Game of Drones

I recently spent three years flying MQ-9 Reaper drones for the military as a contract pilot working for General Atomics, the manufacturer of the MQ-9. I have written a short book about my experiences in training to fly the MQ-9 and my four deployments to locations around the world. There are three hurdles to getting the book published: getting approval from the Pentagon that no classified information was disclosed, getting approval from General Atomics that no intellectual property was disclosed, and finding a publisher. I can’t work on finding a publisher and give them the full manuscript until I get the approvals from the Pentagon and General Atomics. I recently received clearance from the Pentagon after nine months of coordination. I’m still working with General Atomics. In the meantime here is the introduction to my book as a teaser.

UPDATE: My book is now available from the publisher directly or on Amazon.


It was the day before my 70th birthday in September 2018 when I stepped off the plane at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq to help fight ISIS, the Taliban and whoever else was fomenting trouble in the Middle East. This story relates how I got here and places I went after that.

I flew my last combat sortie in an F-4 from Korat, Thailand to Cambodia on July 1st, 1973, attacking North Vietnamese supply lines to South Vietnam. Flying drones in Iraq was going to be a different experience.

While the efficacy of drones is obvious to me, I had been a long-time critic of the Air Force integration of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) into the force structure in terms of selecting, assigning, and handling personnel involved with flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. It seemed criminal to me to take a newly minted pilot straight out of pilot training and assign him or her to flying drones. Actually, it seemed mean to assign anybody to fly drones.  I thought it would be better to let a person get some experience and maturity flying manned aircraft before sending them to fly drones. Another problem for people who got assigned to fly drones was the fact that, early on, they were producing drones faster than the Air Force could produce pilots and sensor operators so once assigned to fly drones it was hard to break out of that community and get back into manned aircraft. Fortunately for the Air Force, I had no conduit to voice my dissatisfaction with what I thought was poor management of resources. I also had no ability to influence anybody in this area.

Those of us who flew combat missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict also heard of drone crews suffering from the stress of flying drones. Us old heads had a hard time understanding how it could be stressful flying a drone from a control van that wasn’t going to suffer any injuries if the drone got shot down. The reasons for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for drone crews were explained to me by people who had been there and done that and they made sense. The oversight and scrutiny when flying drones were intense. Those of us who dropped bombs from F-4s and F-105s rarely saw the actual death and destruction we created. Drone crews saw it every day because they had to monitor their targets to get permission to strike those targets and then they watched them explode on their video displays. Supervisors and intelligence observers could easily identify collateral damage and assign blame. So, while there was no threat of being shot down, needing to try to escape and evade on the ground or the possibility of being captured as a prisoner of war, there were other mental challenges to deal with.Another drone pilot told me of the dichotomy of having breakfast with his wife and children before sending the kids to school and then driving to the base, getting in the control vanand being interjected into the combat operations halfway around the world since the drones in Afghanistan and Iraq were remotely piloted from bases in Nevada, California and other stateside locations.

Finally, media reports of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed inadequate for two reasons: the media’s basic aversion to the military and their ignorance of military operations which lead to their inability to accurately report the situation. I wanted to know what was really going on. I appreciated military speakers who briefed military affiliated organizations I belonged to, but it was still second-hand knowledge. I wanted a way to see for myself.

My journey to Iraq started at a monthly luncheon with eight or ten fellow pilots at the Casa Machado restaurant at Montgomery Field in San Diego in October of 2017. At our monthly luncheons we solved many world problems amongst ourselves. The solutions we came up with went no farther than the table where we were sitting as our 6 degrees of influence didn’t reach national policy makers. 

I had been working for John and Martha King at King Schools for 11 years developing pilot training courses starting as a contract subject matter expert (SME), then getting hired as a full-time course developer and SME and working my way up in the organization to become the Vice President of Course Development with several flight instructors working for me to develop and maintain our courses. Our courses needed constant updating thanks to changes in the FAA regulations. However, there was no more progression available for me and the job was getting stale.

At our lunch meeting in October the subject of drones came up and one of the pilots said a friend of his at General Atomics told him General Atomics needed drone pilots to support the military because the military couldn’t generate enough pilots internally to meet their operational needs. General Atomics wanted civilian pilots with a commercial pilot’s certificate, an instrument rating, the ability to get an FAA second class medical certificate, at least 500 hours of pilot-in-command time and the ability to get a secret security clearance with the military. I met all those requirements, so I looked at the job opportunities on the General Atomics website, found an open position for a deployable pilot and applied. A positive for me was that I wouldn’t have to relocate. I could live anywhere and deploy from that location once I was qualified. Within 48 hours I got an automated, polite, “Thanks but no thanks” e-mail. I e-mailed the contact in General Atomics (GA) and told him I applied but was rejected. He reassured me that was the nature of the GA human resources system. He said I should apply for every listed pilot position and keep applying. I went back to the GA website, found five positions for deployable pilots and applied for all of them. Within 48 hours I got four more “no-thank-yous” and one “We’d like to talk,” please respond to schedule a telephone interview.

