I Learned About Flying From That

This is not your normal "learned about that" story.

This is not your normal "learned about that" story. But an example of how a little bit of aviation knowledge, which didn't appear in "the book," that was passed on by a consummate professional probably saved my life and an airplane to boot.

Many years ago (more than I'd like to admit) I was a young "Studley Do Right" going through the West Coast Marine F-4 RAG at MCAS, Yuma, Arizona. Basically it was the Marine F-4 training squadron (VMFA-101); from there, once we were qualified in the F-4 we would go out to the fleet.

My primary Phantom instructor pilot was John McAnally, the coolest guy you'd ever want to meet and one of the smoothest "sticks" I've ever known or flown with. Tom Cruise only wished he could have been John McAnally. No pretender he; John was the real thing. I was excited when I was assigned to him, as John had the reputation of being the best of the best.

Normal procedure in those days was for the student to do a ride along on the first familiarization (FAM) hop in the back seat with the F-4 instructor putting the airplane through its paces and explaining to the student what was happening and why. The reason for this was our Navy and Marine F-4s, unlike the Air Force, did not have sticks in the back seat. This first ride was also to give the student some knowledge or indication of how fast the airplane accelerated and how it responded in different configurations. Most of us had already been checked out in the A-4 Skyhawk, but none of us was quite prepared for the incredible acceleration the two massive J-79 engines in full afterburner provided. I was impressed with John's skills and approach to flying, smooth as silk; he was a professional in all respects.

By the way, it was common practice in those days for the instructor pilot to bet a bottle of booze with the student as to whether he (the student) would be quick enough to retract the gear and flaps on his first full AB takeoff before he exceeded the placarded gear speed of 250 knots. That's how quick the beast accelerated under max thrust, once you left the ground. It was akin to your first cat shot at the ship; the plane was up here, but your mind and reflexes were still back there. Once you got used to it, it was old hat, exhilarating and fun. By the way, more often than not, the instructor won.

I think it was just before my second or third hop in the front seat. It was hot as Hades in Yuma, probably about 115° on the flight line. John had already clued me in on having two sets of gloves as part of my flight gear. The airplane could get so hot out in the desert sun, you really didn't want to touch it. John had recommended one set of gloves to preflight with and the other to fly with. Without the first set of gloves on, you really didn't want to open panels and push or pull on things like a good preflight required because the metal was so damn hot (a plane captain actually fried a beautiful sunny-side up egg on a wing one day as a joke), but with the hands protected you didn't have that problem anymore.

You needed the second set because it was impossible to not get grease and oil on your gloves during preflight, which could lead to explosive results when coming into contact with the 100 percent oxygen that we flew with. It also went along with John's fastidious personality. He was one squared away dude, in and out of the cockpit.

This day, John was following me around the airplane watching my by-the-book preflight. When I got back to the trailing edge of the wing where it met the fuselage, John stopped me. "Kid, I want to show you something that's not in the book." He then pointed out a little removable inspection panel, just forward of the trailing edge flap, on top of the wing where it joined the fuselage. He went on to explain that beneath the panel was where the trailing edge BLC duct joint was. BLC stands for boundary layer control.

In order for the Phantom to be able to fly slow enough to land on the carrier, a lot of engineering magic had to be done to this beast of an airplane. BLC is involved in taking "bleed air" off the hot section of the engine and "blowing" it over the leading and trailing edge of the wing when the flaps are down, thereby providing additional lift, control and stability at slow speeds. The only problem is that this bleed air is hot … extremely hot … so much so, that if you had an uncontained leak it could literally melt the spar of the wing, leading to a catastrophic explosion. Bad juju!

John pointed out this little panel and said, "If you ever see this little sucker bowed up, or flaking paint or discolored, get someone from maintenance over to pull the panel. Nine times out of 10 you'll find a cracked or broken joint or valve." I put that tidbit of information in my memory bank and always checked it on preflight, regardless of whether it was in the book or not. In fact, I passed this little nugget on to all my backseaters and any new pilots checking into the squadron whenever I could as the years went by.

Fast forward three years. My wingman and I were on a cross country and were landing at Holloman AFB at Alamogordo, New Mexico. After the break, going downwind, I noticed a horrendous crosswind. As I turned on final, the crosswind seemed to disappear. In my mind I wrote it off to wind shear, not uncommon in the desert. Holloman's runways were so long, I had briefed a no-drag-chute landing nearing the end of the runway. I looked in my mirrors and noticed my wingman was having a little directional control problem as he touched down, but he got it straightened out and did a normal roll out.

Once shut down, we went into base ops to file our next flight plan and my wingman complained about the crosswind. I opined I'd noticed it going downwind but it seemed okay on final. He countered that he'd had to fight it all the way to the ground. I wrote it off to inexperience and let it drop.

With our new flight plan filed and refueling completed, we went back out to our airplanes for a quick walk-around and mount up for the next leg. As I got back to the trailing edge of the wing, I gave everything a cursory look and then I saw it! That simple little panel that John had pointed out to me years before was bowed up and the paint was burnt-looking and flaking. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I called my RIO and the other crew over and pointed it out. I said, "We've got a problem." The other crew was oblivious to what it indicated. When I told them what John had said to me years ago they understood, but were amazed they'd never heard of it before. We went back into base ops and called for a duty maintenance inspector.

They sent an inspector over and the gist of it was I had a total fracture of the BLC duct on the left-hand trailing edge, just outboard of the valve. The insidious part was it was between sensors and I probably would have had no indication of the failure until something caught on fire (not a good thing with a full load of fuel). It also explained why the crosswind went away on final -- the loss of the BLC was on the upwind wing.

I have no doubt that John may have saved my life that day by passing along a simple, common sense nugget of aviation knowledge/insight that couldn't be found in the book. I think it illustrates how articles and the information passed along through forums such as these can be lifesaving tidbits that can only come from those who went before us … shared knowledge and experience counts … and it saves lives. Over the years, I never put down a Flying magazine without reading this column. Learning from others' encounters can be a lifesaving experience without the stress of making the mistake yourself.

Postscript After returning to El Toro following the incident, my commanding officer called an AOM (all officers meeting). He and the XO had been flying F-4s for at least a decade before me … and neither had ever been briefed on the little panel or its significance. I got up and explained what had happened and it became squadron SOP for all the plane captains and air crews to check on preflight from that day forward.

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.