“Get your head out of your tailpipe [well sort of], idiot!” was my instructor’s pungent comment to what had begun as a routine join-up and evolved into a fiasco. It came at the moment I was trying to convert a slightly acute rendezvous path by means of several increasingly urgent salvage maneuvers culminating in an inglorious if somewhat spectacular departure from flight and a never-to-be-forgotten sequence of buffet, stall, snap back over the top, and heart-stopping entry into uncontrolled flight.
There are few things as unnerving as a gyroscopically induced whifferdill in a marginally stable swept-wing fighter, but I can assure you, with 20-20 hindsight, that on a moonless night over sparsely settled territory, all the gauges dancing in drunken frenzy with no clue as to which way is up or down ranks with the best. Dust, sand, long-lost pencils, and flathead washers jitterbugged back and forth in the red glow of the instrument panel. My gooseneck flashlight beat a tattoo between helmet and canopy. In this less-than-serene setting I faced the embarrassing prospect of running out of altitude and brains at the same time.
With the altimeter indicator clicking inexorably down …16 …15 … 14 …[thousands of feet], airspeed indicator bouncing off the zero peg, and my tailbone floating 2 inches above the seat cushion, I summoned up from memory the Inverted Spin Recovery Procedurechecklist: (1) Stick forward and in direction of turn; (2) Rudder opposite to direction of turn; (3) Neutralize controls when rotation stops; (4) Full throttle for recovery, followed by the dreaded caveat: (5) If rotation has not stopped by 10,000 feet AGL (above ground level), EJECT.
While my mind went off into useless speculations—“How the heck did I get into this mess in the first place?”—my hands put the procedure into practice. The truth be told, at that point I was so humiliated that the thought of ejecting was the last thing on my mind. I was going to recover even if it was in the middle of a smoking hole in the ground.
Well, fate was kind and I lived, bottoming out at 8,000 feet without a clue as to where I was. By luck, however, I caught sight of the instructor’s running lights and began the 12,000-foot climb back to his altitude.
“Be with you in a minute,” I lied, but in my misery I came to a new appreciation of what the term situational awareness was about, and to what lengths I was determined to go to achieve and maintain it.
Ten years later, I was posted to the same training base, this time as an instructor. In the interim I had logged nearly 3,000 flight hours that included 200-some-odd missions in Southeast Asia, adding in the process a few memorable experiences to my resume … but none so indelible as the student episode. Thus, I arrived with a sense of purpose and redemption … a desire to preach the gospel of situational awareness to my young charges. My vehicles were the preflight and post-flight briefings that accompanied each training flight where I stressed the need for what I called the “five-second twitch” … the internal need to update one’s awareness of his surroundings.
Staying Focused at the Job Site
In an aircraft cockpit, despite all the competition for attention, the need for situational awareness is obvious. In other endeavors—even construction work sites, despite their legions of perils—the need is often less obvious, a situation exacerbated by barriers we have erected … notably in the name of such things as head and hearing protection.
Lord knows how many deaths or serious injuries are prevented each year by hardhats; nor is there doubt that earplugs and Mickey Mouse muffs have been godsends in preventing hearing damage, but they, along with a myriad of health and safety equipment, come with price tags … distraction and isolation from the unexpected hazards of the job site that can lead to dismemberment and even death. It’s an insidious situation.
Of course, you are going to insist that your people wear protective gear. Of course, you are going to load them up with the details that are part of any organizational effort. So where does that leave you? Between a rock and a hard spot with a job only partly done. The answer is a matter of resolution on your part to preach that gospel of situational awareness in daily reminders in the form of signs, lunchbox meetings, walk-by encouragements on the hazards and pitfalls of the job site—those both general and site-specific—and the absolute need for your workers to keep their heads out of their tailpipes.