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Flying Life: Think like a test pilotFlying Life: Think like a test pilot

Tips for flying damaged aircraft

Do you remember those books from childhood that tell you the first half of the story, then you get to put yourself in the main character’s shoes and choose from one of many possible endings?

I thought that would be a fun game for us pilots to play with a recent scenario that happened at our flight school:

An instructor and his commercial student were circling a barn in a Cessna 172, practicing ground reference maneuvers at 1,000 feet agl, when they saw a brief flash of dark, feathered wings followed by a loud bang and a sharp yawing and rolling moment to the left. From the cockpit, they could see a large three- to four-foot dent in the leading edge of the left wing, but they were uncertain of the extent of the damage. There was no visibly leaking fuel, but a significant amount of right rudder and aileron pressure was needed to keep the wings level. They were approximately 10 miles away from their home airport of Olive Branch, Mississippi (OLV), a 6,000-foot-long paved runway. However, they could see a small grass strip in gliding distance.

If you were flying that airplane, how would you write the ending to this particular story of the kamikaze buzzard?

The instructor and his student had to determine the best course of action for flying a brand-new airplane, one with strange handling characteristics and a possible fuel leak. Because most of us have never been to test pilot school, I thought it would be helpful to talk to someone who has. For today, our guide will be Jeffrey Nuccio, known as “Nooch” to his friends. Nooch test flew fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force, which included the type of flying most of us can only dream about—deep stall and spin testing at 30,000 feet, high-speed flutter testing, weapon-separation testing, and more. While it all sounds highly dangerous, Nooch says the Air Force takes the safety of its test pilots and test programs seriously.

One safety measure is to be followed by a safety chase airplane, whose job is to talk to the test pilots via radio and let them know when they hit important altitudes, or if there’s a traffic or airspace issue. Or if something goes wrong during a weapon release, the chase plane can come in close and help determine the extent to which you may have damaged your own aircraft.

The military also teaches pilots a controllability check, which is not something I’ve seen advocated in general aviation, perhaps because we don’t have an ejection seat if something goes wrong. The military check would be used in cases where control surfaces may be compromised­—i.e., a bird strike or a buildup of ice, or you were shot by an enemy and concerned about aircraft damage. To do the control check, climb to a safe altitude, and simulate a landing by extending wing flaps and gear and slowing to the approach speed or the minimum controllable airspeed (MCA), whichever is higher. That way, you find out at altitude if there’s a problem with gear or flaps or if stall speed is higher than expected. When coming down to land, choose a runway that’s long enough for an approach speed at least 10 knots greater than MCA or your landing without flaps or hydraulic brakes, whatever it may be. At Edwards Air Force Base, you can pick between the 12,000-foot or the 15,000-foot runway.

While it may feel like missiles and weapon separation testing is a world far removed from what we do in general aviation, Nooch says a bird strike is simply “peacetime battle damage.” So how can we take what we’ve learned and apply it to the damaged Cessna scenario?

While that instructor and his student didn’t have a chase plane, they did have each other. So, one pilot could have focused on flying, while the other handled everything else, including radios, the checklist, traffic avoidance, and watching out for signs of further wing damage. A main concern would be increased stall speed; so, in lieu of a controllability check, the pilot could have simply kept his speed high and avoided configuration changes, landing with no flaps in case one was damaged. Because of the increased landing speed, it would probably have been best to continue back to the longer paved runway instead of landing on the short grass strip.

That’s exactly what they did, by the way. Even without Nooch’s advice, they used some smart, practical thinking to get themselves and their aircraft home safely. I did that student’s commercial checkride a week later (in another airplane, of course), and he passed with flying colors. If we fly long enough, at some point, we all will have the experience of being test pilots. Hopefully you won’t be dealing with antiaircraft fire, but you may find yourself having to land with some aircraft damage or ice accumulation or in a gusty crosswind that exceeds the maximum demonstrated crosswind component. In any case, there’s no reason to panic. Think like a test pilot, and do everything you can to increase your margin of safety. Remember, in most cases, we get to choose our own ending.

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