The following are excerpts from Highest Duty: My Search for what Really Matters by Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger:
After I had been an Nellis a few years, I was assigned to an Air Force Mishap Investigation Board. We investigated on accident at Nellis in which a pilot in an F-15 had tried an aggressive turning maneuver too close to the ground. He didn't have enough room to complete it. The vast desert practice ranges we used, north and west of Las Vegas, had elevations starting at about three thousand feet above sea level and going much higher. If you're looking at your barometric altimeter, it is set to give a reading of your altitude above sea level. It doesn't give you the height above the surface of the ground. The pilot apparently misjudged how high he was, and how much room he had. It's likely he realized this when it was impossible to correct. As pilots say, "He lost the picture." Errors had crept into his situational model and had gone unnoticed and remained uncorrected until too late.
I had to take statements from the other guys in his squadron. I had to sort through photos of the accident, shots of the shattered plane on the desert floor. The carnage was chronicled in exact detail, including photos of identifiable sections of the pilot's scalp.
As in every Air Force accident, investigators had to turn all the specific circumstances inside out to learn exactly what transpired. It was as if the pilot who died still had a responsibility to help ensure the safety of the rest of us, his fellow aviators.
Pilots are taught that it is vital to always have "situational awareness," or "SA." That means you are able to create and maintain a very accurate real-time mental model of your reality. Investigating this pilot's apparent inaccurate SA reminded me of what was at stake for fighter pilots. It took an absolute commitment for excellence because we were required to do incredible things close to the ground and fast, often changing direction quickly, while always making sure that the way we were pointed was safe to go.
In so many areas of life, you need to be a long-term optimist but a short-term realist. That's especially true when given the inherent dangers in military aviation. You can't be a wishful thinker. You have to know what you know and what you don't know, what you can do and what you can't do. You have to know what your airplane can and can't do in every possible situation. You need to know how much fuel it takes to get back, and what altitude would be necessary if an emergency required you to glide back to the runway.
You also need to understand how judgement can be affected by circumstances. There was an aircrew ejection study conducted years ago which tried to determine why pilots would wait too long before ejecting from planes that were about to crash. These pilots waited extra seconds, and when they finally pulled the handle to eject, it was too late. They either ejected at too low an altitude and hit the ground before their parachutes could open, or they went down with their planes.
What made these men wait? The data indicated that if the plane was in distress because of a pilot's error in judgement, he often put off the decision to eject. He'd spend more precious time trying to fix an unfixable problem or salvage an unsalvageable situation, because he feared retribution if he lost a multimillion-dollar jet. If the problem was a more clear-cut mechanical issue beyond the pilot's control, he was more likely to abandon his aircraft and survive by ejecting at a higher, safer altitude.
My friend Jim Leslie was on a training mission in an F-4 in 1984, dogfighting with other airplanes. His plane ended up in a spin due to a mechanical malfunction and there was no way to get it to fly again. "Pilots are only human," he later told me. "In stressful situations, your brain tells you what you want to hear and see, which is: 'This ain't happening to me!' And so you mentally deny that your plane is going down. You think you have time to fix the problem or to escape, when really, you have no time. And so you eject to late."
Jim pulled his ejection handle, which first sent his WSO out of the F-4, then sent him a split second later. "I thought I had ejected us in plenty of time," he said, "but I later learned that I did it just three seconds before the plane hit the ground." Had he waited even one second longer, he wouldn't have made it safely out of the aircraft.
"Nobody wants to crash," Jim said. "It's not a good mark on your flight record. The loss of that F-4 cost the Air Force four million dollars that day. But I lived. And some people die because they don't want to be responsible for the cost of the plane."
Jim later had a chance to fly the F-16. Two of his roommates died in F-16 training accidents, and the job fell to Jim to pick up their gear and return it to their families. Later, Jim would again have to eject from an unflyable plane, and F-16. Again, he survived. "Every day I wake up is a bonus," he'd tell me.
More to come. . . .