Never Again: Negative transfer

June 1, 2009

It sometimes baffles me how the FAA comes up with a vocabulary all its own. Negative transfer is a term that has been coined by the FAA to describe how pilots who fly various aircraft may apply skills and natural reactions that are appropriate for one category of aircraft but can be disastrous when applied to a different type aircraft.

Over the previous two years I had set a goal to obtain all of the FAA category and class ratings—all the fixed-wing ATP ratings; helicopter, gyrocopter; and instructor ratings, including commercial glider and CFI glider certificates. As a former F–16 fighter pilot who loved air-to-air combat, I found that flying gliders allowed for a new freedom that I enjoyed. The view from the canopy and the challenge of finding lift along with the peacefulness of powerless flight was exhilarating and required many different skills than the other flying I had done.

My initial solo glider flight was four hours long and, along the way, the pilot of a high-performance glider and I got into an air-to-air contest of our own. I may not have known much about glider flying, but I did understand air combat, and we got into a turning-circle “dogfight” with the two gliders. He and I had a wonderful time debriefing our encounter over dinner that night. It was a great experience, but it was the beginning of negative transfer taking place.

Several months later, my son and I headed out for a day of glider flying together. It would be his first glider flight, and we had been looking forward to our time together for several weeks. It was a beautiful day with a 20- to 30-knot wind blowing against the ridge, which would provide for an excellent day of soaring as well as views of Oregon’s Mount Hood and the beautiful Hood River valley. We were towed up to the ridge and released.

The eagles and other gliders were gracefully floating along the ridge together when I spotted my previous “enemy” in his sleek, single-place, high-performance glider. I was in an old 1960s Schweizer, a two-place 2-33 trainer, which had the aesthetic lines of an albatross. Yet I pulled up next to him and the fun began.

Initially, we were on the upwind side of the ridge with great lift, and we began our dogfight canopy to canopy, pulling for all we were worth. The other pilot did aerobatic shows with his glider and had every advantage in terms of pilot skill, aircraft performance, and experience. We were pulling more and more to get the angle on each other and win the fight by being in position for the shot. My son laughed with joy in each successive turn as I maneuvered closer and closer into position. I became so focused on the air-to-air maneuvering utilizing my F–16 training that I forgot I was in a glider and might not be able to recover from the energy-depleting maneuvers.

As we were wrapped up in our dogfight, we lost precious altitude and airspeed, and both of us had drifted to the downwind side of the ridge. In contrast to the lift on the upwind side, we were now in an area of downdrafts. All of our hard turning had increased drag and caused us get lower and lower. After I made the “shot,” I looked up and saw we were in a new location—it was clear that we were in a bad situation.

Now some positive transfer took place from my hours of emergency procedures training in the Air Force. One of the biggest things we learned was that you almost always have time to get the aircraft under control, assess the situation, make a plan—and, most of all, not panic. Also, if you lose your engine(s) maintain airspeed and aircraft control above all else.

I began increasing my speed into the wind for “best penetration” speed. Within a few seconds, however, it became painfully clear that we were not going to make it across the ridge and a forced landing was going to be required. I determined the best course of action was to land in the safest place possible, into the 20-knot wind to minimize impact. In glider vernacular this is nicely called landing out, but in truth we were going to end up somewhere I hadn’t intended to be. My son’s jubilance turned into stone silence as he watched the trees get closer and closer.

I was looking for a suitable place to land and made a quick radio call to my buddies that I would be doing a forced landing on the backside of the ridge.

The mountains of Oregon are not a good place to have to put a glider down. But fortunately an area clear of tall pines up ahead looked reasonably safe. Would we be able to make it there? Pushing the nose over to maximum penetration speed went against all my natural senses, but I had to increase the speed to get through the headwind and increase my glide distance. As a 150-foot pine tree went by our right side I prepared to flare the aircraft into a small hole between the trees. We touched down firmly just above the stall and rolled to a stop in about 40 feet.

I assessed our situation and found that we were both OK. I got out of the glider to examine the damage to the aircraft and my pride; both had some dings but would be repairable. I found out later that my “enemy” with his higher-performance glider had narrowly made it to safety across the ridge—with about 50 feet to spare. The old Schweizer wouldn’t have done it.

As I recounted the experience it was clear that my F–16 fighter time had negatively influenced my decision making in the glider. With 40,000 pounds of thrust in full afterburner, worrying about downwind sink was never a consideration. Also, the extensive (and at times very boring) military briefings set specific air combat parameters such as the minimum altitude for the floor of the fight, minimum fuel, lost sight procedures, and more. These are critical for any close maneuvering between aircraft, and my opponent and I hadn’t done them before our dogfight.

All aircraft have their envelopes, and they can bite you in a big way if you violate their rules. Sometimes having a great deal of flying experience can work against you in new aircraft types. No one is immune to making mistakes. There is no substitute for experience, training, and situational awareness in any aircraft, regardless of its performance.

David Valaer is a former A–7 and F–16 fighter pilot with airline transport ratings in single engine land and sea; multiengine land and sea; commercial gyrocopter, helicopter, glider; CFI-aircraft, gyrocopter, glider, and CFII-aircraft and, yes, his son still loves to fly with him.