The lieutenant that would almost kill us both walked into my office on the second deck of Hangar 23 at Naval Air Station Alameda early on a sunny afternoon, wanting to get checked out in one of the aero club’s Cessnas.
“I want to take my family flying,” he said.
I looked him over—his gold flight wings, pressed khakis, brown shoes—and thought, “Here is a skilled naval aviator.” His polyester khakis along with his brown shoes spoke to me… I wondered how the polyester uniform would behave during a fire: would it melt against the skin, worsening the burn depth, or would the cotton khakis provide a better environment to escape the flames? I think like that sometimes, always wondering, “What if?”
I had been hired two years earlier by the board of directors of the Naval Air Station Alameda Aero Club to be its first full time manager. Now I know many naval air stations have a “flying club,” but Alameda’s was an “aero club.” It was a “non-appropriated fund” activity, which meant that the revenues generated within the club would maintain the club’s activities—no tax dollars could be used to support the flying club. All revenue from the rental rates and dues would have to support the activity.
When I was hired, the aero club had a Citabria, a PA-28R, two Cessna 150s, a Cessna 172, and an old Mooney M20 with the Johnson bar for gear retraction and extension. I had earned my Certificated Flight Instructor rating through the GI Bill and spent four years on active duty with the United States Coast Guard across the bay at Yerba Buena Island. I was interested in the job, as it was something to do with airplanes and my big dream of sailing away as a professional yacht skipper had been scuppered due to a bicycle accident that broke my collar bone.
“Have you much experience in general aviation aircraft?” I asked.
“Just during basic flight training,” he replied.
“Oh, OK,” I said. “Let’s get you started. First I’ll need to make copies of your naval aviator credentials and you’ll need to take an open book written exam on the airplane you wish to get checked out in.”
“A, Bee, Dee,” he said.
“What?” I replied.
“Already Been Done—ABD.” He held out the two page, double-sided written exam on our Cessna 172.
I looked over his written answers and could tell from times before that he had filled in the questions accurately and precisely… Dimensions, engine particulars, performance, weight & balance, operating limitations, V-speeds, emergency procedures, etc. He was nothing if not thorough, I thought. Pretty sure of himself, too. Oh, well, you can always tell a Navy pilot, but you just can’t tell him much.
“All right then, when would you like to schedule a flight check?” I inquired.
“I’m available all afternoon. I just finished checking into my new squadron this morning,” he said as he jerked his thumb in the general direction of the entire flight line.
OK, I thought to myself, is he a transport pilot, helo driver, an attack guy, or a fighter pilot? It was hard to ascertain without him wearing his leather jacket where aviators added their squadrons’ patches, which screamed their affiliation.
Naval Air Station Alameda had a naval air rework facility (NARF) on station that took in all kinds of Navy aircraft for repair, upgrades, and engine overhauls so it was common to see all types of aviators walking or strutting around the flight line.
“I’m available if you wish to do it now,” I said. My lunch hour was approaching, so I could finish this checkout within an hour and still get something to eat at the cafeteria.
“Great, let’s Gee Eye Dee,” he said.
“I’m sorry, what?” I replied.
“Get it done—Gee Eye Dee.”
Oh, brother, I thought, not acronyms all afternoon I hope.
“Okay, let’s go see an airplane,” I said as I motioned him to walk with me out of the office. I put the phone recorder on to take calls during my absence and grabbed the airplane’s keys from above the squawk sheet clipboard hanging in the ready room next door. We walked out of the office, along the mezzanine, and down the flight of stairs to the hangar floor.
Our flight line of general aviation aircraft was between Hangar 23 and the field operations and tower building. We were located here, well away from the taxiway, to prevent any jet blast or rotor wash from blowing the little airplanes around on their chain tie-downs. It was about a 300 yard walk to the tower to file our VFR flight plan, enough time after our preflight for me to get to know this aviator a bit more.
I approached the Cessna 172 with the Navy Aviator in tow and opened the pilot’s door and motioned him to take the seat and inquired, “Look familiar?”
“Oh, sure, a basic trainer, you got your ‘peanut’ artificial horizon, in a basic six-pack arrangement, radio stack, com one and two, nav one and two,” as he touched each radio in turn. “Plus an ADF and transponder at the bottom,” he finished.
“Take out that control lock and I’ll refresh you on the preflight procedures,” I said. “Grab the owner’s manual from the seat pocket.”
As he was climbing out, I picked up one of the small yellow wooden chocks we used to chock the left main gear and held it behind my back. When he wasn’t looking I placed it gently on the top of the left wing and left it there.
“Okay, open the owner’s manual there and follow the steps as we go around this machine,” I instructed.
He gamely opened the owner’s manual to the correct page, held it in his hand, and started the walk-around. Of course, when he stepped up, correctly, the first time to inspect the top of the left wing and open the fuel cap, he immediately spotted my “Easter egg,” said, “This doesn’t belong here,” and handed the chock to me. OK, he can see the forest and the trees together, I thought.
Completing the preflight, and finding no issues, we began the walk across the tarmac to the tower building to get a weather brief and file a VFR local flight plan, planning on just flying around the Bay Area, seeing some local VFR reporting points he’d need to successfully fly this little “lawn-mower of the sky” (as he called it), as opposed to the jet aircraft he normally would pilot.
Paperwork complete, weather brief in hand, we returned to the Cessna, untied her, and I took a final walk around to inspect the machine once more. When I climbed in on the right side, the naval aviator had already positioned himself in the left seat and was gently closing and latching the door.
Oh, good sign, I thought, he knows this isn’t a Ford and just slam the door. At least he respects the machine.
