Wed. Jan 27th, 2021

Lessons Learned from the Troposphere


Retired Airshow Pilot: Frank "Arrow" Pullano Jr.

     No, flying is not what I do for a living but when you chose to put your life in the hands of others and ask them to accept the same from you, it is THE ONLY way to live. As time goes on, I’ve realized that the few short years of my performance flying career may very well have been the most formative years of my adult life. I can apply the lessons learned there to everything that I do today. From the way I approach my daily working and personal relationships, to the way I coach competitive youth sports. This past weekend, I ran across something that I wrote almost a decade ago and was surprised at how much it personifies my personality still today. Please do forgive some of the language though, there are a number of words used to drive home a point. I also use “he” when referring to pilots simply because we all happened to be men, and not because I have any prejudice towards female pilots. One of the most important aspects of formation flying comes down to dynamic attitude. When I use the word “attitude”, I’m not talking about which way the flight is pointing, which way is up etc. I’m talking about each individual pilot, his behavior, his outlook on the situation and how it relates to the other pilots in the flight. Of course the attitude applies to each of them and translates outward to his wing mates.

     First, I’ll say this. Each pilot MUST be a complete master of his airplane in order to fly in this manner. This is no time for a guy to be hunting around the cockpit for buttons or switches. This is sure as hell no time to wonder where the edge of the airplane’s performance envelope is either. This isn’t to say that flying in a “let’s go get some lunch” gaggle requires the same level of mastery, I’m referring to multi ship structured formation flying, down low, in heat, in turbulence, and in front of a half of a million spectators.

     With that said, we have a four ship. Each of the pilots in this flight are masters of their aircraft. They are competent, they are each confident, and what may be surprising to many, they must all possess one more incredibly important character trait. They must each possess humility. If any one person in the flight lacks humility, they endanger everyone in the flight and everyone on the ground below the flight. In short, and this is an extreme way of putting it but don’t fly with a stubborn pilot, they are definitely trying to kill you. The discipline starts with humility and this is why I feel it is the most important character trait. Let me explain why I know this to be true. If a pilot lacks competence, we can help him build his proficiency through drilling, and through coaching. We all understand how important currency is, so practice, practice, practice. If a pilot lacks confidence it is usually associated to his lack, or his perceived lack of competence. Confidence can be increased through encouragement and camaraderie. None of this is possible without humility. Why? If a pilot is a humble man, he is able to place his ego aside and accept the fact that he isn’t getting it done. He allows his self-discipline to take over and keep him in line. If he lacks humility he usually lacks self-discipline. As with humility, this form of discipline starts within the man within his cockpit. Preventing a breakdown of this level of discipline is paramount and is THE ONLY level where we as team pilots can be proactive in our pursuit of perfection and safety. If that’s true, this means that other levels of discipline are reactive. The Debrief, and yes even the Briefing are reactive forums to allow for level two or “group discipline.”

     The Debrief is the time where your best friend in the world should be expected to stand up and tell you that you are f****g up. You must be prepared to accept that from him. Don’t miss understand, you must accept that deep down and digest what is being said. You are not to simply sit there and politely listen to your buddy break your balls. You have to actually dig in and hear him; understand what he is telling you. This is also the time where you must be prepared to stand up and tell your best friend that he is f****g up. You have to stand up and tell the boss the same thing. The boss has to accept it from you or whoever else has what they feel is a valid gripe. The point is, and it’s a very important point. If a pilot is out of line and is not performing to standards he must be held responsible – every single time. If any pilot no matter who the hell they are. If they flew with the Thunderbirds, flew the Space Shuttle or flew banners down the beach has the balls to stand up in a debrief and say something like, “Yea, I know what was briefed but I chose to do it a different way because I felt like it.” That attitude is deadly and is simply un satisfactory. The person who behaves in this manner lacks humility and therefore lacks self-discipline, requires reactive discipline and is therefore a danger to everyone. It is the duty of the group (this means you too) to stand up and tell the NASA Astronaut that he is wrong. If the guy is a real pro he will take it like a pro and accept the critique for what it is. If he gives you shit over it, we get to move into level three or IMPOSED DISCIPLINE.

     Imposed Discipline is the least appealing version. It’s the time where the leadership or the group makes a decision to enforce some kind of sanction on a pilot. Most often this sanction is something to the effect of, “Joe, You’re a fantastic pilot but I’m simply not going to fly next to you anymore.” In the military, some of my old friends, the fighter guys would be “grounded” for a few days or weeks and often, for minor infractions. This was a punitive punishment designed to keep them in line. They can afford it! For one thing, they have ejection seats, and for another thing, they do it all day, every day. There is a level of proficiency and basic training far beyond what is normally found in a civilian formation pilot. We, as civilian or even a mixed group of pilots cannot allow repeat infractions if we hope to survive. Now, with all that said I have to report the reality. No matter how good you are, no matter how good your training is, no matter how careful you are, people will die under the best of conditions. Harsh isn’t it. It is the reality, there will be accidents, and you or your best buddy may die doing this. You had better be prepared for that to happen. Don’t dwell on the fact but don’t ever forget what I just said. There was not one flight where I didn’t have that in the back of my mind. I kept it outside the canopy, outside of the bubble, out there in space, at arm’s length but I knew death was out there waiting for me on more than one occasion. It’s necessary to avoid complacency in this unforgiving world. The following are real world examples, my own experiences.

