Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

How logging 12 minutes of flight time can take years off of your life.

By: T.R. Matson

The day in October started like any other.  I drove my truck from my house in Meridian, Mississippi down the two-lane highway to my office at NAS Meridian, home of TRAWING 1 where I was the Wing Landing Signals Officer (LSO).  An afternoon of meetings and paperwork lay waiting for me as I was preparing to take 20 new students on their first Carrier Qualification Detachment in their initial qualification in the T-45C aircraft.  For most it would be the culmination of their flight school career and the last step needed in their journey to earn their navy wings of gold. 

            If there was any reprieve from the afternoon of meetings, planning and paperwork it was my scheduled flight that night.  A two-plane night formation lead event.  I would be flying solo in the T-45C while another instructor would be in the other aircraft teaching a student the basics of night formation flying.  The weather was scheduled to be perfect; the other instructor was seasoned in both night formation and teaching in the T-45C and his student was a “solid stick” and doing well through the program.  I couldn’t help but think that it was going to be a good night when I eased my truck into the parking spot on base and grabbed my helmet bag.

            The day of meetings went by quickly enough and before I knew it, I was sitting down to brief the flight on our mission for the night.  After covering the administrative portions of the flight and going over the weather and NOTAMS we went over the departure, join up, maneuvers and recovery to base.  The student was extremely sharp and well ahead of the curve when it came to the T-45C training syllabus and as I finished up the brief and walked down to get my flight gear I couldn’t help but think, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”  Now if you know me or have read my stories before, you know that it was during this time, somewhere between signing for the jet and putting on my G-suit and harness that I got a visitor.  Mr. Murphy had tagged along in my helmet bag and unfortunately for me, I had no idea. 

            The maintenance professionals at NAS Meridian made the aircraft man-up flawless and within minutes I was taxing my jet out to the marshall area. As I sat there waiting for my wingman to show up, I took a moment to take stock in my current situation.  I was sitting alone in a $10 million aircraft on a beautiful clear night in October and within minutes I would be rocketing off to begin an hour and a half flight that would be a pure joy.  At the time I had thousands of hours of experience in multiple navy aircraft and 4 combat deployments under my belt.  Of course, none of that really mattered that night because I was right where I wanted to be, under the cool night sky sitting alone in a jet waiting for takeoff. 

            I was brought back to reality when I saw the taxi light of my wingman approaching.  After a quick flight check in on our tactical frequency, we made our way to the runway.  All checklists complete, I called for takeoff and was immediately given a takeoff clearance on runway 19R.  Following the brief my student wingman called for takeoff with minimum separation and was granted.  He would essentially take the runway right after I started my takeoff roll and would depart right after me and rendezvous airborne.  Passing the hold short I finished up my final checks and after lining up on centerline, checking my engines and flight controls I released my brakes and began accelerating for takeoff.  With a rotation speed of approximately 120 KIAS I was almost to rotation when I noticed a small vibration from the aircraft.  I noted it and figured it was the tire pressure of the nose wheel tires.  I had this problem before and knew that if the tires didn’t have the same pressure it was possible to feel a vibration at high ground speeds.  I made a mental note to write it up after the flight as I pulled back on the stick and got airborne.  Shortly after, I retracted the landing gear and flaps and waited for the vibration to stop. 

            At this exact moment if I had looked in my mirror I would have noticed that the rear cockpit seat (which should have been empty) was now occupied by none other than the famous Mr. Murphy (Of Murphy’s law) and he was just smiling at me waiting to see how I would deal with what he was going to throw my way.  As the landing gear retracted and I waited for the minor vibration to stop, I switched over to departure frequency and was about to check in.  That’s when my night took a turn for worse.  The minor vibration immediately and abruptly turned itself into a full-blown aircraft vibration so violent that not only was the whole airframe shaking but it was impossible to read any of my gauges, displays or HUD.  It was at this moment that I realized I had to make a decision and I had to make it right now.  Whether I made the correct decision or not would make the difference between me driving my truck home that night or hanging in a parachute in the trees somewhere in Mississippi, or worse.

            Within an instant I felt that I had excess airspeed so I traded that airspeed for altitude and pulled up into a right-hand pattern, at the same time reducing the power to below 85% RPM on the engine to see if I could reduce the vibrations.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I did know for sure that it was not a minor difference in tire pressure causing this.  Additionally, I switched back to tower on my main radio but before I called them, I needed to make a call to my wingman.  A plan was formulating in my head, but I would need everything to work out perfectly for it to be successful.

            “Raider 12 state your position.” I radioed on our tactical frequency.

            After a long pause, “Raider 12 is in position for takeoff sir.” My student wingman said sharply.

