Do what you do with intentional diligence

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert Vicars
  • 25th Flying Training Squadron commander

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Jan. 14, 2014, was a beautiful, cool winter day. I had taken over as director of operations for the T-38 squadron here two days prior.

With just over two months of time on station, I was feeling the pressure of leading operations for a mission I was just getting familiar with.

I was scheduled to fly a student’s last sortie before graduation. He was the number one student in the class, so his flying skills were good. It was also a beautiful day. What could go wrong?

With my perception of his proficiency as a principle motivator, I set us both up for failure by not emphasizing the potential for complacency. I played into that potential by telling him I planned to just chill in the back seat and let him do his thing.

I had let my guard down, and gave him permission to let his down as well -- bad call.

The T-38 requires 8,000 to 10,000 feet to do a loop if you pull 4.5 to 5 Gs. If you pull less it takes more altitude and you lose more airspeed in the climb.

My student began his pull for our first planned maneuver -- a loop.

He started out just over four Gs then pretty quickly backed off. I noticed this and looked at other indicators to determine why. As our nose passed through the vertical -- pointing straight up -- I wondered if we could complete the maneuver without going above our assigned altitude block.

When it became apparent we probably could not, I said something to him about it. Then things rapidly went awry.

Having pulled passed the vertical we were upside down. After my input, he recognized his error, became disoriented briefly and stopped pulling -- exacerbating our problem. We were high. We were slow. T-38 engines don’t run well when you are high and slow.

The student began his pull again. The left engine stalled and began to wind down. I immediately took the aircraft and rolled upright. Then the right engine stalled and began to wind back. We were in big-time trouble.

The T-38 has really small wings. It isn’t a very efficient glider.

With a higher-than-desired altitude and lower-than-desired airspeed, my hands were full “flying” a free-falling jet and repressing an overwhelming feeling of regret.

With the jet falling silently and my adrenaline and heart rate peaking, I managed to calmly say to the student, “We’ve got to get some knots back on this aircraft.” I executed the engine stall procedures I have either talked about or executed in the simulator hundreds of times, and both engines restarted.

We declared an emergency, flew home and landed.

Lessons abound for me from this experience. The one I want to emphasize here is, when executing your duties, always do so with intentional diligence. Do not allow complacency to creep in. Pay attention to the details and those things that equaled success in the past.

Failure in our mission impacts more than just ourselves.