Your Weekly Lex, For Strength

Learning to duck

When it’s all going horribly wrong…
When I was a young lieutenant junior grade, I was a flight instructor in Meridian, Mississippi. Some of our students were foreigners: Their countries paid their “tuition.” Sometimes we found that language barriers presented an obstacle.
We had Spanish students, for example. From Spain, you know. They fell into two categories, in terms of airmanship: Brilliant, and execrable. We determined over time that the brilliant had been selected for our flight school based on their superior skills, while the execrable had been selected based on their superior connections. Over time, we began to realize that the longer and more hyphenated the last name, the more difficult the student.
But it was none of our duty to perform a quality control function – their training had been pre-payed, and we were to get the product through the pipeline, no matter how hard it was or how long it took. I personally felt a trifle guilty about that, since they’d head back to Spain and fly AV-8A Harriers. Which aren’t exactly like riding a bike – the USMC crashed something like 100 of the first 122 they bought, and killed a lot of pilots along the way, before the AV-8B came along, with its more reliable engine and superior flight controls. But anyway.
I had a Spanish student once on a night instrument flight that kept falling below glideslope on the ground controlled approach, or GCA. At first, the controller would call, “below glideslope, going further below.” Ultimately, you’d hear, “Well below glideslope. Well below glideslope and holding.” While it’s maybe instructional to hear that in a nice, warm simulator, it’s never good to hear that, in the actual airplane, especially at night. Because the trees were still down there, even when you couldn’t see them. And a good way to find out exactly where they were was to troll around “well below glideslope.”
So I took the jet both times and told my man that it simply wouldn’t do to go trolling around well below glideslope. On the third attempt, it happened again, and I ran simultaneously out of patience and courage. I took the jet back, landed it and taxied to the line, intending to give my student a “down.” In the debrief cubicle later on, he projected an air of wounded innocence when I told him that he simply wasn’t to go that low on final: “The controller said ‘Well below glide-a-slope, si?””
“Yes,” I answered cautiously.
“‘Well,’ this means like ‘good,’ no?”
“No,” I replied. “In this case ‘well’ means like ‘bad.’ Think of it as being ‘bad’ below glideslope, very bad…”
But the seed of doubt was placed in my mind, and I called the flight an incomplete rather than a down. Which, considering the policy on failing foreign students, was a distinction without a difference, now that I reflect upon it. But anyway.
We also had a couple of Taiwan students. We were told to call them “Taiwans,” not “Taiwanese,” the latter apparently referred to pre-revolutionary natives of the island, rather than the mainland Chinese who ultimately settled there, missing, as it turns out, the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” More’s the pity, I suppose.
Of the two of them, one spoke impressive English and was a superior student. The other, whose name was Li, was superior in rank, and was impressively monoglot. Which is not at all the same thing, when that fluency is not in the language being used for instruction. He was a notoriously difficult student, much given to nodding thoughtfully in pre-flight briefings and then hurling the plan into the dust once airborne.
One night we were flying a night familiarization mission at nearly 30,000 feet with him in the front and me in the pit when the “Canopy” light suddenly illuminated. Any warning light is always brighter at night, but a Canopy light can really get your attention, at 30,000 feet at night: It could be a precursor to losing the canopy, which at that altitude would be very bad indeed – that familiar, warm, comfortable cockpit could suddenly become a shrieking maelstrom, and what’s worse, the air blast could work the upper ejection handle out of its mount, pulling it aft and launching you into the night air without the comfort of an airplane to land with. Or not, you couldn’t know. All you could do was lower your ejection seat to try to get out of the windblast, assume the ejection position (feet on the rudder pedals, heels on deck, thighs on the seat pan, back aft against the seat, spine straight, neck aligned, chin ten degrees elevated, arms close aboard) and hope it didn’t suddenly happen.
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