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It’s been a bit since I wrote, a lot of life has happened, a lot of changes, a lot of storms, if you will, and it reminded me of a story that happened a number of years ago that involved a USAF C-130 and yours truly.
If you’ve ever seen a military airplane, chances are you’ve seen a C-130 Hercules. It is the short/medium haul workhorse of militaries all over the world that’s been in service for over 50 years. The Navy’s Blue Angels have one from the Marines they call “Fat Albert” that carries the maintenance and support crew to keep all the F-18’s flying.
I’ve been in a couple of them, flown over some amazing countryside (Mount Rainier – I’d have pictures of that but I dropped the camera while I was in the cockpit a few thousand feet over Elbe and broke it – the camera I mean) and been in one that was dogfighting with another one (story to come later), but the one that I remember most is the one that never left the ground.
See, back when I was in Civil Air Patrol, one of the senior members of the squadron, Steve, was also in the Air Force, and he worked just across the parking lot from where we met every week.
What was cool about that place across the parking lot was that it housed two multimillion dollar full motion simulators, one of which was the one for the venerable C-130.
What was cool about Steve is that he did the same thing in the Air Force that my dad did years earlier – he worked flight simulator maintenance. Understand, folks who work in maintenance aren’t the people who get the glory. They’re not the ones with high ranks or fancy titles. The people who work maintenance, however, are like the janitor of the school you went to. They have to be able to fix anything.
And to do that, they need to be able to get anywhere.
And to do that, they have to have keys to EVERYTHING.
And Steve, so to speak, had the keys to the C-130 simulator.
Now since he worked maintenance, he had to be there all the time, just in case.
There were quiet times during his day when the simulator wasn’t scheduled – and of course, over time, I learned what those times were, and just ‘happened’ to show up pretty consistently about then.
Over the course of one summer, Steve let me fly the thing – I did the math some time back, and I think I had something like 40 hours in it over those three months.
I learned how to start the engines, how to taxi out to an imaginary runway (Steve would play the part of the air traffic controller and give me directions over the headsets from outside), and then Steve taught me how to take off. Now understand – all this is in a full size, full motion simulator that’s an exact replica of the cockpit. You hear the engines. You feel the vibration of the engines. You literally feel the bumps in the pavement you’re taxiing across. It would even have the nose dip as you hit the brakes to stop at the end of the runway before starting your takeoff roll, where you’d feel the bumps in the pavement going by faster and faster, until when you pulled the nose up, you could actually *feel* the nose gear lift off – it smoothed out because it wasn’t rolling over pavement anymore. Then there were the checklists to make sure everything was done right. Landing gear had to come up as soon as the plane was actually climbing. Flaps came up in stages as the plane accelerated, and so on.
The one thing it didn’t have was any type of visual display, so because of that, when I learned how to fly, I learned how to fly on instruments only.
I learned that the controls felt mushy at low speeds, and very stiff at high speeds, and at those high speeds, you wanted to keep the little g-meter in the bottom left of the instrument panel very happy. Overstressing that little thing could cause problems
I learned all that before I ever looked out of the cockpit of a real airplane, and the funny thing is – I learned how to fly the plane not because I had to, but because it was fun.
After some time, Steve let me just play a little bit, and I actually got pretty good at running through the checklists to start the engines, the pre-taxi checklist, the pre-takeoff checklist, after takeoff checklist – really, there were a lot of them.
One day Steve had most of an afternoon with no one scheduled in the simulator, and I happened to be there, so he decided to have some fun. He taught me GCA’s – or Ground Controlled Approaches – which you do when you can’t see the runway, and the airport has equipment you don’t have. Basically you’ve got two radio beams that intersect like a cross, coming from a couple of transmitters at the end of the runway. One shows you on the right glide slope (both approaching and descending at just the right speed), while the other shows you on the right glide path (coming down on the centerline of the runway). Your job is to keep the plane at the center of those two radio beams– you’ve got someone on the ground tracking you, and their instructions to keep you in the center are short and to the point: “Flight 279, GCA, 3 miles out, on glide slope, on glide path” (what you want to hear) versus something like “Flight 279, GCA, 2 miles out, 500 feet left of glide path, 200 feet below glide slope”. You’ve got a lot of correcting to do in the two miles you’ve got left, flying at about 130 mph, you’ll cover that in less than 30 seconds, while trying to find the end of the runway, which is at the other end of those radar beams. Remember, if you’re doing a GCA, you’re only doing it because you can’t see the runway. This is rather important because usually the runway is the only flat space big enough to land on.
It was clear that Steve had a little bit of fun being the GCA Controller, so one day he decided to take it up a notch… He stepped into the back of the simulator where the instructors usually sat – where they had all sorts of evil controls to mess with the crew being trained, and played GCA from right there instead of from his usual console outside the simulator.
I had the headphones on as usual, and he decided he’d give me what started out to be a normal approach. I’d had the flaps down to 50% as I needed to have them for that speed, and then he started dialing in some turbulence to make it a little more challenging.
Ever flown through turbulence in an airliner?
