Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dain Bramage

     "America loves football with an ardor that would dethrone reason,
  were reason enthroned in America."     - George Will

Esteemed and Gentle Readers,

I'm about to relate yet another flying story.  Recently, my brother emailed me a video link that had me rolling on the floor.  If you are 'of a certain age' you will remember it.  As best I know, the comedian is the source of the term "Dain Bramage."  (At this point, those of you reading this to young children will want to do some parenting and review the video before you let the kids watch it.)  It's about 7 minutes long and fairly important to the story I'm about to tell so please watch this video before you read on or set this aside until you can budget the required time.

Ready?  As is true with most of the tales related here, the setup will require some explanation.  

My last assignment in the Air Force was to be an Instructor Pilot in the T-38 at Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas.  As I had achieved the lofty rank of Major, a lot of my time was spent in a supervisory role rather than as an active instructor.  I am familiar with the details of this story because I was due to be the new Flight Commander of the student pilot who stars in this saga.

The T-38 was and is a great airplane.  I really miss 'strapping it on'.

It 'kinda-sorta' had a pressurized cockpit.  Unlike airliners, the pressurization supplied was NOT sufficient to keep the cabin altitude at a level where you could breathe without an oxygen mask once you were cruising in the stratosphere.  The system's purpose was to maintain a cabin pressure at a level that would prevent 'the bends' in all of its varied presentations.  If you took the airplane up to 40,000' above sea level - the airplane's best cruising altitude - the cabin-altitude would rise to slightly above 20,000'.  Unless you are in Mt Everest climbing level training, you can only breath air this thin for very short periods of time.

Breathing oxygen is supplied to the pilot through an oxygen mask attached to a flying helmet.  The helmet itself was custom built for each pilot and very comfortable and protective.  There is a microphone in the mask for communicating between cockpits and on the radios.  Headsets are attached left and right on the inside of the helmet using Velcro. ™   You can adjust the position of these earcups for maximum comfort.

Another piece to this puzzle is to understand that from the back seat of the T-38, the instructor pilot cannot see into the front cockpit.  The only portion of the student pilot that is visible is about an inch and a half of the top of the student's helmet.  When you instruct in the T-38, you quickly become an expert in piecing together verbal cues and the subtle movements of this small slice of the student to figure out what the student is 'up to.'

The next piece to understand is that the two cockpits are completely separate from each other.  There is a Plexiglas ™ windscreen behind the front seat occupant's head and in front of the back seater's instrument panel.  This is a safety precaution in the event that the front canopy departs the aircraft to prevent wind blast striking the back seater. 

Finally, there are switches and controls vital to the operation of the T-38 that are only available to the front cockpit pilot.  Every T-38 instructor has given a lot of thought to how to communicate with a student pilot in the front seat when they need one of those controls/switches activated. 

This story happened almost 20 years ago - the main players are 'Capt Smith', the instructor pilot and 'Lieutenant  Dain', the student pilot.  Neither of these names are true - but 'Dain' is very close to the real name for reasons that will become obvious.  Their mission on this fateful day was a 'Day Out & Back Navigation Sortie' with Lt. Dain in the front seat.  They took off from Laughlin AFB, climbed high into the stratosphere and once they were north of the Big Bend in the Rio Grande River they turned west to cruise out to Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Az.

They are smoking along at .90 mach, the best cruising speed of the T-38, when Lt. Dain begins to become aware that one of his headsets has become maladjusted and he is beginning to feel discomfort on the mastoid process behind his right ear.  In short time, the Lt decides that the pain has grown to the point that it is distracting him from the quality training being provided by Capt Smith in the back seat.

So he says to the instructor, "Sir, please take the airplane for a moment."  Capt Smith does this using the standardized terminology: "Roger, I have the aircraft." to which Lt Dain acknowledges "Roger, you have the aircraft."  Everything is all ricky-ticky so far although this is not something that student pilots often do.  As the puzzled instructor pilot asks: "What's going on?" he sees Lt Dain remove his helmet to adjust the earcup.

Lt Dain puts the helmet in his lap to do this.  He is so consumed with the concentration required to adjust the earcup that he does not notice that he has jammed the helmet up against the stick thereby 'pitching' the nose down and starting a descent from the assigned cruising altitude. Capt Smith, on the other hand, is immediately aware of this and tries forcefully to bring the stick back with only moderate success.

Just that quickly, Capt Smith has been presented with a deadly emergency situation.  He has three vital concerns: 1) Lt Dain could quickly become incapacitated due to hypoxia since he is not breathing through his mask.  2)  If Lt Dain does not move the helmet, he will continue to be unable to prevent the uncontrolled descent of the aircraft. 3)  The T-38 does not have a 'Command Sequenced Ejection System' - each cockpit must eject separately.   

So, if the situation deteriorates to the point where Capt Smith has to eject to prevent his own demise he will be leaving Lt Dain to his fate.   There is absolutely nothing Capt Smith can do for Lt Dain.   Capt Smith finds himself doing two things simultaneously.  First, he is on the radio with the air traffic controller, declaring an in-flight emergency since he cannot control his altitude and has - in fact - departed from his Air Traffic Control Clearance.  There is a Southwest Airline 737 somewhere out in front of him at a lower altitude and it would be best to take steps to avoid hitting it.  Second, he is futilely pounding on the windscreen in front of him trying to get Lt Dain's attention in the only method that remains available to him.  It is very noisy in a T-38 at .90 mach as the wind rushes over the thin Plexiglas canopy.  Removing your helmet exposes you to lots of decibels of noise.  Lt Dain - if he is still conscious - does not hear this pounding.

