• Published
  • AETC Director of Safety
Multiple helicopters converged on the crash site to save the downed pilot. Suddenly, an apparent surface-to-air missile attack began as what appeared to be flaming red golf balls shot out toward the approaching aircraft. The helicopter pilots took evasive actions as screams of "Taking fire from the tree line!" blared from two crackly speakers.

Not ideal circumstances for the day of my first solo flight.

A memorable summer 25 years ago held quite a few firsts for me. My first flight in the TH-55A training helicopter took place in May 1984 at Fort Rucker, Ala. Then I got to fly my first solo flight a month later on June 13 with a whopping 12.2 hours of flight experience! As fate would have it for this eventual director of safety, that summer also happened to be the first time I witnessed a flight mishap.

As part of our preparation to wrestle the nearly 1,500-pound aircraft alone, we watched our counterparts fly around the pattern from nearby bleachers. And to help us learn radio procedures, we listened to the action via two staticky speakers complete with 1980s technology.

Even with only a dozen flight hours, we noticed the struggle one student had while soloing around the airfield the first time, which in turn earned a radio call to land. After a "pep talk" from an instructor and take off for a second pattern, the crash into a nearby tree line soon followed.

Flight instructors sped to the crash site in a swarm of TH-55As. The student, armed with a device that shoots flares in the air to mark location, panicked and began launching those red "golf-balls" directly at the helicopters that were coming to the rescue. You can imagine the response from the pilots, most of whom had thousands of hours of combat time in Vietnam.

So with about two months in the Air Force and eleven training flights under my belt, I had witnessed a crash, the rapid response, what seemed to be an enemy attack, and evasive action on the part of the seasoned instructor pilots.

A flight of fighter jets roaring over the Alabama pines would not have been unexpected at that point.

First blood was light for the student pilot, as scratches only delayed continuation of training for a few days. In fact, the officer walked the stage and graduated with pilot wings about a year later.

However, lessons learned from this first-blood experience have lasted me a lifetime. In a very graphic display, I discovered that you can learn from other people's mistakes, internalize that knowledge and apply that wisdom to your own behavior -- or even to influence others.

I also learned how quickly mistakes can transition into tragedy. Whether on- or off-duty, mishaps repeatedly demonstrate that one can go from happy to dead in about 30 seconds.