Compartmentalization And A Focus On Flight, Part 2

T-37 cockpit
Cessna T-37B cockpit. Credit: J. Brew, Creative Commons

This first part of this article discusses compartmentalization as a way to stay focused on the mission.

Imagine flying an ILS approach in the weather to minimums, without the aid of an autopilot or flight director. Now imagine doing that in the cockpit of a Cessna T-37B where not only are the instruments not laid out as you would expect, but the instruments themselves are not conducive to an instrument crosscheck. To check your heading versus your course deviation, for example, required you to move your eyes from the attitude indicator down one instrument and to the right for the heading, and then left two instruments for the course. The T-37 was the Air Force’s primary jet trainer in the seventies and eighties; it seemed to be designed to produce excellent instrument pilots by making everything difficult.

You needed to focus on the task at hand. I thought it couldn’t get worse than one particular day, flying down to minimums at Loring Air Force Base, Maine, when I found myself descending through 500 ft., hypnotized by the centered deviation needles for about 15 sec. Centering the needles could be a challenge, especially with any kind of wind. But once they were centered, if you had a very light touch on the stick, they tended to stay centered. In that one-quarter minute of centered-needle bliss, I failed to look at the attitude indicator and the result could have been catastrophic. I snapped out of it with less than a few degrees of inadvertent bank and pitch, put things right, and we popped out of the weather ten sec. later.

I worried about my personal failure to focus until I developed a technique to get myself “into the game” prior to starting down the glide slope. But more on that later. 

I kept my embarrassing lapse of flight discipline to myself, too embarrassed to admit it to my peers. My peers were fellow copilots flying either the KC-135A tanker or the B-52G bomber. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) allowed us to build flight time in the Cessna T-37B in a program called the Accelerated Copilot Enrichment (ACE) program. I had less than 500 hr. total time, about half of that in the T-37B. SAC’s objective was for us copilots to build time so we could upgrade to the left seat of our primary aircraft. My objective was to build time so I could get out of SAC.  

SAC allowed us to fly up to 6.5 hr. a day in the T-37B, so that’s what I did whenever I got the chance. Most our sorties were no longer than 1.6 hr., so a typical day required four or five hops. It made for some very long days.

I tended to fly with a few trusted friends whom I knew would keep the airplane right-side-up in the crummiest weather. We would trade legs and fly as if solo—the pilot in the right seat basically a passenger on an ejection seat. As 1982 began, I was getting very close to the required 1,000 hr. total time needed for an assignment and I started flying with a new set of copilots, since my trusted peers were graduating to the left seat of their primary aircraft.  

After a year of 6.5 hr. a day in all types of weather, I wasn’t going to be distracted from my goal; I would continue to fly as before.  On January 14th of that year, I found myself with a pilot I had never flown with before; but he seemed pretty sharp. Let’s call him Russ. On our fourth leg of the day, flying into Rochester, New York, I was in the right seat.  The weather was 200 ft. above minimums, practically VFR by our standards. I wasn’t worried but I was exhausted.

Sitting on an ejection seat and breathing from an oxygen mask, you tend to normalize sensations. We had to strap tightly into the seat because any looseness during ejection could snap your spine. Our helmets were form-fitted to our heads and the masks expertly adjusted so that after a while you forgot they were clamped to your face. Mostly you started to tune out the noise. The T-37B has a loud, annoying whine to it and most pilots wore ear plugs inside their helmet to help preserve any hearing they still had. But still there was that annoying noise.

That is what woke me up. The noise suddenly disappeared, our engines were at idle. I looked forward to see the windshield completely caked in ice. For some reason I then looked to my right, only to see the right wing with about an inch of ice on it. I then looked to my left, where Russ was in a trance, staring at the attitude indicator, which was just as it should be, wings level and just a degree or two below the horizon. I scanned down, left and then up, right. We were at 900 ft., descending about 500 ft. per minute, and the course indicator showed us flying 30 degrees off heading away from the course. The ground around there was about 500 ft. above mean sea level; we would be dead in less than a minute.

“Go around.”

“What? Why?”

“Go around. If you don’t, I’m taking the aircraft.”

He went around. As the engines roared to life and he pitched the nose upward, I began a series of the biggest lies of my life. “Rochester approach, Ace Five Three Two missed approach, has lost all navigation equipment and is requesting no gyro vectors to Plattsburgh.”

“We haven't lost our nav equipment,” Russ protested.

“I'll explain later,” I said, pulling the charts for Plattsburgh. “Speed up as fast as you can get her and maybe some of that ice on the windscreen will sublimate.” I managed to smile inside my oxygen mask; it was a ridiculous thought. How can a T-37 pick up that much speed?  But climbing above the cloud layer and the increased speed did something, Russ and I both gained about a dollar-bill-sized port through the sheet of ice. Russ flew a very nice ground-controlled radar approach at Plattsburgh and landed us with just that small patch of window in front of him. As we taxied into the ramp the linesmen gathered around the airplane pointing at the wings, the tail and our windscreen. There was ice everywhere.

Before the engines had reached zero percent Russ said, “Now what was all that about?”

“Russ, I fell asleep. When I woke up, we were less than five hundred ft. off the ground with the airplane covered in ice, no forward visibility.  We were ninety degrees to course with full scale deflection.”

I heard the unmistakable sound of someone vomiting in his oxygen mask. I got out of the airplane in record time and spent the next hour in the comfort of the base operations shack watching the ice fall off the wings while Russ cleaned the cockpit.

Psychoanalyzing Russ’s actions and my own, I came to realize all of the blame belonged to me. Russ didn’t want to fly four legs that day and would have been happy with less than my normal 6.5 hours per day of flying. But he wouldn’t tell me that because he didn’t want to seem “unmanly,” our code word back in those day for a pilot who didn’t have what it takes. I was blinded by my goals. Russ also needed my technique for getting serious about flying that airplane to minimums. I shared my technique with Russ, and I could tell he was wondering why I had never shared it before. So now I’ll share it with you.

The subsequent and last part of this article series will examine “pre-planned thought.”

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…