Another lesson from the “can’t tell a book from its cover” manual.
I was a flight student at Fort Rucker in the fall of 1979. The course of instruction was a little different then than it is now; each class wore a different colored hat (my class wore green) and our primary flight training was conducted in the TH55 – a small two-place helicopter manufactured by Hughes that was powered by a reciprocating engine and equipped with a manual throttle that you had to roll on and roll off as you changed power settings. Taking to the air in the TH55 was not so much matter of sitting in an aircraft as it was strapping one to your back and then taking off.
Individual classes would fly either in the morning or the afternoon, taking off from a large central airfield and splitting up between various stage fields all over post to avoid the hazards inherent in overcrowding an airfield. During primary phase we would receive dual instruction, then solo flights, all of which would continue for about a month or so when we’d get a check ride and go into the next phase of training
Our class ended up taking a bit longer to complete primary flight training as bad weather broke our flying time up with several days stuck on the ground. After being cleared for operations after one lengthy stretch of weather days we were dismayed to find that our class had been switched to another location – Toth Stage Field. Normally that wouldn’t have been so bad – except on the first day back flying I was scheduled to fly solo to this new stage field. Bear in mind that at this point we were yet to be taught cross-country navigation, I hadn’t flown solo since my second supervised solo three weeks earlier and I hadn’t flown at all in over a week. I was a bit nervous, but as a newly-minted second lieutenant flying with a class of warrant officer candidates I put on a very brave face and set out firmly in control of both that TH55 with the pesky manual throttle and situation.
I had planned my route carefully, taking notes of landmarks to help me find Toth Stage field, enter the traffic pattern safely and land but unfortunately I failed to take in consideration the prevailing winds from the south which were much stronger at the new stage field (at the southern edge of the reservation) than they were at our old field (at the very northern edge). I flew along blissfully unaware, starting into a long loop far outside the stage field which I had planned to set up at the correct angle to enter traffic.
Unfortunately those prevailing winds had pushed me back towards the field and that long loop around ended up much closer to the stage field than I realized. All of a sudden a crisp voice came over the radio “AIRCRAFT ON DOWNWIND, PLEASE BE ADVISED. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST”. “I looked around and sighed, thinking “They told us this might happen. Some bozo got turned around. “
The radio crackled again – this time a bit more urgent: “AIRCRAFT ON DOWNWIND, PLEASE BE ADVISED. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST. TOTH IS LANDING TO THE EAST”. “Just at that moment I saw another TH55 coming straight at me, barely missing me as it buzzed by. I casually lifted the collective up as far as I could, the airspeed dropped to almost zero and I popped up several hundred feet before I regained control of the aircraft, got myself reoriented and landed safely.
All hopes of my not being found out were dashed as was met by a very stern flight commander at the door to the ready room. He then took me immediately to the instructor-pilot that had been in control of the helicopter that barely missed me and I prepared to have a length of my hide torn off….
To my surprise this crusty old aviator- who were all kind of afraid of- coolly talked me through the whole process. Instead of “tearing that strip of hide off of me”, we went over what I had planned versus what actually happened. With a smile he calmly explained what I should have done, then ended with the assurance that he bore no ill will towards me and I wouldn’t be written up. It kind of surprised me because this particular instructor pilot was even more scowling, scruffy and hard-bitten than usual – from his demeanor my buddies wondered if maybe he had a collection of ears from his two tours in Viet-Nam.
I always thought I could “figure people out” fairly well just through observation. It’s a second-child-in-the-birth-order trick; you sit back and watch while your older sibling happily walks into whatever minefield Life has set up at the time. Maybe it was because I was now functioning in a very different world where I had little to no experience, but it prompted me to “observe” a little longer before making a judgment.