Wind the Clock
Flying in-and-of-itself is not inherently dangerous, but it is terribly unforgiving. When the weather suddenly deteriorates, a fire light illuminates the cockpit, or a routine task runs afoul, flying’s unforgiving nature can pump a pilot’s system with competing hormones that quicken reflexes — and cloud judgement.
You’ve felt that same confluence in fight-or-flight moments where surrounding cues drive your unconscious to pump catecholamine (Caty-Cole-A-Mean) – a hormone of heated aggravation — into your system. Add the accelerant of adrenaline in to the mix and you can find yourself on the verge of a regrettable reaction on the ground, or one that leads to disaster in the air. One of those moments took hold of my jet on a clear day over North Carolina’s Dare County Bombing Range.
We were in the middle of one of the great sporting events in the world of fighter operations –dropping high drag bombs at low altitude. I had made the same pass hundreds of times over the course of my career – align the piper with the target, release the bomb at 600’ and then smoothly apply 5.5 Gs until the jet was pointed 30 degrees into the air. But just as soon as I hit the release button and pulled back on the stick that morning, things went south.
The pop and aural spool down were accompanied by the failure of every electrical display in the cockpit. Any sense of acceleration was drowned out by the 5.5 G recovery and as the nose pointed to what I felt was 30 degrees above the ground, I unloaded that weight. I had one shot at diagnosing the problem and knew if I got it wrong, I could lose that F-16. That thought hit me just as the numbing surge of adrenaline entered my system. “Zoom, Stores Jett, Throttle Off – then Midrange” was the boldface – the first three mandatory actions required for engine failure at low altitude. But that automated response was overridden by another. I let go of the throttle, reached for the stem on jet’s mechanical clock, and I wound it.
I could all but hear the Portuguese accent of Fernando Dias, my flight school instructor, as he doled out the advice that delivered my inane move that morning. “Veeenable, even in the biggest emergencies, there’s time to think… time enough to assess the situation and sort through your options before you make a move. Break the chain that leads to a flinch reaction and take hold of that time by reaching for the clock in the jet. In the few seconds it takes to find the stem and wind it, you’ll rise up out of the cockpit long enough to get a clear head and make the right call.”
I wound the clock, and then looked back across the cockpit. The main and standby generator lights were on, the emergency power unit had failed, and the engine instruments appeared to be frozen. Frozen. Right before I cycled the throttle off to initiate the restart procedure, I pushed it to the forward stop and I was pressed firmly back into my seat — the motor was still working! From there, recovering that jet was a walk in the park.
No matter who you are or where you work, the world will rise up to test your mettle. If you give in to the rage, fear, or passion of the moment, you could ruin a relationship, lose a job, or take a bad situation and make it worse. When an angst or pressure filled moment pumps catecholamine into your blood stream, stay off your first reaction by reaching for the gift of time. If you’ve got a watch, reach down and wind it. If your watch is your phone, put a free hand on that time piece long enough to rise up out of your cockpit, let your initial reaction pass, and then make the right call.