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The march to the Bone Yard continues. Like all old soldiers eventually do, it is time to let the memory of B-52H tail-number 60-019– a.k.a. “Balls-19”– start to fade away.
Billy Bob, Bush, and Stretch flew Balls-19 down there on 7 Aug. She had 17,885.7 glorious hours after the flight was over. Of course that is just flying time, which doesnt take into consideration the myriad hours she stood nuclear alert with the crews of SAC.
By mid 1989, I was nearly finished with my last full line in the 328th Bomb Squadron at Castle. I had been “on the line” longer than any other IP in the 328 by that time. And Id had many great students up till then, but those two were definitely top-drawer.
The copilot was a former B-52 navigator. He had done well enough in UPT to get his first choice of assignments–the resolute BUFF.
The pilot was a T-37 first assignment instructor pilot (FAIP) who was the first natural pilot Id ever seen. He was proficient with AR on his second flight–never seen that before or since. You could show him something once and he could do it as well as you could. It must have been my excellent instruction, yeah, thats it.
They each went on to win top-graduate award for their crew-position in the class, but not before they almost killed me. The whole thing taught me something very important.
Only three or four flights away from their check-ride, everything was going well. Base operations–error free. Preflight–error free. Start-engine, take-off, and level-off at cruise–no errors. Air refueling was picture-perfect. For me–as an instructor pilot–it was just about as boring as I could stand. Then we went low-level.
It was IR-300, a place that should still be familiar to many of you that flew the BUFF. The route was very mountainous at the beginning. Which is perfectly boring, because the calibration peak for the terrain avoidance (TA) equipment wasnt until the very end of the leg. One constant altitude until cross-over. Yawn.
As per standard procedure, the studs were in the seats for low-level. I was in the IP wearing a chute but leaning forward to keep an eye on things. Weather was clear and a million. Eyes can get heavy on a navigation leg like that.
No problems. Same old thing. Here we go again. Eyes so heavy …
Through my lashes I watched a picture-perfect peak calibration. Good job. Yawn.
Shortly after the peak-check, the low-level route turned slightly left and descended about 7000 feet down the mountain range into the Black Rock Desert–probably the flattest spot in North America. No trees, no bushes–at least none you can see at 800 feet. The challenge was to get down to the desert early enough to take advantage of that flat area to accomplished a flat and rolling calibration. Why do two? Because you can. Never miss a chance to train.
If pilots followed the newly-calibrated TA trace down the mountain, theyd lose several miles of the desert. The standard technique back then was for the pilot to announce Disregarding the trace, and then descend using visual procedures. Which is exactly what all pilots did, every time on IR-300.
I was struggling with a boredom-induced near-coma as we descended down the backside of the mountain. The TA trace was at the top of the screen. Impact point in the EVS. I remember my spider-senses starting to tingle or maybe it was a guardian angel telling me, Wake-up! My eyes were wide open.
With only 1000 feet on the radar-altimeter, we still had a pegged VVI. Not good. Then the IP in me had something to do–and I did it. My picture-perfect pilot responded as directed and even with the aggressive 2-g pull-up–we dished out at 250 feet.
We climbed back to 800 feet and the rest of the ride was perfect. I remember the two pilots giving each other the Oh no, we just hooked a ride look. I was busy kicking myself in the butt for the next twenty minutes.
A perfectly good B-52 with a crew of ten warrior Airmen–almost a smoking-hole. What would the accident report have said? Im glad that one was never written.
No matter how good an unqualified student is performing–theyre still unqualified. I remember something an old instructor pilot once told me, The primary job of an student is to kill his instructor. If he cant kill you, he wants to at least confuse you, so youll look stupid.
To that I add, Its not the weak student that will kill you. Its the picture-perfect student who lulls you into a false sense of comfort and security that will kill you–and its your fault if you let that happen.
That desert excitement was all my fault. And I knew it. That day, I silently pledged to change my attitude and actions as an instructor from then on. As an instructor I would remain on the sharp edge. I knew then and forever that no matter how boring things appeared on the surface–sheer terror could raise its ugly head at any moment. Be prepared.
During our dedicated critique-day, I explained to them how to prevent something like that from ever happening again. After I shared those techniques, I told them that while they would have busted a check-ride, it wasnt necessarily unsafe. After all, we still had another 250 feet to go.
I wish Id had a camera to capture the look on their faces. They had expected to bust the ride, but instead they–no–we had all learned something that would stay with us forever.
So, unsafe? Probably not. A lot of pilots have flown at 250 feet. In 1987, I flew a Maple Flag sortie over Canada at 250 feet for almost two and half hours. And that reminds me of another story Ill save for later.
If this story about the day I almost died helps anyone be a better instructor–it was well worth the effort to tell it.
Remember, the primary job of an instructor is to keep the student and the airplane reusable. Be careful out there.
It just makes sense.