We do not know this for a certainty, but your humble correspondent is convinced that at this point some vulgar language was expressed and there is a strong possibility that Capt Smith took the Lord's name in Vain.

This situation remained unresolved for many long moments and about 10,000' of altitude was lost.  Capt Smith has grown both despondent and extremely angry - two emotions one would think would be mutually exclusive.  At this point, Lt Dain dons his helmet and oxygen mask and says:  "Sir, I have the aircraft", blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding around him.

We do not know the exact phrasing Capt Smith used, but his answer to Lt Dain was efffectively: "No, Lt Dain, you do not have the aircraft.  I do.  Further, I want you to place your hands on top of your helmet and do not take them down unless I give you express orders to do so." I'm sure it was a colorful exchange of information. 

Our intrepid aviators - the emergency situation resolved - climb back to altitude.  Because by this time they are closer to Tucson, they continue to their flight planned destination.  It is mostly quiet in the cockpit during this period as Capt Smith does not trust himself to speak.

After landing, Capt Smith directs Lt Dain to go inside the Base Operations Building, sit down and stay there.  Capt Smith then uses the Autovon phone system to call Major Jones, the existing Flight Commander whom I am due to replace the next day.  I had known Major Jones for a long time - he was a well-respected friend.  His command persona was excellent and the student pilots he commanded liked and respected him too. Capt Smith explains to Major Jones what had just transpired and said:  "Sir, I want to put him on a commercial flight back to Laughlin and I'll bring the jet back solo."

Gentle Reader, what you must understand here is that if Lt Dain is returned in disgrace on a commercial flight, it has a couple of serious impacts and is a last resort option.  First, the squadron has a limited travel budget that is only spent with alacrity.  However, if this is truly a 'safety of flight' situation, budgetary constraints are only a secondary concern.  More importantly, Lt Dain will probably find himself removed from flight training and probably will not successfully complete pilot training.  At this point in Lt Dain's progress, he has been in pilot training for almost a year and the AF has invested a lot of money and resources in him.  He has already jumped most of the fences in the training designed to eliminate unsatisfactory candidates.  So, Major Jones is reluctant to approve this plan unless he is convinced that this event has precipitated Lt Dain into 'extremis'. 

So, he proposes an alternate plan to Capt Smith.  "Ok, consider this, please.  Take Lt Dain into a private debriefing room.  Debrief the sortie in a full and complete fashion and ensure that he understands the seriousness of the situation he placed himself in.  Tell him that his performance was unsatisfactory and he will be graded as such on this sortie. Analyze his reactions during this debrief and make a further assessment of his suitability for continuation in training.  If you aren't absolutely sure this is a career ending event, fly another training sortie with him and return here to base.  Do not worry about your scheduled return time. Take all the time you need to perform this assessment.  Call me back."  Capt Smith says:  "Yessir" and hangs up.

The return flight is uneventful.  Lt Dain - now acutely aware of the danger he has placed his life and career in - is a model student during this flight.  Capt Smith conducts a second professional debrief and orders Lt Dain to report to Maj Jones in a military manner while he completes the required post-flight paperwork 

I am invited to attend this meeting with Maj Jones as I assume responsibility for Lt Dain's training on the morrow.  At this point, I would like to direct your attention to the movie "Top Gun".  In that movie, Maverick and Goose find themselves in a similar situation where they are standing tall on the carpet in front of the commander.  In my opinion, the commander in that movie conducts himself in an unprofessional manner.  Officers 'chewing the ass' of another officer - and specifically pilots - do not need to raise their voice.

No, there is a much stronger consequence available to the commander.  Lt Dain's highest priority in life at that point is to graduate from pilot training.  If it were not, he would not have progressed as far as he had in training.   Normally, a student pilot meeting with his Flight Commander is invited to sit comfortably.  The Flight Commander is not normally the bad guy.  He has an Assistant Flight Commander to be the bad guy.

This strategy is used to make the times where the Flight Commander does have to be the bad guy that much more effective.  Lt Dain reported to Maj Jones and was not offered a seat but was kept at attention.  Maj Jones calmly got up out of his seat and walked around his desk to stand behind Lt Dain, positioning himself about a foot behind Lt Dane's right ear.

Quietly he said: "Lt Dain, I don't know what to do with you.  By rights, right now you should be dead in a smoking hole somewhere in southern Arizona.  I would be dressed in a Class-A uniform and accompanied by a chaplain.  We would be walking up to your front step to tell your wife that soon she would be attending a closed casket funeral in your honor.  It would be a closed casket because we would only have found small scattered bits of your remains."  He pauses.  "I wonder if you have the native intelligence to be an aviator in the Air Force?"  Another pause.  "What am I going to do with you?"

By this time, Lt Dain was a whiter shade of pale.  He wisely said nothing.

Maj Smith let this drama draw out for a long excruciating time.  I am sitting over to the side, my hand covering my lower face, praying to God for the strength not to laugh out loud.  Lt Dain grows even more pale.

Finally:  "Lt Dain, it is with more than a little reluctance that I have decided to continue you in training.  You'd better understand that this was your last error.  You have about a month and about 20 training events before you graduate.  I don't ever want to talk to you again unless it is in much happier circumstances.  Have I made myself perfectly clear to you?"

Lt Dain acknowledged that the situation was very clear to him.  He was a model student for the remainder of his training and successfully graduated and was awarded his silver pilot wings.  To the best of my knowledge he had a successful flying career.

Now we complete this saga.  Lt Dain was known from then on as "Lt Dain Bramage".

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

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