moved through the primary curriculum. Before soloing, we’d become familiar with the general operation of the airplane, starting with straight-and-level flight and progressing to the turns, climbs and dives that make flying interesting and useful. We came to recognize the numberless ways of getting in trouble. We forced the airplane into its various stall modes—power on, power off, accelerated stall, cross-control stall, elevator trim stall, secondary stall—and got proficient at recovery from each of these, as well as from the spins that develop when one wing is more fully stalled than the other. Reacting to power loss became second nature. Mr. Robinson yanked the throttle to idle and yelled, “Forced landing!” so often I flew in my mind’s eye from one cow pasture to the next, always ready to set it down.
In the next phase, we worked on precision control, flying standard courses and patterns, elementary 8’s, lazy 8’s, pylon 8’s, chandelles. We developed proficiency in the various kinds of approaches and landings, learned how to handle crosswinds, organized a spot-landing contest. We got a fair ration of aerobatics, doing loops, cloverleafs, Immelmanns, split-S’s, the menu of rolls.
Flying is never mastered, but we either got better at it or washed out. One way or another, we lost 40 percent of my classmates, all of whom had tested well for aptitude, and almost all because of flying deficiency. (It was understood that anyone who failed the relatively simple academics did so on purpose.) At first, much of the attrition was due to airsickness, rooted in physical causes but usually amplified by anxiety. Our instructors, convinced every pilot’s life must include some memorable moments, probed to see how we would handle stress. Hazing technique varied with instructor style. Some IPs yelled over the intercom during the entire lesson. It was pure luck if you did anything right for these guys. But even the most benign IPs cranked up the tension as needed, and more than a few students folded under pressure.
Once past being airsick or terrorized, many who had hoped to become pilots failed because they lacked one or both of the twin skills essential to safe flying. The first is division of attention, the ability to collect and evaluate a lot of information from a variety of sources and thereby develop a heightened awareness of the situation.
At one end of the scale, some students seemed incapable of recognizing even ominous changes in their circumstances. Their eyes glazed into a hundred-yard stare. We said of them that they had their “head up and locked,” a play on what happens when the wheels are raised after takeoff. It was the IP’s job to identify and eliminate such people quickly.
But even for those with good ability to observe, the act of flying reshapes everything all the time, inside and outside the cockpit. Most of the changes are of little consequence. Nonetheless, safe flying requires that the variables be noted, analyzed, a decision made to act or wait. With time and experience, much of the workload will be given over to the unconscious, but it’s far from automatic in the beginning, and I pushed myself: check altitude, airspeed, and the rates at which these are changing; look around for traffic; make a quick scan of the engine instruments. What’s the weather doing? Check fuel quantity and flow. Am I feeding from the proper tank? Now where am I? Look at the map. Like quantum events, the act of inspection itself produces a result, triggering another cycle of observation, evaluation, action.
The best pilots—there will be two or three in any fighter squadron—seem to have the human version of a fly’s compound eye. They pay attention to everything at once, all the time. Parallel observation of the many variables is important because no one acts effectively on the unnoticed. An aircraft accident is the climax of a sequence, beginning from an infinite number of initial conditions and moving through a succession of events, each event reducing safety margins by some amount. Finally, there comes an additional, culminating event, you run out of options, and an accident occurs. This sequence is true of every accident and can be interrupted at any point if someone notices and acts on available information. By seeing everything all the time, the pilot builds up situation awareness in layers, like a composite material. The glue’s secret ingredient is this knack for dividing attention.
The second essential quality is the ability to prioritize. Several important things may be happening at once. For instance, unintended altitude loss is likely to be accompanied by undesired airspeed increase. Which should be fixed first? If at medium altitude, airspeed buildup may be more threatening; close to the ground, better take care of altitude. The ability to recognize and work on the most important of competing priorities is also at the heart of safe flying.
These two indispensable skills seem in tension with one another. At the least, they have a sort of duality about them. Dividing attention illuminates, prioritizing spotlights. When to do which?
There are no easy answers in flying, even at the beginning, even if it will never be more than a hobby. But we were becoming professionals, so one further skill had to be added to the mix. When we can see our surroundings and orient on them, nearly all of us can visualize space and time relationships well enough to keep a bicycle upright or back a car out of the driveway. But aviators must learn how to make a mental picture of time and space when there is no visual reference to the real world. We started on this problem in the famous Link Trainer.
In the early 1930s, Ed Link put together the first true flight simulator in the basement of his father’s piano factory. Mounted on a fulcrum and painted blue, it had a stubby wooden fuselage with an organ bellows attached to provide air pressure that banked, pitched and yawed the whole assembly. When Link tried to sell what he called the Blue Box, amusement parks rather than flying schools bought most of them. He nevertheless went into the flight training business when the Depression closed down his piano operation. A few years later, the federal government contracted with the Army to fly domestic airmail. The adventure cost the Air Corps 11 pilots the first week, all lost in bad weather, and the Army ordered six Link Trainers at $3,500 apiece. It purchased 10,000 more in World War II.
Some of these Blue Boxes were still in use at Hondo. We spent 25 hours in them, instructors monitoring our progress at an outside console. We climbed in, closed the lid, and entered a world in which you could not see what the airplane was doing but had to measure it, like a sort of laboratory experiment.
Soon, we graduated to the rear cockpit of the T-28. The backseat featured a cloth hood, a bag pulled down over the pilot’s head to hide the outside. Flying under the hood was at least as tough as flying in cloud, plus an element of claustrophobia made it seem even worse. We polished the basic maneuvers learned in the Link, including hooded takeoffs, and soon progressed to the added complication of navigation instruments. We learned how to intercept a course and track to and from ground-based radio aids, how to hold at fixes, how to penetrate safely to lower altitude. We didn’t do hooded landings, but we did fly hooded approaches to published minimums. It was a nice feeling when the IP told you to come out from under the hood and your first sight was the runway, just below, on centerline, in great shape to land.
Here in the South, a nascent civil rights movement was underway. Emmett Till had been murdered only a couple of years before, in Money, Mississippi. An all-white jury acquitted his killers, the case causing nationwide consternation. Recently, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white man, sparking the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that gave Martin Luther King Jr. a major role to play. Still more recently, President Eisenhower had sent troops to Little Rock to enforce school integration, pushing Gov. Orval Faubus aside.
On this Texas air base, progress was not yet visible. There were no black faces among my classmates, officer or cadet.
No women either.
In important ways, flying school was as much an initiation as a place to learn a craft. If the trainee survived the winnowing process, he entered the fraternity. Pilot skills and attitude—a controlled response to pressure, a veneer of false modesty—defined one’s status inside the brotherhood. Ancestry, education, even rank, were secondary considerations. There was the undeniable, ever-present fact of accident and death. The base salary of a second lieutenant was $222.30 a month, but flight pay added a fat $100-a-month premium for hazardous duty. (Officers in ground jobs said we didn’t make more money, we just made it faster.) Inside the club, the shared experience of flight, including its acknowledged risks, produced less rigid, more informal officers and a loose, casual association that appealed to me.
But it was flying, the thing itself rather than its sociology, that became a dominant force in my life. For me, flying was a replacement childhood. My own had been virtual. I’d gotten through by being watchful, risk averse, a fake adult. Now I was given a second chance at the unmixed pleasure only children experience. Flying was simply great fun, replete with small but consequential tasks that could in theory be done perfectly every time, leading to instant gratification every time, over and over again.