolls and the Immelmann maneuver.

After we cleared our working airspace of stray civilian aircraft, I climbed our T-37 to above 20,000 feet to begin the required full spin & recovery procedure. I pulled both twin engines to idle power while raising the jet’s nose higher and higher into the air—all the way until the T-37 nose was pointed straight up. The rudder and ailerons were then neutralized. As airspeed dwindled down and the wings ceased to provide lift, the nose suddenly dropped off to my right, pointing the jet violently down towards the ground. As expected, the aircraft entered a full spin, wrapping us up faster and faster into tighter turns while the windscreen filled with images of cotton fields from the farmland circling below.

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Photo courtesy of tasoscorsair @ youtube.com

It’s important to note here that instructors and students have handshake agreements on when to “punch-out” (eject) of the aircraft in case of an emergency. We discuss these potential problems on the ground at zero airspeed, zero altitude and time to think. Therefore, when split-second decisions must be made in the air, muscle memory kicks in and proper–yet timely–reactions occur. The better prepared you are, the more options you always have. To quote Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. Flying is about creating your own luck through dedicated study and continued improvement…something that’s been instilled into me since I began flight lessons at the age of 14.

My instructor and I had agreed that if we’d descended below 10,000 feet and the spinning aircraft could not be stopped, we were going to eject from the T-37. As a result, we’d only have a few ticks below 45 seconds to get this aircraft under control. This afforded me two, maybe three, chances to successfully regain control before my instructor gave it a shot or two, himself. If we could not regain control of the jet and were forced to eject, this 1950s aircraft would be prematurely retired into a smoking hole on a northern Oklahoma farm.

“Needle right, spinning right,” I confirmed. Full left rudder applied! Control stick abruptly pushed full forward–and then the spinning suddenly stopped. Flight controls neutralized. And recovery was successful. Whew.

Following the spin, we immediately went into the rest of our flight profile: all the aerial gymnastics you’d see at your favorite airshow. Just after I executed the Cuban 8, I began to feel some nausea set in. I continued to fly, however, and started my next maneuver, the cloverleaf.

I felt the nausea worsening and recognized that it might have severe consequences regarding my training; not only this flight’s training, but my continued existence in the program. Airsickness for student pilots meant the possibility of being disqualified and “washed out” of the flight training. A classmate, struggling with airsickness earlier in the program, was sent to flight medicine for evaluation. Treatment for him consisted of sitting in a “Barany Chair”, and being spun around until he threw up. He endured this “treatment” twice a day for 3 straight days. When he came to visit us during one of his “chair” days he didn’t remotely resemble the smiling, jovial lad I had known prior “the chair”. Instead, he reminded me of the animals at the dog pound with that 1,000-yard stare.

In mid-cloverleaf maneuver, the nausea became overwhelming. My instructor was monitoring my flying and yet had no idea I wasn’t feeling well. Unfortunately, just as I completed the cloverleaf, the Lucky Charms and turkey sandwich I’d put down earlier that day reemerged with a vengeance. The hacking noises I made were easily discernible through the intercom system, forcing my instructor to immediately grab his control stick and uttered “My aircraft!”  At the same time, I too, took some immediate actions of my own.

I trapped the vomit in my mouth and kept it from entering my oxygen mask. At which point, I was left with two unpleasant choices; 1) pop my mask open and throw up into the white plastic bag—stashed for regurgitation or, 2) put down my breakfast and lunch for a second time.

I made the split-second decision for Option #2. Only after I had put down my breakfast and lunch a second time did I pop my oxygen mask open from its right side. My instructor peered over at me, completely shocked not to see any remnants of airsickness. In disbelief, he scrutinized my clean flight suit and oxygen mask. He was certain that I’d ‘blown chow’ a moment earlier but now he had no hard evidence, minus the loss of coloring in my face.

“Are you alright?” he questioned me. Yep. He let my answer soak in for a few seconds before deciding our next move. “Ready to fly?” he finally asked. You bet!

We finished the profile with a split-S turn before heading back to a full-stop landing at Vance Air Force Base. My instructor debriefed the entire flight and gave me good grades overall on my flying skills. In hindsight, I might have downgraded my situational awareness for not seeking his assistance in my compromised state. However, I’d give myself top marks for putting back down the puke and not stalling my flying career.

BTW, I’ve never again experienced airsickness while flying. And best of all, I’ve never had to endure the “Barany Chair”.

(This was an excerpt from the unpublished novel titled ‘My Wild View Yonder – Memoirs of an Air Force Officer & Pilot‘ by Patrick King)

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King was commissioned in 1990 at Oregon State University and retired from active-duty in July of this year. During his career, Colonel King flew a number of U.S. aircraft, to include the C-130 and EC-130 aircraft. He is an expert in electronic attack and cyberspace warfare.

 

© 2014, Patrick. All rights reserved.



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