Staying Safe When There Are Two Pilots In Command
You’re the professional turbine-meister for a mid-sized company whose owner is also a pilot. He’s legally current and qualified in the company jet, though minimally experienced in type. He likes to fly left seat whenever he can, which is not often, and usually takes you along as his copilot while the other pilot rides in the back.
I had a boss like that once, 25 years ago – only I called him “General.” He was the commander of the Air Defense Weapons Center at Tyndall AFB, Florida.
Whenever the general had official business, he took a jet from one of the three squadrons of 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall. He didn’t need a regular pilot – he had eighty F-15 Instructor Pilots to choose from. The Air Force doesn’t allow general officers to fly solo in fighters, even if they’re qualified in the jet, unless they fill a required operational billet. As the 325 FW is not part of ADWC, the general had to fly the “family model” F-15B with a safety pilot.
One day the rotation fell to my squadron. I was a flight commander with better things to do than act as the general’s seeing-eye captain. But since I wasn’t on the schedule that day, I drew the duty.
It looked to be a good trip, anyway – just a one day out-and-back to Scott AFB, Illinois for a generals’ luncheon. My Aunt Wini was a government civilian working at Scott and would meet me for lunch. The weather was clear all the way. Plus, I’d log four hours of F-15 time that I wouldn’t otherwise.
I filed the flight plan as a stop-over with three hours on the ground at Scott, per the general’s itinerary. The Standard Instrument Departures out of Tyndall, designed for fighters, permitted unrestricted climb to the flight levels. Scott’s SIDs, however, were designed for transports: lots of turns, step-climbs, and long legs at low altitude. In the departure remarks section for the return leg, I entered: “Request unrestricted radar climb.”
I greeted the general at the squadron and briefed him on the flight. We grabbed our flying gear from Life Support and rode out to the flight line in his staff car. I did a quick preflight, having done a thorough one an hour before, while the crew chief helped the general strap into the front office. I climbed into the back seat and the general’s driver drove off to Base Ops to await our call.
Procedurally, the general was pretty sharp. He handled both the radios and the flying, just like he was in a single-seat fighter again, while I discretely left hot mike off and spoke only when spoken to, mostly. This was not an exercise in CRM and I wasn’t flying as the general’s copilot. I was the “safety pilot” required by regulation. I prompted him just once, to recheck his outbound radial from Birmingham, but it was otherwise a flawless flight.
Following lunch at the Officers Club with Aunt Wini, I checked our flight plan and updated the weather at Base Ops. When I briefed the general on our departure request, he said he didn’t want to fly an unrestricted departure. “I think that’s just showing off”, he said. I tried to explain that “unrestricted” didn’t require an afterburner (AB) climb; it only meant that departure control would coordinate with Center for an expeditious climb instead of stair-stepping us.
Normal takeoff in an F-15 is to accelerate in AB to 300 KIAS and then to continue the climbout at 350 – steeply with AB or shallow without AB. Military jets of the fighter persuasion are not restricted to 250 KIAS below 10,000 feet as are lesser mortals. Still, whenever I couldn’t get an unrestricted climb, I limited my airspeed to 300 knots.
When I suggested that technique, the general demurred. “That’s not what the tech order says. Just file for a standard radar departure.” Well, at least we wouldn’t have to fly one of those spaghetti-noodle SIDs. I amended the remarks section accordingly.
The first hint this would be a difficult departure was our takeoff clearance: runway heading to 3,000. Yikes! 350 knots at 2,500 AGL!
The general executed a textbook takeoff, accelerated to 300 before deselecting AB, leveled off at 3,000 feet and 350 knots, and finally called Departure. I had my notepad and pencil ready.
Sure enough, Departure immediately gave us a climb to 5,000 feet and a heading change. I wrote them down as the general read them back and promptly complied. Departure then gave us a new squawk, which I noted. Preparing to hand us off to Center, I thought. The general acknowledged and dialed it in.
Departure then told us to climb and maintain 7,000, contact Kansas City Center on 368.3, and squawk 4165. Again, I wrote the numbers down as the general acknowledged the instructions and read back the altitude. I noticed the squawk they gave us was the same as the previous code assigned and, because ATC normally only assigns two number changes at a time, that meant we weren’t squawking the right code.
“General,” I said, “Check your squawk. Should be 4165. They gave it to us twice.” We were established in a climb as the general read back the correct code.
He called up Kansas City Center on the new freq, but all we heard was static. “What frequency are you on?” I asked. “Two sixty-eight three.” I looked at my notepad. “It’s supposed to be three sixty-eight three,” I said. When I looked up at the altimeter I saw we were passing 8,000 feet, still climbing.
“Where are you going? Get back down to seven thousand!” I don’t normally raise my voice to generals. “They cleared us up to eleven thousand,” he said. “No! They cleared us to seven thousand! Eleven thousand would have been ‘one-one thousand’!”
He hesitated a moment, digesting what I’d just told him. I shook the stick and declared, “I have the aircraft.” I rolled the F-15 upside down and pulled the nose down aggressively, rolling right side up at 7,000 feet.
As soon as the general corrected the radio frequency, we caught the last of KC Center’s discussion with an outbound commuter plane: “. . . at seven thousand now but he’s not talking to me.” I still had the aircraft. “Kansas City Center, this is Cobra 01, seven thousand.”
“Cobra 01, I showed you at eight thousand three hundred a minute ago. Traffic is a Bombardier now passing well behind at eight thousand.” “Roger, Cobra 01,” I answered. Never acknowledge a violation over the radio – or telephone.
“Cobra 01, call me on the ground at the following number when ready to copy.” Crap! Busted! I copied the number and said I would call him, but I had no intention to do so.
The driver brought the sedan to the jet as we shut down. While I did the postflight, the general ducked into his car and got on the phone. I’d cautioned him not to call that number before talking to our wing’s ATC Liaison Officer. Generals rarely take advice from captains.
With no skin in the game – the general had no civilian certificates and zero experience with FAA tyranny – he offered up both our names, ranks, and SSNs (had to call the squadron for mine), violating long-standing DoD regulations along with the Privacy Act of 1974. I made my report to our ATC Liaison, who investigated the violation in accordance with USAF regs.
Within weeks, I received several FAA letters threatening my civilian certificates. I turned them all over to the investigating officer, who patiently reminded the feds that military operations are not subject to FAA investigations, and that all the personal information the general had improperly provided must be stricken from their records, according to U.S. code.
The Air Force investigation eventually found me partially negligent for the incident. I agree. I should have placed priority on watching our altitude and let the general sort out his own misdialed numbers. I should have offered to handle the radios for him on departure, but I doubt the general would have let me. I received no punishment from the Air Force, however, and the FAA has no record of the violation. I checked.
The report laid the primary fault on the general. I doubt there were any consequences, though; he retired the following year with his two stars intact.
If you’ve ever been an Air Force pilot since 1990, you’ve had to sign off a particularly strong-worded Operations Read File item, reissued annually, that warns pilots not to provide any personal data on flight plans, to the FAA, or to ATC. Yeah, that was me. You’re welcome.
To this day, I hold the general in very high esteem, which is why I’ve chosen not to reveal his name. He was one of my high school heroes, scoring two MiG kills over North Vietnam before I even turned sixteen. And, God bless him, he’s still my hero.•T&T