July 26 - 30
Unfortunately Monday was not a good weather day. I suppose our weather luck was bound to run out sooner or later. There were thunderstorms in the area all day. We waited and waited and waited for the weather to clear, but we eventually had to scrub flying for the day. It was really too bad since my instructor and I were planning on going to Huntsville and back for my last two flights. A friend of mine who works at the Marshall Space Flight Center was going to meet us and take us on a short tour . Oh well, we'll try again on Tuesday.
Tuesday the weather wasn't much better. The thunderstorms had moved north a bit; so we could fly in the area, but we couldn't make it to Huntsville. Since my learning my lessons was more important that us taking a tour, we had to forgo visiting my friend. But there was definitely a silver lining to that dark cloud. I had some awesome flights. For my first flight we did a local circuit in the area. Because we won't be doing all the required Navy briefings at each way point in the T-38s, my instructor and I decided that we would just dispense with them for the day (although, I still did all the air traffic control calls). I did a lot of flying from the back seat instead. Flying from the back seat was quite interesting as the back seat sits behind the center of gravity of the plane. So, the controllability of the plane is different. I think it would be pretty hard to land from the back seat (as the instructors were doing during our familiarization flights) since the runway visibility is so poor. My hat is definitely off to the instructors to be able to fly and land so well from the back seat.
After the flight we headed back into the squadron to check on the weather. We could see more thunderstorms building while we were out and we were going to look to see which direction we could go next. As we were coming inside two instructor pilots were getting ready to go out and do formation flying. They just happened to have an extra back seat open, so I got to go with them for my last flight. The other back seat was filled with a Navy navigator student doing one of his required rides. When they said that we were going to be doing formation flying, I was thinking that we would just tootle around the skies close to each other - a nice easy flight. It was nothing like that.
We started off by taxiing, taking off, and climbing to altitude quite close to each other. Then we did a ton of high-g maneuvers. What a hoot! Dives and climbs and rolls and I don't even know what all we were doing. It was almost as if we were dog fighting, but we weren't. The lead plane would break out in some unannounced maneuver and the wing plane had to follow. If I thought I was impressed with the instructors before, I was doubly impressed now. Because the weather was so grey with lots of clouds that blended into the horizon and the water, it was hard to get a good idea of what we were doing by looking outside. We were all over the place. Every time I looked at the attitude indicator it was all black or all grey and/or completely on its side. [Note: for the non-pilots, in regular, calm flying the attitude indicator will be half grey and half black, where grey represents the sky and the black represents the ground. As you climb or descend, there is more or less grey showing depending on which way you are going. Seeing only one color meant we were doing some very steep climbs or dives. Seeing the indicator on its side meant we were doing very steep turns - we were on our side.] I do know that we got 4 g's (or more) regularly. I definitely had to employ the anti-g loss of consciousness procedures that I had learned earlier. Interestingly enough, I had to do it less and less as the flight went on. Guess I was getting used to the g's. Or maybe I was just getting better at keeping the blood in my head.
Needless to say, the flight was simply amazing. The best part was that at the end of the flight we landed at the Mobile Downtown airport, had some pizza, and then did it again. So, my last two flights were actually three flights. For the second formation flying flight we did "tactical maneuvers" as well as the dog fighting type maneuvers that we did on the first flight (can't recall what those dog fighting maneuvers are actually called). The tactical maneuvers meant that the planes were farther apart as if we were sneaking up on the enemy. For the tactical formation flying there is strictly no communication between the planes since you don't want the enemy to know you are out there. In the other formation flying maneuvers the pilots would chatter back and forth, but lead plane never really told the wing plane what maneuver he would be doing. At any rate, for the tactical maneuvers, the lead plane would signal a turn by flashing its wings to the other plane, i.e., would turn on its side briefly. The wing plane would then do a prescribed turn and the lead plane would follow, or cross in the opposite direction, but somehow still end up in the front. It all made sense on paper, but I'll admit it is a little hard to describe without drawing it out. Lots more g's on this flight also.
When we had finished for the day, we did the final approach into Pensacola in formation, did the fast break in formation and we landed in formation. What a day! Lest anyone says, "but, Shannon, you didn't get any of your lessons done for your final flight," I did. Among all the zooming around, we managed to sneak in some instrument flight time for me as well as some approaches. Plus, I figured I was doing my job by not yakking up my pizza. I wonder if I'll ever get two flights like that again!
As soon as we landed I dashed off to the hotel to clean up and get back to the squadron. It was family day. Our two squadrons had arranged for all the family members of the instructors and other pilots of the squadrons to come and meet us. That was nice and it was a fun afternoon. That night most of the guys decided that they were going to go to a baseball game. Dottie and I opted for a quiet dinner instead. I celebrated the completion of my training with a nice class of wine. Unfortunately, Dottie still had two flights to go. Seven of us got finished with all our flying today and four of us still had the final flights on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, after everyone had finished flying, each squadron had a short closing ceremony for us. The squadron commanders presented us with certificates of completion of the Naval Flight Officer training program (NASA version). The other squadron did their ceremony with a little more pomp and circumstance than our squadron did. However, our squadron opened its bar - here is your certificate; have a beer. That worked for me.
I had packed up and checked out of the hotel in the morning before our ceremony. As soon it was done, we headed back to Houston. There was definitely some sadness in leaving since we had had such wonderful experiences doing the water survival and T-34 training with the Navy. But, I am also looking forward to the next step of training. And, I am looking forward to having our entire class together. You will recall that the three folks that are already military pilots didn't do this training with us. Most of us haven't even met one of them. We have the next week off and then we start in the office back at the Johnson Space Center on the 9th of August. We will be there for two weeks for orientation, briefings, media training and other things. Our next big training adventure is the last week in August - land survival training in Maine.
© Shannon Walker 2004
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