It was April 2003, and I was reeling in the wake of the worst disaster of my young adult life. Chris Smisson, my friend and the leader of our little airshow team, perished in an accident flying his Technoavia SP-95 at the Tyndall Air Force Base show in Panama City. Instead of being in Florida with him and a few of our airshow team’s pilots, I was on the announcer’s stand at Thunder in the Valley in Columbus, Georgia, with Hugh Oldham, trying to conquer my case of “mic fright.” It was the first time Chris and I were at separate airshows on the same date. I beat myself up for a long time, wondering how things might have turned out had I been in Florida instead, spotting our performers with a handheld radio at the ready to speak up at the first sign of a safety issue.
Chris had been scheduled to open the airshow at Sun ’n Fun just a few weeks later with his signature patriotic routine in his Zlin 526F, the other plane he flew on the airshow circuit. A few of us decided that parking his ship as a static display at Lakeland would be a fitting tribute to our fallen friend.
Flying cross-country in an airplane specifically engineered to hinder defections from Eastern European nations made for a challenging expedition. I’m told the Czechs reduced the fuel tank size to make it almost impossible to go anywhere except up into the aerobatic box over the field after Ladislav BezÃ¡k defected from Czechoslovakia with his family in a Zlin. As a result, the Zlin has about an hour’s fuel at cruise before you need to be in the pattern for landing. Once on the ground, progress ceases because wherever you shut down, there’s always a new friend in the making who wants to know about this oddball airplane that isn’t the de Havilland Chipmunk he or she first mistook it for. Between the hundred-mile hops and social delays on the ground, going anywhere in a Zlin is a lengthy production.
One of the Zlin’s co-owners and I had planned to fly down to Sun ’n Fun, and as the date neared, more friends joined the journey. We had a Glastar, an RV-8 and a single-seat Zlin 526 AFS joined up to make a flight of four. Managing such a mismatched gaggle is no small feat, and I’d been told to plan the flight out and lead everyone down to Florida. I laid out a flight plan that had the same fuel stops we’d used in past years taking the Zlin to Lakeland. I had a cheat sheet of frequencies, distances and backup plans in case things went wrong. It was possibly the most flight planning I’d done since my private checkride.
I wasn’t the only one who showed up with a plan, though. Our friend with the Glastar had more computing power in his instrument panel than NASA used to put a man on the moon, and he also had routes sketched out. Most of these guys had a little bit of gray around the temples, and I was still wet behind the ears, a 22-year-old kid hanging with a crowd of airline guys and former fighter jocks. I shrugged and put the flight plan back into my pocket, figuring my little bit of experience was far outweighed by their experience and wisdom.
We took off bound for Sylvester, Georgia, with our mismatched group. The RV was probably on the verge of needing a notch of flaps, the Glastar was happily cruising, and the Zlins were fuel-critical from the moment we tapped the brakes and tucked the wheels into their wells. After an hour’s flight, we pulled the power and began a glide to the runway in Sylvester, Georgia. From my perch in the two-seat Zlin, I mostly saw red in the fuel gauges, and I knew the single-seat Zlin would be even tighter on fuel. Nobody answered Unicom, but it was a paved strip here that looked all official on the map. Only as we rolled past the shack at midfield did we realize that even with all that gadgetry, we landed on a mostly abandoned duster strip with no facilities available. Some good-natured banter about our predicament followed while we figured out where to go from there. Tifton, Georgia, wasn’t far, but both of the Zlins’ fuel tanks were full of air. The RV and the Glastar had hardly touched their comparatively vast stores of fuel. We found a grungy bucket behind the duster shack and cleaned it up before we used it to transfer a bit of fuel from the Glastar into the Zlins.
With just enough fuel aboard to ease our minds, we winged the short hop to Tifton, where we fueled up, and continued to Zephyrhills, Florida. After topping off there, one of the guys broke out a cooler of sandwiches and declared it lunchtime for all. The Sun ’n Fun NOTAM, rolled up and stuffed below the parachute in my seat pan, clearly said that the field was closing soon. “We’ll be there with time to spare, guys,” was the consensus, though, so we ate.
