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2016+ Year in Review

I know it is cliche, but I really can’t believe another year has gone by.  Even more unbelievable to me is how much I have actually done this year, and some of the incredible experiences that I have had.

With all of the time I have spent all over the Pacific I have neglected this writing, which I am just now realizing was a sort of therapy that I have also been missing out on.  Such is life though and all I can do is work at getting back into it.

So rather than try to cram everything into one post, I am going to work on getting out one a week or so which will hopefully give me some time to really internalize everything I have learned this year, while at the same time not overwhelming myself and then just giving up.

So here is a quick overview of some of the things I will be writing about over the next few months:

Operation Christmas Drop 2015–  I have mentioned this before, and a year later I am going to actually get to it.  I was on a crew for this operation which was an amazing opportunity to fly all over the islands of the Pacific bringing Christmas joy to people who live about as remotely as you possibly can in this world.

Cope North 2016-  This is a massive exercise that takes place in Guam every year involving 8-9 different countries in this instance.  Once again I was on a flying crew, which was one of the best crews I have ever flown with.  This was the first time I had ever trained with fighter aircraft which was a whole lot of fun.  As well as visiting some pretty historic sites.

Balikatan 2016-  Another large-scale exercise but in the Philippines.  For this exercise I went as a mission planning cell chief working at a location we had never fully manned before.  While I didn’t get to do any real exciting flying, it did really open my eyes to the time and effort that is required to pull off these vitally important exercises.

Red Flag Alaska 2016-  Surprise, surprise, another exercise, though most people who have interest in military aviation have likely heard of it, or at least the Nellis AFB version.  While I was back to flying for this exercise, it is structured differently than the other exercises so I also did a massive amount of mission planning.  It was some of the most incredible flying I have ever done, with a fun crew, and some amazing off duty time in the awe-inspiring Alaskan mountains.

Becoming an evaluator  Not exactly an exciting flying adventure, but something that has shaped the way I view being a flyer.  I have written numerous times about how much I love instructing, and evaluating has only deepened my love of instruction, but on a much deeper level.

Operation Christmas Drop 2016-  This year I went as the mission planning cell chief and there are few times I have worked so many hours and felt so completely fulfilled by what I have done.  To be very clear, there are a lot of people who did a lot of work to make this operation happen, and it was an honor to be a part of it.  It will be hard to beat the value of this experience in my life.

So there it is.  I am sure I forgot events that I will write about as well.  It seems so short listing them all like this, but I am excited to go back and relive all of these experiences again.  I know it will put a lot of smiles on my face, and I hope that you will find some enjoyment from reading about it.  Thank you for all of your support in the past, and I look forward to your comments in the future.

January 6, 2017 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: Even the Best Laid Plan Can Completely Fall Apart

Proper planning is essential to the success of any type of flying.  Even if you are just going out for some VFR fun you need to make sure you are prepared for the weather as well as any NOTAMS pertaining to where and what you plan to do.  But as anyone who has flown very much knows, even the best laid plan can quickly fall apart.  That is just the nature of aviation.

A few weeks ago I got to witness just such an occurrence happen to someone else only a day before it happened to me.

A friend of mine had planned for a pretty complex mission involving three aircraft and two parachutists getting off at least six jumps.  She had thought through the situation well and had developed a pretty solid plan to accomplish all of the necessary training in the safest way possible.

As is wont to happen when you fly planes that are more than 40 years old, maintenance issues complicated the execution of the plan.  Ultimately, the plan really fell apart when it was discovered that one simple phone call had not been made and thus precluded any of the jumps from taking place.  That meant that my plan for the next day just got more complicated.

I now had to develop a plan to get those jumps off while still accomplishing all of the other objectives I already had for my flight.  I developed just such a plan and everything was in order to get it done.  The planes were even working well and it looked like it would all go off without a hitch.  Silly me to think that would actually happen.

Occasionally we plan for the day flights to pass off their planes to the night flights without shutting down the engines.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the short version is that it saves a lot of work for our maintainers while still allowing us to get two different groups of flights.

As we stood there waiting for the morning flights to land, two aircraft landed and taxied off while the third plane went around for one more approach.  I hoped that it was not our plane, but it was, so we were left waiting for another ten minutes while the other two crews took over their aircraft and got ready to fly.  The problem with this situation was that my plane was supposed to do the first set of jumps, with the other jumps to follow after.  With my plane taking off a good 15-20 minutes after the time we were supposed to take off, the whole plan had just been tipped upside down.

