In the spring of 1985 I was the Chief of Stan Eval for the 12th FTW at Randolph Field, TX when ATC held a ‘risk-assessment’ conference on all of our flying operations. It was hosted by a ‘Tweet guy.’ Probably wasn’t a bad idea – to take a ‘time out,’ and a look at how we were doing business.
The 2-day conference was scheduled to begin at 1300. Super; that gave me time to fly a sortie that morning – which I did. And, wouldn’t you know it, when the conference kicked off, I was the only guy in the room wearing a flight suit! Damn.
As the conference began, one of the “high-risk” maneuvers identified was the ‘T-38 Final Turn.’ This is a phase of flight wherein we make a descending 180 degree turn to the runway in preparation for landing. During the turn, we typically lose 1200 feet, and reduce our airspeed by 20 knots or so. This maneuver is tough enough in and of itself in calm winds, but when the dynamics of crosswinds, headwinds and tailwinds (or combinations thereof) are introduced, it becomes very challenging. Many are ‘washed out’ of the UPT program at this point; a few have been killed.
For the most part I sat and listened as the issue was discussed. Yep, everyone agreed, the T-38 Final Turn was a “high-risk” maneuver and increased emphasis should be rendered to it. At that time this usually meant, ‘brief everyone, have them sign off on an FCIF (Flight Crew Information File) and create a new Learning Center 35mm slide show on the hazards involved.’ I just sat there, shaking my head. Briefings, FCIFs and Leaning Center programs – ATC’s solution to everything in those days…
I was still shaking my head in dismay as I left that afternoon. Briefings, FCIFs and Learning Center programs – created by ‘rising stars’ at Headquarters! Well, in my experience, great briefings never taught anyone how to fly! I never once asked an IP to brief me harder because I wasn’t “getting it.” I often would ask him ‘to show me’ – in the jet. Now that was a novel thought! Why not use the jet to teach? “Wow, I might be on to something here,” I thought to myself as I headed home that afternoon. I then popped in the Class IV store for a ‘2-pack’ of beer for the ride home.* And so, the wheels began turning.
My concept was not without precedence. In the T-37 program there was a ride solely devoted to teaching the T-37 spin characteristics – because so many pilots had been lost in T-37 spins, many of them in the final turn. It was a non-graded ride given to each student in the T-37 Pilot Instructor Pilot (PIT) program. Well, the answer to me was obvious: why not create a ride in the T-38 PIT program, dedicated solely to examining the T-38 stall and sink rate characteristics?
I soon got home and began brainstorming. It was exciting – an opportunity to create something besides another briefing and Learning Center program!
I had had a prior assignment to ATC Flight Safety, so I knew I could get access to the actual T-38 Final Turn accident statistics without too much trouble at all. That was my first stop early the next morning, before the conference kicked off again at 0900. I turned their statistician loose and by lunch he had some interesting figures for me. From the time we began teaching in the T-38 in the early ’60s through 1985, we had lost 39 airframes and killed 43 people!
Now I was even more emboldened! If our T-38 stall training was ‘adequate,’ why were we killing so many folks? And, losing so many airframes? Unfortunately our latest loss had been just a few months before. Were our Learning Center presentations inadequate? Our briefings incomplete? Or, were we just not teaching T-38 stall and as important, sink rate recognition adequately enough?