It seemed like a good idea at the time…
The weather that had been preventing me from completing my solo cross-country while in Navy flight training had finally moved on. The cold front had passed bringing with it beautiful blue skies, one hundred mile visibility, and pristine flying conditions. I could not wait to get in the air and enjoy the performance of the taxpayer-funded T-34C Turbo Mentor (quite a hot rod actually) that I had been training in. What could go wrong?
The Navy had a policy that if you didn’t fly in so many days, you had to have a “warm-up” with an instructor before you could solo. Since the weather had been stalled over Pensacola, not only had I not been flying in a while, but, as it turns out, neither had my instructor.
Strutting to the airplane on the flight line sporting our green flight suits and looking at the superb weather, my instructor proclaimed, “I can’t wait to get in the air! I’ve been ‘med-down’ for a few weeks and I just can’t wait to get up there!” While continuing to walk and pondering this idea, I turned to him and said, “You know sir, if you need to do some aerobatics or something to get you back into form, it’s ok with me!” Stopping he looked at me and said with his eyes dancing, “Really?!” “Oh yeah!” I said, nodding emphatically.
Like I said, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Now, he and I had flown together before for a night cross-country and he was one of the “cross-country” Bubbas. The Navy at the time had their instructors “specialize” in a particular area, formation flying, aerobatics, instrument flying, etc. Because I was doing a “cross country warm up,” he was the guy assigned to my training that day.
After preflighting the aircraft and launching into the skies, we were not disappointed at the flying conditions. With the cold air, that PT-6 was cranking out the ponies and the airplane was loving the denser air. This was not lost in my 1000 hours of civilian time and CFI experience, there are just some days that you just want to “take it all in”—and this was one of those days.
Glancing at my kneeboard and my chart, I turned the airplane towards my first checkpoint and from behind me I hear my instructor say with excitement, “Oh—you know where you’re going! Let’s go to the practice area!”
Rock and roll, baby.
I wrapped the airplane into a left turn and, since I was not paying for the gas, we hustled over to the practice area. Chose an area that looked free from other planes, and we began our own “airshow.”
The T-34C is quite a capable airplane. I don’t remember tons about it, but I remember that you flew it in the utility category. 4.4g’s was the positive number (more about that in a minute)—and it was fully aerobatic. At this point in my training, I was about to graduate into more advanced flying and would soon be flying the T-44 (a C90 King Air basically) and so my recent flying had not been doing the earlier maneuvers like, you know, aerobatics.
It had been a while.
Apparently, it was the same with my instructor.
Reaching back into our collective memories, we began doing various aerobatic maneuvers that had been part of the syllabus from many months ago. He would do a loop, I would do a loop. He would do a barrel roll, then I would do one. We were having a blast.
Then he said, “Hey, why don’t you do one?”
Thinking I said, “Ok!—hey, how about a ‘Split S?’”
“Do it!” he excitedly said.
For those who can’t quite remember what a “Split S” is, it’s a maneuver where from a straight and level position, the airplane is rolled upside down and then a 180 degree direction change is accomplished when you “pull back on the stick” and, in essence, do the last part of a loop. For a couple of “fighter jock want-to-be’s,” it was about as cool as it can get in that airplane.
Somewhere in my memory was the correct entry speed for this maneuver—but it was nowhere to be found that day. I remember being around 170KIAS, rolling the plane upside down, and pulling. Immediately I knew that it didn’t feel right. The first thing that caught my attention was that the altimeter was unwinding really—really fast! The airspeed seemed high too—but since I didn’t know what it should have been anyway, that was just “nice to know.” I glanced at my altitude rapidly changing and guessed that I had enough between me and the ground, but, just to be safe, that I would pull a little harder.
The airplane had a “G-Meter”—in fact, it had two! One up front and one in the back with the instructor. Wanting to be as conservative as I could in the recovery, I remember thinking that I would just pull until I saw the max G—4.4—and hold it there. Grunting our way through the maneuver weighing 4 times what we normally do, we recovered with altitude to spare and I began internally congratulating myself on my airmanship.
“Hey, ah, Jeff—we exceed the G back here a little bit.”
“What?!! Oh no,” I exclaimed! “I’m showing 4.4 here.”
“Yeah, no big deal, we went over a little bit. No biggy.”
Of course, the key to success in a military flight program is to “cooperate and graduate”—you don’t want to be the guy that’s highlighted for doing something stupid; and this close to graduation, especially, you don’t want to be making waves! Air Force pilots would have reset the gage and pressed on like Navy pilots would have done too, but in Navy flight training, that reset button was prevented from being pushed by a “zip tie” placed there by maintenance.
“We’ll write it up—no big deal,” says my instructor. So, like prudent safety minded aviators, we continued the “airshow.”
After landing, we filled out the logbook in Maintenance, shook hands, said some pleasantries, and wished each other the best. I Didn’t think much more about it until about 4 weeks later.
With orders in hand to move on to Corpus Christi and fly the T-44’s, I had to “check out” of my squadron and go office to office with a clipboard making sure all the details were complete. Walking into an office where two Marine Captains and their gray metal U.S. Government desks were, I handed one of them my clipboard and he questionably said, “Checking out Mr. Collins?” Smiling broadly I replied, “Yes sir!” , and he began looking over my paperwork.
Just then, the other Marine Captain said, “Oh! Mr. Collins. We’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“Yeah—Do you remember a flight with Lieutenant so and so on such and such a date…”
I replied, “Ummm….”
The Captain with my clipboard leaned in and said with a mischievous grin, “It was a cross-country warm up!”
It was now like good cop, bad cop.
“You know,” he said, pausing for effect. “I’m the ‘blue sheets’ officer (one of the forms in the airplane logbook) and I was noticing that on a cross-country warm up one of our planes exceeded G in an aerobatic pullout.”
I came to attention.
The other Captain who had been sitting on his desktop chimed in sternly, “Do you know what an unauthorized maneuver is?”
“Uh, sir, it was a Split S” I managed to say from trembling lips.
With veins bulging in his neck he said loudly, “If it’s not in the syllabus, it’s unauthorized!!”
I knew I was in trouble.
“Ensign Gooblatz did an unauthorized maneuver over his girlfriend’s house and became a smoking hole!” said the Captain with my clipboard. “If the Charley Oscar downstairs had seen this, you’d be out of the program! Comprende?!”
Oh yes, there was no question that I completely understood! “Yes-sir!”
“Now get out of here and I don’t want to see you again!”
With shaking knees and a red face and my whole career passing before my eyes, I grabbed my clipboard and did all I could to hide myself from anyone who could identify me and high tailed it out of there.
I’m sure those two guys had a good laugh later, and I was sure that it seemed like a good idea at the time.