We got airborne again, but we didn’t get far. Nearing the arrival entry point at Lake Parker, we dialed up the ATIS, which had nothing but bad news to share. The airport closed for the show, so we diverted to Plant City and fueled up there. After waiting what felt like forever, a bunch of guys climbed into their Yaks, apparently planning to hit the circle at Lake Parker just as the field opened. We followed their lead. Memory fails me whether the airport had not yet reopened or if a crippled airplane had fouled the runway, but we wound up in Winter Haven when the ATIS from Lakeland again told us that we still had some waiting to do.
“I let the other pilots’ experience and abilities convince me that my plan was no good. At no point did anyone say the first thing to belittle my plan at all. They didn’t even know I had a plan. I just deferred to the men with more experience, although their backgrounds and mine were drawn from separate wells of knowledge. Fighter jets, airliners and oddball foreign aerobatic aircraft all require vastly different skill sets.”
We finally flew the Lakeland arrival and parked the Zlin at the Aerobatic Center, where I hung a little memorial to our friend from the prop, and we called it a night.
A ringing phone broke the next morning’s silence. The Zlin’s co-owner was on call with his airline, as it happened. He’d banked on not getting called, but it was a poor gamble. We had 12 hours to get him back home and into the right seat of a Boeing 777. We hugged a couple of friends, shook a few more hands and made a less problematic return home. We hit several of the fuel stops I’d charted for the flight down, which drove home that I’d had a solid plan from the beginning.
I let the other pilots’ experience and abilities convince me that my plan was no good. At no point did anyone say the first thing to belittle my plan at all. They didn’t even know I had a plan. I just deferred to the men with more experience, although their backgrounds and mine were drawn from separate wells of knowledge. Fighter jets, airliners and oddball foreign aerobatic aircraft all require vastly different skill sets.
At the fuel stop in Williston, I hadn’t spoken up when I realized we probably wouldn’t make it before the field closed for the airshow if we broke for lunch. Then, in Plant City, I knew the field wasn’t open yet—the NOTAM said so.
In my years as an airline pilot that came later, I studied reports of junior first officers who saw a problem developing well in advance, but they didn’t speak up. They assumed the captain knew what he or she was doing, and figured it would work in the end. In such cases, crossing restrictions were missed, flights penetrated weather that could have been easily avoided, metal got bent, and the job became a lot harder than it should have been. The timidity of crewmembers resulted in their becoming classroom case studies.
The vast majority of my experience prior to the Lakeland debacle was as the sole manipulator of the controls and only occupant of the aircraft. Then, I started approaching problem-solving with the word “we.” There were still times I should have spoken up, but didn’t. I learned from those without having to do a carpet dance before a chief pilot or the Feds. After almost nine years as a first officer, I’ve had to head off plenty of threats and combat a bevy of errors that often required more diplomacy than airmanship.
A common theme in most airline crew briefings is, “If you see me doing something wrong or strange, speak up. If it’s a technique you haven’t seen, we’ll talk about it. If I’m messing up, I’ll be grateful for your help.”
A recent training session brought up a scenario reflecting the importance of recognizing the junior pilot’s position. Imagine an airline flight deck with a fairly senior captain, a somewhat junior first officer and a company check airman riding the jumpseat. A passenger takes a nasty fall or maybe has a heart attack. There are no completely right answers in responding to this scenario; each choice in this choose-your-own-adventure tale has an obstacle. In weighing cities for an emergency diversion, weather is right at minimums in one city, another has crosswinds higher than published demonstrated numbers, and the destination is marginal with holding expected. The person in back needs help, pronto.
So, with this crew, whose plan do you seek first? The younger me would have sought the counsel of the most senior guy. By today’s approach to managing the flight deck, I would have been wrong. The smart people now say that one should first ask the most junior crewmember. That way, he or she presents an idea clear and untainted by any desire to just go with the plan presented by the senior crewmembers.
Almost a decade after that frustrating flight to Florida, I was having a late-night discussion with some pilot friends about how we’d developed our own styles of CRM. Some had formal training on the subject, as they had attended big-name aeronautical universities. Some of us spoke of captains with good practices and those we’d just as soon not mimic. Then, I laughed and shared the tale of our flight to Lakeland, the comedy of errors that led to my shortest stay at the airshow I consider to be my aviation family reunion. Some lessons can be taught, others have to be learned. Taking six legs to complete a 375-mile cross-country was mighty frustrating when it happened, but the lessons learned have paid dividends in the years since.
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