Flights & Fancy: It Started off Bad and Went Downhill

Flights & Fancy: It Started off Bad and Went Downhill

The author went on to fly anti-submarine P2V Neptunes.
The author went on to fly anti-submarine P2V Neptunes. Alexander Hafemann/istockphoto and William J. Onderdonk; Illustration by Theo

On November 30, 1955, I was scheduled for a critical flight in the basic phase of Navy flight training—the Phase C check ride—at North Whiting Field, near Pensacola, Florida. Check ride instructors had reputations ranging from somewhat easy to an almost certain “down”—a washout.

With luck, I had made it through previous check rides, so I studied hard and got to the hangar early. On the scheduling board was my name, the name of my instructor—one of the easy ones—and the assigned airplane.

The instructor briefed me on what he expected. He suggested that I preflight the North American SNJ and he would meet me at the airplane.

I took our parachutes out to the airplane and began the inspection. When the instructor arrived he asked how it was going. “Fine, so far,” I said.

“Good, but shouldn’t you preflight the airplane we’re going to fly?” I had been diligently inspecting the airplane next to the one we were assigned.

To board the front cockpit of the SNJ, you moved from the wing to several steps on the side of the fuselage to the cockpit. You had to start off with the proper foot or you could end up sitting backward unless you could pull some elaborate and awkward footwork, and it was impossible to make these boarding adjustments subtly. Mine were painfully obvious. I heard the instructor utter a dismayed moan as he climbed into the back seat.

I couldn’t get the engine to start. When the instructor tried, it started right away. I called the tower for taxi clearance but I forgot our aircraft number, and the ID plate on the instrument panel wasn’t readable. “Willy Charlie 502,” the instructor told the tower.

To see over the nose of the SNJ to taxi, I needed several cushions under me in addition to the parachute pack. Of course, I had forgotten to bring my cushions.

After receiving takeoff clearance, I was able to get us airborne and out to the practice area. My slow-flight demo resulted in an entry to an inadvertent stall, which led to an inadvertent spin. I knew the spin recovery procedure perfectly well: hard opposite rudder and forward stick. So naturally, I applied hard opposite stick and positive spin-direction rudder. I then flubbed traffic pattern work.

After about 20 minutes of this, the instructor said, “Bill, I think we’ve had enough for now—at least I have. Please take us back to Whiting, if you think you can find your way.” I did find Whiting, and made a terrible approach and several lousy two-point landings: left main gear, tail wheel; right main gear, tail wheel; right main, left main. I taxied back to the ramp.

Remember how I couldn’t get the engine started? Now I couldn’t get it to stop: It kept pre-detonating, smoking, and shaking. Of course the instructor shut it down with no problem.

We climbed out of the airplane. I did get the exit sequence right, except for slipping off the trailing edge of the wing. We took our parachutes, and following protocol, I reached for the instructor’s parachute. “I’ll carry it,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ll drop it or carry it by the D-ring.”

We sat in the debriefing area. I had a brainstorm: I asked if I could “self-debrief,” rather than have him do the debriefing. “Well, I suppose so,” he said, “if you’ve got all day.”

I began with preflighting the wrong airplane and proceeded through the long list of my errors. He followed along with his notes, and as I recounted each event, he nodded and checked it off his list. Several times he said, “Aha! I missed that one!” and scribbled more notes.

I finished. He retrieved my flight training records and asked how many “downs” I had so far. When I told him I had none, he rolled his eyes and began leafing though my records.

After a few minutes he said, “You had a really bad day, didn’t you? Let’s call this fiasco an incomplete check ride and try it again this afternoon.”

A really bad morning; a much-improved afternoon.

William Onderdonk flew anti-submarine aircraft out of Chincoteague, Virginia.


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