Life Lessons Learned Alone
By T.R. Matson
Both military and civilian flight training follows a similar concept for new pilots. The milestone of soloing for the first time is something that is not forgotten. At Vance Air Force Base in 2002 the process was fairly simple. I would go through ground school instruction to understand the basic systems of the T-37, followed by procedure trainers and then flights with an instructor. After reaching a certain level of proficiency and proving that I could essentially climb into the jet, start the engines, taxi to the runway and takeoff without damaging anything, I would be cleared to do my pattern solo. This pattern solo was the first time we would be flying the T-37 without an instructor next to us. We were only permitted to stay in the landing pattern close to base with the thought that such a flight would increase our confidence while minimizing the risk of solo students flying around the area unsupervised.
I was unlike most other students at Vance AFB at the time because I had exactly zero hours of flight time prior to checking in. Most student pilots had done some form of training prior to primary, but I had not. My first time at the controls of an airplane was my first flight in the T-37. The training was intense but extremely fun as well. It took long days and nights of studying, but in the end it was worth it to go fly the T-37 in various maneuvers. At the end of each training flight we would come back to the landing pattern and practice as many landings as we could prior to reaching our minimum fuel. The more landings the better since the only way to get better was repetition. After completing the required training flights, my pattern solo check ride was next.
This flight would be slightly different since it was my first real check ride in my career. The way it would work is I would go to the jet with an instructor. I would do the preflight checks and get the jet started. Then I would taxi to the runway and ultimately take off into the landing pattern. I had to complete three touch and go landings and, if they looked safe to my instructor, my next landing would be to a full stop. I would then taxi the aircraft back to the squadron where the instructor would get out of the plane and clear me to do it all over again by myself. Whatever fuel was left in the jet was mine to practice landings on my own. For this flight things could not have been better. The sky was clear and the air crisp. My excitement increased as I walked out to the jet that day knowing what was at stake. Time seemed to go into fast forward and before I knew it we were airborne flying around the landing pattern. I knew that safety was the most important thing the instructor was looking for, and I did everything I could to be by the book. While my landings were not perfect by any means, they were safe. After my third touch and go the instructor told me to make the next one a full stop.
After landing and taxiing into the squadron, the instructor looked at me and congratulated me for passing my check ride. He gave me a few more tips and climbed out of the plane. Before walking away, he took off his name tag from his flight suit and stuck it onto mine. The tradition back then was that no plane should go flying without a set of wings in it. Since I had not yet received my navy wings, he loaned me his Air Force ones. I swelled with pride as I lowered the canopy and called for taxi as a solo student. While we tried to do everything the exact same way procedurally, being solo was immediately different in the T-37. As aircrew we sat side by side so when I was sitting at the hold short to the runway looking to the right and not seeing anyone else there it was very distracting. I tried my best to ignore the differences, but ultimately the feeling of being solely responsible for this jet was hard to overcome.
Before I knew it, I was cleared for takeoff into the pattern and this is where my training kicked in. I went through the engine runup and takeoff procedures just like I had been taught and eased the mighty T-37 into the sky. So far, so good is what I thought as I began my turn to the pattern downwind to attempt my first touch and go without an instructor next to me making sure I didn’t crash. Military landing patterns are very precise with certain checkpoints that need to be reached to ensure the maximum level of safety. Unlike most civilian airports, the amount of aircraft in a military landing pattern at any one time, especially on a training base, can be staggering. Everyone has to fly exactly the same to keep it all safe. As I got to the downwind heading, the emptiness of the seat to my right once again gained my attention. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. A kid from New Jersey who had never flown before was the only reason this plane was flying, and I was extremely proud of how far I had come. It wasn’t until the turn to final that I would realize how important focus and attention to detail is in aviation.
The T-37 is a twin-engine jet trainer but would never be called an overpowered aircraft. The engines are small and the time it took to get the engine to accelerate from idle to maximum power could be awhile and could be very different between the left and right motor. If this happened, it could cause the plane to experience an asymmetrical situation which could be very dangerous. During the approach turn my eyes looked out to the runway, and I was focused on making sure I was hitting all my checkpoints. It was about this time that I realized the flight controls felt less responsive than I was used to. I looked down at my flight instruments to see if anything was wrong, and I immediately noticed that I was dangerously slow. They had taught us about the threat of getting slow in the approach turn and how it could lead to an approach turn stall which was very difficult to recover from. A Navy student pilot had actually had this happen just before I checked into the squadron and was not able to recover and crashed the plane.
As soon as I noticed what was wrong, my body seemed to do the opposite of what I would expect. Instead of tensing up and overreacting, my body almost relaxed as if it was trying to get a better feel for the aircraft. I was just on the edge of a stall in the aircraft and any fast-abrupt movement could have been catastrophic. I immediately pushed both engines to max power and lowered the nose of the aircraft just a little. I fought the tendency to pull back to stay away from the ground. At this low of an airspeed pulling back on the stick would have ultimately stalled the aircraft, and I would have crashed. As the engine spooled up, my airspeed slowly increased too. I was no longer concerned with my landing but with keeping the plane flying. I aborted that landing attempt and slowly and smoothly got the jet back up to pattern altitude. I was now safe, but I was still flying so it was time to learn from my mistake and bring the plane around for a landing.
The rest of the flight was uneventful in comparison and, after doing a few touch and go’s, I ultimately landed the plane. I taxied back to the squadron with no one the wiser about what I had experienced on my first landing. Looking back, I learned two important lessons that day that have stuck with me. First, when flying an airplane there are very few times when you have to react quickly without first processing what is going on. There is a saying, “no fast hands in the cockpit,” and I learned that day that if you just react without thinking, you can very quickly make things worse. Second, I learned that compartmentalization is critical in aviation. While that first landing attempt shocked and scared me, I had to put it behind me and keep flying the plane. If I had let my mind focus on that it would not be focused on my task at hand which was flying and landing the plane. While these lessons were taught to us in ground school and early flights, sometimes the most important lessons you learn cannot be taught but have to be experienced. I am just happy that so far all the lessons I had to learn myself have been successful ones. I guess when they say it’s better to be lucky than good, this is what they’re talking about.