     I was in a slump (read confidence and competence) Zack, the team leader pulled me aside and asked me where I felt my proficiency level was. I replied that I had no delusions, and I knew that I wasn’t getting it done. I just couldn’t get into the groove and didn’t know why. I never did understand what it was but through some tough love, some encouragement, and a few intense hours of one on one flying where I glued myself to his wing, I gained quite a lot of confidence as my proficiency and competence was rebuilt. Towards the end of that multi hour session, I remember flying to the West of Millville Airport in Southern New Jersey when Salty joined our flight. Zack vectored Salty in for the rejoin to his right wing. I was flying as number Two on Zack’s left wing. We flew around as a three ship for a while. I honestly don’t remember if we recovered at MIV or not but remember very well what Zack said to me later. He said, “Gee Snip, you sure got your shit together on that sortie. Salty said he’s never seen you fly that rock solid before.” He was right you know, I was rock solid that day. I was plugged into the reference line and didn’t move one inch. I was back, I was on, and I knew it. Through the honesty of the group I was put in check. I was told that I wasn’t getting it done, I was about to be benched. They knew I had the skill to do this so they allowed me to take a step back and to spin back up to standards. My humility allowed me to accept this deep down. I went fourth and conquered. The feeling was simply awesome! The primary factor in my rock solid flying that day was twofold. First of all, it was a pretty smooth day, we were up much higher than normal, in cool air. The second factor was my position. I was flying directly off of the lead plane which was rare for me. I was usually out on the wings with at least one plane between me and the leader so I was accustomed to being whipped around. Either way, we got it done.

     Another situation was when Jay Blum stood up in a debrief and told me that I was out of position on a certain maneuver. I knew it already and Jay was the only other person who could have known about it. He was in trail behind me and we, as an element were in trail behind the rest of the flight. He stood up and said (with reluctance) that I was indeed out of position. I was upset by that, I’m not going to lie about it. I wasn’t upset that he came out and said it, I was more upset that he said it to the group and not off line to me later. Looking back at it now I realize that he was doing what was best for all of us. By telling me off line he would have implied that it was OK and something to worry about later, you know, a do over. If he were to debrief me off line I would have been allowing my own failure to slip away. I was wrong, no two ways about it. I should have never accepted my failure from within my own airplane let alone ask Jay or the rest of the flight to accept it. I was wrong. He did what he was supposed to do, nothing more, nothing less.

     Yet another situation was a debrief following the 2005 Millville Airshow. Jay and I were to fly an opposing maneuver down the show line. He was to guide off of my airplane primarily but we had briefed the general rule of thumb would be to split the runway as if a two lane highway. This rule applied if we were no joy on the ingress of the opposing maneuver We were unsure at the time of the brief if we would be allowed to use the taxiway as our show line reference so, again he was to guide off of me. When we rolled in for the pass I called out “5 Visual” he called out “6 Visual” indicating we both had the other in sight. I rolled in to the taxiway which was closer to the crowd but within our show box. Jay did not guide on me and continued down the runway which was 200 feet further away from the crowd. He was supposed to pass me on MY LEFT over the TAXIWAY because that’s where I WAS FLYING. He did not do that. He continued down the right side of the runway even though we were both confirmed as visual on each other. Either he didn’t see me and still called visual or chose to ignore my guide. Either way it was a bad thing, it was NOT as briefed. I let him have it in the briefing. I was pretty angry at him for that one. I couldn’t believe that he would do something like that so, I stood up and laid into him for it. He didn’t say a word about it, nobody did. It was one of those moments where everyone just sits there and nods yes and shrugs their shoulders. There was nothing more to say about it, it was over and he took it as he should have, like a pro. If anyone was out of line, it was me. I was very stern about what I was saying and I said it with vigor and showed my anger that day. I regret that as I look back but I still think it had to be done.

