T.H.ursdays with Tom Hill
Sometimes it’s easy to forgot how lucky I am doing some of the things I do. It’s particularly easy to discount what I do nowadays when you look at what I HAVE done. In terms of numbers of “epic” events, I might look longingly to years past when I flew more advanced aircraft. Fortunately, the universe is kind enough to remind me that not all is what “was,” and that what I’m doing now might be someone else’s epic adventure.
We have many great relationships with other aviation agencies at the USAF Test Pilot School. One is with the USAF Academy. This institution is easily the source of a third of our officers and many of our pilots. It’s a very difficult educational institution in which, not only are you graded for your academic excellence, but also for your military abilities. The course load they have at the academy is impressive for anyone.
They have a course for seniors that’s all about flight testing. Aero 456 teaches students the basics of designing test plans, collecting data, and analyzing the data for a report. One of their final projects is a team exercise reporting on the performance capabilities of the T-38. Sure, it’s a great academic exercise. But, the best parts and most important objectives aren’t measurable on a simple scale. It’s the pure experience of flying in a supersonic jet trainer.
That little tidbit is easy to forget when you are flying hundreds of such missions a year. When the most recent class of Aero 456 students descended on Test Pilot School just a few weeks ago, I was reminded that not all I do is run-of-the-mill. Actually some of it is quite epic.
Every six months a group of Aero 456 students come to Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB to finish their final project, which is writing that report. They learn emergency procedures for getting into and out of the T-38 safely. One by one, they fly with a TPS instructor who is supposed to fly the given test conditions and do the right maneuvers while the students record what they see. It is all very scripted and old hat for us old-head instructors.
When I was teaching one group of these students how to egress the T-38 safely I asked if any had flown in a tandem—i.e. frontseat/backseat—cockpit aircraft before. Most had not, which surprised me, because in years past most had flown advanced fighters during orientation trips to other Air Force bases. This group of cadets where experienced glider instructors or flew Cessna 172’s on the Flying Team. They were familiar with the classic General Aviation world but had little experience with high performance aircraft like the T-38.
Like all aircraft, a T-38 flight begins with a takeoff. When you’re used to gliders and Cessna’s, the T-38 takeoff with its afterburners can be quite impressive. It might even feel like a “kick in the pants” on a cold day when the afterburners kick in just after the brakes are released. The takeoff can be memorable, at least until you fly something with real power, like an F-15 or F-16.
On this day, I get on the end of the runway with my cadet safety strapped into the backseat. The kick and speed rush associated with escaping the runway at 165 KTS is all there. I make a slight turn out of traffic towards the fat part of our airspace, which for me is all pretty normal stuff. As we climb away from the ground at a good rate, my backseater pipes up, “Sir, this is probably the coolest thing I have ever done in my life!” All he needed to add was a cursory, “Yee haw!” to really state what he was feeling.
We finished the mission. His grin was a mile wide the whole time we walked back to TPS. Afterwards, he and a couple other cadets I flew with that week gave me a little memento of their visit—the patch you see here.
I’m glad I have reminders like these. They ground me. There's always the risk of being overly full of oneself. Also, just when I might think my best days are over, there are little events like this to show me that’s not so.