The telephone interview in early December was very straight forward and all the HR person wanted to do was verify the information on my application. Shortly after the telephone interview I got a phone call saying they would like to do an in-person interview and would fly me into Los Angeles or Ontario from San Diego and arrange a rental car and a hotel in Palmdale or Victorville for an interview at their facility halfway between Palmdale and Victorville. 

I wanted to schedule an interview after the holidays in January and I asked if I could just fly myself into their facility at El Mirage. That threw her for a loop. She said she’d have to check to see if that was possible. She called back a day later to say that I couldn’t land at their facility, so I said I’d fly into the airport at Victorville, CA about 10 miles from the General Atomics facilities. She said there wasn’t any commercial service into Victorville, still not comprehending I planned to fly myself in my own rental airplane. Once we got that straightened out, she said no problem, they would arrange a rental car for me at the Victorville airport to get to their offices.

As the day for the interview in January approached the weather was questionable so I called to ask if they could arrange a hotel for me and I would drive myself up from San Diego the day before the interview and then drive back to San Diego after the interview. The travel coordinator was happy to handle the changes and I was on my way.

When I got to the facility I checked in with security and was directed to a trailer where the interviews would take place. First up was the HR person I had been talking with on the phone to make all the arrangements and again all she wanted to do was go over my application and verify the information. When she got done and asked if I had any questions I asked when a hiring decision would be made. To my surprise she said, “Today.” This was a refreshing change compared to the multiple interview hiring process at King Schools. Next up was one of the actual pilot managers who asked about my background. He was a former Navy pilot and appreciated my F-4 and F-15 experience. He wanted to know if I could qualify for a second-class FAA medical certificate. I already had one so that was off the table. There was never any discussion of my age thanks to anti-discrimination rules even though it was clearly on my application. Another question was if I thought I’d have any trouble getting a secret security clearance. Since I had previously held a top-secret clearance, I didn’t think there would be a problem renewing my clearance to secret. The interview was on a Thursday, and he wanted to know when I had last flown. He smiled when I said, “The day before yesterday.” They had been getting a lot of applicants who met the qualifications but were not currently flying. When we got done, he said the HR person would be back to give me an offer letter and set up a start date. Boom, end of process! I wanted to give a month’s notice to King Schools rather than the standard 2 weeks and I wanted to take some time off before starting my training. We agreed on a start date in April contingent on a successful background check. I then drove to visit security, start the background check and get instructions to complete the application for a secret security clearance. After that I headed back to San Diego. I submitted my resignation letter to King Schools the following day. I was eager to start a new adventure

Posted in Flying Adventures | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turbojet Type Rating

Besides flying, what do pilots and Peter Pan have in common? They are forever young in their mind’s eye. Thirty years after retiring from the Air Force I decided it was time to get checked out in another jet. Hanging out with fellow aviators in the Red Star Pilots Association (they own and fly Soviet block and Chinese aircraft) I met several who have Aero Voldochody L-39 aircraft which is a sleek looking subsonic trainer used by the now Russian Air Force and several other eastern block nations. The company I work for requires me to maintain instrument currency in manned aircraft and provides a monthly reimbursement for doing that. In addition, they provide grants for advanced training and my boss urged me to take advantage of that.

After a little research I determined the company would cover a significant portion of the cost to get a type rating in the L-39 so I was off to the Jet Warbird Training Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico for my summer “vacation”. One of my current flying buddies who had previously owned an L-39 recommended this flight school run by Larry Salganek. In Addition to the L-39, Larry also provides training in an L-29, a T-33, a Fouga and a MiG-15. The L-39 is the classiest of the group in my opinion.

I checked in on a Wednesday morning for some ground school and my first flight with a little aircraft handling and normal patterns. After lunch it was another ground school session and my second flight with more air work and simulated flameout patterns all the way to a touch and go. The syllabus was very targeted to prepare me for an airline transport pilot level type rating in the L-39. Thursday, more ground school and two more flights to include instrument approaches and practicing all the maneuvers for the check ride. Each flight lasted an hour.

The L-39, like many Russian aircraft, is typically rugged, reliable and simple to fly and operate. The electrical, pressurization and hydraulic systems are straight forward. The checklists for normal operations (start, taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, landing and shutdown) all fit on a single page. Emergency procedures are longer but uncomplicated and logical.

Friday morning a different instructor gave me a phase check which was a mock check ride to give me the necessary endorsement for the real check ride that I got Friday afternoon with the FAA designated examiner.

The only reasons I was able to do such an accelerated course were my training and experience flying in the Air Force and the fact that I still fly regularly. It was a great bucket list experience.

Posted in Flying Adventures | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The General wants to Meet You

Bars that are frequented by pilots tend to have a certain mystic about them. This is even more true for bars in officer’s clubs on military air bases around the world. Think about the officer’s mess in the movie 12 O’Clock High or the sleazy bar scene in the movie Top Gun. There are unwritten customs associated with these bars. Most of them have a bell near the bar and if you ring the bell you buy a round of drinks for everyone in the bar. The one exception being if someone enters the bar wearing a hat and you ring the bell, the person wearing the hat buys the round. Some bars have traditions unique to that bar. The I-Bar on Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego has very intricate model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. Touch one of them and you buy the bar.


