October 27th, 1995. My cousin was getting married in New York City and my whole family was heading north from Louisiana for the occasion. Unfortunately, we had to connect in Charlotte which was fogged in and there was no way the visibility would improve enough for the airport to open until the sun got out to warm things up. I remember the day vividly because that was the day I turned into a total aviation dork. You see, back then the captain and first officer would get on the PA – tell everyone that there’s no way they could go anywhere due to the weather and they’d open the door up and let the kids and anyone interested in seeing how an airplane works sit in front of the controls as the flight attendants did a ground beverage service to keep things civil. In 1995 I thought it was the coolest thing ever and I still do. To this day, I’ll wander up to the flight crew when we are delayed and ask them to test the fire detection system just to please my inner child . . .
Now, I can hear a bunch of you throwing rotten fruit at your screens while saying terrible things about my mother and wondering what this post has to do with guns…and I’ll get to that in a bit. The objective here is experiential learning, so it would be nice if the People of the Gun were to open their minds without a double tap to the head.
I have a very good understanding of the theory of flight, principles of aviation and systems of commercial airliners with plenty of time goofing off with Microsoft Flight Simulator. What I don’t have is experience. Can I fly? Do I have the skills to pay the bills? Surely, it cannot be possible. After all – Mythbusters has tried it … they attempted a landing in a 150,000 pound airplane with as expected results.
I made a few calls, mostly to TTAG’ Chief Aviation Dork, Nick Leghorn. We talked at length about flight regulations, licensing, practical aspects of flying, etc. and I figured I’d give this project a go. After all – how hard could it be? I went to get my FAA-mandated third class medical certificate and the FAA-approved flight medical examiner did his thing and gave me an examination that I was doing mostly fine with until he gave me the Ishihara Test.
Apparently in his 30+ years as a doctor, he had not ever seen anyone miss 100% of them. I was the first. That didn’t bode well. He was unable to give me a student pilot license and certify me as fit to fly. Although I see colors and I am not colorblind, I just can’t pass the FAA’s color test. I’d find out more about this limitation later. Seriously though, get your eyes checked. If you can’t see the color in your night sights or the front sight is fuzzy – that’s a critical aspect of shooting accurately.
Without a valid pilot’s license and problems with seeing color – it became pretty difficult to justify calling flight instructors, getting some flight time and putting it towards a license I may never be able to get. However, I consider myself to be a resourceful individual and I managed to do some research on the subject and find a flight instructor who would work with me. The epic conversation went along these lines:
FC: So, I have no flight experience. No pilots license. I’m pretty well-versed on how airplanes work and how they crash and I’d like to learn more about this.
Flight instructor: Zero experience in a plane. Are you serious?
FC: I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.
(Awkward pause. Hold for laughter.)
Flight instructor: Haha. Well, we do a day of ground school which covers aircraft systems and then we’ll put you in the right seat first and then you’ll get some time in the left seat. You’ll have 30 minutes on each side and you’ll be able to put an hour of time in your logbook.
FC: Sounds great. Lets do this.
Flight instructor: Now hold on a minute. I’ve had one person ask me to do this before and that was a total disaster. He swore he’d never go in an airplane again after that. What makes you so different?
FC: Ask me something about airplanes an airplane dork would be able to answer.
Flight instructor: Think you can you fly an instrument approach?
FC: Suppose we are vectored properly, the equipment is working and I dial in the appropriate navigation frequency and we’re able to intercept a working localizer then glideslope – I’m reasonably confident I can put it somewhere in the vicinity of the center line.
Flight instructor: You sound like you know what you’re talking about. Let’s see what you can do.
FC: Worst case scenario, you can tell me “I told you so.” After all, you’ll already have my money.
So he gave me information on class dates for ground school, sent me some not very light reading material and I pored over all of it just before game day. I had uninstalled flight simulator software from my computer many months before since I’ve been working on a few other projects and decided against giving myself any kind of advantage and going in cold turkey.
On the way to ground school I decided I wanted to evaluate two objectives that are seemingly tangential in linkage but interesting to me.
Can Hamsters Fly? Is this narcissistic chuckle-head able to land a plane?
Secondary Objective: What is the viability of experiential learning? Can we apply aviation-related experience to guns and gun concepts?
Day One: We covered airplane systems in-depth. Spent 10 hours in a classroom looking at slides and discussing how systems worked and redundancy working to a pilot’s benefit and a lot of other important things that I skimmed over.
