Learning how to fly comes with many challenges — and lessons

It was 107 degrees on a late August day in 1956 at Marana Air Base in Arizona. Flight school for 60 Air Force second lieutenants had begun. On that day I got my “dollar ride” in the back seat of a T-34 trainer aircraft. The air was very bumpy and I quickly got airsick.

 

On landing, the instructor pilot was very blunt: “Lieutenant, some folks can learn to fly and some cannot.” Clearly flying school was going to be a real challenge.

My next trial came when I had about 15 hours of flying time. It started at 10,000 feet.

 

Following the instructions of my instructor pilot, Bill Goedeke, I reduced the power to idle, pulled the control stick way back, and I pushed the right rudder to the stop.

The airplane shuddered, stalled and quickly proceeded to go into a spin. The nose soon was pointed toward the stark dirt of the Arizona desert. As the aircraft continued to spin, I counted off the turns – one, two, three etc. By the time I reached 10, I was dizzy and the desert was much closer.

I neutralized the controls and slowly pushed the throttle forward. The aircraft smoothly came out of the spin. I had lost 5,000 feet of altitude but was still 4,000 feet above the ground. Airsickness followed.

Why in the world would we be required to do such a dangerous, disorienting maneuver? The answer was easy. Air Force pilots had to learn how to deal with emergencies and other difficult situations. Successfully conducting a 10-turn spin followed by a smooth recovery was one of the flying school requirements.

Other challenges were barrel and aileron rolls, loops, Cuban eights, Immelmans and Lufberies. It was great fun for most of the student pilots. None of this boring straight-and-level flying for an eager student pilot.

 

However, these maneuvers were real problems for those of us with motion-sickness issues.

The rules were clear. If a student pilot got airsick five times, he had to report to a flight surgeon. The doctor would pour ice-cold water into an ear. If the eyes fluttered for two minutes or more, the pilot had an overly sensitive middle ear – this caused motion sickness.

I was a classic eye-flutterer. Both ears caused my eyes to flutter long past the two-minute mark. Any more air sickness would lead to elimination from flight school.

My flight instructor came to my aid. Bill Goedeke’s evaluation of me was as follows: After I got sick, I seemed able to fly pretty well. If I really, really wanted to be an Air Force pilot, Goedeke would not report the air-sickness episodes.

Although I got airsick about 60 times in basic flying school, I learned how to maintain my orientation during all flight maneuvers.

There was no airsickness in the follow-on program in the T-33 jet trainer nor in the 25 years of flying high-performance aircraft.

I will always remember the kindness of Bill Goedeke.

Lessons?

1. Sometimes it makes sense to interpret rules. Flexibly.

2. Kindness of others is so much appreciated.

3. Overcoming obstacles can be very rewarding.

 

Let me close this column by recommending some of my favorite books on aviation or aviators.

I Could Never Be So Lucky Again by Jimmy Doolittle. Doolittle tops the list of greatest aviators of all time – above Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Manfred von Richthofen, Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover, Erich Hartmann and Dick Bong.

When my wife, Connor, was asked in 1986 to be the soloist at Jimmie Doolittle’s 90th birthday party, we both spent time with Doolittle and with his dear friends, Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Clare Boothe Luce and Stewart Symington. The next day, Doolittle went out of his way to visit with the students and faculty at the National War College.

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram. In 1981, a brilliant but irascible Air Force colonel, John Boyd, presented a dazzling six-hour briefing on the history of warfare to the Air Force planners. Two of Boyd’s enduring contributions follow: 1. energy maneuverability curves (how to prevail in fighter-to-fighter engagements) and 2. quick decision-making in airplanes and in life.

Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey by Leo Thorsness. Medal of Honor recipient Thorsness was a great friend of Augusta. He made many talks in Augusta and Aiken. When he served on the board of the Augusta Warrior Project he would travel for six hours from his home in Alabama. He died May 2 at age 85 – a great loss.

 

The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – logged more than 3,500 hours in T-34, T-28, T-33, F-100, F-4 and F-15 aircraft. Happily, the number of his landings equaled the number of his takeoffs. His website is genpsmith.com.

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