The Entire Squadron

In Southeast Asia our squadron bar had additional inane rules of engagement (ROE) to mock the ROE imposed upon us fighting the air war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. One rule was that t-shirts, commonly worn under flight suits, were not allowed at Sawadee parties. Sawadee (pronounced saw-wa-dee) in Thai is the same as aloha in Hawaiian. It’s both a greeting and a farewell and Sawadee parties were given when a pilot or WSO (F-4 backseater) had flown their last mission and were ready to move on to their next assignment. Needless to say, this was an unwritten rule and new guys only learned it the first time they showed up at a Sawadee party wearing a t-shirt. The remedy was for the first person that saw the offending crew member to walk up to them, extent their right hand as if to shake hands but as the new guy reached out to shake the other person’s hand the old head would go straight for the zipper on the flight suit, pull it down and in a continuous motion with the left hand grab the neck of the t-shirt and rip it out.


The Lieutenants Mafia

One afternoon we were having a Sawadee party at the squadron bar. A visiting general from headquarters heard about it and showed up to mingle with the boys who were fighting the war. He was wearing his service uniform rather than a flight suit but he clearly was wearing a t-shirt under his uniform shirt. This presented a dilemma that the senior officers chose to ignore but the captains and lieutenants couldn’t let it pass. Some of us convinced the departing pilot he didn’t have a hair on his ass if he didn’t enforce the rule. The departing pilot approached the general, introduced himself as the pilot for whom the party was being thrown and explained the ROE to the general. The general was well into the spirit of the party. He graciously unbuttoned his uniform shirt and held it open so the departing pilot could rip the t-shirt off. After that, we taught the general how to welcome people wearing a t-shirt. Then when someone showed up wearing a t-shirt we would get them and tell them, “The general wants to meet you.” They were a little bewildered by this but followed along as we took them to meet the general who went for the zipper on the flight suit with his right hand and got the t-shirt with his left hand. The pilot/WSO was stunned and everyone had a great laugh.

As the dinner hour approached the general announced he was supposed to go to dinner with all the full colonels on the base in the executive dinning room at the officer’s club but he was enjoying our company so much he had his aide call the wing commander to cancel the dinner with the colonels and invited our squadron to join him instead (no host). We went to our quarters, changed from our flight suits to our party suits and headed to the club for a great dinner with the general.

Next morning on the flight line, as the general was getting ready to leave in his T-39 Saberliner, it was like a scene from the TV show McHale’s Navy. The wing commander was there to see the General off as protocol dictated. The general looked at the wing commander and said, “I want to talk to you about the pilots and WSOs in the 34th Squadron.” The wing executive officer was ready to take names so the colonel could kick ass when the general said, “They’re a great bunch of guys with super squadron morale!” So we lived to fly another day.

Posted in Flying Adventures | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abnormal Operations

The pilots I know are comfortable with adapting to changes that require a minor alteration to the flight plan like an IFR re-route or vectors for traffic or weather that still allows the flight to get to the planned destination. But because we are goal oriented, catastrophic events that require completely abandoning the original plan and coming up with a brand new conclusion are much harder to accept, cope with and resolve. An engine failure is obvious and requires immediate attention. Other events are just as demanding but the need to drop the original plan and do something completely different is not always as obvious.

There are several reasons for this and the first is simply shock that the event happened. Next is simple denial and our resistance to change. Finally is the perception that it may be our fault and we feel a responsibility to rectify the situation or minimize the impact to atone for the perceived mistake.

A possible reason for many out of the envelope fatal ejections is that the pilot was trying to recover from a problem he or she may have thought they created and were responsible for. I lost a friend in F-4s in a low altitude ejection when he was hot dogging and attempted a loop at too low an altitude. He initiated the ejection in time for his back seater to eject but it was out of the envelope for the front seat. This is the kind of inertia we need to overcome when a major event occurs that requires a complete change of plans.

One thing seems to be that pilots with no military background are reluctant to declare an emergency when something goes wrong and they truly deserve priority handling. The other thing that happens when you declare an emergency is that there is an immediate role reversal. In normal ops we are used to following the clearance and directions of air traffic controllers and the controllers expect this. But once you declare an emergency the pilot-in-command takes control of the situation and the controllers ONLY job is to help the pilot of the emergency aircraft get it safely on the ground.

There was an American Airlines flight inbound to Dallas-Fort Worth that determined they were very low on fuel, declared an emergency and asked, rather than told the controller,  to land opposite direction of the current traffic flow. The tower controller denied the request and made them land with other traffic. This is completely wrong. Once the pilot declared the emergency the controller should have immediately cleared the aircraft for the requested landing without worrying about the disruption to the “normal” traffic flow. Both the pilot and tower controller failed to recognize the role reversal once the emergency was declared. When the controller denied the request the pilot should have rebuked the controller and said he was an emergency and had priority over all other traffic. In this case the aircraft landed without event but both the controller and the pilot were criticized for not understanding that the emergency should have been handled differently.

Some emergencies require thinking “outside the box”. A friend of mine was egressing a target in North Vietnam in his F-105 at 500+ knots when he got a gear door light indication in the cockpit. Bold face for this problem was to slow below gear lowering speed to prevent damage to the gear door. That’s what he did which allowed the AAA gunners on the ground to easily track, hit and shoot down his airplane. Peace time training taught him to do this and he didn’t fully assess the urgency and differences of a combat situation. After he ejected and was on the ground he had time, while evading the North Vietnamese and waiting for the rescue helicopter, to reflect on the fact it would have been better to lose the gear door rather than the airplane and expose himself to being captured.

