Wheels Up Front

by Phil Rowe
Flying with senior officers, colonels and above, was no fun at all when I was a full-time crewmember in B-58's, then a mere captain and major. I much preferred riding along with regular line pilots, but most especially my own regular one. But circumstances didn't always permit that. Sometimes I had to go up with wing commanders and senior staff types.

In all fairness though, some of those senior types were darn good pilots, naturals who could fly anything. Others, however, were not so hot. In fact a few scared the heck out of me. That B-58 was not the kind of plane that part-timers could master, no matter how innate their flying skills were. You had to be on top of that plane every second, and stay ahead of it and its complex systems.

I recall one particular flight in the two-pilot TB-58 with a colonel-type who was up on his annual instrument check ride. My own pilot was in the second seat, reserved for the instructor or check pilot. I rode in the back seat doing my thing as a kind of unofficial co-pilot, radio operator and flight engineer. That TB-58 had no mission avionics, just the basic flight instruments and communications gear.

The guest pilot, in the front seat, was told to put the hood on, a visibility-limiting device which pretty much denied him a look at anything beyond the flight instruments. "Under the hood", he was expected to fly a variety of holding patterns, a few instrument let-downs and approaches to landing. Well, that pilot colonel-type was a disaster waiting to happen.

In the holding patterns, simple racetrack maneuvers at cruise altitude, he could barely stay on course. And his altitude and airspeed holding abilities were wild. He could not stay within plus-or-minus 500 feet of his prescribed altitude. And every up variance would cause him to lose 50 to 75 knots of airspeed. On the downward side he would gain 100 knots of more. Riding with him was like being on a roller-coaster.

My job included calling out checklist items for the pilot up front to perform at various stages of the flight. When it came to flying the airplane, while trying to manipulate the multitude of switches I'd ask him to operate or check, he'd almost lose it. It was like asking some people to walk and chew gum at the same time. They couldn't handle it.

After managing to fly one circuit pretty close to the desired flight path, but still up and down 300 feet or more, the colonel asked my pilot, "How'm I doin'?" Where most pilots doing that badly would be summarily flunked on the instrument check, all my pilot could say was, "Better, colonel .... better."

I sure as heck would never want to fly with that man in actual weather.