Minimum Expectations

83 years ago today, the Lone Eagle landed in Paris. He was greeted by over 100,000 people and instantly became a household name to millions. It was obviously risky. Six well-known aviators had recently lost their lives in pursuit of the $25,000 Orteig Prize for crossing the Atlantic. No one had ever done it and it was as fantastic as the first landing on the moon.

How risky? There were plenty of unknowns and potential hazards but Charles Lindberg willingly departed with the cards stacked against him. He took off from a rain-soaked field with a tailwind. He was using a cruise prop and had the carb heat hot wired to the on position. The plane was loaded with 451 gallons of gas rendering the Sprit of St. Louis 1,000 pounds heavier than it had ever been. The engine was running 40 rpm short of max power. Lastly he went to bed at 1:40 a.m and, unable to sleep, headed to Curtiss Field at 2:30 a.m. to prepare for take-off, knowing that he had another 33 hours of flying ahead of him. Two full days without sleep at the worst possible time. Heavily laden with fuel, the plane bounced down the muddy field, gradually became airborne and barely cleared the telephone wires at the field’s edge. It was almost a very short trip. (Excellent footage of the whole story right here, compliments of Win Perkins).

He should have postponed the trip for numerous reasons but the pressure to leave was huge. Anybody else in our viewing audience guilty of  taking off when conditions exceeded personal minimums? (Your humble scribe now sheepishly raising hand).  There aren’t many reasons to undertake unacceptable risk. Combat flying is one, medical evacuation is another but that’s about it. This flight was strictly for fame and fortune.

The consequences can be disastrous. This video shows an L-39 entering a loop in poor visibility. It was too much for the pilot who spun the Albatross into a fireball. He wasn’t capable of maintaining control in the clouds and this was beyond his personal “minimums”. Contrary to the news report he was never an Israeli fighter pilot (another one of those stolen valor situations). But it was an air show and the show must go on. Family, friends and an audience were there to see him fly and so he did… for a short while.

The plane and the pilot both have limitations and we exceed them at our own risk. Not everyone is as lucky as Lindy.

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4 responses to “Minimum Expectations

  1. virgil xenophon

    Every time I see that old grainy film of Lindbergs’ take-off I am still amazed he made it. And, yes, we violated minimums quite often in SEA–FACS, not fast-movers–as at forward sites we were quite literally often our own ops officers–and the msn came first–especially if there were TIC–troops in contact.

    Outside of combat I only did it once, in a T-37 cross-country. Got stuck in a VOQ that had lost it’s heat in the middle of winter–one of the most miserable nights I’ve ever spent. I did NOT want to spend one more night on that base! Only problem is, when you do, if the bird develops maj. mech problems, you often can’t get back in to the field–in my case that time due to high gusting winds. Rather be lucky than good..

    • Regs and SOP’s seem to get “bent” during combat and the SEA war bent more than any subsequent conflict. No doubt flexibility is needed when bigger things are at stake. Then, written plans and procedures seem to evolve into guidelines. i.e.”No plan survives first contact with the enemy”(Clausewitz).
      Does this mean that military pilots have a minimum set of minimums in combat? If the engine readings look funny do you still ground the plane if troops are in contact? GA has equipment minumums but the context is completely different.

  2. virgil xenophon

    Yes and no–and it was a lot different for fast-movers than for FACS, With fast movers aborts for equip malfunction were about the same standards as in the US–that’s why we always had spares on stand-by. Same for airborne malfunctions. Wx minimums at the home drome were far more relaxed than in peace-time, but they still existed. You didn’t want to risk an entire squadron over one mornings effort in what was a long war with many other days in which to do the same thing. TIC, in-country for us at DaNang saw us occasionally launch in what was essentially zero-zero wx if tgt area was workable and in-country alternates were clear to recover to. WX minimums over tgt areas up north were pretty restrictive due to concern for civilian cas.

    With FACS it was a different story. Most FACS were their own bosses–some of us were essentially one-man shows at the FOBs, so the only limitations –despite whatever SOPs were officially published, were pretty much common sense and a sense of self-preservation. e.g., we were told to conduct ops no lower than 1500′ AGL as that put us pretty much effectively out of range of SA fire, but if TIC and low-hanging clouds/fog, etc, we often basically honored that in the breach.

    But, LOL, where you REALLY learn to fly in bad wx is Europe! If you don’t fly in lousy wx you pretty much don’t fly, period. The USAFE Base in Germany with the BEST annual wx in terms of minimum # of wx “no-fly” days is worse that the WORST base in the CONUS.

    • I expect it would be good to be able to see the Karst formations. Two more questions:
      a) Did you have a call sign?
      b) When is your book going to publishing?

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