There were 10 people in class. 9 of them had pilots license. Some commercial, some flight instructors, some private. All of them were taking copious notes and hanging on the instructor’s words.
I was trying to stay awake.
Most of the information he was throwing out was rather jejune and I already had a functional understanding of it. The instructor decided to throw some scenarios out and he looked at me for an answer. To his surprise, I knew the correct answer without having to look it up because I had read about it years ago and committed it to memory. Other things I didn’t do so well on but for a pop quiz, I thought I did okay in the long run since everyone else did about as well on the technical data.
We paired off into 5 groups of 2 and I was paired with a private pilot that just got his checkride for single engine land. He did a lot of glider flying and had about 200 hours in his logbook. We discussed technical data with alarming minutiae on a break when someone chimed in from behind me and said I really know what I’m talking about and asked if I flew airplanes for a living. I just chuckled and said no, I just know a lot of this stuff on paper.
After we finished classroom time, we went to a wooden mockup and practiced running checklists and learning where the critical instruments are as well as literally going through the motions. Once we were comfortable we knew where all the major systems were, we moved onto a practical learning and the instructor put us in a flight training device – a 1:1 full scale mockup of everything in the airplane with working buttons and computers that let us do nearly everything we had been practicing.
Did I mention this was for an Airbus A320?
This was for an Airbus A320.
What can I say? I go big or I go home. My first attempt at aviation would be in a Zero Flight Time FAA approved Level D A320 Simulator. Same equipment a major US Air carrier trains their people on to meet FAA requirements on procedures, recurrency, etc. The simulator has full motion on a 6 axis stewart platform which can simulate acceleration and deceleration. It’s as close as I can get to a $100M airplane without breaking down a cockpit door or getting groped by a frisky TSA screener.
I jumped in the trainer and we ran down some emergency checklists and familiarized ourselves with the various panel. I had spent a grand total of four minutes getting to know the airplane. That’s when I accidentally disconnected the power to all the systems and the battery backups kicked in and started setting off all the alarms and then creating a list of all the systems that got knocked offline thanks to my “HEY I WONDER WHAT THIS BUTTON DOES” experiential learning approach. This led me to my first lateral learning moment.
Lateral Learning Moment #1: If you think trial and error is bad with airplanes, it’s worse with guns. Thinking that you know what you’re doing and “Well I’m pretty sure that this is unloaded” will eventually end in some sort of catastrophe. Don’t be a statistic.
I was PRETTY sure I was switching a pneumatic valve off. I wasn’t actually sure. What had happened was that I opened an electrical bus and disconnected power to everything. I made the aviation equivalent of “Well, I thought the gun was unloaded….” and I made certain not to repeat the same mistake. My first officer neglected to tell me I was about to seriously screw stuff up.
He said “I knew that was going to happen, I just wanted to see what it would do.”
Lateral Learning Moment #2: Don’t count on other people to catch your screw ups. They might not have noticed it or may have a lucrative side business by taking the ensuing disaster and monetizing it, making you the next youtube laughingstock.
After the class, since all that flying made me hungry I went to a nearby BBQ shack and ate some brisket and ran down the requirements that the FAA laid out to make their simulator qualify for zero flight time. One of the things that I noticed that it was to be totally enclosed, you see no daylight at all inside them. As a person who travels with a flashlight, duct tape and other useful essentials that some would find weird – I took comfort in knowing that my preparedness might just have some level of justification.
Day Two: We arrived at the training facility bright and early at 7AM. We were the second group to give the airplane a go. The first group started before 5AM and as they were walking out, they warned us that we were going to sweat and have a rough time. These were the older pilots of the group. An old adage goes – there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old and bold pilots. I found it strange that the guys that actually owned their own small airplanes and had years of experience flying had the harshest time. My pucker factor increased an octave as the instructor got us all seated.
In the simulator, there’s a surprising amount of room – and realism! I took a quick look around and the simulator even had an FAA mandated crash axe inside. It was zip tied to the mount. I also noticed a copy of the FAA approved Quick Reference Handbook published by the airline located nearby each pilot. In the event of any system failure, the QRH tells you exactly what to do and in what order to do it. Here’s an examplar.
I found the fact that they had to note not to attempt to restart the engine after a fire quite hilarious.
Each pilot has a place to sit and get comfortable, the instructor has a station that runs the flight computer and can administrate the training, a seat for an observer next to the instructor, a seat for an observer behind the instructor and a traditional jumpseat. I slid in right behind the instructor so I could see what he was plotting out. The first two pilots had plenty of flight time and I was curious to see what the instructor had in store for them.