Some time ago (March 29, 2015) a Van’s RV-6/8 demonstration team suffered a mid-air collision during an airshow and while the investigation is still in progress there are some important things for formation pilots to think about. This was a 10-ship operating as three or four elements entering an exiting show center at coordinated times. At the time of the midair the team had elements at opposite ends of the runway show line and another element out to re-enter later. The mishap element was a 3-ship with 1 & 2 flying straight and level while #3 did barrel rolls around them. On one of the barrel rolls the maneuvering aircraft contacted one of the aircraft in the fingertip formation. The collision caused the maneuvering aircraft to lose most of both propeller blades creating a no thrust condition requiring an immediate dead stick landing which the pilot did very well.

RV-6 damage

However, apparently no one in the flight called Knock-it-Off and neither did the air boss in the tower so the other elements continued with their part of the routine. Meanwhile, the pilot of the other aircraft involved in the midair decided to divert to an airfield 30 miles away without knowing the extent of damage to his airplane. The investigation will determine if there was a good reason to fly a damaged aircraft 30 miles rather than landing on the runway directly underneath.

Lessons we can take away from this right now while we wait for investigators to unravel the rest of the story:

Events like this require a Knock-it-Off call as soon as possible, remembering the priorities to aviate, navigate and communicate.

It doesn’t need to be someone in the flight to call Knock-it-Off.

Once someone calls Knock-it-Off you need to hit the reset button on the flight plan, regroup and do what the new situation dictates.

Deal with the reality of the situation not what you want it to be.

Never hesitate to declare an emergency. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve declared an emergency but I can tell you I have never been asked to fill out a report (never). The FAA hates paperwork as much as we do.

You have to have a really good reason to overfly a usable runway with a sick airplane. The Marines proved this in San Diego when an F-18 had an engine failure and hydraulic problems in a training area off the coast. The pilot attempted to land back at MCAS Miramar to make it easier for maintenance to fix the jet. In the process the pilot over flew NAS North Island. Between North Island and Miramar (only 10 miles apart over populated areas) the airplane experienced total hydraulic failure and the pilot safely ejected. The airplane crashed killing two people and destroying three homes.

We don’t have all the facts yet for the accident with the RVs so don’t jump to conclusions but think how you lead flights and see if there’s anything here that can help you be a better leader or pilot.

Posted in Cockpit Resource Management | Leave a comment

Formation Clinics

You get more than formation training when you go to a formation training clinic. While all formation clinics have several things in common, each clinic is unique and enjoyable for a variety of reasons.

Things you get at every formation include mentoring, encouragement and fellowship. Flight leaders, instructors and check pilots want to see you succeed at your next goal regardless of what it is, wingman, flight lead qualification or another skill. There’s as much learning in conversations in the evening as there is in flights during the day. Not only do you get to learn from pilots experienced in the skill you are trying to accomplish, you earn the respect and appreciation of your peers and mentors.

16-Ship Flyby

An added aspect is the unique character and atmosphere of each clinic. Every clinic has distinguishing attributes. Redstars Over Kingman every fall is a really great introduction to formation flying with a very laid back atmosphere and a great throwback experience on Route 66 often called the Main Street of America or the Mother Road. The hosts of this event, M-14P (, have two of the most knowledgeable airframe and engine mechanics in the Yak and Nanchang community in America. Carl Hays and Jill Gernetzke are world renown Yak and Nanchang mechanics (Aviation Maintenance Technicians – AMTs) who can tell you anything you want to know about your Redstar aircraft and help you locate any part you need in addition to any services or modifications you want.

Historic Route 66 in Kingman

The Informal Formation Clinic at Falcon Field every spring is another good event for pilots new to formation. Great opportunities for wingman and flight lead training exist and several check pilots are in attendance for check ride qualification. Steve and Stuart Glemba are two excellent Yak and Nanchang mechanics that are there all weekend to keep your airplane flying and ready for the trip home. Mike Harlow of Phoenix Flight Gear is there to repair any problems with your helmet or help you select a new helmet if you’re looking for one. Chris License is a master parachute rigger who will provide overnight repacking services and answer any questions you have. Give him your parachute Saturday afternoon and it will be ready for you Sunday morning. Southwest Aviation Insurance is available on Saturday to answer any insurance questions you may have and provide quotes for you and your airplane. Clinic participants usually stay at the Arizona Golf Resort
(, a great facility that is a fantastic retro experience of the 1950’s golf resort.

Arizona Golf Resort

The Mooney Caravan/Redstar Gunfighter clinic in Yuma every winter is a workup for Mooney pilots who want to participate in the Mooney mass formation arrival at Oshkosh in the summer. Not only do Redstar pilots help Mooney pilots learn to fly formation it’s also a great opportunity for Redstar pilots to fly with each other. Flight leads and check pilots are available for lead and check rides. Yuma in the winter is a great experience and although everyone tends to equate Yuma with the desert, Yuma is not that far from the Gulf of California and the Mexican seafood cuisine is excellent. The hosts at Millionaire make everyone feel welcome and assure a great experience.