            “Raider 12 get off the runway now!” I replied

            “Sir, say again?” the student replied followed very quickly by the instructor,

            “Bro I’ve got you in sight, we are pulling off the runway right now….The runway will be clear in 10 seconds!” he informed me.

            In my mind I was satisfied with a clear runway but still had not informed the tower of my problem.  One of the benefits of flying a single engine aircraft is we practice flying PA’s (precautionary approaches) all of the time.  They are designed to keep you in the ejection seat envelope for as long as possible if you have an engine issue.  The only problem is we practice them during the day.  In fact, while I had done them countless times during the day, I had never done one at night and wasn’t really sure how it was going to work.

            “Tower, CARP 124, emergency aircraft setting up for low key runway 19R.” I radioed as I set myself up at 3000 feet above the airport.

            After a long pause, “CARP 124, Tower, understand emergency aircraft and requesting vectors for a low oil GCA approach?”

            A low oil GCA approach was what we would do if we had an engine problem in bad weather or apparently at night, but I didn’t have time to think about that.  My engine was severely hurt, and I didn’t have time to get vectored out for a long straight in when the runway was just below and to my right.  Of course, being the professional Naval Aviator that I was (insert sarcasm) I was going to ask again nicely.

            “Tower, CARP 124, negative I have an engine that’s about to quit and I need to land NOW!  Setting up for a PA to runway 19R.” I replied as calmly as I could as I tried to fly the plane and also set myself up for an ejection if it came to that.  Now time slows down in a situation like this and I found my hands constantly working the stick and switches around the cockpit but at the same time I was removing and stowing my kneeboard and tightening my harness because if the engine quit I knew I couldn’t delay the decision to get out.  That’s the funny thing about ejections, I always thought that if I had to pull the handle I would be able to without hesitation but now as I sat in a sick jet above the Mississippi trees the thoughts of actually having to do it made me very uneasy. 

            “CARP 124, Tower, night PA’s are NOT authorized, fly heading 010 and maintain 2000 feet, this will be vectors for a low oil GCA runway 19R.” Tower chimed in.

            “Tower CARP 124 unable standby.” I replied as I had no intention of talking to them anymore.  Aviate, Navigate, Communicate…. It was drilled into us from day one of flight school and was never more important than right now.  I felt that I would have one shot at this and if I screwed it up, I would be ejecting somewhere over NAS Meridian with no control of where the jet would crash.  As I began my decent around the pattern it was important to keep the right amount of airspeed and energy on the aircraft all while being able to slow down enough to configure for landing.  It was a dance that had to be performed correctly if I wanted to be able to keep the throttle from moving.  I was concerned that if I had to add power at any point in the approach my engine would seize, and I would be having to eject.

            Approaching the 90-degree pattern position I had the gear and flaps in position for landing, yet I still struggled to see my airspeed to ensure that I flew about 175 KIAS.  It was at this moment that I realized why we didn’t practice these at night.  All of the usual visual cues that I would have during the day were now gone and I was relying on my instruments to land.  Unfortunately, due to the high vibrations I could barely read them.  I was essentially “winging” it at this point and hoping for the best.  With my landing checks complete I scanned out in front of the aircraft to what appeared to be a clear runway ahead of me.  As time slowed even more, I could see my wingman sitting on the taxiway next to the runway watching my approach.  Seeing him there made me feel confident that the runway was still clear since he hadn’t called me on the tactical radio to tell me otherwise.  He knew I had my hands full.

            As the radio altimeter went off telling me I was approaching the ground I brought the throttle to idle power and began to flare my landing.  The key here was to not slam into the ground but also not float it too much that you didn’t have enough runway to stop.  Well, maybe tonight was my night after-all because as the main gear touched down exactly where I hoped they would, I quickly got on the brakes in order to stop the aircraft.

            “CARP 124 cleared to land runway 19R.” tower radioed.

            Now I like to believe I have a pretty good sense of humor and even in my current situation I found it funny to get landing clearance AFTER I had already touched down on the runway.  After coming to a stop on the runway and informing tower that I would be shutting down the aircraft in place, I called the squadron maintenance and was informed that a tug was already on the way to tow the aircraft back.  Then I switched over to the squadron operations radio to inform them of what had happened and the student on duty replied, “Copy all CARP 124, would you like me to coordinate with maintenance to get you another jet to complete your mission?”

            A smile came across my face, my hands still trembling from adrenaline or fear or both I replied, “No thanks bro I am going to call it a night if that’s ok with everyone?”

            So, what’s the moral of the story?  Well, I remember way back to my very first flights in training where the instructors would beat into our brains the idea of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate and would harp on us if we got those out of order.  Always fly the aircraft first, because if you don’t do that you won’t have time to do the other two.  All too often in aircraft mishaps this first critical step is missed.  Pilots feel like they have to immediately tell ATC what is wrong or figure out where they should go.  I am here to tell you to fly the plane first and take care of the rest later.  Your life and the life of your passengers may depend on it, even if your only passenger is Mr. Murphy in a two-seat jet at night over the woods of Mississippi.