The first flight of the session would be run by Captain Spock and First Officer Kirk. Our plan today was to takeoff, do a few laps, come in for a touch and go and then a full stop landing. Everything went pretty smoothly until the instructor decided to turn on some moderate to severe turbulence passing through 2500 feet.
I was giddy. The flying pilot? Not so much. He has an instrument rating and begins saying that he’s behind the airplane and not reacting quick enough. I think he’s doing just fine and he plops the airplane down smoothly for his touch and go and he makes a great landing. They swap seats and everything goes according to plan. Until the instructor fails an electrical generator. We covered how to fix that in class and the pilot monitoring got everything back online in short order. It looked pretty smooth and was nicely done.
Lateral Learning Moment #3: It is nice to be around people who know what they are doing. Try to maximize the use of talent. Whenever I am at the gun club with friends that shoot better than me, I perform better than if I were flying solo. They push me to move a little faster and shoot a little straighter. Rise to the occasion.
Now, it was time for Spock and Kirk to get in the back as I put my butt down in the right seat. At this point, I had one hour watching other people fly and now it was my turn to run all the systems in the airplane and wonder if I really knew all the words to a certain Foo Fighters song. I adjusted the seat and took a look around. All the instruments and systems looked normal and ready for takeoff. The airline QRH was in a small compartment next to my right knee in close proximity to the sidestick. I had a feeling that the instructor was going to throw something at us so knowing where everything was would be pretty critical.
The flying pilot for this leg would be Evander, the 200 hour single engine land fellow who had exactly 200 hours more than me flying a plane. That’s a decent amount of time and I was hoping that he would be able to give me a pretty good feel for how to run the airplane. I ran all the checklists and made the call-outs as Evander smoothly pulled back on the stick and sent us off into the simulated wild blue yonder. I rocked back into my seat as the 15 degrees of climb he put on pointed us right into the sky. We started doing our lap of the airfield when I heard the instructor begin yelling at us.
Flight instructor: Looking good! I think something’s about to go wrong with your airplane.
FC: Go for it. I got this.
Flight instructor: Good luck. We’re all counting on you.
I did a pan and scan of the instruments and everything looked okay. Airbus has an interesting operational philosophy. If something goes wrong and it’s an advisory or something critical but not that critical – the airplane illuminates the master caution light, gives you a single DING and tells you what is not functioning and what you’ve lost downstream. It’s similar to the sound you get when they turn the seat belt sign off. If something is critical enough that warrants immediate intervention because you all are going to die – the airplane illuminates the master warning light and goes DING DING DING incessantly until you attenuate the warning bell and address the problem at hand. For instance, a failure of one of something the airplane has three of would warrant a single DING and caution light. Rapid depressurization from a window blowing out would warrant incessant dinging until attenuated and a master warning light.
The airplane made a single DING and it will tell you what’s failed on a screen forward of the throttle. I looked down and it said that there was a failure of the first officer’s pitot probes. This is the same type of failure that doomed Air France 447. My side of the airplane had no working airspeed indications. I told Evander to keep flying the plane and I’d fix it. Evander grabbed the PA system and announced to the passengers that we were all going to die as I reached down to the QRH, pawed around in it until I found the correct section. I wasn’t sure if it was treated as an avionics system or an electrical system so it took me a little while to isolate the section in the book that had what I wanted.
Flight instructor: What are you gonna do now without airspeed?
FC: Fix it.
Flight instructor: And how do you plan to do that?
FC: Give me a minute. First time flying a plane for crying out loud. Cut me some slack.
The airplane has three systems to interpret airspeed – two operational, one for fault tolerance. The one supposed to run my side of the airplane was out of commission and the captain was flying on his. I followed the checklist and shut down the malfunctioning system, turned on the standby system and set my instruments to receive data from the standby hardware. Took about 2 minutes to complete but we were back in business and I had working instruments again. We spent more time looking for the switch to turn on the light to read the QRH than we did fixing the problem.
Lateral Learning Moment #4: You’ve heard your dad say “Two is one and one is none” before – THIS IS WHY. He was right. Have two of everything. Preferably, three at minimum. I know one person that went to Gunsite for a class with one gun – IT BROKE. He did not bring a spare gun. Fault tolerance has virtue.
Evander drove the plane around and I ran his checklists for landing. As we captured the localizer, he noticed we were really high.
Evander: Hey Mike, do we have to fly a stabilized approach?
