“What could I learn from that?”

Yesterday the boys and I were headed to the Huntsville Museum of Art, which from our house requires taking I-565 eastbound. As we approached the onramp, our progress was slowed by a large volume of backed-up traffic, interrupted by a convoy of fire engines and an ambulance. They headed west, and we eventually got on the road headed east, but not before craning our necks trying to see what the fuss was about. This sort of reaction to an accident or unusual event nearby is quite human. We are very much driven by spectacle, and often our reaction is based out of an unhealthy curiosity.

I say that because one thing I’ve consciously tried to do as a pilot is ask myself “what could I learn from that?” when reviewing aviation accident results. The aviation world has no shortage of well-documented accidents, ranging from the very large to the very small. Let’s leave out big-iron accidents, which are almost vanishingly rare; in the general aviation corner, we have several sources that analyze accidents or near-misses, including the annual Nall Report,the long-running “I Learned About Flying From That” and “Aftermath” columns in Flying, the NTSB accident database, and plenty more besides. So with that in mind, when I saw the headline “2013 F/A-18 crash: Out of fuel, out of time and one chance to land” in Stars and Stripes, my first thought wasn’t “cool! a jet crash!” but rather “Hmm. I wonder if there’s anything in common between flying an F-18 off a carrier and a Cessna off a 7500’ runway.”

It turns out that the answer is “yes, quite a bit.”

The article covers the chronology of an F-18 crash involving an aircraft from VF-103 operating off EISENHOWER. During mid-air refueling (which is frequent but by no means less complex or dangerous for being frequently practiced), the aerial refueling hose became entangled and broke off. This damaged the refueling probe on the Super Hornet. This was serious but not immediately an emergency; the pilot was within easy diversion range to Kandahar, but elected to return to the ship because he thought that’s what the air wing commander wanted them to do. A series of issues then arose— I won’t recount them all here except to say that some of them were due to what appear to this layman to be poor systems knowledge on the part of the pilot, while others involve simple physics and aerodynamics. The article is worth reading for a complete explanation of what happened.

The jet ended up in the water; both pilot and NFO ejected safely.

What did I learn from this? Several things, which I’ll helpfully summarize:

  • The problems all started due to a mechanical failure caused by unexpected turbulence. Takeaway: no matter how good a pilot you are, you aren’t in control of the weather, the air, or the terrain around you.
  • Diverting to Kandahar would have been easy, but the pilot chose not to because he made an assumption about what his CO wanted. Two problems here: what happens when you assume and the pressures we often put on ourselves to get somewhere even when conditions call for a divert or no-go. Could I be subject to the same pressures and make a poor decision because of get-there-itis?
  • “The pilot had been staring at that probe and the attached basket for more than an hour but failed to realize its effect on the fuel pumps.” You can’t ever stop paying attention. The pilot flew for 400 miles without noticing that his fuel state wasn’t what it should have been. Could I be lulled into missing an early indication of a fuel or engine problem during a long, seemingly routine flight?
  • The aircraft was 11 miles from EISENHOWER and was ordered to divert to Masirah, 280NM away, then had to turn back to the ship 24 minutes later. The pilot didn’t decide this, a rear admiral on the ship did. The article didn’t say whether the pilot questioned or argued with that decision. In the civil aviation world, the pilot in command of an aircraft “is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”  I imagine there’s something similar in military aviation; even if not I’d rather be arguing with the admiral on the deck than having him meet my plane guard after they fish me out of the water. Would I have the courage to make a similar decision against the advice of ATC or some other authority?
  • In at least two instances the pilot made critical decisions— including to eject the crew— without communicating them to his NFO. NASA and the FAA lean very heavily on the importance of crew resource management, in part of situations like Asiana 211, United 173, and American 965. (Look ‘em up if you need to). When I fly am I seeking appropriate input from other pilots and ATC? Do I give their input proper consideration?
I don’t mean for this post to sound like armchair quarterbacking. I wasn’t there, and if I had been I’d probably be dead because, despite years of fantasizing to the contrary, I’m not a fighter pilot. However, I am a very firm believer in learning from the mistakes of others so I don’t make the same mistakes myself, and I think there’s a lot to learn from this incident.
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