BY: T.R. Matson

There it is.  Did you hear it? Close your eyes and listen for a second.  If you really concentrate hard you can hear it deep down inside of you beating away.  Depending on what you are doing right now it is probably operating at 50 – 100 beats per minute, and it does this everyday without fail, for our lives.  They say the typical size of your heart is a little bigger than your fist but I would argue that it is much bigger than that in terms of importance.  Sure while you are reading this your heart is pumping approximately a gallon of blood per minute, depending on your fitness level, which equates to 1,440 gallons of blood a day.  Think about that number for a second.  Inside of each and every one of us there is a relatively small muscle that sole purpose is to supply blood to the rest of the body so that we can function throughout the day…or is it?

            It happens to everyone.  You have the greatest intentions of having an amazing workout and then other things come up.  Before you know it you are convincing yourself that if you just take care of a few more things you will be able to concentrate on your workout more.  Then it happens.  You look outside and its already dark and you were scheduled to go for a long bike ride but don’t feel comfortable out there at night.  You could hop in the car and head to the gym but there are more and more excuses just piling up and the next thing you know it is time for bed and another workout day has passed.  This is where the heart comes in. 

            Once you have the ability to truly understand how powerful of a muscle the heart is then you can use it to overcome the sometimes-daily battle that occurs in every one of us between the brain and the body.  The brain is there to protect us and does an amazing job at that but does it also limit us as well?  Maybe it’s not even the brain’s fault that it limits us because we are the ones that use its power to find excuses.  Need more proof, just walk outside and take a look around.

            Look down the street at the little girl on her bike.  She is always out there for hours and hours on end.  She does not think about the stresses of daily life, partly because she doesn’t have as many as the rest of us but also because her heart is strong. She knows that when she is out there running around and playing she feels free and alive.  She doesn’t think about how tired she will be later but more so how much she is enjoying this very moment and that is all that matters to her.  Her heart is winning the battle over her brain and she is reaping the benefits of it. 

Ok I see you way in the back with your hand up and I know your question already.  “She is just a little kid and doesn’t have to deal with the same things I have to deal with everyday.  Isn’t it unfair to compare how her heart operates compared to mine?”  Well you are right and in a selfish attempt to prove a point maybe I used a bad example or maybe I just used that example to get you off the couch and out of the house because here comes example number two. 

            There he goes.  Maybe you’ve noticed him before or maybe you haven’t, but day in and day out he is out there riding his bike that was specifically made for him.  Is he an elite athlete with numerous sponsors?  No.  The bike was donated to him after he returned home from a land that most of us would never go.  He left his family and friends behind to go overseas for his country and he returned a shell of the man he was when he left.  Or did he?  Everyday when the alarm clock goes off and most of us just dread the noise his heart is already helping him with the task ahead.  It elevates almost immediately to give him the power to move.  This simple task for most that involves using our legs is no longer simple for him.  His arms ache from the day before but nonetheless he is moving and therefor he knows he is alive.  Soon he is out of bed and taking care of the same tasks we all have before our morning ride.  Sure his bike looks different and operates in a way unlike ours.  His arms drive his instead of his legs, but it still propels him to amazing speeds.  He is not making excuses about anything anymore because he knows what drives him.  So what if he legs were taken because deep down one thing remains untouched. 

It is inside him and all of us, hopefully beating a little faster now.    It doesn’t matter if you are the little girl playing with her friends or the soldier that has come home from war because deep down inside of everyone there is this amazing muscle. A muscle that not only has the ability to pump 1,440 gallons of blood a day throughout our bodies but also has the ability to lift us up when we are down, motivate us when the weather is a little too dreary, and focus us on what is truly important in this life.  Movement is life.  Whether you are taking that first step off of the couch or that final step after a 140.6-mile journey, your heart has never left you.  It is what drives each and every one of us to be something greater than we are.  So the real question you must ask yourself is, “Am I using it to its fullest potential?”

Naval Aviator or Crash Test Dummy

Landing aboard the USS Nimitz without a seatbelt

By: T.R. Matson

As I emerged from the inside skin of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier I was immediately assaulted with the daily aroma of shipboard life.  A mix of sweat, jet fuel, hydraulics, rubber and salt air combined and entered my nose, quickly registering in my brain and producing an ear to ear smile across my face.  Well into my second combat deployment, I was an Aircraft Commander in the E-2C Hawkeye with Carrier Air Wing Eleven.  My crew and I, along with the other members of the CAG-11 Barbwire team were taking the fight to the terrorist groups in Afghanistan and had been doing so for many months.  Thoughts of home we replaced with the rare joy of getting to fly during the day and the fact that the weather was good only made it better.  As I strode to my flying chariot, I could not help but walk a little taller knowing how lucky I was, and that should have been my first clue that Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) was going to make an appearance before the day was over. 

