Fly like a fighter: A humbling situation

September 9, 2013

Fly like a fighterWhen I was in Air Force pilot training, I was able to fly a three-day cross-country in the T-37 and T-38. I was pretty good with the whiz wheel and required calculations, so filling out my navigation data log for the flights wasn’t a big problem.

My cross-country flights in the F-15 were normally deployments well within range of the airplane, and by then I was able to use the computer for flight planning. I did have to pull my whiz wheel out once in the F-15 when I was low on fuel still a long way from home, but other than that, I didn’t use it for a long time.

During my training to become an instructor pilot in the T-38, it became time to fly my cross-country, which required planning with the whiz wheel. Almost all of my F-15 flying was overseas, so I wasn’t totally familiar with all the nice spots to go to for instrument approach work, fuel, and a good overnight stay. In addition, my manual flight planning skills, which I thought would come back quickly with a little dusting off, didn’t.

Larry BrownI was paired with an instructor pilot I had never even met but was told he would meet me after lunch in the flight planning room. I started the planning solo by mid-morning. Of course there were weather issues of one kind or another in all directions, so I was flailing a little. Once I reconfirmed start carts and fuel were available, I got going with the maps, charts, and navigation log. Then I heard from a classmate that the forecast was updated for the worse for my initial destination. So time to find a Plan B.

By the time my instructor pilot showed up to meet me, he could tell I was not a happy camper and that my flailing level had risen to moderate. With the clock ticking he got me back on track and took care of the nav log for our second flight while I made headway on planning the first leg. We finally made it to the jet and got airborne for our first destination. 

When we got close and tuned in ATIS, we heard that the crosswinds were out of limits for us to land. This was not even in the forecast. My instructor pilot asked me what my plan was and I wasn’t sure. I spent so much time in flail mode, and ceilings were well above limits such that an IFR alternate was not required, that I hadn’t really looked at diversion airports. He then kindly informed me of a suitable diversion not far away.

I was humbled.

Since then I make it a point to know all of my diversion options before I strap on my airplane. Beyond map preparation, this also includes pulling notams and weather for airports along my route of flight. At many GA airports with only one runway, there are other reasons besides low ceilings and wind that could shut down the runway, so having an alternate for every flight just makes sense. Finally, if you haven’t really done a by-the-book manual flight plan in a long time, then find a co-pilot or a CFI, pick a nice destination, and knock the rust off your own flight planning skills. Avoid being humbled like I was.

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 2,700 hours total time during his 33 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.”