In the spring of 1985 I was the 12th Flying Training Wing (FTW) Chief of Stan Eval at Randolph Field, TX when HQ/ATC (Air Training Command) convened a ‘risk-assessment’ conference on all aspects of our flying operations. It probably wasn’t a bad idea – to take a ‘time out,’ and have a look at how we were doing business.
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 students have been ‘washed out’ of UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training) at this point; a few have been killed.
Mostly, 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 on it. At that time, this usually meant, ‘brief’ everyone, have them sign off on an FCIF (Flight Crew Information File), and create a new 35mm Learning Center slide show on the hazards involved. I just sat there, shaking my head. Briefings, FCIFs, and Leaning Center programs – ATC’s solutions to everything in those days. I wondered to myself: why not take the kid out to the area in the jet, and show him the hazards of stalls and sink rates?
I was still shaking my head in dismay as I left that afternoon. Briefings, FCIFs, and Learning Center programs – all created by ‘rising stars’ at Command at the time! 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. Why not use the jet to teach?
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, a few 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 such a ride in the T-38 PIT program, solely dedicated 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 mundane briefing and Learning Center program!
I had a prior assignment to HQ/ATC Flight Safety, so I knew how to 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 still killing so many folks in stall/sink rate-related accidents? And, losing airframes? Unfortunately, our latest loss had been just a few months before. Were our briefings incomplete? Were our Learning Center presentations inadequate? Or, were we just not teaching T-38 stalls and sink-rate recognition adequately enough?