Engine start and taxi out to runway 25 was as expected from a professional: proper phraseology, gentle taxi speed, minimal use of brakes, even proper control placement to counter the strong afternoon breeze coming off the Bay. Run-up was by the book and everything was looking good.
“You ready?” I asked, fully expecting another catchy acronym.
“I’m ready,” he replied, getting all serious instead.
“We’ll make this intersection takeoff here to avoid the arresting cable over there,” I said while pointing to the arresting gear about 1200 feet from the threshold. We had a 7400 foot runway and with the wind straight down the runway the remaining length was more than adequate.
“What about landing?” he inquired.
Always thinking ahead. Good man, I thought, staying well ahead of the airplane.
“We avoid the gear on takeoffs and landings by using the runway between them,” I replied while pointing to the far end of the runway where the other set of arresting gear resided, waiting to catch a tail hook to prevent a naval aviator from the waters of the Bay. The cables could be ridden over in a Cessna but if you were at speed, they would snap back up from their “donuts” that held the cable about three inches off the deck and would damage the wheel fairings—just easier to avoid them today.
“Got it,” he nodded.
Off we went, straight towards downtown San Francisco, a right turn out towards the Bay Bridge and the toll plaza, a reporting point before entering the NAS Alameda control zone (I pointed this out). Out to the west of Treasure Island, climbing to 3000 feet, out over the middle of the North Bay area, with the Golden Gate Bridge off to the west. After doing about 30 minutes of air work, I was impressed at how well and precise this naval aviator was on holding altitude and headings, all the while pointing out landmarks for future reference for his family to see and be impressed with.
“All right, looks like you know your stuff. Let’s head back to the air station and make three touch and go landings, first a no flap, then a half flap, then a full flap landing last to get you signed off.” I smiled. This was good; he was capable and prepared.
“Roger that!” he exclaimed, also smiling.
Calling the tower, we were told to “Report the toll plaza; expect right downwind for runway 25.”
Reaching and reviewing the placarded checklist, the naval aviator reported, “Descent and approach checklist complete.”
I glanced down at the fuel selector valve and confirmed it was still where we left it prior to takeoff, on both, then at the fuel gauges, still good. A casual look at the right gear wheel strut and wheel fairing confirmed the gear was still “down and welded.”
“GUMP check complete,” I mused. Nice day to fly, I thought, then I started thinking about what to get for my delayed lunch.
Calling the tower at the toll plaza and requesting touch and goes, we were instructed to enter and report right downwind for runway 25. Descending to pattern altitude and entering the downwind, I casually said, “Remember the arresting gear.”
The naval aviator nodded.
Base turn was looking good and we were on speed. The headwind might be a factor I thought, and could push back the aim point. I placed my hands in my lap, getting ready to… to what? He’s good, let him go do it.
Turning to final, I thought, yeah, that wind has definitely picked up.
Over the numbers, on speed, no flaps, looking good…
Just then the windshield filled with runway! What the F***!
My hands went to both the throttle and my yoke simultaneously, pushing the first and pulling the second faster than a thought. JEEEbus!!!
Splaang! The whole airplane shook and bounced flat back up into the air. I got the nose up I thought just enough to not catch the prop… I hoped.
“I got it, I got it, I got it!” I yelled. The airplane was still shaking. Did we get the prop after all?
We were flying and shaking, 15 feet off the runway. A quick glance at the right gear shed some light on the situation: the shaking and the gear were in time together; the Cessna leaf spring landing strut was correlating with the airplane shaking and as noticed and comprehending that, the shaking was diminishing along with the strut, assuming its rightful place, at peace.
How much runway ahead? What’s our speed? I can get her back down on the runway ahead, I don’t think flying anymore is a good idea.
I was back on the throttle, eased on some flaps, got her down, nosed up, a little flare, and touchdown! Do we have brakes? A pressure on the rudder tops revealed back pressure—slowing, slowing, stopped!
“Tower, we’d like to taxi clear and check our aircraft.” It was me talking on the radio. I hadn’t started shaking yet.
I finally looked at the naval aviator—he was wide eyed and looking straight ahead, hands at chest height. He was saying something. I couldn’t hear.
Clear of the runway now, I pulled to the side of the taxiway, leaving plenty of room. Radios off, brake set, mixture idle cutoff. The prop stopped, and didn’t look bent. Mags off, ignition off, I took the keys. I opened my door and stepped out under the strut to look closely at the prop.
I ran my hand along both sides of the blade—no damage that I could tell. I inspected the sides of the airplane, hoping the firewall wasn’t bent. I crawled under the plane to look for leaks. All looking good. JEEbus! WTF?
I went back to my door, where the naval aviator was still repeating something. This time I could hear him.
“I don’t believe I just did that!” He was getting louder each time.
“I don’t believe I just did that!”
“I can’t believe it either… what did you do?” I had an inkling, though: naval aviator!
“I saw the cable and I prepped for a trap,” he admitted.
“OK,” I said,”Let’s go through that.”
Still sitting in the pilot seat, hands mimicking a single seat jet jockey position, coming over the fantail, left hand on a throttle and his right hand on the stick, he went through the motions of landing his jet on the boat. His left hand went full forward, his right hand came aft.
He looked at me. He was slowly, sadly, shaking his head “no.”
“Well, there, you have it, a case of negative transfer! Just don’t do that again in these airplanes,” I cautioned, trying to rally my emotions.
He was still shaking his head “no.”
I asked, “You want to try that again, now that we got it figured out?”
He looked at me, didn’t say a word, but kept shaking his head, “no.”
He pointed to the hangar line. I understood.