By R. Nelson Nash
I’m in the process of writing a new book entitled —It’s All About How You Think — I probably should include a subtitle – And Sometimes How You Don’t Think! It is just part of our human nature and it can produce results that are both humorous and others that are tragic.
In most cases it seems to me that this failure to think probably involves the word ASSUME. Some people have made this observation: “When you dissect the word it can reveal that assuming some things in life will make an ASS — U — ME!”
Understanding this would probably include things like interpersonal relationships which can result in embarrassment to several parties. For instance — like the man who told the lady her stockings were wrinkled – and she wasn’t wearing stockings! His assumption was wrong, and it produced some very interesting results, I’m certain. If you haven’t made a faux pas of some kind like this then you have accomplished a miracle – or you just haven’t lived long enough.
On the other end of the spectrum of assuming certain things can easily produce tragedies such as immediate death. As an example, this gives me the opportunity to tell you more about my experience as an Army Aviator with the Alabama National Guard.
In the birth month, a military pilot must get an annual physical examination, pass a proficiency check ride in the aircraft in which he is rated and is currently flying, and pass an instrument flight examination (if he is instrument rated). These last two check rides are conducted by qualified and certified check pilots.
Typically, a National Guard pilot attends two weeks of active duty each year at some military facility. He also attends a “week end drill” every month. For this Saturday and Sunday, he is credited with four days of active duty pay. Additionally, he is allowed to make 24 Flight Training Periods (FTPs) per year at his own schedule – or when he is called to perform a mission that has come up in his organization. For this he is credited with one day’s active duty pay. The FTP required 6 hours duration to qualify as such.
All of this explanation is to set the stage for my story. With the foregoing understanding you may notice that a pilot can check into the flight facility at 4:00 PM on a Friday afternoon for an FTP which ends at 10:00 PM. If the regular drill weekend begins the next day and continues on Sunday, then this results in five days of pay. This is good time management. (If this is not clearly understood, then go back and read these last three paragraphs).
Now, for the story: It occurred over 30 years ago in March, my birth month. A NG drill weekend was coming due. I had arranged for an Instrument Check Pilot – who was a member of our unit — to come to Birmingham NG facility on Friday to conduct my Instrument Check Ride during a FTP for the both of us.
This man worked at Ft. Rucker, AL and was an Instrument Flight Instructor there. He had finished a full day of work. It is a three-hour drive from Ft. Rucker to Birmingham. Our FTP starts at 4:00 PM. This means that Frank (his real name – by the way, he and I share the same birthday except that he is several years younger than I) has been up and working for eleven hours by this time.
We met and made our flight plans for the check ride. Paperwork! This took at least 45 minutes to an hour before we even got in the airplane — a Beechcraft Baron. The military designation is a T-42. It is a four-place twin engine with 230 hp each. It is a real joy to fly! During the making of the flight plan Frank asked me, “How long has it been since you have made a VOR approach?” (VOR stands for Visual Omni Range. This approach is a non-precision approach – one in which you descend no lower than 700 feet above the surface of the airport. By the way, the airport elevation at Decatur is 592 feet above sea level. If you haven’t broken out of the clouds by that time then you will have to go to your alternate airport that has a higher cloud ceiling. Remember this fact. It will be necessary for you to understand the rest of my story.)
I replied, “It has been a number of years.” Frank said, “Let’s fly to Decatur, AL — do a VOR approach – then go over to Huntsville and do an ILS approach there and come on back to Birmingham. (An ILS is a Precision Approach that allows you to descend as low as 200 feet above ground. If you have not broken out of the clouds at that level, then you must go to your alternate destination). So that was our plan.
During a check ride the Check Pilot also has to perform the function of Co-pilot. He has to perform all the other pilot functions that I direct him to do. I have to wear a hood that limits my vision to the instrument panel (unless I tilt my head backward. At that point I can look forward through the windscreen). This means that he will be reading all the directions on the Approach Plate for the airport at which we will make at the particular airport. (The Approach Plate is a diagram and contains all the pertinent directions to conduct the approach).
At least two hours had passed by the time we were under way in the flight and darkness is approaching. We are travelling North to Decatur, yet the Approach Plate procedure requires that we do so headed South. It was dark when we arrived at the Decatur VOR station which is located on the airport. We had to reverse course to make the VOR Approach. Acting as the co-pilot, Frank was responsible for reading all the Approach Plate information to me to accomplish this maneuver. I announced to Frank, “We have arrived at the VOR. Give me our outbound heading and altitude limitations for the ‘procedure turn’ to reverse course for the ‘final approach leg.’ which we will be intercepting at a 45-degree angle.” Frank complies with my request.
I said to Frank, “We have completed the procedure turn and are now on our final approach leg. Give me the minimum descent altitude for this approach.” Frank responds, “700 feet.” I have completed the pre-landing check and we are descending to the airport at an air speed of 100 miles per hour.
When we got to 700 feet above sea level – and with my hand on both throttles I said, “We are at 700 feet and I am starting the go-around procedure.” Frank yelled, “PULL UP!! TREES !!!!” Immediately I shoved the throttles to maximum power and yanked back on the control column. I raised my head at the same time so that I could see over the instrument board. I saw nothing but darkness. A split second later I saw the runway lights of the airport. What that means is that we were below the level of the trees – and probably less than 50 feet above the ground!!
We climbed to cruising altitude and flew for at least ten minutes without either of us saying anything – just realizing that we came within two or three seconds of certain death! I wonder what a blood pressure check on either of us would have looked like if taken at that time!! Finally, Frank keyed the microphone and said, “I’ve just been thinking about how this would be reported in an accident investigation if we had crashed two or three seconds before that abrupt pull-up? Two old, high flight time pilots just flew a perfectly good airplane into the ground? Please understand – at that time I had over 5,000 hours flying time and over 1,000 of them were in instrument flight conditions. Frank had more than three times that number of hours – and was an instrument flight instructor at Ft. Rucker.
So, how does one explain this near-catastrophe? I believe it to be simple. Both of us were guilty of ASSUMING. Although I had been flying for many years in North Alabama and knew that the field elevation of the Decatur airport was 592 feet and I knew that the VOR approach is a non-precision one (with a minimum descent altitude of 700 feet above the airport surface – then Frank should have given me a minimum descent altitude of 1,300 feet. He simply gave me the wrong number listed on the Approach Plate. But, in my mind, I’m assuming “Frank is an instrument flight instructor, so just do what he tells you to do.”
Remember that Frank had done a full day’s work, and then driven three hours to Birmingham before our FTP period started. So, fatigue is probably a factor in this event also. I had put in a full day’s work, too. But, he was assuming “this is an older pilot with lots of experience, so I can just relax and enjoy the flight on a beautiful night.”
As I cited back in the first paragraph of this article – assuming certain things can produce both good and bad results. Most of them would fall in the good category. Life would be miserable if we had to think about every little thing we do in life. But remember, just one bad assumption can cancel out a hundred good ones!
There are lots of good lessons that can be learned from this story.