"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."
Spense Air Base Moultrie, Georgia 1959
USAF pilot training class 60 Foxtrot.
Tiger Flight’s first
by Neil Cosentino...
Night solo cross-county navigation - a mission to remember including unusual attitudes and night aerobatics…
My aviation cadet call sign was Tiger 23. The mission was our flights’ first solo night cross-country in a T-28. The weather was prefect. A recent front followed by high pressure cleared the haze and lowered the temperature leaving behind beautiful, clear, cool star filled nights, perfect for night cross-county flying.
We all went out to our aircraft while was still daylight, pre-flighted, pre-positioning our seat parachutes, head sets, flashlight, everything set up to start engines. And in my case, Tiger 00, Tony-the Tiger would be my back seat passenger for some night time. Tony was our Tiger Flight’s little stuffed mascot. I strapped him in as tight as I could get the shoulder harness and seatbelt.
Every cadet waited in the cockpit or nearby waiting for the sun to set and the green start engines light signal from the control tower. It is a found memory, one of my best as a Spense cadet. I sat at the left wing root, just below the open cockpit, my back up against the cool aluminum fuselage with my legs stretched out toward the wing tip, warmed by the heat coming from the fuel in the wing tank below.
A light cool breeze crossed the flight line; I remember the scents of the earth, the local pine trees, mixed with the aroma of wood fires from the nearby homes.
I thought then and now that life could not be better; that flying was what my life and what my future was all about. The warm fuel, the chilled fragrances of the earth, the Southland, the surrounding pine forests and the aroma of the smoke, the excitement of the night flight are all to this day wonderful memories of my flying at Spense.
We waited and finally after the sunset, and as dusk faded there came the green light – the signal from the control tower for us to start engines and in timed sequence, taxi and takeoff. It was a good feeling to sit there watching the instructor pilots aircraft taxi by followed by each aircraft in Tiger flight and then my turn to taxi out in order to be part of this group, a part of a big mission.
I somehow knew that it was a glimpse of what combat flying was like in the past. I could not fast forward knowing that 24 years later, that I would be waiting my turn at night to start engines sitting in the cockpit of my F-4E Phantom for my first of the night Linebacker II missions. Those December 1972 night missions to Hanoi that ended that war.
For a young aviation cadet, at Spense who was getting the best flying training anywhere and getting paid to do it – life just could not get any better.
A little tension was building, as it got dark, thoughts came to me about what must have been like those World War II night combat missions. I told myself that it was not much different than now.
I dropped those thoughts and went over in my mind my plan to squeezed at least twenty minutes from the mission that night. I wanted that time for myself, for a little night aerobatics. I did not tell my roommate or anyone else my plan - knowing that if the word got out somehow - there would be big serious trouble.
Those thoughts ended with the green light from the tower. It woke up the flight line as each aircraft started engines. The taxi, takeoff, climb and level off was normal. The flight plan was a night solo round robin navigation mission using a left hand box route with four almost equal legs. They had pre-positioned our instructor pilots orbiting at each turn point to check us as we turned the corners, to keep an eye on the weather, and to stay in radio contact with the cadet pilots in case of an emergency
We were required to call in at each of the turn points, which I did at exactly the planned time. But I flew a much smaller box inside the box they were flying and at a lower altitude where I could look up and see the lights of the other aircraft in the stream. This smaller box would give me the time I needed for my first night aerobatics.
Only one instructor pilot called me at a turn point – I told him the truth that I had him in sight – that was true – I did have him in sight when I turned inside that second turn point. It worked as planned, with me arriving back at Spense twenty minutes early. I stayed at altitude and flew a short distance to the southeast away from the stream of aircraft and the airways.
My big adventure was about to begin but first a few confidence maneuvers, a few steep turns. That went well, next a few ailerons rolls. With my confidence increasing, and just enough time for one loop and one barrel. It should have looped first because the barrel roll turned out hairy. A maneuver that I can never forget, it was a clear moonless star filled night.
I started down building up air speed for the maneuver, then slowly rolled right and pulling up toward a point of light 45 degrees on what I thought was the horizon. I passed through that point wings level climbing and kept rolling until what I thought was a ninety degree bank turn and started to look for a light to roll to, as I slowly rolled inverted and then it happened - I lost all orientation since the barn yards lights of the isolated farms below all became part of the stars, and the stars became barn yard lights.
It was my first real scare in an aircraft. A good scare, a bit of a shock realizing that I was in trouble. I tired for a moment to go on instruments to recover. That seemed hopeless all the instruments were spinning or pegged, so I slowly pulled back of the throttle, release the backpressure and look around for a cluster of lights, or a small town or the lights of Moultrie that would tell me up from down, no luck.
So I just pushed the stick forward, unloaded and waited until the aircraft started down then rolled to what I thoughts was wings level based on a light cluster and waited to feel what would happen next.
I then spotted the town of Moultrie and the nearby Spense air base. My breathing slowly returned to normally. It was scary but it was over, now to focus on how I would safely re-enter the returning stream of aircraft.
It was scatted lights of the night county-side blended in with the stars and my view of the world was all one, I could not for a few scary moments tell up from down.
Lessons learned, if you are going to do night aerobatics on a moonless night – use a big city or any light cluster or a good reference as the starting point. I still enjoy night aerobatics, no glare from the sun, the air is cool and calm, but I now pick nights with a full moon and like to takeoff when the moon is about thirty degrees above the horizon. I also ask for a block altitude and flight following.
I filled out Tony’s logbook after landing but left out the intro to night aerobatics and the recovery from unusual attitudes.
Enjoy the journey... and learn from it!