I had an incredibly humbling experience last week that I feel is important to share as an aviator where it is vital that we share our experiences that others may learn. I really need to get back to writing these posts because I have seen great value in sharing my experiences, or if nothing else just in writing them out for my own analysis and benefit.
First let me set the stage for what happened.
In flying the C-130 we have essentially two types of missions that we perform, airland flying and tactical flying. Airland would be something similar to flying on an airline where we fly longer legs into various different airports transporting personnel and cargo. Tactical flying is what makes us more unique; flying at low altitudes, in formation, and performing airdrops. As you might imagine tactical flying is more challenging and requires more work from everyone on the crew before, and during, the flight.
Before last week I had not been on a tactical mission in about three months, and had not personally been in the seat for one in more like five months (I had been at instructor school for two months where I was watching students rather than actually performing tasks). I had only had one airland flight during that time which had actually gone really well so I felt pretty confident going into my flight last week. I had also briefed for two other tactical flights the week before so I was starting to get some idea of what to expect on my flight, or at least I thought I was.
A couple of other variables that I also feel are important to mention are that this was my first flight in the local area in Japan, my instructor had not flown in about a month, the copilot is also new to the local area having had only a handful of flights, the pilot had just been returned to flying status after a significant break, and she was getting a no-notice checkride from none other than our commander. A no-notice is jut what it sounds like; you show up to fly and when you sign in you find out that you will be getting evaluated on the flight. It tends to add a certain level of stress.
On top of all of this we had a pretty complex mission profile because we were trying to drop at two different drop zones with a potential to fly up to six different routes, none of which I had ever flown. The mission commander would also not be part of the majority of the tactical portion of the mission due to some weird scheduling that required him to support a checkride. There were actually a total of 4 checkrides being performed on the three planes in the formation.
Now that you have endured the setup, let me explain what happened.
In short, I had the worst flight I have ever had. I was slow in my callouts. I completely forgot certain procedures. If I’m being totally honest there were multiple times I kind of zoned out and was overwhelmed. Just to be very clear, we were never in an unsafe position, and no rules were broken. I simply was a useless crew member for much of the flight. I have known the pilot for a few years now and she said it wasn’t that bad so I am sure a lot of my disappointment and frustration came from my own personal standards of performance.
It can be incredibly difficult to try to do a task that you have done hundreds of times, but not remember how to do it, or at least not do it as well as you know you are capable of performing. My last flights had been at instructor school where I was critiquing role-playing instructors and had been deemed worthy to not only perform these tasks, but to INSTRUCT them, and now I couldn’t even do it myself. It was probably the worst I have ever felt after a flight.
It is amazing how quickly you lose abilities when you do not use them. I could go through the procedures in my head just fine but in the plane I struggled to keep up. It seriously made me question my abilities and whether or not I even enjoyed what I do anymore. If this was the end of the story I would apologize for being so depressing, but fortunately there is a good ending.
I flew again last night and it was dramatically better. Interestingly, I had an instructor that has a reputation for being really tough, which intimidated me a little bit, but maybe that was exactly the challenge that I needed. I was engaged for the entire flight and knew exactly what was happening the entire time. My situational awareness was so much greater in providing useful inputs to the crew and what was going on during the mission as a whole.
I was still a little slow with some things, but everything happened in time to get the mission done. I was once again a useful crew member and it reminded me of exactly why I love what I do. I still have plenty to work on, as all aviators must continually work at honing our craft, but it was so refreshing to get closer to the level at which I was used to performing.
I don’t know that I can convey all of the lessons that I learned from this experience, but there are a few very clear lessons worth mentioning.
The first lesson is that you are bound to lose abilities that you don’t use. We all have reasons that we are kept away from flying, or any other activity that we perform, and when that happens we will inevitably lose some of our ability to perform that task. It is important to keep that in mind when we try to perform that task again so that we don’t overextend ourselves and end up in a dangerous situation.
In tandem with that understanding is not being intimidated to go back to something we love just because it has been a long time. Maybe life has prevented you from flying for a long time so you are scared to get back up in the air, but there is no reason to be scared. Book a refresher lesson or two with a good instructor and before you know it you will be on your way to rebuilding those good habit patterns and enjoying the wonder that is aviation. I was amazed at how quickly it all started to come back to me last night as I built upon each task that I performed correctly.
Flying is just like many other activities in that it takes a lot of practice to become good at it, and in reality you never stop learning because literally every situation is unique. Taking breaks is just part of life and in some instances can actually be good for recharging your batteries and helping you to remember how much you love something. Just understand what your limits are and don’t be discouraged when it takes some time to get back into your groove.
As I have said many times before, don’t be afraid to ask for help either. There may not be a better group of people than flyers when it comes to helping fellow flyers. It is a passion that cannot be easily explained to others, but for those who have it no words are needed to understand each other.