Fly like a fighter: Voices in the cockpit

June 5, 2012

fly like a fighter

Section IV of the single-seat F-15C flight manual is titled “Crew Duties,” and it simply states “Not Applicable.” We became very proficient at handling all cockpit duties solo. This meant only having to respond to radio calls from outside the cockpit, and your brain from within.

On one particular day, I was assigned to fly the F-15D two-seat “family model” on a local exercise sortie. Because it was exercise week, one of our command post officers showed up to fly and sat in the back seat. He was an F-4 weapons system officer (WSO)/navigator/backseater who had plenty of hours as a crewmember in the F-4. My crew brief with him included how we would handle emergency procedures including ejection, and I also told him what I expected from him during the mission, especially our inter-cockpit communications. I essentially said that I needed him to be quiet unless he saw a “bandit” aircraft approaching us, we had a malfunction, or we were at Bingo fuel (time to go home) and I wasn’t going home.

Engine start, taxi, and runway lineup were uneventful. On takeoff roll, as I rapidly accelerated down the runway with the afterburners lit, I heard from somewhere, “60 knots … 80 knots ….”  I was very confused as to what was going on, so I started to pull the throttles to idle to abort the takeoff when I realized that the voice was my backseater calling out airspeed numbers as we rolled down the runway. Since I had briefed him to only talk if a bandit was attacking, if we had a malfunction, or if we were out of gas— we definitely didn’t have anyone attacking us, and we weren’t out of gas—I assumed that we had a malfunction. Fortunately my brain sorted things out and we continued our takeoff. Once airborne I re-briefed his talking role from the back seat and the rest of the mission went fine.

larry brownThis story relates to a very common occurrence in the general aviation world. I had someone with aviation experience in my airplane who wanted to “help out.” There are many times when another pilot—or pilot wannabee—may join you for a flight. Without a proper crew brief, surprises are inevitable—the non-PIC has changed radio frequencies, dialed in a new navaid, updated your GPS, changed your transponder, leaned your mixture, dialed in a little bit of trim, or any other of a number of things that he or she can get their hands on.

Don’t take the crew brief for granted. And don’t worry about being polite—just be professional. Ask what they might like to do, but then be direct about what your co-pilot/passenger is and is not allowed to do in your airplane while you are PIC. This will actually make for a smoother, and safer, ride for all.

Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,600 hours total time during his 32 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”