In November of 1969 I went off to U.S. Air Force Officer Training School or OTS, a twelve-week school to learn to march, wear a uniform, and how and whom to salute (there were military academics, too). In February 1970, I was commissioned as an Air Force officer and transferred to Reese Air Force Base (AFB) Lubbock, Texas for a year of Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), i.e., flight training.
UPT comprised three phases—primary flight, initial jet training, and advanced jet training. The primary flight instruction was in a military Cessna 172, designated the T-41. I had enough prior flight experience that I completed this phase easily, and with no incidents.
During this phase, we attended classes on basic aerodynamics and the safety systems of the T-37—the next aircraft in the training syllabus. The safety courses included ejection seat and parachute landing fall training.
The ejection seat trainer was a T-37 seat mock-up with the ejection handles. The seat was mounted on a rail, reminiscent of the carnival ring-the-bell strength test. The trainee sat in the seat, went through the ejection steps including lifting the handles and squeezing the ejection trigger. At that instant, a ballistic charge (I am told it was a low power 37MM mortar shell) was detonated, firing the seat up the rail with the same force experienced during an actual aircraft ejection. The trainer seat did not go all the way to the top.
In the aircraft, when the handles were lifted, the canopy was released and blown off of the aircraft. Just in case the canopy jammed, there was a spike on the top of the pilot’s seat that would shatter the canopy when the pilot ejected.
From that point on, the pilot was simply a passenger on the ejection system until the parachute canopy opened. The parachute canopy could be steered enough to avoid hitting most big things, allowing the pilot to land in the best available spot.
Landing required the use of the proper technique to avoid injury, namely broken angles and legs—this was the parachute landing fall. Basically, the pilot was taught to collapse and roll allowing the impact forces of the landing to be spread out over more time and distance than simply crashing into the ground. We practiced this fall by jumping off of a platform about eight feet high. From that we climbed a tower and donned a parachute harness that was attached to the equivalent of a zip line that angled down to the ground.
Finally, we got to do “real” parachute landings—parasailing on the high plains of Texas. We strapped on a parachute harness attached to an open parachute. A long line, several hundred feet long, was attached to our harness and to a military truck. The truck moved slowly at a fast trot to fill the ‘chute with air, then faster as soon as we lifted off from the ground. The towed parachute soon took us to 75 to 100 feet above the ground. At that point, the truck released the tow rope and we began to descend under the canopy, and make a very real parachute landing fall.
Introduction to Jet Training
The first day of initial jet training, we were introduced to, and assigned our primary instructors, and given an orientation and daily schedule. We also had half a day of academics every day. Our class was divided into several groups, and we alternated morning or afternoon flight/academic schedules with another group. Of particular interest was the grease-pencil flight schedule board. Each day, flight assignments were penciled in on the board. The schedule showed the student’s name, scheduled flight time, instructor (and later “solo”), and the aircraft number.
I was both pleased and somewhat apprehensive to see that I was scheduled for the first flight with my instructor, First Lieutenant Johnson, the next morning. This was to be a “fam flight” (familiarization flight). Our assignment had been to review the flight training syllabus and let the instructor know if there was anything in particular we wanted to see demonstrated during the flight.
I wanted it all; loops, rolls, and there was one maneuver called a “clover leaf” that involved performing a loop with a quarter roll while climbing into the loop. It just looked really cool in the syllabus diagram. Lt. Johnson just shook his head. I could tell he was not that thrilled about the clover leaf.
Our first stop was the flight gear room where we were assigned a parachute and got our helmets. We were shown how to inspect the parachute to ensure that the repacking had been properly documented. We also checked the proper operation of the oxygen mask attached to the pilot helmet. We each had been fitted for and assigned our own helmet. Parachutes were assigned randomly. We left the equipment room wearing the parachute and carrying our helmet and a pilot bag that contained our aircraft checklist and the maps that were required for that flight.
The T-37 is a small twin-engine jet. The pilots sit side-by-side. The instructor flew in the right seat. The T-37 was called the “Tweet” because its engines made an uncomfortably high pitched, and loud, piercing whistle, especially when taxiing. Interestingly, it was not noticeable in the cockpit, especially when wearing the pilot’s helmet and the built-in headset.
