One Mistake – Dallas Air Show

This is an article I wish I didn’t feel I have to write. I should be writing how the “Blue Bird” has taken a turn to become the “Boo Bird” due to the presence of the wrong design parts that were sent to me. (I will cover this at a later date). What I feel I must comment on is the horrendous crash of the B17G bomber and P63 fighter at the Dallas Air Show. There is no worse crash that can be conceived. There will be a thorough investigation, and the details will emerge about how such an obviously huge mistake occurred.

I knew those six men, not by name or acquaintance, but by character. They were lifelong aviation professionals. In my four years in the USAF, I met and worked with such men. I was a 22-year-old and very young looking ROTC officer with a degree in biology who was assigned to be an Armament and Electronics Flight Line Maintenance Officer. Was I qualified to be in charge of 160 technicians, 45 B47 bombers and 15 KC97 refueling tankers? Of course not. It was a new bomb wing at the new Dyess AFB in the middle of a very hot cold war. There I was – I had to do the job.

How was a newbie received by a cadre of veteran pilots and crew chiefs? First, I had to figure out what I could contribute. With my current level of engineering education and experience, I could have been a strong technical resource. But with six months of tech training on the world’s most complex systems, my best plan was to step aside and let the high level noncoms do their job. What I could do was act as a communicator and facilitator along with staying on top of supply problems and seeing that scheduling problems were resolved. What I found out was that the closer I got to the aircraft and that operation, the easier it was to deal with the crews. They wanted me to learn and succeed and would take the time to answer what must have seemed like naïve questions.

When we go on a rod run now with our hot rods, and you smell gas fumes, you pull over, open the hood, find the problem, then take a wrench and stop the leak that should not have been there to begin with. At 35,000 ft and 500 mph, you can’t pull over. You have to pay close attention to problems as they occur and conduct mistake free fixes prior to take off. Mistakes simply are not permitted. So it is with the way pilots fly the planes. They must know precisely what the mission requires, and what they must do to make it successful. I was not a crew member, but the pilots would let me fly with them on training missions. I got to see and feel first-hand what the systems meant to them and how they depended on them while observing the precision with which they flew the plane.

As I gained experience, I was given the task of doing post flight maintenance debriefing. This involves meeting with a dead tired crew at 2AM and paying close attention to their report. They did not grumble about problems, but they reported them as factually as possible. At 7AM, I would be in the Wing Commander’s office going over the status of the aircraft and discussing where there were problems that needed his attention. In one situation, the supply officer stated that we were not authorized the extra R/T unit that was needed to make a B47 operational. It took one curt phone call,  and it was delivered to the flight line. The Wing Commander flew the missions as scheduled, or he was replaced. Flight line maintenance was the point of a very sharp stick.

I got to deal with this impressive cadre of very intelligent, highly motivated men that seemed different, and unless you are part of their world, you might not realize the nuance of these differences. They joke, drink beer, and tell war stories. They love to talk about flying, but when the engines start, they become consummate professionals. They act and think with great precision and have total concentration.

Sitting in my pickup midway down the 14,000 ft runway on standby for emergency service as a mission was being launched, I listened for the 1000th time as a B47 on alcohol boost came roaring at me. It roared past on 100% power close to lift off. But it did not lift; it just kept roaring down the runway and went full power off the end of the runway then blew up in a mighty explosion. The crew chief entered in the log that the auxiliary wing tanks were defueled. This was not the case; the center of gravity was so far off, the plane was unflyable. In a professional life full of accomplishments, only one mistake was made.

I can’t help but question what happened in Dallas. With a long career of professional mistake-free service, an error was made, and in less than ten seconds, six fine men were dead. Is it too much to expect that you will never make a mistake? If you are in aviation, you must accept that harsh challenge.

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