Sunday, January 16, 2011


The recent tragedy in Tucson has left six dead and many injured, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. This is an aviation blog (more recently, more of an aerospace blog), and I am not going to add any more ignorance to the public debate about political rhetoric and violence. But this tragic event has an aerospace connection: Congresswoman Giffords is married to astronaut Mark Kelly.

I met Mark once. Driving up to the airport for a flight with a student, I saw a NASA T-38 parked on the ramp. This is not unheard of, but it's not common either. There had been some mixup about whether a pneumatic starter was available, and after a fuel stop the T-38 was stuck.

"Boy, that guy's really angry," my student said. Not knowing who was on board, I opined that anyone who had a T-38 as personal transportation was probably headed Someplace Important, and the government was losing a lot of money.

I took a picture of Dennis standing next to the airplane and we headed out for our training flight. The NASA plane was still there when we returned. We debriefed the lesson and headed to the lobby. Mark was sitting there at the weather computer.

I walked up and introduced myself as a local instructor. "Look," I said, this isn't the kind of airport we abandon a stranded pilot. We're headed out to lunch -- it's decent Mexican food -- do you want to join us?"

He graciously declined, saying that the needed equipment would be there soon.

And now Mark's wife lies in a hospital room with a questionable prognosis. The availability of a pneumatic starter is trivial in comparison. He is scheduled to command the final mission of the shuttle Discovery, which was supposed to launch late last year. The prospect of a family catastrophe must weight heavily on the minds of those who head to orbit. But Discovery has cracks in its fuel tank and is grounded until sometime later this Spring, so Mark is at her side.

Certainly nobody has asked my opinion, but I have one: I think Mark should stay behind when Discovery is ready. Let me explain.

Many years ago I was intensively training for my Airline Transport Pilot practical test. My training plan was unusual, but it seemed like it was going to be successful. The company had several scheduled freight runs in Senecas, and every morning I would wait for one to return and go fly one instrument approach with the freight dog as safety pilot. The idea was to simulate day-by-day operations as closely as possible, and in that way develop the intuitive connection between pilot and airplane one needs to fly with that level of precision.

As the great chef Escoffier said, a chef must prepare a dish 1,000 times before he knows how to prepare it.

And I was ready. The week before my checkride, though, my mother fell ill and was in the hospital. I called and told her that I would postpone the test and come visit her during her recovery.

"No, no," she said, "This is nothing. Go ahead and take your test."

Unless your mother is a CFI you should ignore her advice on flying. But I didn't. The morning of the test arrived. The Examiner and I tussled about Minimum Equipment Lists (he had clearly never worked with one) and I fumbled a question about prop de-ice, so we were even and went flying.

"Steep turn!" he commanded.

I rolled into a steep turn, just like the thousand steep turns I had done before. Only this time was different: I lost control of the airspeed, then the altitude, and ended up losing 300 feet, a performance worthy of a pre-solo student. I guess he chalked it up to nerves and we continued the test. But everything else went the same way. I flew home at low altitude with my first (and only) pink slip. I failed.

A couple of weeks later my mother had recovered and I took the test again, passing easily.

We teach our students to be aware of the effect that emotions have on flying, but there are more forms of get-home-itis than just scud running. I was in a hurry to get my ATP. I rewrote the lyrics to Dire Straits's "I want my M-T-V" to "I want my A-T-P", and sang it will scooting across the desert in my Taylorcraft. My wife was pregnant with twins. School was starting. I pressed and pressed and pressed and, in the end, I broke.

Mark's wife is sicker than my mother was, and the final mission of the shuttle Discovery is much more important than my ATP. He's getting pulled hard in both directions. The chance of failure on his part is high.

Should he fly?

How can he pass up the chance for a last ride to space, the last chance for a long time? How much training time will be lost if the commander calls it quits?

But he is no more fit to fly than if that bullet had passed all the way through his own brain. It will take the kind of selfless courage we expect of our best leaders for him to ground himself. As much as it will sadden me to hear of him doing so, I hope he does.

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At January 16, 2011 at 1:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be a stickler, but Mark Kelly has been preparing for STS-134 with Endeavour, not STS-133 with Discovery. Currently that would be the difference between a launch about one month from now and three months from now (Feb. 24 & April 19).

That being said, as a CFI as well, I agree with most of what you said. Emotions have a major influence on our abilities. Of course every situation is different. I don't know how military test pilots are trained to handle such situations, but I have heard that military pilots are generally grounded in those types of situations.

On the other hand, being at someone's side and seeing the improvement all along the way could turn out to be the very thing needed in order to return to flight (as opposed to not having that opportunity before flight).

Of course, each situation is unique. In the end it is up to each individual to decide if their state of mind will affect their flying abilities (in air or space). One piece of advice I once heard from an instructor that I think is worth considering: When in doubt, it's better to be on the ground wishing you weren't, than not be and wishing you were.

Best regards and safe journeys,



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