Millonair FBO at Yuma

The All Redstar formation clinic at Porterville is arguably the premier west coast clinic. Always well attended, with great airspace for training, many recommendation and check rides are accomplished each year. While there is always a lot going on, the planners and schedulers are alert to the training requirements of every attendee. There is a 4-ship formation flying competition and always a chance for any attendee to distinguish themselves for a brilliant lapse of attention and qualify for the Bonehead Award. Callsigns are awarded based on performance during the weekend. Porterville has a great Central Valley California vibe.

Serious Fun at Porterville

Finally there’s the Desert Thunder tactical formation training clinic every fall in Thermal (think Palm Springs), California. Participants in this event must already have a FAST wingman or flight lead card or fly with someone who has the requisite qualification. Thanks to the experienced instructors at this event the mysteries of tactical formation flying are easily unraveled and you can have a great time emulating air-to-ground and air-to-air operations. The event organizers include a Navy Top Gun instructor, a USAF Fighter Weapons School Instructor, and a Canadian Air Force Fighter Weapons School Instructor. A U.S. Marine with combat experience as a ground forward air controller provides instruction in air-to-ground operations and then each participant gets to fly a close air support mission that includes flour bombing a tactical target in the desert. On the air-to-air side an Air Force fighter weapons instructor provides training for 2-ship flights to fly a “low level” route where they are vulnerable to attack from an adversary aircraft. The objective is to detect and defeat the attack with the appropriate defensive maneuver. There are very thorough and easily understandable safety provisions briefed for each scenario. In addition to awards for the top air-to-ground and top air-to-air flights callsigns are awarded and the bonehead award is presented for a distinguishing flight performance. The Night Crawler award is presented for a distinguished performance after hours in Palm Springs. You must attend to understand the criteria for this award. This is desert resort living at a very reasonable price and Cunard’s Sandbar is an excellent watering hole next to the hotel.

Desert Thunder Adversary Air

All these clinics work to achieve the goal of serious fun and if you attend any of them I guarantee you will have a great time and come away with enhanced flying skills. There’s no doubt that clinics in other areas each have their own personality and are equally rewarding and fun.

Posted in Flying Adventures | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Call This Number After You Land

060505-N-9079D-025Not something you want to hear as you’re flying along.

The FAA is taking a new approach to pilot deviations called “compliance” rather than their old mode of “enforcement” when the situation warrants. Most pilot deviations are unintentional and a lapse in attention or procedure rather than something willful on the part of the pilot. In situations like this a much better outcome for everyone is a teachable moment rather than punishment. Local flight instructors are part of the solution.

The FAA calls the teachable moment, remedial training. As the FAA inspector reviews the facts of the reported deviation and determines that remedial training is a good solution he or she will offer that option to the pilot and ask if they would rather do that and not have a record of an enforcement action on their record.

It seems like a no brainer to take the remedial training but the reason the inspector has to ask is because the pilot will bear the cost of the training which will normally include 3 hours of ground training and 3 hours of flight training. The ground training can include online courses as well as one-on-one instruction from the CFI.

If the pilot agrees to accept remedial training the inspector will give the details of the incident to the FSDOs FAA Safety Team Program Manager (FPM) who will develop an individualized syllabus that addresses the circumstances of the specific deviation that occurred. This is where CFIs enter the picture. As the FPM develops the training syllabus he or she will also select a local CFI that is well qualified to cover the necessary training. The pilot receiving the remedial is required to pay the CFI the CFI’s normal rate and, if necessary, pay for a rental aircraft.

How does the FPM select the CFI? The first, and easiest, place to look is for CFIs and DPEs that are FAA Safety Team Representatives because when you fill out the application to be a Safety Team volunteer you indicate things you are willing to do like giving safety seminars. If you indicate you are also interested in and available to provide remedial training you will be considered whenever there is a need.

Once the FPM has developed the training syllabus and has an agreeable CFI there will be a meeting at the FSDO or an agreed location with the pilot receiving training, the selected CFI, and the FPM. At that time the FPM will review the syllabus and have the pilot receiving training sign an agreement to complete the required training within a specified time frame. At the completion of the training the CFI provides a letter to the FPM certifying the training has been accomplished and the process is over.

A recent experience showed that the new Airman Certification Standards (ACS) made it very easy to develop the training syllabus as every task related to the deviation also had knowledge elements and risk management considerations to be discussed in the ground training. That made it easy not only for the FPM but the CFI and the pilot under training as well because everything was clearly defined.

If you would like to be available to your FSDO to provide remedial training the best way to get in the CFI pool is to become an FAA Safety Team Representative and indicate your availability.

Posted in Cockpit Resource Management | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Friends, Victor and Zulu

During the Cold War, fighter pilots in Europe had one of two missions: ground attack/nuclear strike or air defense. Pilots with a nuclear strike mission took turns sitting alert on aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons and capable of launching in 15 minutes. That was called Victor Alert. Pilots tasked with air defense alert were assigned to aircraft loaded with air-to-air missiles and had to be able to be airborne in 5 minutes. That was called Zulu Alert.