Fortunately, I work with a bunch of great professionals and we came together to modify the plan in a way that would still get the mission accomplished.  As the mission commander I laid out the new plan with the new times we would utilize and the rest of the formation confirmed the design of the new plan.  There were still a handful of delays and a couple of miscommunications with the air traffic controllers that led to some wasted time, but in the end all of the jumps were accomplished and as much training as possible was completed.

This just reaffirmed the importance of contingency plans when putting together a flight.  Even if you are flying alone it is important to have a plan for when unexpected weather rolls in, or when the engine starts to run a little rough and you need to land quickly.  If these situations have been considered long before takeoff, then they will be far less stressful when they come along.  It will simply be a matter of implementing those solutions that have already been discussed.

The other important reminder from this situation is the value of flying with professionals.  People who take their job seriously will put in the effort needed to be personally prepared to fly.  They will not wait until the day of a flight to look through the pubs, but will study them well beforehand.  They will ask questions of those with more experience and try to learn from their previous mistakes.

One of the greatest benefits of working with experienced professionals is the level of situational awareness that they possess.  As you become more experienced as an aviator you are able to take on more of the situation and better understand the picture around you.  In this case, the crews of the other aircraft were able to look at our delay and understand how that would affect the mission as a whole.  They were able to provide valuable insights to me as the mission commander that made it possible to come up with a solid plan that would work for everyone involved.  They were not simply sharing their opinions for the sake of doing so, but were contributing to a solution.

As a navigator I have a unique role on the flight deck as I have no access to the aircraft controls but I can still do a lot to contribute to the successful flight of our aircraft.  One of the most important things for a Nav to learn is what to say and when to say it.  I could spend an entire flight talking about things and provide no real value to the flight.  On the other hand I could not say much and save the crew in an emergency.  The real value is in what is being said and its value to the mission.

Part of that equation is also in the timing of what we say.  Telling the pilot about your timing situation as he is flaring to land is not a good idea.  The information is important, but not at that time.  It is exactly the same when you are working with a formation.  We often talk about “the good idea fairy” appearing when a plan is presented.  This is when everyone and their dog decides they have a better way of executing your plan and they decide to share it right before execution.  There is nothing wrong with sharing good ideas, but right before take-off is not the time for that, unless of course it will keep the formation more safe.

Planning for a flight is incredibly important, and an essential part of that plan needs to be some sort of contingencies for when the plan starts to break down.  Ideally, you will never have to utilize them, but I can almost guarantee that the flight you decide to plan with a little less detail will be the flight that you needed it most.

November 12, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: Planning and Executing an 8-Ship Formation

There was much anticipation for me before we took the runway.  Especially because lead had a maintenance issue.

There was much anticipation for me before we took the runway. Especially because lead had a maintenance issue.

It’s been awhile since I did one of these posts, and it certainly isn’t for a lack of learning, but quite the opposite actually.  I’ve actually been a little overwhelmed recently with how much I have learned but I finally have a minute to put some of those thoughts to paper, or keyboard I guess.

The biggest learning that I have done recently took place just after the new year and involved planning and executing an 8-ship formation flight for my squadron.  We ended up with only six planes in the formation because of some maintenance issues, but it was an awesome experience nonetheless.  The maintainers actually deserve a huge amount of credit for getting that many flying considering what they had to do to make it happen.

There is just something about having this much airpower on one runway that gets me excited.

There is just something about having this much airpower on one runway that gets me excited.

I found out about this mission about a month before it was scheduled to take place and got some preliminary planning done before we all left for Christmas.  To the surprise of no one that has served in the Air Force, when we came back from the break, the powers that be changed our plan completely which meant we had a week to put the new plan in place.  I say we because I received a ton of vital help from about a half dozen people who provided guidance and expertise for something that I had never done.  It never would have happened if it weren’t for their help.

That week of planning was probably the most learning I have done in my relatively short career and I am so grateful for it.  With that being said I can’t really describe those lessons I learned because I don’t know how without spending the week that I put into it, besides, it is the flight that is the interesting part for most of you.

Sometimes it takes a little time to get everyone in position...

Sometimes it takes a little time to get everyone in position…

Because we don’t fly with this many planes together very often anymore it took a little work for all of the pilots to get back into the groove of flying with so many planes.  It is not just a matter of putting six planes close to each other, as you have to deal with the turbulence created by the plans in front of you as well as the accordion effect that takes place when you put any large number of moving objects together.  The closer you are to the back of the formation, the more challenging it becomes.

