Bandit 650 Part Two

The engine flame-out and successful landing by my friend Doug Downey in Bandit 650 that we talked about last month became a mandatory lesson for F-117 fighter pilots training to fly the jet.  Even knowing what was about to happen, no other Nighthawk pilot could successfully land the airplane when the same configurations and parameters were programmed into the simulator.  So let’s dissect just how Doug managed this incredible feat of flying skills and problem solving.

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He told me that in the instant his engine flamed out everything slowed down for him and his senses became so amplified that he was able to process his situation calmly and relatively easily. This is a testimony to his experience as a pilot and was confirmed by the cockpit voice tapes that showed his voice was slow and deep with an even cadence. But it wasn’t that things slowed down, it was that his brain sped up to process all the elements of his predicament (Level II SA). Psychological studies indicate that only about 10% of people can react in this way to acute stress and it’s obviously a trait that the Air Force seeks in fighter pilots. It is similar to reports by some professional baseball players, whose brains can so quickly process the visual images of a baseball pitched at them at almost 100 mph that it looks like a beach ball for them to hit. If you’re among the 90% of us regular folks who don’t naturally possess this trait, there are some skills you can use to slow things down and think more clearly. We talked about that in an article a while back, but nothing replaces practicing and training.

In Doug’s case he had accomplished this in just that way, by planning and training for the PLAZ (Possible Loss of Aircraft Zone) scenario, that wrong side of the power curve from last month, as a part of his mindset for every simulator event and before every flight. Then he handwrote it all out on the checklist he kept strapped to his leg on every flight. He said he had “mentally flown” the exact same scenario hundreds of times. He told me he ramped up his situational awareness before every flight to be ready for any emergency by thinking, “I dare this jet to fail me. I know this jet will fail, I’m waiting for it, just let me know how you will fail me and I’ll be ready.” 

Since the chances of flying out of the PLAZ to a return approach and landing were considered unlikely, his pre-flight briefing always included this worst-case scenario. This is a perfect case study for the importance of using your imagination that we talked about a few months ago. Doug had imagined the loss-of-power scenario and imagined his emotions and flight dynamics with such precision that he had “pre-viewed” the solution before it became his new reality. Doug’s imagination allowed him to “pre-live” this scene over and over so when it actually happened he told me he wasn’t really surprised. All he had to do to deal with his real-life emergency was to fly his imagined plan. That included a plan on how to handle the “local” airport environment and where to safely “dump the jet” if he couldn’t recover and it became necessary to eject.

There’s an old adage that good pilots learn from others’ mistakes since you’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself. He told me a painful lesson he learned from a fellow Academy graduate and friend, 1Lt Brice Simpson, who was lost in an F16 training mission that ended in a tragic and fatal crash after an unnecessary abort and ejection. “Brice just wasn’t ready for a caution light on takeoff,” he told me, “and I’m never going to let that happen to me. This drove me to compulsively practice for the worst possible situation. The scenario, the parameters and predicted gauge readings were hardwired into my brain in the sim. I could visualize the exact actions I needed to take even though I never had to do it outside the sim before this flight.” This is a perfect definition of how to build SA using your imagination.

There is another old adage carved into our pilot brains from day one of flight school, “Aviate, Navigate and Communicate,” in that order. That is exactly what he did. The only low-altitude flight path away from the razor-sharp rocks in the ancient lava field was due west toward the open expanse of White Sands National Park. However, the view out the front canopy, now only 60 feet above the ground, quickly changed and he was looking down at crowded picnic tables and BBQ grills of the park surrounded by kids playing in the sand dunes. And there was a new addition to his problems—rising terrain. He was now headed straight toward the San Andreas Mountains with no power to climb and it was going to be hard to avoid. 

This required a total change in the plans and in control input, as any knots of airspeed gained meant giving up what little altitude he needed to clear the mountains. F-117 pilots rarely need rudder in normal flight operations. Yet this predicament, with so much asymmetric drag, required total rudder inputs to counter the yaw and keep the jet within safe ejection parameters. So he was stuck; ejecting was impossible since trying to come off the rudders even for a moment immediately caused the jet to start to roll over, lose precious altitude, and point the canopy at the ground. Holding full rudder control, he coasted out over the hot white sand, where he finally found some lift that stopped him from drifting lower. When the flight profile was analyzed in the debriefs that followed, it turned out that Doug probably floated onto a bubble of warm air rising off the hot white desert sands and that’s what finally arrested his sink and allowed his jet to slowly climb in ground effect. Doug described to me that the sands are so white it’s like being snow-blinded on a glacier, but it kept him in the air and bought him a little much needed time. But not much; this little extra time was also running out as the rising terrain of the westerly mountains was now quickly approaching as his air speed increased. The operational standard for limited thrust was embedded in his brain from all of his hangar flying: turn within 19.3 DME from Holloman to avoid the mountains, or eject. 

Finally, full power was now back up on the previously retarded engine and, fighting the drag of the “ice cube tray” from the stealth engineering, Doug was now able to start a slow turn back over the dead engine toward the base to the opposite heading runway. Level III SA, the plan B that was never there without his visualization and imagination of managing the emergency, ends with a successful landing on the Holloman runway with nobody hurt in the air or on the ground. Great work, Doug.

So learn these critical lessons from Bandit 650 and build your SA picture long before you need it in an emergency. Imagine and “pre-live” everything bad that might happen and then “pre-live” the solutions. Dare your airplane to fail you, train for it, use your imagination to plan for it, then put it all together and practice how you will manage it. Every time you “line up and wait,” take a moment to review your strategy so if and when it actually happens you will be able to handle the scenario calmly and with mental clarity by replaying your imagined solutions to your new reality and end up safely back on the ground. In the end, your own imagination is the ultimate key to safe flying. 

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS
Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in principles of aviation safety and has adapted those lessons to healthcare and industry for maximizing patient safety and minimizing human error. He also writes and teaches pilot and patient safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery/surgical critical care and general surgery. Dr. Stahl holds an active ATP certification and a 25-year member of the AOPA with thousands of hours as pilot in command in multiple airframes. He serves on the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors and is a published author with numerous peer reviewed journal and medical textbook contributions. Dr. Stahl practices surgery and is active in writing and industry consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

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