            After completing a flawless man up and taxing to the bow, I followed the yellow shirt as he lined me up on catapult number two.  Less than 60 seconds later after sharply saluting the shooter my crew and I were accelerating to a flying speed within 100’ and aircraft 601 was off on mission profile.  My crew went to work while my co-pilot began running fuel numbers as I concentrated on flying the correct departure profile and de-conflicting from the 25 other aircraft that were taking off or preparing to land on this beautiful day.  Minutes later we were reaching our profile altitude and I brought the throttles back to set my fuel flow up to ensure the aircraft would fly the exact profile to provide the Naval Flight Officers the best radar picture for the flight.  I slightly reclined my seat and let my mind wonder between taking in the beautiful clear day outside and thinking of what kind of sandwich I threw together after my brief over an hour ago.  That’s when Mr. Murphy thought it would be a good time to say hi.

            It started with a low oil pressure caution light.  Immediately grabbing my attention, I scanned the engine instruments to notice that the oil pressure on my left (and critical) engine was beginning to fall.  Instinctually I brought the left throttle back to idle to help save the engine and give me more time.  My co-pilot immediately grabbed the pocket checklist and made sure we had covered all our procedures while I began to coordinate with the mission commander in the back and talked to the Hawkeye representative on the ship to work an early recovery.  My major concern at this point was that we were working blue water operations which meant there wasn’t a suitable divert field that we could go to.  My fighter counterparts had the option to mid-air refuel but for us as the crew of 601 we had no choice but to land back aboard the carrier. Well, I say that, but we did have a choice.  We could always bail out and go for a swim while the rescue helicopter came to get us.  This was an option that all of us knew but none of us were thinking about, we had a job to do. 

            My crew worked professionally setting ourselves up behind the ship at 10 miles for a day straight in, in case we lost the left engine.  We had secured the radar, dumped fuel down to maximum landing weight, coordinated with the ship to move all the aircraft out of the landing area, and spoken with the landing signals officers explaining our current emergency.  About this time, I was beginning to feel like I had beaten Mr. Murphy and his law for today.  This was going to be an uneventful landing that in the long run would only cost us a little flight time and create a little more work for the maintainers while they figured out what was causing the engine problems.  It was also at this time where I learned that you should never underestimate Murphy’s Law.  Leaning slightly forward in my seat to adjust my view of the ship, 6 miles aft I heard and felt an audible “pop” that I will never forget.  I looked to my right to see if my co-pilot had heard it too and I was met with his return gaze and wipe open eyes looking back at me in complete disbelief.  When I asked him what the noise was, he responded that my shoulder harness, which keeps me strapped to the aircraft and my emergency parachute, had de-rigged.  This essentially meant that nothing was holding me into my seat.  This would normally not be a big problem unless I had to bail out of the aircraft since, I was no longer hooked to my parachute.  Of course, the other time that I needed to be strapped in was the exact moment the tail hook of aircraft 601 caught one of the four cross deck arresting wires causing my aircraft to go from 120 KIAS to 0 in about two-seconds.

            Now my mind was racing trying to compartmentalize and figure out my options.  I could discontinue my approach and try to reattach all the cables in my seat, but it didn’t look like that was a viable option and I had a crew to think about.  One engine had already proven to be unreliable and just about this time the other one was starting to overheat.  When my co-pilot asked me what I wanted to do my mind was already made up.  We would trap.  After a quick crew brief explaining the situation and making sure my crew knew exactly what was going on, we finished our landing checklists and called the ball.  Flying as smooth of an approach as I could I tried not to think about the wall I was about to fly into when the whole aircraft and everyone in it would stop except for me.  I did not have to wait long before my body confirmed what my mind pondered about this pending trap aboard the Nimitz.  As the tail hook grabbed the number three wire, aircraft 601 immediately started a deceleration that brought everything to a complete stop in less than 200 feet.  A split second later my body was thrown forward only stopping when the yoke caught me right between the legs and as my head and shoulders went into the glare shield.  As quick as it happened it was over, and the adrenaline helped me quickly refocus my mind and get the aircraft out of the landing area and shut down.  In true Naval Aviation fashion, I believe it was sometime after I shut down engine number two before my co-pilot stopped laughing at my landing.  Luckily, I was seasoned enough to have a thick skin and take it all in stride.  My crew and aircraft were back safe and other than a sore neck and crouch I wasn’t in too bad of shape.  Of course, finding out that the flight doctor had left me a large bag of pain pills that looked like they were for horses, certainly helped my mood.  We all lived to fly another day which is always the ultimate sign of a good landing.