Thursday, May 29, 2014

Excellence and Humility...The Perfect Couple

John Leduc is one of my favorite aviation heroes, up there with Yeager, and Gann, and David Sparkman.  You probably have never heard of John, but I assure you that you know of his work - because he has been producing 160th SOAR NightStalker pilots for decades. First as a military instructor pilot, and later as a civilian contractor-instructor. He almost single-handedly wrote the standard-operating-procedure that the Chinook units in the 160th were using when I was there.

John embodies the concept of the "quiet professional" which is what special operators are supposed to be. John's nickname is "Lucky" because he once flew a Chinook all the way to Honduras from the US, overwater, and had it eat itself for lunch right after landing at the airport. He told me that when the aircraft started coming apart, he immediately reached for the throttles on the center console. Except they weren't there - he had transitioned into a D-Model Chinook from the C-Model. The throttles had been moved to the overhead console. He realized his mistake and reached up, and by the time his hand got to where the throttles were supposed to be, they were gone. The top of the cockpit was torn off by the crashing forward transmission and rotor system. It looked something like this.

On Johns ship, everyone lived.


John taught me to operate the MH-47D Model, with a cockpit that was state of the art in it's day. The aircraft had a strap-down inertial guidance system, a doppler-navigation computer using four beam-legs to derive distance and direction from a known start-point, and an early GPS; all sending position estimations to a mission computer. John would fail the devices one at a time and watch us go through the degraded system procedures, until we were reduced to the hand-held map. He liked to mention that we were pigs in space.

The other thing that set the aircraft apart from other Chinooks was the big black tube sticking out from the nose; the aerial refueling probe. After much experimentation, the 160th selected a probe length that ended six feet or so inside the tip path plane of the spinning forward rotor blades - the only such arrangement on any helicopter in the world.

A Chinook pilot has to run the aircraft's forward rotor up over the bobbing paradrogue, which creates it's own hazardous situation and makes a blade strike occur all too easy. John is a masterful pilot, and can stick the probe tip into the center of the drogue ring every time. But that's not what he did when he took Tommy Pequeno and I out for our first jousting match. 

On that sunny day over southeast Georgia, when he was demonstrating aerial refueling, and the windshield was completely covered with airplane RIGHT THERE, he calmly described every step of the task, from observing the C-130 at a safe distance, to the move down and into the pre-contact position with the probe-tip 10 to 15 feet behind the paradroque (which moves around on the best day and taunts you in turbulence to "come and get me if you can"), the acquisition of vertical and lateral visual cues (the amount of wing underside visible while looking up underneath the lowered wing flaps, and the position of the  refueling pod's vertical pylon/strut against the flaps side edge), and finally the  announcement, "moving to contact."

I bet my eyes got wide as we closed the 10 feet with a 4 knot closure rate, and then he did it - he missed the drogue. The probe tip caressed the white fabric of the inflated ring and slid past it at the ten o'clock position. Neither Tommy nor I could speak, so John announced a "miss" and slid the aircraft left and up until we were looking straight into the dump tube at the outer end of the -130's wing. "Okay, you have the controls."
Now, if you have been thinking, you realize how masterful that simple little training technique was. A pilot looking at a refueling paradrogue eye-to-eye for the first time is going to be a bit apprehensive, and will probably grip the controls more firmly than normal. His arm mucles will tense up  and affect control touch - and bring on a case of the jerks which is a bad thing up near an airplane. The intentional miss decompresses the situation, and makes the student relax - "heck if he can miss so can I..."

If you ask John, he would tell you that he can miss the paradrogue on any given night.

This is but one example of John Leduc's humility. He is an expert, an aviation MASTER, but you would never know it to talk with him. More than most, he knows what part luck plays in a successful flying career. You can do everything right and still come up short. From this knowledge springs humility.

John has passed on more knowledge than most instructors, and often the beneficiary doesn't even know he is being instructed - he just thinks he is engaged in a friendly conversation. John quietly stays at the top of his game, and freely gives away everything he has to offer. He leads by example.

We should be such pilots.

We should never stop trying to improve our skills, and our knowledge of our craft. Sure, the mission can become routine, and years of experience can dull the desire for self-improvement, and we don't make that much money, and blah blah blah.... We are pilots! People depend on us to do the right thing every time - even if we are retiring in a week or two. When we screw up, it affects how the world looks at all of us. I like a line from a recent Vertical Magazine article, "keep your moral compass pointing north." It ain't always easy, but it's right. Constant self-improvement need not be overwhelming. While waiting for a crew to return from dropping off a patient at a receiving facility is an excellent time to turn on the battery, test the caution panel, and find out if you know what to in the event of each of those segments illuminating. You don't have to tackle them all at once - but do a couple each flight. Pull out the flight manual and review a limitation or two. If your attainment of aviation knowlege has devolved to the CTS or AVSTAR training we do each month or quarter, make yourself a list of all the books you should be familiar with, and give 15 or 20 minutes a day for rediscovery. AOPA has free online training segments that take only a few minutes each, and serve to refresh understanding of stuff we forgot years ago.

When I went to the IP course, the IP handbook was a slim green-covered paperback that some instructor wrote as part of his advanced degree training. I will never forget the admonition inside the cover, "Be gentle to man and machine."

It is not the mark of excellence to demonstrate how aggressively you can maneuver a helicopter. If you think that such skills are important, ask your examiner about it when taking a check ride. Our crew members and passengers should consider us to be boring pilots, who simply go up - over - and - down. (If you are a crew member, and your pilot is thrilling you, be aware that he or she may end up killing you and for God's sake don't ask for it). Any idiot can crank a helicopter around the sky doing whifferdills, and you can only tie the record for flying low. The mark of an excellent pilot is one who uses only as much aircraft as he or she must to get the job done.

That's it. A little bit of continuous self-improvement, a daily dose of self-discipline, and a dash of humility, and you too can be like John Leduc....

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