I sat Victor Alert in the F-4 at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany in the early 70s and Zulu Alert 10 years later in the F-15 at Bitburg Air Base, Germany five miles away from Spangdahlem near the border with Luxembourg. Both missions were challenging and unique.


Bitburg and Spangdahlem Air Bases in the Eifel, Germany

Even after completing your transition to the F-4 there was an extensive set of training and tasks before you were qualified to sit nuclear alert. After your local area check out in Germany the next requirement was was bomb commander school where you not only learned the the mechanics of the B-43 and B-61 nuclear bombs you were also trained in the two-man concept of nuclear surety and the nuclear release procedures of the national command authority. While this academic training was taking place you were flying wartime profiles in the simulator and aircraft. In the simulator the instructor drilled you on procedures and you could fly profiles against actual targets. In the aircraft you flew low level profiles to bombing ranges in Germany, Holland, the Netherlands and France with actual releases of practice bombs. The next milestone was to fly a practice mission with a check pilot chasing you to the assigned range and target. Prior to takeoff the check pilot would assign a bomb impact time or time on target (TOT). You had to plan and fly the mission to deliver the bomb within plus or minus 30 seconds of the assigned TOT and less than 300 feet from the target. The final hurdle was called the line certification. In a line certification a paired crew (pilot and weapons system operator) had to brief a review board on an actual assigned target to include alert procedures, release procedures, mission profile for that specific target as well as safe passage recovery procedures.

B-61 Nuclear Weapon

B-61 Nuclear Weapon

Each base in Europe with a nuclear strike tasking had several targets assigned and had to have an aircraft and crew on 15 minute Victor Alert 24/7 365 days a year. The normal alert tour for each crew was for two days during the week and three days on the weekend. Change over for crews was in the morning on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The oncoming crew would check into the alert facility to get their target maps and release codes. Next they would go to the harden shelter where the aircraft was ready for a quick start and departure with the nuclear bomb. Once the oncoming crew inspected the aircraft and verified the condition of the bomb they accepted responsibility for the alert and the off going crew was officially relieved.

The alert facility consisted of both an operations center and maintenance center as well as a dining facility, lounge and sleeping quarters for the aircrews and maintenance personnel. This was a single story building in the middle of the alert area. The atmosphere in the alert facility was simultaneously tense and relaxed.

Victor Alert Area

Victor Alert Area at Spangdahlem

It was tense due to the extreme responsibility, security procedures and destructive power ready to be released. Each aircraft shelter with a nuclear weapon on the airplane was a no-lone zone and only the aircraft/bomb commander and weapons system operator (WSO) could authorize entrance into the shelter. The shelter was always protected by two armed guards authorized to use deadly force if the no-lone zone was violated. Normally, the guards had to verify the identity of the pilot and WSO using a special identification badge before they were allowed to enter the no-lone zone. There was a quick recognition code for rapid access during a scramble.

It was relaxed due to the 15 minute response time that allowed alert personnel to “expand” outside the alert facility to go to activities on base like the theater, gym and other dining facilities with their family as long as they were in constant contact with the command post and in an alert facility vehicle with sirens and warning lights. Crews were subject to practice scrambles and when the alarm sounded they had to get to and start their aircraft and check in with the command post to receive a coded message within the specified time limit. Because the aircraft were loaded with live nuclear weapons they never taxied and in fact the fire department blocked the taxi route to the runway with a fire engine to assure positive control of the nuclear weapons.

The path to Zulu Alert was similar but with a different paradigm. After completing F-15 transition and reporting to an operational squadron in Europe the pilot needed to get a local area check out and learn alert procedures again in the simulator and in the aircraft. Five minute scramble procedures and intercepts were practiced in the simulator and live intercepts were conducted in the aircraft. After passing a mission ready check ride the pilot was ready to sit 5 minute air defense alert.

A Zulu Alert tour was for 24 hours and pilots changed over every morning. Again, the alert facility consisted of both ops and maintenance control centers as well as a lounge, dining facility and sleeping quarters for pilots and maintenance personnel.

The alert facility consisted of four hangar stalls with the support facility in the middle and two stalls on either side. The support facility was a three story building with the maintenance center and dining facility on the first floor. The aircrew lounge and operations center were on the second floor and the sleeping quarters for pilots and crew chiefs were on the third floor. During a scramble, stairs were too slow and the solution was a pole like you see in fire stations. There was a pole from each level to the one below and using the pole was part of the fun of sitting alert.

Zulu Alert Facility

Zulu Alert Facility at Bitburg

With a 5 minute response time pilots and maintenance personnel were confined to the alert facility for their 24 hour tour of duty. There were always four aircraft on 5 minute alert and the good news was that you could usually expect two practice scrambles every day. When the alarm went off all four pilots would respond to their aircraft and start their engines. Orders from the command post would release two aircraft to launch for practice intercepts and the other two aircraft would shut down and resume 5 minute alert. After the first two aircraft returned they would refuel and go back on 5 minute alert. On the second scramble the two aircraft that didn’t fly on the first scramble would be cleared to launch and the remaining two aircraft would shut down and resume 5 minute alert.


