Safety, then and now

May 1, 1999

Tom Brokaw, in his book The Greatest Generation, lauded the accomplishments of the U.S. citizenry during World War II. The parents and grandparents of today's pilots were the backbone of a formidable war effort. Aviation was coming of age. World War II did more to accelerate aeronautical science, aircraft, and pilot training than anything before or since. The grandfather of one of our staff members was a second lieutenant in November 1944 when he received The Pilots' Information Manual, published by the U.S. Army Air Forces. This book is full of solid recommendations on how to survive while operating an aircraft. Most of them are worthy of consideration more than five decades later.

"The success of any flying mission, whether in training or combat operations, depends primarily upon the pilot. As commander of the airplane, you carry heavy responsibilities. The majority...involve only good sound judgement." Profound thought. In today's environment, too many people look to blame someone else. The greatest generation understood the true meaning of the term pilot in command.

"Check the terrain features on your flight: maximum altitude of mountains, facilities for emergency landing." Having just reviewed a number of accidents that occurred in mountainous terrain, my observation is that the pilots involved likely did not fully understand the limitations of their aircraft and possibly of themselves. The capability of the aircraft is tested and printed in the pilot's operating handbook. Very few of us have been successful in coaxing more out of the machine than the manufacturer put in. If the rate of climb is specified as 200 feet per minute under ambient conditions, it is self-delusion to think that we might do better. Terrain elevation is considered one of those "must know" items. The Army Air Force knew it in 1944 and the admonition is as valid as ever.

The 1940s guidance on weather is generally as good as it gets, with a few exceptions. They got 85 percent of it right. "Know the overall weather picture. Study the latest weather map. Read the weather sequences yourself [METARS in today's language]. Check winds aloft. Know the temperature, dewpoint, and barometric readings along your route." That logic is hard to argue and with today's forecasting tools we should have a much better picture than we did 50 years ago. However, as one of my mentors and author of Weather Flying, TWA Capt. Bob Buck, is fond of pointing out, our weather dissemination system has lost much in the transition to DUATS and other packaged weather products. Sorting through several pages of marginally relevant data is not progress. There was an elaborate dispatch system for the Army that the civilian environment could not afford today.

There was excellent guidance on what constitutes marginal weather, or hazardous VFR, as Capt. Buck prefers to call it. The Army Air Force warned that if the ceiling was below 2,000 feet, or the visibility was less than six miles, the pilot should have an alternate. There also needed to be enough fuel to get to that alternate with 45 minutes remaining at normal cruise power settings. That sounds familiar. Speaking of fuel, the old book reminds pilots that while others may service the airplane, the pilot is solely responsible for adequate supply. It also says to check the tanks visually and not rely on the gauges. Now you know the genesis of that little gem of wisdom.

The weather guidance seems so obvious in this easy-to-read book. It suggests that the flight arrive at least two hours before dark or several hours after sunrise to avoid unforecast ground fog. What a concept!

In winter operations, there is the old admonition about not flying until the wing and tail are clean of all frost. You get the feeling that some long-ago pilots learned the hard way about wing contamination. Nevertheless, every winter there are a few determined airmen who try to recheck the findings. The results are the same.

While there is much recent excitement about icing with the loss of several regional turboprop airliners, the military had a good idea about what to do about it. Stay out of the clouds if possible; go up, go down, but — no matter what — don't stay in icing conditions for a prolonged period. The old-timers recognized that stall speed goes up significantly and understood that the aircraft will not have the same stall characteristics with an iced-up wing as with a clean one.

We have learned more about supercooled large droplets and tailplane icing than was known during the war, but there is an interesting observation. According to some of the FAA's certification engineers, some of the new-generation laminar flow airfoils are less tolerant of ice than the old NACA reliables that were designed in the 1930s and '40s. Should we go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear and steam-powered, coal-fired air machines? Probably not, but we may benefit from more historical review of early airfoils.

Some of the thunderstorm guidance was smack on — "Fly around them, reduce airspeed to a safe minimum, and do not land or take off during a thunderstorm. If the aircraft gets into a cumulonimbus cloud, hold heading and do not wander around." However, most thunderstorm survivors will debunk the following: "Fly under them if you can maintain visual ground contact with adequate terrain clearance." Downburst and microburst phenomena were not in the vocabulary of the 1940s. We have since learned that Thor can literally knock aircraft out of the sky. The closing sentence about thunderstorms should be engraved on a few tombstones: "Thunderstorms are mean, but they need not throw you. Just handle them right." Better stated, perhaps, is that you may survive some thunderstorms if you handle them just right, but there are a few that will disassemble your tail feathers no matter how well you fly.

The mysterious art of aerodynamics regarding spins was more mysterious in the 1940s, but most of the guidance is still correct. "Don't spin an airplane that is restricted against spinning. There are good reasons for the restriction." That brief admonition says it all. "Don't get excited." Good advice, although not always so easy to follow. "In general, apply full rudder against the direction of the rotation, followed by full forward stick until the rotation stops. Be patient; it takes time for the control input to take effect, but don't wait too long.... Bail out before it is too late — do not stay with any tactical airplane closer than 5,000 feet to the ground...your airplane will lose a great deal of altitude during recovery...." Not much has changed here.

Generation X and Gold's Gym did not invent physical fitness, contrary to some sources. During the big war, the Army Air Force suggested that crews eat good food, get sufficient sleep, and exercise every day if possible. "Good physical fitness is essential for combat efficiency. It increases your resistance to anoxia (hypoxia), the bends, cold, and blackout, and betters your chances for survival under emergency conditions." In-the-seat exercises to be used by crews on long flights were very much the same as they are today. The benefits of maintaining the body were not lost on the aviators of old.

We learned a lot about high-altitude physiology in the 1940s when hundreds of aircraft were flying missions in the thin air. There was an interesting handwriting sample in the book showing how a pilot reacted without oxygen in a climb to 25,000 feet. Everything was perfectly legible through 10,000, but by the time the aircraft had passed 18,000, the writer's thought processes were clearly unraveling. At 25,000 feet, the writing was illegible and the thoughts, could we read them, were probably incoherent. The Army Air Force required pilots to wear oxygen masks when flying above 10,000 feet and at all altitudes at night. Humans, despite another five decades aloft, have not evolved sufficiently to ignore this early advice. I believe that many "unexplained" accidents today where a normally competent pilot flew into terrain or exercised poor judgment may have been caused by hypoxia, or oxygen want, as it was quaintly termed then.

Somehow each generation thinks it has come up with the solution, and that the doddering fools of the past would have done much better if they were only as smart as we are. As my sense of perspective develops, so does my appreciation of what the World War II generation did for aviation in this country. Every pilot flying today owes them for the hardware and the techniques that they tested and proved. Most of the concepts survive today. It just takes us four times as long to explain them. Lieutenant Straits, thanks for sharing your book and the wisdom of a remarkable generation with us.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.