The Challenges Of A Fighter Pilot—Story Number One

Posted by on Jun 1, 2017 in Perry's Blog | 0 comments

The 555th (Triple Nickel) Fighter Squadron just deployed from its home base in Aviano, Italy to a base in Afghanistan. The pilots will be flying their F-16s on a six-month combat deployment. A full package of maintenance and support personnel will also deploy from Aviano.

The squadron commander has asked me to send him lots of flying stories that he will share with those in his unit. I thought Augusta Chronicle readers might enjoy some of these stories so here goes: flying story number 1.

In 1978, I was flying an F-15 over Germany when I received a call from the controlling agency. An airliner was in trouble—and I was asked if I could help. The controller explained that the pilot’s airspeed indicator was reading zero. This meant he had no way of knowing how fast he was going. This would be a problem on his descent and landing.

I located the airliner and joined up on his wing. After making radio contact, I suggested that to the pilot that he fly on my wing all the way to touchdown at the Frankfurt airport.

He said, “I can’t do that”. He explained that he did not know how to fly in formation with another aircraft. I then suggested plan B– that I fly on his wing and read off my airspeed every second or two.

Since we would be flying together, we would be flying at the same speed. The airline pilot liked idea so we headed to the airport. I asked him what speed he wanted to maintain at each phase of the flight.

About every two seconds, I would radio to him our mutual airspeeds. He informed the control agency that we would be coming down together. The airline pilot did all the navigating—all I had to do was fly a few feet off his wing and read off my airspeed.

When we got to the most important part of the flight, the final approach, he lowered his landing gear and flaps. He had told me that he wanted to maintain 125 knots all the way to touchdown. I kept reading off the airspeed. 124…125…. 126…125, etc.

As he began to round out for his touchdown, I moved my throttles forward and flew back to my base at Bitburg, Germany. I have often wondered what the passengers thought when they saw a fighter jet flying off the wing of their airliner. Did the pilot let them know what was going on? If so, did it cause them any concern?

What lessons can be learned from this event.
1. When you are in trouble, ask for help. Too many people try to solve problems by themselves—ego, insecurity, lack of the ability to trust others or lack of a robust braintrust are just a few reasons why people are unwilling or unable to reach out for assistance.
2. When you yourself are asked for help and you do not have the skills, knowledge or resources to assist, reach out to others.
3. When you are asked for help someone who is truly in need, drop what you are doing and move quickly to assist.
4. Be creative in looking for a solution to the problem
5. If your first answer doesn’t work, come up with another.

All of these factors were in play that day.

The airline pilot, realizing that he could not solve his problem, asked for help—a radio call to air traffic control. Lesson #1.

The air controller could not help but thought of someone who might. He made a radio call to me. Lesson #2.

I realized that the airliner was in real trouble and joined up quickly on the airliners’ wing. Lesson # 3.

I came up with an answer—the airliner should fly on my wing. Lesson #4. But my answer would not work.

Another answer was suggested (my becoming the airliner’s remote airspeed indicator). This answer worked and worked well. Lesson #5.

If the airline pilot had tried to land without assistance, he would not have wanted to get too slow. Hence, he would probably have come down final approach very hot. As he rounded out for a landing, he would have floated way down the runway and landed long. There is a strong likelihood that he would have run off the far end of the runway.

On a totally different subject. I am pleased to announce that Vince and Barbara Dooley and Medal of Honor recipient Roger Donlon will receive the Distinguished American Award at the 8th annual Jimmie Dyess Symposium. Please put 11 January, 2018 on your calendar—Augusta Museum of History—5PM. Attendance is free. A great chance to meet and visit with three remarkable Americans.

[Major General Perry Smith, US Air Force (ret.) flew F-84s, F-100s, F-4s and F-15s. He flew 180 combat missions with the Triple Nickel Squadron during the Vietnam War.]

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