Posted in Flying Adventures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Tucson to London in a Beech D-18

Going to the University of Arizona in Tucson in the late 1960s I had a part time job at an aircraft maintenance and modification facility at Tucson International Airport. They specialized in modifying twin Beech D-18s for freighter service. The modifications included a wing spar mod to eliminate an FAA requirement for an x-Ray inspection every 50 hours, installing a cargo door to allow pallets to be loaded and an access hatch over the pilot’s seat so the pilot could get to the cockpit over the wing rather than through the passenger/cargo compartment when it was loaded with bulky freight.


Beech D-18 by TVR Photography.

The company sold one of these modified Twin Beeches to an air freight company in England and when the owner came to pick it up he wanted a co-pilot to fly with him for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that since the airplane wasn’t equipped with an autopilot he wanted a relief pilot to share the flying duties with. Even though I only had a student pilot’s certificate at the time I could hold straight and level and that was all he needed.

More importantly, even with a 200 gallon ferry tank installed in the passenger compartment there was not quite enough fuel for the planned leg from Goose Bay, Labrador to Keflavik, Iceland. The solution was to get 10 five gallon Jerry cans, put them in the passenger compartment and have the co-pilot pour them into the ferry tank after it had been burned down. I met the qualifications for that task as well.

The navigation plan for the transatlantic portion of the flight was to use a high frequency (HF) automatic direction finder (ADF) with a long wire antenna that you reel out after you takeoff and reel back in before you land. This was in the late 60’s long before LORAN and GPS.

The flight was in April so winter frontal activity was a big consideration as well.

Tucson to London courtesy of ForeFlight

Tucson to London courtesy of ForeFlight

Our first leg from Tucson to Hutchinson, Kansas was a shakedown to make sure everything was working and it was uneventful. The next stop was Cleveland, Ohio before heading to Goose Bay where we planned to spend the night. When we landed there was six feet of snow on either side of the runway after an instrument approach at night. In base ops the weatherman told us a winter storm was approaching and if we didn’t leave for Iceland right now we would be stuck in Goose Bay for several days so off we went for a night transatlantic crossing. After we got airborne we were unable to get the HF antenna to deploy. That changed our plan for navigation.

Back in the 60s the U.S. Coast Guard maintained weather ships on static location throughout the Atlantic Ocean and each ship had a VOR station for aircraft navigation. Ocean Station Bravo was located half way between Canada and the southern tip of Greenland where there was another VOR and then Ocean Station Alpha was located half way between the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland. So the plan was to start tracking the outbound radial from Saint John’s in Newfoundland, Canada towards Ocean Station Bravo and dead-recon after we lost that signal until we picked up the VOR on Ocean Station Bravo, fly to that station and again start tracking outbound toward the southern tip of Greenland and again dead-recon until we picked up the VOR on the southern tip of Greenland. We did have to make some “minor” course corrections each time we picked up a new VOR, but the plan worked well.

The weather between Goose Bay and Greenland forced us up to 12,000 feet to stay out of the clouds and icing conditions.

The night flight was spectacular as the Northern Lights were very active with all the weather that was occurring. In fact it looked like we were flying IN the Northern Lights and we had frequent occurrences of Saint Elmo’s Fire on the windscreen.

A couple of hours into the flight it was time for me to start emptying the five gallon Jerry cans into the ferry tank. The first two cans went well but because we were at 12,000 feet I tired from lack of oxygen very quickly and had to take a break to catch my breath after emptying each can from then on. It took me an hour to empty all ten cans (50 gallons) into the ferry tank. Ironically, the engines were burning 50 gallons an hour so I was just able to keep up with the fuel flow.

As the sun came up and we approached Greenland we could discern an oil leak on the right engine propeller hub so we decided to land at Narsarsuaq, Greenland to check the oil. At that time Nasarsuaq was a Danish Air Force base that was available as an emergency stop just as it was during World War II when it was known as Bluie West One. If you have read Fate is the Hunter by Ernest Gann he describes finding this airport by finding the southern tip of Greenland, flying up the west coast, counting fiords and flying up the proper fiord which you can verify by the shipwreck at a bend in the fiord before you get to the runway and that’s exactly what we did.

On the ground at Nasarsuaq we again learned that the winter storm was chasing us and if we didn’t take off before sunset, since there were no lights on the runway, we would be stuck there for several days. The oil leak was not bad. We added a couple of quarts and then went to the transient quarters to get a bite to eat and sleep all day before heading back to the airplane for another night flight from Greenland to Reykjavik, Iceland. The Danish Air Force folks at Nasarsuaq were fantastic. When we got ready to depart they had complete forecasts with winds aloft, destination weather and satellite imagery of the current weather between Greenland and Iceland. I was really impressed and appreciative.

We were treated to another fantastic display of the Northern Lights but the flight was uneventful particularly since I didn’t have to transfer fuel on this leg.

Reykjavik was a simple gas and go and we were on our way to Heathrow Airport on the west side of London. The flight took four days and we logged 40 hours of flight time. After a great dinner and a much needed night’s rest I took a very comfortable BOAC flight back to the United States.


Posted in Flying Adventures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The ACS is Here

The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) replacing the familiar Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the private pilot and instrument ratings went into effect and the earth continued to rotate about its axis. This should be a fairly seamless transition but I have heard a lot of anxiety and trepidation expressed by pilots in training, their instructors and even designated flight examiners. Most of that anxiety is about changes to the written (knowledge) tests.

