Defining Aviation Learning Experiences

By Scott Spangler on September 18th, 2023

To maintain my social skills, on Fridays I hike the Wiouwash Trail for 2.46 miles from the trailhead just east of Winneconne to the Bare Bones Brewery, which is trailside where the former interurban railbed enters Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on its northwest side. The Bone opens at noon, and I’m a member of its mug club. Exercise leading to (and from) good beer is guaranteed, and rare is the Friday that does not include a handful of people to talk with.

Conversations typically start with beer, and the craft breweries we’ve visited. This conversation is usually punctuated with our respective vocations and avocations. Talking with a couple somewhere in their 50s, the woman seemed especially interested after learning I was a pilot. She’d not met many, she said, and she peppered me with a curious collection of questions, such as who were the best pilots I’d ever flown with (a story for another day).

Flowering from the old saw that “There old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilot,” Most of them seemed to focus on things that define a pilot’s personality. Delving into this spectrum, which ranges from timid to foolhardy, I described myself as a pragmatic pilot who considered the relevant risks and played them out as possibilities influenced by the flight’s conditions. For more than 50 years now, mantra has been, “If in doubt, don’t.”

The couple asked if this guiding principle grew out of some inflight epiphany. In truth, this aviation moment that defined my flying life occurred in Alameda, California, during February 1973, three years before I started my flight training farther down the coast, in Long Beach, in 1976. Just before intermission during the film, Fiddler on the Roof, at the Alameda Theater, A Navy A-7 Corsair II dove almost straight into an apartment building a little more than a half-mile down Central Ave.

A photographer stationed at NAS Alameda, I spent a couple of weeks documenting this undesirable aviation outcome as the mishap investigators dug into the hole sifting the mess searching for evidence, for some clue to the mishap’s cause. They found the A-7’s engine about 20 feet under the basement garage floor. As far as I know, they never did find any of the pilot’s remains, but the 10 civilians who resided in the apartment building introduced me to the unmistakable, unforgettable aroma of seared human flesh.

The flight of two A-7s had left NAS Lemore on a night out and back training flight, and the flight’s leader said suddenly, his wingman was no longer off his wing. The rumor among the people sifting through the site was the pilot was sucking on a cigarette in-between whiffs from his oxygen mask, not an approved procedure at 37,000 feet. Nothing in the mishap investigation confirmed this rumor, but what stuck in my 18-year-old mind is that a momentary lapse in judgement, no matter what it might be, can turn any airplane into a dirty collection of metal scraps, slivers, and shards spread across a hangar floor. Aside from the compacted lump of the A-7’s Pratt&Whitney TF30-P-6 turbofan, few of them were larger than an index card.

Photographic work on subsequent fatal mishaps, the final approach meeting of the four turboprop P-3 sub hunter and a Boeing 707 lookalike, the Convair 990, at NAS Moffet Field on the other side of San Francisco Bay, and a Marine Reserve CH-53 that shed a main rotor blade up north in the Napa, fixed this reality in memory.

Asking for an example of how this guided my flying life, I recalled my invitation to introduce the “new” Cessna 172 to Flight Training’s readers when Cessna resumed production of its single-engine airplanes. It was an event attended by usual GA media outlets, and for some reason, I was selected first to fly. Searching for differences between the legacy Skyhawk and the new one, I started by following the handbook’s preflight inspection checklist. I stopped when I found good sized nick in a prop blade, and said I would not fly the airplane until the problem was properly addressed.

Seeing two quizzical looks above their beers, I explained that the nick might lead to the loss of part of the prop blade, and that the unbalanced blade might torque the engine off the airframe, which would destroy not only the center of gravity but also the airplane’s aerodynamics, and what was left would fall out of the sky. I like flying a lot, I said, but not enough to die for, especially when it would have been my fault for taking off with a known problem. “Ultimately, we all are responsible for the consequences of our decisions. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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