FC: Hell no. Crowbar that shit if you have to. Dive and drive.
Flight instructor: Tango romeo, you are cleared to land 36R.
FC: Tango romeo clear to land, 36R.
Evander: Ha. You wanna be particular and make it a runway?
FC: That’s funny since you aren’t Al Haynes.
After he got the airplane where it needed to be, we were looking good on the touch and go and he made a nice smooth landing and pitched us back up for another lap of the airfield. As we were approaching the runway, he was looking great and the airplane was functioning normally. When we started nearing decision height at 200 feet – that’s when I noticed he was getting behind the airplane. I started to make the callouts and I couldn’t keep up because of the way he was flying the plane. I was constantly alternating views between the runway and the flight display and at 50 feet it was readily apparent that it was not going to be pretty.
As I was calling out 10 feet, we struck the runway in a fashion that was reminiscent of my last car accident. Evander had driven the airplane right into the runway and the grass to the right of the runway. Adding insult to injury, he did it so badly that the airplane bounced several times, emulating Flipper. I began laughing as the simulator froze up. We learned the hard way (pun intended) that hard landings hit a software bug in the computer and everything has to be reset. I laughed even harder at this because Evander literally broke everything.
Moral of the story: Don’t make hard landings. The simulator does such a good job of violently driving us into the ground and back into the air that people in the building had thought someone got shot from the loud BANG noise. Somewhat fitting as I joked that we actually died.
The next group of folks had a turn and the instructor decided to defer me to the back of the line so I could debrief on break and watch a few other guys give it a go. I sat down with Evander for a quick bite to eat and I had a pretty good idea what happened.
FC: You were doing great until decision height. Did tunnel vision kick in?
Evander: Yep. I was flying the flight director and not looking up.
FC: If you just looked out the window, I’m pretty sure you would have nailed it.
Evander: Yeah, I was in the zone until 200 feet.
FC: I’ll try not to make that mistake.
Lateral Learning Moment #5: Tunnel vision is a thing. Whether driving a car, flying a plane or trying to kill someone before they kill you, it’s a thing. Adapt accordingly. If you let yourself tunnel and too focused on one thing, it’s just as bad as being not focused at all.
We went back to the training center and waited for the rest of the gang to land successfully. I was initially a little intimidated since a guy with lots of experience biffed it so badly, I figured I was going to get some serious whiplash and made mental notes not to do what Evander did. After a few minutes, I took the observer seat behind the first officer and strapped in. Upon takeoff, the instructor failed one of the engines. There was no warning and the plane began to yaw hard to the left. The flying pilot got the plane back on the center line of the runway and cut power. There was no warning chime. He recovered from a V1 cut, much to his amazement. That was the good news.
The bad news? Just before takeoff, the flying pilot gave me his iPhone 6+ and asked me to video the entire thing. He had used so much memory on his phone taking pictures of the facility and taking video of other people flying that by the time it was his turn – his phone was full and I couldn’t record any more video. Remember what I said about having two of everything earlier? This is why.
Lateral Learning Moment #6: Think in the fourth dimension. Expect the unexpected. Having a plan to kill everyone you meet isn’t the most politically correct thing to say nowadays, but having any plan beats having no plan.
The instructor reset the scenario and we had an uneventful takeoff. Both the pilots were experienced aviators with plenty of flight time and Jeff in the right seat actually had his multi engine rating and was a flight instructor. Just when things were looking boring, the instructor decides to have some fun. The master caution light turned on with a single ding. One of the hydraulic pumps overheated and shutdown.
Flight Instructor: Hey first officer, what’s wrong with your airplane?
Jeff: Um. I think we just lost something.
Flight Instructor: What did you lose?
Jeff has flown and taught people how to fly a plane. When faced with a failure of a secondary system, he froze up. He understands and knows all of these concepts but with just a few new and different things going on, he couldn’t function as he normally would. The firearm corollary to this? You might know how to shoot. You might now how to hunt. You might do what Jeff did if you get into a defensive gun use and have a degradation of mental performance.
Lateral Learning Moment #7: Add some stress and move someone slightly out of their comfort zone and you can watch the mental breakdown unfold. Figure out how you react under stress and develop a strategy to work through it successfully. This takes time and effort and should be practiced.
I took pity on the young man and gave him some help.
FC: Hey Jeff. Next to your right knee in the cubbyhole is the QRH.
Jeff: Oh okay. Let me see what’s going on with the hydraulics. Um. Shit.