As you can see from some of these pictures it can be really challenging to stay in position in these conditions.  I give all the credit in the world to the pilots, and mine in particular, because they were working hard to stay in formation and keep it tight.  Being in the number five aircraft we had a great view of the formation and it was awesome to watch the ordered chaos come together almost perfectly as we recovered over the airfield.

...But it's pretty sweet once everyone slides into place.

…But it’s pretty sweet once everyone slides into place.

For the second half of the flight we actually planned to split the formation in two with a rendezvous about forty minutes later to bring us back together for the second airdrop.  As the person who had spent 40+ hours planning this thing down to the minute, and reassuring everyone else that it would work, I can’t really explain how excited I was when we reached the rendezvous point and I was able to look out the pilot’s window and see four other C-130s trucking towards us.

My pilot banked the plane up to turn towards them pointing the plane right at the last aircraft in their formation.  Then about a minute later he banked it back up the other direction and we were back together as a complete formation.  With all of the work it took to get there, it was incredibly fulfilling to see it come together so smoothly.

As I said before, there were really way too many lessons that I learned in the planning stage to try and cram them into one post, and most of them would make no sense without being there to experience it.  But, there are still a handful of lessons that came from the flying that can be applied to lots of different types of flying.

It was a huge relief once the flight was over and everyone taxied safely back to parking.

It was a huge relief once the flight was over and everyone taxied safely back to parking.

First is having faith in the people you fly with.  Whether they are sitting in the seat next to you or five planes away in the back of the formation, there is an incredible amount of trust we put in people we fly with.  In the 600+ hours I have in the C-130 I have never once been at the controls, though I do get to steer the plane through the autopilot sometimes, which means that every time I step onto the flight deck I am literally placing my life in the hands of the two pilots at the controls.  On this particular flight I could not have asked for a better pilot.

Second is the saying, “if you don’t use it you lose it”.  As I mentioned previously, I regularly fly with some incredible pilots.  They have flown me into different countries, through mountain valleys, and into dirt landing zones, but even the best pilot loses a little bit when they don’t do something often.  This was apparent during the first part of the flight, but it was equally important to me to see how quickly their proficiency of flying in a larger formation came back.  So for all of you pilots out there make sure that you are challenging yourself and forcing yourself to do things you don’t do often so that you can remain proficient.

For those of you thinking that formation flying is just for military planes, you couldn’t be more wrong.  It takes a matter of seconds to find videos of civilian formation flights on YouTube.  There is even a group of Bonanzas that fly in formation to EAA Airventure at OshKosh together.  If you are looking for something that is incredibly fun, and challenging, then I highly recommend a formation flight.  Make sure that you put in the proper planning though because it is not something to be taken lightly.

To take a look at more of the pictures from the fun we had head over to my friend’s Flickr page.

February 18, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: Surviving a Murder Board

The problem with having essentially a two-week break from work as a flyer is that you really don’t get to fly either.  I was fortunate enough to get out with my friend in his Piper Cub on Christmas, which was amazing, but mostly just time around the house, and some homework otherwise.

I did have something to look forward to coming back to work this week, but it was a bit of a bitter-sweet thing.  The exciting part of this week is that I get to be part of an 8-ship formation soon.  In years past this would have been a relatively common occurrence, but these days almost all of our flights are only 2-ships, so to get out on an 8-ship is really exciting.

The downside is that I am one of the two main planners so there is a lot of work that goes into it.  We got a great start two weeks ago and had a bunch of stuff prepared only to find out that the powers that be didn’t like our plan, so we changed it to a more vanilla plan.  However, there really is no such thing as a vanilla plan when you are flying with four times as many planes as you usually do.

No worries though as I got a good base of a plan last week with a whole week to put it all together, or so I thought.  I spent most of the last day or so putting the plan together and starting to prepare products and a brief to explain what we were doing.  Then this afternoon we invited a handful of very experienced pilots and navigators that will be flying with us to take part in what we call a “murder board”.  The point of a murder board is to get other people who may not have been involved in the planning process to look at your plan and find anything that may be wrong or just things that need to be reconsidered.

The name and the description make it sound like an incredibly painful process, and it can be if you are stubborn or prideful, but in reality it is an awesome chance to get an outside perspective.  Especially for someone as inexperienced as me, it is an opportunity to learn from the people who have been there and done that.  Though it can lead to massive amounts of work, or in other words what I will be doing until we actually fly.