As we walked out to the flight line to catch a ride to our aircraft, Lt Johnson explained how the ramp was laid out and how to find any particular aircraft. As we got out of the transport, he said, “Of course, I don’t expect anything to go wrong, but, if something does and we have to eject from the aircraft, I will say ‘bailout’ three times. If you hear the third ‘bailout,’ you will be in the airplane all by yourself. Climb in.”
Starting a jet engine requires a specific sequence of steps. Failure to follow the procedure could damage the engine. After engine start, we obtained clearance to taxi to the runway. On the runway, he moved the throttles full forward, checked the engine instruments, released the brakes, and we were on our way.
Throughout every phase, Lt Johnson was describing what he was doing in true instructor fashion. His voice was sort of like the adult voices in a Peanuts/Charlie Brown show—background noise. I was paying attention, but mostly with my eyes, watching the runway slide away as we climbed away from the airfield, checking the instruments for speed and altitude, then looking out trying to figure out where we were.
Once in our practice area, Lt Johnson demonstrated maneuvers from straight and level flight to steep turns, rolls and loops. Then he said, “You’ve got it,” and lifted his hands off the controls. “Maintain this heading and altitude.” I grabbed the control stick with a death grip and immediately demonstrated why straight and level flight is called a “maneuver.” My first attempt at straight and level flight looked more like Flipper leaping and diving. Then came my first real lesson—Lt. Johnson said, “Fly the airplane with your fingertips.” It worked—at least the porpoise maneuver gradually smoothed out.
Lt. Johnson then demonstrated a barrel roll, which, as I would learn, was the most challenging maneuver because it truly combined a loop and a roll and required constantly changing the control pressures to perform a nice round loop and roll simultaneously. As we rolled out of the maneuver, my head set popped and Johnson said, “One more maneuver and then we will head back to the base for a couple of landings.” He advanced the throttles and lowered the nose to build up speed and began a three-g pull on the stick. At just that moment, a bright red light began to blink at the top of the instrument panel. It was the warning light in the right engine fire control handle indicating a possible engine fire.
There I was…on my first jet flight looking at the possibility of having to eject from a burning airplane. Well, at least, the parachute landing fall was still fresh in my memory!
Immediately Lt. Johnson pulled the right engine throttle to idle, and, using his left forefinger, ran down all of the engine gauges. Everything was normal. He maneuvered the aircraft a little as he looked over his shoulder behind the airplane. He said simply, “No smoke.” He moved the right throttle enough to see that the engine instruments responded correctly.
Then he said as reassuringly as he could, “This is probably an electrical problem in the fire warning circuit. I am pretty sure we do not have a fire. However, I am going to call the tower and advise them of our situation and declare an emergency—just in case. We will shut down the right engine as we enter the traffic pattern.”
I said, “Yes Sir.” I said that a lot for the next six years. At that point, I was just a passenger sitting on an ejection seat!
The tower cleared us for an immediate approach and landing, while diverting other aircraft from the traffic pattern. They gave us one of the two long runways normally used by the T-38s. There were fire trucks sitting at each runway intersection, and they pulled onto the runway to follow us as soon as we passed them. A rescue helicopter was hovering near where we would touch down. It had a huge round fire suppressant container suspended under the chopper like a big fire extinguisher. We had been told the helicopter’s rotor downwash could also be useful in keeping flames away from the cockpit of our aircraft to assist in a rescue if needed. Reassuring!
We landed without incident, turned off of—“cleared ”—the runway, stopped and shut down the aircraft on the taxiway. We were immediately surrounded by fire trucks, a couple of ambulances and at least two blue staff cars. We “evacuated” the aircraft as fire crews stood by, just in case. We rode back to flight operations in one of the staff cars, while maintenance towed the aircraft back to the hangar.
The next day maintenance advised us that there had been an electrical malfunction. We were never in any danger.
And that was my introduction to jet aviation!