      Now, the worst case is when there is a disagreement. Two guys see something in totally opposite ways. One honestly thinks he’s right, and the conflicting guy thinks he is right. Hell, sometimes both guys are right. When I flew with the Vultures, there was one other pilot who I seemed to tangle up with all the time. Mudfoot who is a fine pilot, flew for the Air Force, raced T-6s at Reno and I found or selves trying to run into each other on three separate occasions. Two of these were captured on film and one instance was just the two of us out in the boonies during a training sortie. The first near miss was in late February of 2005. We were working into a new maneuver where the four RVs pitched into a tight orbit at show center. Jay and I would execute our opposing pass climbing vertically up through the center of this 4 ship orbit. Kind of a “rabbit out of the hat” if you will. I remember rolling in and not being able to pick up Jay. For clarity, there was some snow on the ground, Jay and I flew white airplanes, and the smoke trails were also white. He called visual on me but I still didn’t have him. As we approached the orbit at 450 knots closure I knew that we were going to run into each other in about three seconds. I called “knock it off” Jay replied with “6 Knock it off” At that point, I picked him up visually off low to my left and well out of my way. He was already executing his deconflicting turn out of the box. Once I saw him and recognized that he was not a conflicting factor I continued to climb up into the center of the RV orbit. I saw Eyeball’s RV which was followed by Mud foot’s RV. I went pure pursuit on Eyeball’s tail and aimed right for where it was at that moment meaning the tail of his plane wouldn’t be there in a few seconds when I was. MY BIG MISTAKE was continuing the maneuver even though there was an acknowledged Knock It Off call hanging out there. Once the Knock it off was called, the RVs began to rejoin into a standard “fingertip” formation as a four ship which means Mudfoot was now cutting across the turn circle and was also much closer than he was during the standard orbit. I saw him coming and knew we were not going to hit -but- he was looking at Eyeball’s plane and not expecting to see my ballistic EZ with smoke on, blasting up right in front of him. Boy was he pissed at me for that! Even though I was sure there was no conflict, I was wrong to continue like that. It was a dumb thing to do and it could have caused an accident.

      Round two with Mudfoot came while working with all 8 airplanes. Mudfoot and I were flying out of the flight while the other 6 guys worked in the box over cape Henlopen. Mudfoot and I were a few miles to the East of the formation at 1,500 feet MSL trying like hell to find each other so we could join up for the “bench orbit”. We didn’t want to muck up “button 1” because Zack was working the 6 ship through the maneuvers. After a few minutes of quick radio calls we realized that both of us being at 1,500 feet and both also a few miles to the East of the Cape, and both heading in opposite directions we were probably getting pretty close to each other and should strongly consider doing something about it. I still remember my spider sense was going absolutely bat shit crazy at that moment. Through a series of quick radio calls Mudfoot and I de conflicted by switching to different altitudes, I began a descent to 1,000 feet and he began a climb to 2,000 feet. Neither one of us made our target altitudes because about two seconds after we both left 1,500 feet we passed nose to nose and far too close for comfort. It’s amazing how that happens, all that sky out there and we almost mid aired because we were deconflicting from the 6 ship. We had no disagreements on this near miss, it was just one of those things.

     The third time with Mud Foot was out over the Atlantic Ocean while working a 7 ship echelon. That SUCKS to do by the way. If you are out on that whip, you’re in for a hell of a ride and I have to say that It’s very uncomfortable and difficult to hold an echelon together with that many airplanes. I don’t remember why Mudfoot was dropping back out of the formation but Zack called for him to drop out. I was on Mud foot’s right wing (we were in a right echelon) so I slid to the left to close up the gap. He thought I did it too quickly and got too close to him on that move. This was the time where we disagreed and still disagree about the safety of flight issue that he brought up. Don’t get me wrong, when a guy says he’s not comfortable with something, that’s the end of the debate, you back off. This was a “safety of flight” issue where he was saying that I was lacking in SA (situational awareness) and nearly caused an accident.

     My side of the story was that I saw exactly where he was, where I was and there was ample room, in fact as much room as normal for that kind of maneuver. The point is not who was right and who was wrong in this case. I may have been “right” in that the performance envelope was the same but his comfort level changed at that moment. He may have been “right” that he was simply not comfortable with me doing what I did. That was never resolved between he and I. The point is, it’s not always clear who needs to get beat up in the Debrief. I can offer only this, you have to communicate openly and professionally all the time. Only through UNDERSTANDING will you find the way past it. If I had understood what made him uncomfortable I wouldn’t have done what I did. If he understood that I saw him and knew where I was going, he wouldn’t have felt that way in the first place. Tough one. I have flown with Mudfoot many times since that day and understood our oil and water flying relationship. That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t wing up with him again but for sure we’d both be damn sure to brief the hell out of the flight beforehand.

     When it comes down to it though, success in this type of flying comes from your impeccable self-discipline, then trusting the group to take over when it falters. You must be able to trust your wingman, and he must be able to trust you – with your lives. Everything you do in your life can come right back to this kind of ethos. And never forget, you must give your best and most honest assessment at all times, and even then, that might not be quite enough to keep everyone alive.

Good luck, and keep the shiny side up.

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