Please don’t mistake this for a complaint, as I do genuinely appreciate the feedback.  It is something that can be valuable in many different arenas, and even in civilian flying.  While the vast majority of civilian flying is likely not as complex as an 8-ship military formation, part of the fun of any flying is trying new things.  But, trying new things can also be a challenge if the plan is not thought through well enough.

Most of these poor plans can be traced back to a few common phrases, “Watch this!”, “I bet you can’t do…”, and the most dangerous “Hold my beer.”  There is nothing wrong with trying new things and challenging yourself, but it should be done in the right way.  If you want to get into aerobatics, take a class.  If you want to fly across the country, plan it out thoroughly like Bill Harrelson’s trip around the world.  If you want to land on small landing strips practice where you have extra room, and then when you are ready go for it.

One of the best things you can do is to get feedback from others with more experience.  Anything from building a plane to getting a new rating can be done better with help from those who are more experienced than you.  They can help you see things you never considered, and provide insight when you come across a problem where you see no answer.

One of the great things about military flying is that you can’t just rest on your laurels because they expect you to learn new things and progress through higher ratings and certifications.  It can be challenging at times, but as I said, it is important to find new challenges in all aspects of your flying.

So the real lesson to be learned here is to be open to feedback from other people.  If they are just being a jerk then nod and smile and then move on.  However, the vast majority of my experiences have been that they are just trying to help you get better.  That is one of the awesome things about people in aviation, for the most part they just want to help.  So don’t be afraid to not only accept feedback, but actively pursue it, because that is the only way to reach your full potential as a flyer.

January 6, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: Shutting Down an Engine in Flight

Eight engines provide a level of comfort for the B-52.

Eight engines provide a level of comfort for the B-52.

First, a little joke before I talk about a very serious subject.

A military pilot called for a priority landing because his single-engine jet fighter was running “a bit peaked.”

Air Traffic Control told the fighter pilot that he was number two, behind a B-52 that had one engine shut down.

“Ah,” the fighter pilot remarked, “The dreaded seven-engine approach.

While this joke is pretty amusing, it also makes a very important point about the seriousness of shutting an engine down.  The vast majority of people will never be on a plane with an engine shut down.  I don’t think I have ever talked to a person that was on a commercial flight where they had to shut one down, though I am sure it does happen on occasion.

Even in the military it is very much a hit and miss thing where some people never experience it, and others have done it repeatedly.  In this particular instance, it was the first time I had ever been in the seat when we shut one down after almost three years of active flying, whereas one of our loadmasters, who has only been flying for about 8 months had experienced four engine shutdowns.  Luck of the draw I guess.

So what happened?

As is usually the case in most stories like this the day started off out of sorts.  The mission commander was unprepared and we didn’t receive any of our products until an hour after we should have.  That left us with about 45 minutes to prepare our personal products, do a formation briefing, and a crew study so that we could get out to the plane with enough time to get started and take off on time.

Whatever, we are rock stars so we got it done.

Even before the delayed products, we also learned that the pilots on our plane would be receiving no notice checkrides from AMC (Air Mobility Command) which meant that they were all just a little more on edge.

As we were departing on our first route in the number two position, lead started having issues with the copilot’s instruments so they had to break out and we took over.  No big deal, it happens pretty regularly.

Seeing a propeller stopped in flight can be a little uncomfortable.  Fortunately we have three to spare.

Seeing a propeller stopped in flight can be a little uncomfortable. Fortunately we have three to spare.

We continued on the route until about half way through our engineer noticed that one of the engines was fluctuating a little bit.  Nothing catastrophic, but pushing the limits a little more than it should.  We continued on the route while monitoring that engine and performing a few trouble shooting measures.

As we neared the run-in for the drop, we decided, as a crew, that the most conservative response was to return to base and follow the procedure to the letter.  So we notified ATC and initiated our return.

The important discussion that was had at this point was whether we should shut down the engine or not.  The reason that there was even any discussion was because the engine was not consistently out of limits but was fluctuating out of limits on occasion.  None of us felt that we were in any real danger and that it was likely just a gauge issue more than an actual propeller problem.

What ultimately led to the decision to shut the engine down was the engineer reading through the procedures that we had followed to that point which, when all other steps had not resolved the issue, clearly stated that you “WILL” shut the bad engine down.

