Last month, we met Neil Singer, part of our CJP safety team. This month, we’ll have a chance to pick the brain of astronaut Charlie Precourt, chairman of the CJP
Charlie is a four-time space shuttle guy, commanding two missions. Currently flying a CJ1+, he is a board member of EAA and NBAA and in his spare time runs a company that builds rockets for the stuff you see blasting into space on a regular basis.
Needless to say, Charlie is a “pilot’s pilot.” On his first flight in a Citation Mustang, he made the landing from the right seat and literally touched down without any sensation whatsoever. The kind of landing I make about every 10 years. Unfortunately, I was in the left seat…and so pissed off. I put my hand on his shoulder as we taxied off the runway and said, “Don’t worry, Charlie, it will get a little better each time you try.”
I thought you might like to hear from someone who has pretty much done it all.
What military aircraft have you flown?
In order of highest hours to least: T-38 Talon, A/T-37 Dragonfly, F-15 Eagle, F-4 Phantom, L-39 Albatross, A-7 Corsair, Shorts Tucano, Mig-21 Fishbed, L-29 Delfin, KC-135 Tanker, C-550 Radar testbed, T-33 T-Bird (Shooting Star), Mirage III, C-130 Hercules, H-58 Helo, C-141 Starlifter, Lockheed U-2 Dragonlady, F-111 Aardvark, Mirage 2000, T-43 (Boeing 737), AV-8A/B Harrier, H-1 Huey, H-206B Helo, Lockheed S-3A Viking, F-104 Starfighter, F-1 Mirage, MB-339, OV-1 Mohawk, F-16 Falcon, F-18 Hornet, French Jaguar, T-28 Trojan…and an additional 30 or so GA aircraft.
You were involved with the Columbia space shuttle. Can you talk about how that accident changed you?
The biggest impact was losing close friends. It is sobering to see those close to you lost in an activity you love. As NASA’s chief astronaut at the time, I had personally selected and certified them for that flight. What we learned in the aftermath was had we acted earlier on information in front of us, we may have had a chance to prevent this. The real underlying cause was what we have come to call “normalization of deviance” – accepting problems as OK when we shouldn’t have. In the loss of Columbia, it was pieces of foam coming off the external tank, which had happened without consequence on every flight – until the one time it had a big consequence. What the experience made me realize is accidents are preventable if we have the right mindset about risks and take measures to mitigate risks. Things like lots of training, ensuring proper maintenance and joining a type club for mutual support and learning.
Compare flying a military fighter jet to a Citation.
One word: maneuverability. Fighter jets are extremely aerobatic and extremely powerful. Initial climb rates in excess of 20,000 feet per minute are not unheard of. High G turns up to 9 G are also common. On the other hand, the Citation challenges you in different ways – precision instrument flying, smooth maneuvering, handling complex air traffic and weather situations, and managing passengers and crew. Although the two are very different from a handling and maneuvering standpoint, they are equally challenging to the pilot’s mental capacity!
You are spearheading CJP’s FOQA effort. Can you talk about what that is and why we need it?
FOQA stands for Flight Operations Quality Assurance, which describes a data-driven technique for catching safety trends before accidents happen. The airlines have had huge success with it and have seen accident rates drop to amazingly low levels. Performance data is collected from the aircraft each flight and allows flight crews to spot areas in need of improvement, and to share lessons learned with everyone in their FOQA group. An example would be catching a tendency of pilots to arrive high at the threshold and land beyond the desired touchdown point. Seeing this happen among a number of pilots in the group could lead to changes in SOPs, or it might lead to changes with air traffic control in the event they contributed to the trend with their own handling procedures.
Charlie practices what he preaches. During a recent Citation Mustang recurrent at FlightSafety Textron Aviation Training in Wichita, I saw him spread out three system diagrams and a memory items checklist on the classroom table. All of them personally designed by him. He made a 100 on the class test…I didn’t.