Flight Instructor: What’s wrong?
Jeff: Where’s the light? It is too dark to read anything.
The simulator lets no natural light in. If you need to read a map, you need to know where the map light switch is located. If you need to read the QRH, it might be a good idea to turn on the dome light. Jeff didn’t know where the switch was since he was not observing on my attempt at being a first officer. I took pity on him again and gave him the Streamlight Microstream (http://www.streamlight.com/product/product.aspx?pid=144) I keep handy.
Lateral Learning Moment #8: Read a book. In this case, the QRH is the book to read that would have the answers. There’s no shame in checking reference material. Being right all the time is a tough job and takes proper support materials. What’s the point in being right if you can’t point people to the source of your correctness?
On a gun related note, I was talking with some gun dealers the other day about firearm related industry issues. My standard response to anyone posing a dumb question (this was truly stupid, I don’t even know why the ATF issued this dealer their license) is typically “Did you read the regulations book?” and I see what they have to say. Hilarity ensued.
1: So, does anyone have an answer to this issue?
FC: Did you read the regulations book?
1: There’s a regulations book?
1: Can you scan it and email it to me?
FC: Hahahahaha. HELL no.
1: You’re an asshole.
You want to know why the Brady Campaign and the Mom’s Demand Action crew harp on gun dealers for breaking the law? There it is. I have more respect for anyone that says they tried looking it up and were not able to find an answer before just saying “HEY LOOK AT THIS PROBLEM I HAVE MADE NO ATTEMPT TO RESEARCH IT AT ALL WILL SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME” since I help those who help themselves.
That’s some truth though – the gun industry is unable do things by the book BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT AWARE OF THE EXISTENCE OF A BOOK. It’s 242 pages, available with a simple google search and they didn’t know it was there. Situational awareness anyone? Readers are leaders. Be a leader, be a reader.
Lateral Learning Moment #9: Occam’s Razor – learn it, love it. Sometime low tech is best tech. Instead of looking around for the dome light switch, go with the path of least resistance. Try to have a flashlight handy whenever practical. You might find it to be very handy. This doubles as a TTAG 11 second gear review: BUY THE MICROSTREAM. It’s a great light. Most smartphones today have a flashlight app. Embrace the utility. What if the dome light malfunctioned? See moment #4 regarding fault tolerance.
After telling Jeff to always fly with a flashlight, he ran down the checklist and solved the hydraulic problem by powering off the problematic unit and turning on an electrically operated backup. He adapted to his new surroundings quickly and had a smooth remainder of flight. It was now my time to leave the frying pan and get into the fire.
Evander ran down the checklists and prepared the airplane for takeoff. I made a smooth takeoff although the instructor thought I was going to bury the nose gear back into the pavement but we took to the virtual air. I managed to have terrible cockpit resource management, oversped the flaps, busted altitude and airspeed and a few other things that are downright embarrassing – but not deadly to anyone on the airplane. The instructor kept telling me to keep the wings in the green.
That’s when it hit me – I wasn’t able to tell the difference between the yellow and the green on the flight display. I knew of my limitations with color, I just hadn’t known how far it went. After cursing to myself, I worked to differentiate the differences by some experiential learning and trying to fly the plane in a manner where the flight display would show green. Turns out, I didn’t have time since we were approaching a turn back towards the airport.
I brought the airplane around to land and I constantly had to remind myself to pan and scan and not fixate on one anything like Evander did. I put the main gear down just right of the center line and took off again. Quite a thrill! Although I did land successfully, I wasn’t paying any attention to my airspeed which was set by the automatic throttle control. I kept telling myself I needed to correct that mistake on the second run. As we approached the runway again, the instructor turned the visibility to heavy fog. I looked back down at the flight display and it told me exactly where the airplane was and where it needed to be as I made the corrections as we flew through a zero visibility cloud. Had the runway in sight at 200 feet and I put the airplane down in the same spot – slightly right of the center line. I corrected with the rudder and then manually braked to a spot midway down the runway. Still couldn’t tell you anything about my airspeed though. I’ll have to add that to my list of things to improve.
My zero flight experience self had just landed 150,000 pounds of airplane.
With stellar results.
I learned a lot about myself, which leads me to my closing remarks.
Lateral Learning Moment #10: Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. I’m not saying quit your job and start a fight but you can’t figure out what you are capable of unless you give it a go and see what happens.
I think I’m going to buy a Taurus Judge, load it up with some 410 shells and go shoot skeet with it.