This was just like that – all the sounds, the full motion in the simulator, it was just like you’d expect to feel it in a real plane, just as bumpy, just as uncomfortable, and it suddenly dawned on me that the barf bags in the cockpit weren’t there for decoration.
He gave me gentle instructions: first just fly the plane with the turbulence randomly and dramatically trying to flip it right, left, up, or down. My goal was to keep the wings level, and keep it aimed to 340 degrees North-northwest, the same heading as the runway.
Then, when he felt I had that mastered, he decided to transition in a GCA controlled approach, meaning I had to not only keep the wings level and keep flying the plane in the storm, but manage all the procedures that were part of landing the plane.
He added wind gusts that varied from headwinds (which suddenly gave me much greater lift) to tailwinds (which suddenly meant the plane wasn’t flying through the air fast enough to generate enough lift to keep it from falling out of the sky).
Somewhere in there I realized that not only did I have that voice in my headphones to guide me, I noticed that there was an instrument on the panel in front of me that, every time I heard the message, “On glide slope, on glide path” – made a little plus sign, a little cross. It turns out it was what’s known as an ILS, or Instrument Landing System – which is a miniaturized version of the GCA. Instead of a radio and someone in the tower, it’s an instrument in the airplane.
See, the GCA is something external to the plane. . It’s sending a – kind of a cross of radio beams out, and they can tell where you are in relation to that. They will tell you what you need to do to be able to land safely.
You don’t have to have anything but a radio, tuned to the tower frequency and you just have to do what the voice in the headsets tells you to do.
The ILS is a miniaturized version of the GCA. It depends on that same kind of radio beam, but is internal to the plane. Just like a compass always points North, which is a good reference point, this always keeps you pointed toward your goal, which is finishing your flight safely, on the runway. All you have to do is pay attention to it, and keep the little cross centered in front of you, and you’ll reach that goal.
But – meanwhile, back in the cockpit, knowing what the right thing to do and actually doing it were two different things. Steve was having fun and incrementally dialing up everything, making the plane climb, bank, and turn, and fall out of the sky all at the same time. It got to the point where just trying to keep wings level, much less doing something complicated like “keep the wings level and the pointy end facing front” was an astonishing challenge. The descent rate wasn’t even averaging the 500 feet per minute descent I was supposed to be trying to do on at that part of the approach.
I thought things had gotten as bad as they were going to get, and was really working up a sweat in there… It was no longer a simulation, for me it was real.
And that’s when Steve dialed up the turbulence to the point where I was in a full-fledged storm.
I wasn’t panicking, but I was working pretty hard to keep things under control, and was concentrating so hard on keeping wings level, keeping the descent rate right, keeping it on glide slope and glide path, that I was caught off guard when Steve suggested I might look at the oil pressure of the number 3 engine.
It was falling.
Imagine your check engine light coming on in your car. You just pull over and – well, check your engine.
Interestingly, that’s exactly what I was trying to do, but had to wait till I had a successful landing behind me.
So I had to slow that engine down, but I couldn’t just pull back number 3. By now the flaps were down, if I recall, at 50%, and the air each of the four propellers pushes over the top of wing, especially with the flaps down, creates a tremendous amount of lift. So if you’ve got two huge propellers blasting air over the left wing, and only one on the right, that left wing will produce way more lift – which complicates things and needs to be considered in everything you do from there on out. So I throttled back not just number 3 (inboard engine on the right wing) but also number 2 (inboard engine on the left wing) to keep the power and lift balanced, with the hope it would last long enough to get us to the ground safely. Complicating that was the fact that the inboard engines blew air over more wing and flaps, and helped create more lift than the outboard ones. There was a good bit to think about in all of that.
Steve was impressed, so he held on to the handles mounted for the instructors in the back of the simulator, and dialed the turbulence and the mechanical problems up even more. He added what I now realize were wind shear and microbursts, meaning my airspeed would vary, causing my descent rate to range from “climbing like a homesick angel” to “falling out of the sky like an anvil with wings”.
I brought the flaps all the way to 100%, which increased lift, but also increased drag, slowing the plane down, requiring extra power (which I didn’t have much of) to stay in the air. While I was working on the approach checklist, and right as I’d gotten getting the gear down, increasing the drag yet again, and requiring more power to overcome, Steve was slowly dialing the oil pressure down in number 3, and eventually I had the engine in flight idle (lowest speed I could set it to).
At this point, my options were getting even more limited, because not only did the oil pressure keep going down, but the temperature started going up.
That’s when Steve added the smoke – real smoke in the cockpit. I have to tell you, if nothing else had my attention, the smell of hot oil on top of everything else did.
Number 3 didn’t show that it was on fire, but it was showing it was overheating, and it was clear that running out of oil to keep it lubricated and cool was going to guarantee a fire, the only question was if it’d happen before I got to the ground or after. I realized there was only one thing I could do to keep that from happening, so I reached up above the windshield, between the empty copilot’s seat and mine, and flipped the switch to arm the fire extinguishing system. I feathered the prop and pulled the fire extinguisher handle, shutting that engine down, and if nothing else, preventing a fire.
That solved one problem, but created several more.
I was still trying to land in a storm, but now I was down 25% of my power, and I was right close to stall speed.