So we followed the procedure to shut the engine down and made a safe landing back at the base where we turned the plane back over to maintenance so that they could fix whatever they found to be wrong.

As you can imagine there is a lot to be learned from this situation.

The first lesson for me as a mission commander in training is to show up prepared.  When you are just a normal crew member and you show up unprepared you just make life hard on yourself, but when you are the mission commander you make life hard on everyone.  They are all forced to rush and that is when mistakes happen.  Fortunately, nothing bad happened today, but it could have so why make things harder than they have to be.

The second lesson is one that bears repeating over and over again.  Good crew resource management is essential to flying safely.  When the engineer noticed something was not quite right he didn’t play, “I have a secret,” he notified the rest of the crew so that we could work together to come up with the best course of action so that we could all return home safely.

The last lesson is how important it is to know your procedures, and when in doubt to look them up.  It would have been easy to decide that it was just a gauge problem and leave the engine running.  Odds are it would have worked just fine for the ten minutes it took us to get back to base and we would have been fine.

However, what if we were hours from the nearest airport and we had misdiagnosed an actual problem that led to a catastrophic failure of that engine and a much more serious issue.  By following the procedure precisely every single time we can help to ensure that we are flying as safely as possible.

There are regularly times when we are asked to make important decisions as aviators.  That may even include deciding how best to execute a given procedure, but it makes the decision that much simpler when you understand the procedure and how you are supposed to execute it.

Shutting down one of our four engines on the C-130 when we are close to home really isn’t that traumatic of an experience, similar to the “dreaded seven-engine approach.”  It is obviously a much bigger deal in a single-engine fighter, or even a single-engine Cessna.   With that being said, it is never a decision to be taken lightly.

As good aviators we have an incredible amount of trust placed in us by those that we fly around, with, and above.  They are counting on us to make the right decisions at the right times, and we will only be able to make those decisions if we are properly prepared with the proper procedures.

December 13, 2014 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: What to Do When You Can’t Fly

I’ve been going through withdrawals recently, two kinds of withdrawals actually.  The first one is writing because I just haven’t felt like I had anything special to share mostly because of the second one: I haven’t been able to fly.

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but being aircrew in the Air Force does not mean that you get to fly all of the time.  In fact, we do a whole lot more other stuff than we do flying, but that might be something for another day.

So what does one who is obsessed with planes and flying do when they can’t fly?

Read about it naturally.

It is a lot of fun reading all of the various blogs and news sources out there, most of which I have stumbled across on Twitter, and they do provide incredibly value assets to someone like me who soaks in anything they can find related to planes.  I have learned, in my relatively short years, that there is as much information out there to be taken in as you are willing to search for.  The awesome thing about the aviation industry is that it is full of people who will talk your ear off about anything you want to know.

For an avgeek, that is a lot of fun, but for someone whose career is in aviation, it can make all the difference in the world.  It really makes no difference if you are a flyer or if you work on the ground supporting flight operations, we all stand to gain so much by taking the chance to learn from anyone who is willing to share.

As I mentioned, I haven’t been able to fly for a little while because I keep getting sick every time I am supposed to fly.  As much as that sucks, I did have an instructor who has forced me to take advantage of this time and not waste it.

He gave me a couple of exercises that forced me to get into the regulations and expand my knowledge.  Admittedly, I was a little annoyed at first because I was in the middle of other things, but once I got past the initial reaction and started digging into the books it reminded me why I love my job, and how cool it can actually be.  There is just something about feeling like you have expanded your own knowledge base that is incredibly rewarding.

While studying the FARs may not be as exciting as studying military tactics, there is still plenty that can be learned that is very exciting, and may just save your life.  The best example is Capt Sullenberger who landed his plane on the Hudson.  He had spent countless hours studying and learning for a situation just like that.  There is a quote from an interview that he did with Katie Couric that really sums this all up perfectly:

“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”  -Capt Sullenberger

I apologize that I couldn’t find a solid reference for that quote, but whether he said it or not, the message remains true.  We work in an industry where serious accidents are a very real possibility every single day.  The only way to be prepared for those accidents is to put in the time and effort now, at ground speed zero.  There is no way to know everything all at once, but a solid foundation of safety can be developed over time if we only put forth the effort.

So as much as it sucks to be grounded for long periods of time, that doesn’t mean that we can’t take advantage of that time to become better aviators or improve our abilities on the ground.  There is an unending fountain of knowledge that we all can partake in, if only we put forth the effort to take it in.

November 17, 2014 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.