There are actually two things going on that are related but really not earth shaking. The first concern I have heard is a fear that the knowledge tests are being completely revised and nobody knows the “new” questions. The tests are being revised for two reasons but the knowledge required hasn’t changed a bit so the ground school to prepare for the written really doesn’t need to change. 

When the FAA was developing the ACS they had to look at all the test questions to match them with a learning objective. This forced them to acknowledge there were some really irrelevant and stupid questions, something that the aviation community had been complaining about for years. Those questions were eliminated from the test question data bank. 

Prior to 2008 all FAA test questions were available in the public domain and metrics from testing sites clearly indicated that people were memorizing the questions to take the test. Applicants were taking 15 to 20 minutes to complete a test that should have taken around an hour and a half. So over the last two years the FAA has “changed” every question that was in the public domain but they are still questions about the same knowledge. The definition for angle of attack has not changed so there is still only one right answer. The only things that have changed on time, distance and fuel computations are the given conditions. You still use your E6B or calculator to get the answer. Changes in chart reading questions involve using different points of reference than the public questions. Things like finding an ATIS, VOR, or FSS frequency or the elevation of an obstruction. 

The practical test or check ride won’t change that much either. The ACS requires the same level of performance for each of the tasks as the PTS did. You still have to do all the tasks that were in the PTS but now you have a better idea of the questions relating to those tasks the examiner can ask you. What has been added to each area of operation is a clear definition of what knowledge you need to know and what risks you need to consider to perform the tasks in that area of operation. This should actually help you and your instructor as you prepare for the practical test. Besides asking you questions about topics you missed on the written exam the examiner is only required to ask you one knowledge question and one risk management question for each area of operation but you do need to be prepared to answer each of the questions listed in the ACS. 

Simply put, each area of operation has three sections: things you need to know, things you need to consider and tasks you need to perform.

The ACS should allow applicants to be better prepared and more confident going into the practical test and there should be a higher success rate for check ride completions.

Posted in Cockpit Resource Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Summer FITS

Every summer there are numerous articles written about the adverse effects of altitude and temperature (density altitudes) on aircraft performance but there is little discussion of the effect of heat on pilot performance.

As is often the case the military has done research and development that can be useful in general aviation. In 1978 Dr. Richard Stribley, Captain, USAF, from the USAF School of Aeronautical Medicine, published a very important paper titled Fighter Index of Thermal Stress (FITS): Development of Interim Guidance for Hot Weather Operations.

Click to access pdf

The main point of the study was that as temperature and humidity increase, pilot performance decreases.

This will come as no surprise to people who have been exposed to extreme heat conditions in the summer but the study used scientific methods to define hazardous conditions for high temperatures. The following chart identifies those conditions that are hazardous based on ambient temperature and dew point temperature, two values readily available in METARs.


From Go Flight Medicine

What can you do about this? Well the first rule is one we have all heard: HYDRATE. Drink plenty of fluids to replace what you have lost through perspiration in hot, humid environments. You need to aggressively work to replace the fluids your body loses in these conditions. Pilots of aircraft with no relief facilities have been known to intentionally dehydrate so they don’t have to answer nature’s call during a flight. This is a bad idea in high temperature environments. While you don’t need to relieve yourself as often when you are dehydrated you are subject to weakness (low G tolerance) dizziness and confusion when you are dehydrated. A very clear symptom of dehydration is darker yellow urine when you go to the bathroom. So drink plenty of fluids and make a pit stop just before getting in the airplane even if you don’t feel like you need to right then.

The good news is that your body acclimates to high temperature and humidity over a period of 10 to14 days. Your body is even more tolerant to extreme temperatures if you exercise in those conditions for two hours each day. The bad news is that you lose that tolerance only one week after returning to cooler environments.

What does this mean in practical terms? When I was stationed at Luke AFB outside Phoenix, Arizona in the summer we are were only allowed to abort one aircraft for a maintenance problem and go to another. If we aborted the second aircraft we were required to go to an air conditioned facility and cool down for at least half an hour. We also carried two flasks of water to hydrate before and during the flight while on the flight line. What it means for those of us flying general aviation aircraft is that you might want to give yourself a cool down period after loading and pre-flighting the aircraft before you start, taxi and takeoff.

My son and I made a flight from San Diego to Reserve (T16) in the mountains of northwest New Mexico with a fuel stop in Phoenix in July in a Cessna 172 (no air conditioning). We left San Diego early in the morning when it was cool and climbed to altitude with a cool outside air temperature until we started our let down to Falcon Field in Mesa and it was like descending into a furnace. We cooled down in the FBO’s air conditioning and drank their complementary iced tea while the line crew refueled the airplane. When we were ready to go we minimized our time on the ramp and climbed back up to cooler altitudes to clear the mountains between Phoenix and northwest New Mexico. It took a while to get to altitude due to the decreased aircraft performance in the 110 degree heat. We also took bottles of water with us to rehydrate after we got up to our cruising altitude.

Bottom line: don’t let yourself become dehydrated and hyperthermic if you operate in high temperatures and high humidity.


Posted in Cockpit Resource Management | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment