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Lessons Learned: Sometimes Our Mistakes Fix Our Problems

This experience was one that I observed rather than experiencing myself as I was giving a checkride. However, I have experienced the exact same lesson numerous times.

A large part of my job as a navigator on the C-130 is time control. This entails ensuring that we execute our airdrops at the correct time. If the route is being executed in IFR then the window is +/- 90 seconds. If it is a visual route then the window is +/- 60 seconds.

For the most part it is pretty simple if you take off on time and then execute the mission the way it was flight planned. It is more complicated when there are external factors such as ATC, other traffic, weather, or threats that we simulate for training.

In this instance the navigator I was observing took off late due to airline traffic, both arriving and departing, that always takes priority over us. This could have been avoided, but that is a different topic for another day.

We ended up departing about three minutes late, which sucks because it is always harder to make up time than it is to kill time. Once we leveled off the clock was showing us 6 minutes late, though we were not yet at our enroute speed.

The nav wisely accelerated immediately rather than waiting for his planned acceleration point which got him to within 2 minutes of his desired TOT. Still not within checkride parameters, but getting closer.

He then wisely decided to turn inside of course to kill even more time. He initiated his turn about 30 seconds early which at that speed is about two miles early. He expected to roll out about two miles left of course and hold that to shorten the distance of the route he was flying. But, when we rolled out, he was exactly on course, and right on time.

So what had gone wrong?

What he had not accounted for was the fact that he was already inside of the turn he was making so the numbers he was seeing were not reflecting what he was trying to execute. By being inside of course he was getting a distance to go to the turn that was actually much closer to the following leg centerline than he was expecting. So when we rolled out on the next leg he was on centerline and not two miles left of course like he wanted.

But, I also said we were now on time, so how was that possible if he hadn’t cutoff the corner like he intended? Ironically, it was also because we were already inside of course that we ended up on time. While we didn’t roll out left of course, we did roll out farther up that leg than expected. We expected to roll out with 16 miles to go to the next point, but we actually rolled out with only 12 miles to go to the next point. Shortening the leg by 4 miles allowed us to shorten the route by about a minute, and we were now on time.

It was a good reminder to see that sometimes even when we don’t see everything, it can still work out for us. I also don’t believe that it is all luck either. I think some of it has to do with putting ourselves in a good position, and then even when we don’t see everything it can still work out for us. At the same time, it can just as easily go the other way, which is a topic for another day as well.

I have been far too lazy in analyzing how I have been doing on my flights recently. It gets easy to do that when you become pretty adept at doing your job well. That can also be a dangerous combination.

I’m glad I had the chance to evaluate someone else, because it reminded me that I need to do a better job evaluating myself. If I get too lazy I will quickly regress in my abilities, and that is not what I want to do.

July 19, 2019 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.