That was when Steve decided to up the wind shear a bit, and I felt the plane lurch, then saw the instruments show I’d gone from a headwind to a downdraft and I was sinking fast.
Sinking fast when you’re flying is not a good thing.
Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying is a very bad thing.
Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying, close to the ground, is a sentence that often has a fireball for a period.
I simultaneously slammed the remaining three throttles to the firewall, and turned the yoke all the way to the left and stomped on the left rudder pedal to try to balance out the asymmetrical lift and thrust I knew I’d be getting because of number 3 being out, and stopped sinking.
In spite of that, it moved me to the right of the glide path, so I banked left (which is actually hard to do since I had more power and lift from the left wing) and had to get back on the glide path, just as I heard Steve’s calm voice inform me that I was below I was 200 feet right of glide path, and definitely below glide slope.
All the while, Steve watched from the back, saw that I was close to making it, but I still wasn’t out of the weather, and just as I was about to touch down, I got another hard gust from the left. I firewalled the throttles again to try to keep from hitting too hard, but we were too close to the ground for it to help enough in time. I did hit hard, felt and heard one of the tires in the right main landing gear go, pulled all three engines to ground idle, then the standard thing to do would be to lift all the throttles straight up, allowing me to pull them back further, changing the angle of the propeller blades so they’re blowing air forward to slow the plane down once it’s on the ground, not backward to keep it flying.
Had I done that with all three remaining engines, I would have put two engines on the left wing and one on the right into full thrust reverse, adding “pirouetting down the runway” to my list of accomplishments on that flight. I decided, instinctively to let my middle finger loose and leave the number 2 engine in ground idle and reverse numbers 1 and 4, which slowed the plane down without the pirouette until I was able to use the brakes and get off the runway.
Once everything was shut down, Steve looked at me with a huge grin and said, “Well done! I’ve had trained pilots in here that didn’t handle that as well as you did!”
It made me smile, sitting there, back all sweaty against the pilot’s seat – slowly starting to shiver from the abundance of adrenaline and the air conditioning I was just now starting to feel.
He’d said, “Well done!”
It’s said that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing – and this one was one of them.
We talked for a long time after that flight, and as I’ve been writing this, years later – I’ve found that as with many of these stories, it got me thinking…
The whole thing about this adventure we call life is like that adventure in flight in that simulator.
There are times when our lives are CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited). Times when you are as free as a bird, where not only the valleys we struggle through, but the mountains and clouds that seemed so high, are now beneath us.
Those are times to cherish, because in those times, you gain perspective, understanding, and wisdom. You’re able to see the other side of the clouds, the side where the sun always shines.
Other times, life throws us into storms, and the things we hold dear, the things we depend on for support, for power, for strength are shaken to the core. I got to thinking about those engines, and the one that was causing trouble and catching fire trying to land in that storm – and I had to just let it go and shut it off, then figure out how to go on without it.
Those aren’t times where you gain perspective.
Those are times where you gain experience.
And we need both.
It’s the transitions that are often challenging.
We have to compensate for things that have been damaged, and flying through the storm becomes quite a bit harder when we lose things we depend on.
I realized that while I’d learned how to instinctively fix something while still compensating for my weakness in the simulator, (slamming those three throttles forward when I really needed four, and stomping on that left rudder while turning hard left to keep the strength I did have from pulling me off course), that that’s a constant lesson in real life.
I got to thinking some more about it all, and how hard flying through that storm was… You couldn’t see anything out the windows of the simulator – it was nothing but instruments – but if you were flying in a storm, you wouldn’t see anything anyway.
…and that, sometimes, is what life is like…
It feels like we’re flying blind, but only if we’re straining to find something in the murk outside…
If we look inside, at our instruments, if you will – there’s more clarity, and while doing that GCA, I had that voice in my headsets guiding me along that cross in the radio beams, and that dotted cross on the instrument panel, and the third one over the top of that, guiding me on the inside. When I was where I was supposed to be, the three crosses became one. I learned that if I focused on that cross, and listened to that voice, it would guide me through any storm.
It was a lesson in trust.
I couldn’t trust in my own instincts. Even when the storm headwinds caused me to go higher than I wanted to go, or the tailwinds caused me to sink lower than I wanted to be, even with that engine threatening to burn a wing off. Being so close to the ground and so slow that any mistake could be the last one, hard as it was, I had to trust.
Getting too far to one side or the other for too long, and pretty soon it’d be impossible to correct for in time even if I made a massive correction to try to get to the runway, so I needed to trust.
As easy as it is to let the storms of life blow me off course, and as hard I know it can be to struggle during those times when I don’t have perspective but I’m gaining that experience, I know that if I keep that cross centered in front of me, and keep listening to the voice in my headphones guides me when I can’t see it, I’ll be okay…
And just like I didn’t finish my time in the simulator unscathed, I haven’t made it through this journey we call Life without a few scars, none of us have. I remember Steve’s words after I landed, after I finished, “Well done!” and the smile and peace it gave me. I pray that at the end of this longer journey, I’ll be able to hear those same words again, from another Voice, “Well done…”
Take care folks – and for those of you who celebrate it, have a wonderful, blessed Easter.