Tuesday, May 7, 2019

First CAP meeting

Prior to filling out a membership application, prospective members are encouraged/required (don't know which, but it matters not) to attend two meetings. I attended my first last night. The meetings start at 19:00 hours, which is a little test in and of itself. Fortunately, I instantly recognized that as being equivalent to 7:00 Eastern Muggle Time. The meetings are held in a room located in Hangar 4 at Don Scott (KOSU) airport. If you don't know precisely where hangar 4 is, or where to go once inside the voluminous interior space, you are not alone. Well, you are now, but less than 24 hours ago I was in the same boat. The hangar wasn't hard to find, but it was festooned with doors - which to choose?

Easy - follow the guy wearing a CAP shirt - chances are that's where he's going.

Maj. Joe was already inside and dressed to the 9's in ho Air Force blues, ostensibly because he was getting his picture taken. He was preparing to lead the meeting, so we only talked briefly before I tried to find a place to sit in an inconspicuous area. Failing that, I ended up right up front. Was I the subject of eighteen pairs of inquisitive eyes? I have no idea, but it sure felt that way. The ages of the group appeared to run from late-30's to early 70's, all male. They chatted amongst themselves while I attempted to blend into the wall behind me.

The meeting started right on time. Not immediately, but soon thereafter, I was asked/ordered (don't know which, but it matters not) to stand up and introduce myself. I immediately cleared up any possible misunderstanding of my name (98% hear 'Campbell') by telling them that it's "Gamble, with a G" and following up with an early biographical factoid: "I was enlisted in the Air Force; they were afraid to make me an officer because at some point I might become a Major Gamble."

Someone, somewhere dropped a pin. Everyone heard it. How not to, given the utter silence? They either didn't get it, or the meetings were far more formal than I had anticipated. Or, and I credit this with being nearly impossible, they didn't think it was funny.

Tough room.

The meeting went on for two hours, and I was very happy to have done some preparatory research into what it is they actually do. Even so, a lot of it was inside baseball; I still paid rapt attention to whoever was speaking - I can't prove it, but periodic glances at Maj. Joe led me to believe that he was paying attention to whether or not I was paying attention. Most of it fleshed out many of the fundamentals of what I had learned from perusing the documents on their website, and some of it was brand new and very intriguing. There was a lot of talk about having mounts installed on the Cessna 182 to carry a Garmin Virb, which is sort of like a GoPro camera but with presumably better mission supporting features. That's not much of a stretch - the G1000 instrument panel includes Search & Rescue (SAR) functions that take the drudgery (and time) out of plotting search grids.

I'm very intrigued with this subject. There is a PowerPoint (oh, goody - thought I left that behind when I retired from Corp. America) at this link, if you're curious.

Towards the end of the meeting, a handful of achievement awards were presented to squadron members who had successfully defeated entrenched resistance from various bureaucratic offices. It was at that point that I realized just how much this was going to be like the USAF.

The next meeting is in two weeks and will be notably different from this one - they will have planes in the air coordinating with the staff on the ground as they go through what I assume will be a practice mission. I'm looking forward to that too.

As far as flying, I am still practicing what I can in my own plane, which really isn't much. I'm just flying GPS instrument approaches in good weather and no vision obstruction devices as are usually used in IFR practice. I'm not ready for that quite yet; I'm practicing following the routes and altitude changes with the autopilot and my eyes mostly looking out the window. I'm getting close to the point where I will put on the vision-limiting goggles (Foggles is the trade name) and enlist the help of a safety pilot. I'm still also using one of my PC-based flight sims to practice the use of the Garmin G1000. I'm also getting close to starting discussions on the subject of spending some money on a new iPad and a tremendously useful app called ForeFlight. Frankly, I want that even if I never fly IFR again - it's an incredible tool.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

CAP: Lunch with Major Joe, moving forward

My first real conversation with Maj. Joe was chock full of information, but it was delivered via iPhone while I was driving. To me more precise (in order to ward off the nannies), the iPhone was pumping through the fancy software in my truck; it was like listening to someone sitting right there with me. And I do mean "listening" - it was a lot of info and I gathered as much of it as I could while still paying adequate attention to traffic, etc. It wasn't until a couple of days later that I started having questions to ask.

The delay in queries came from the discovery of the squadron's website, where I found a treasure trove of interesting documents, ranging from "getting started" to details about the tasks expected and required of crew members. My favorites, which I can't seem to find again, were copies of actual mission briefing sheets. There were also documents describing the knowledge and skills that will be put to the test on check rides. Those were the ghosts of CAP future that I feared the most. While I can (and do) fly my RV-12 safely and according to applicable regulations, I doubt if I could answer the types of esoteric questions that are the very hallmark of check rides.

In a nutshell, there are going to be challenges in learning the non-flying aspects of the CAP and there will be challenges in getting myself back up to the flying and aeronautical knowledge standards appropriate to the mission. In other words, I have to do a lot of refresher learning in both the book stuff and the flying stuff. For VFR (good weather) flying, I am mostly concerned with the knowledge portion, although I will need some flying time to get up to speed on the bigger, faster, and more complex Cessna 182.

The questions that I had ranged from uniform requirements (what are the uniforms going to cost), how pilots are tasked with missions and what is the expected response time (is it 30 minutes notice? 48 hours?), and confirmation of the parts that sounded too good to be true (personal rental of the planes for training for only $40/hr dry), so I invited the Major to meet me for lunch to get an idea of what the time requirements would be (don't really care - I have time!) and what kind of financial outlay will I be looking at. I was also wondering how to work through all of the learning documents I had found in some kind of logical order.

First, there are many options in the uniform regs. They can be as easy as a blue polo shirt and grey business slacks. Sadly, the military-style flight suit is acceptable, but not mandatory. Being optional and carrying a price tag of over $250 makes it a tough sell. I may treat myself to one of those if/when I work my way up to flying from the left seat as the flight commander.

Response time varies, but it seems that there is plenty of notice before showing up for a mission. Promising news was that many of the pilots have day jobs, so are mostly restricted to evening and weekend flights, whereas I would be available just about every day. That sounds like I will be able to fly a goodly number of missions, and I'm okay with that!

The airplane rental is real - $40/hr, but I have to buy the gas. We'll talk more about this in the budgeting section of this report. I also learned that in addition to the Cessna 182, they also have a Garmin G1000 equipped Cessna 172, which is important for two reasons: it burns only a little more than half the fuel as the 182, and it isn't very popular compared to its big brother, meaning more availability for 2nd Lieutenant Memyselfandi. I forgot to verify that the CFI (flight instructor) is free, but that's not a big deal. Either way, it's a very good deal from a financial point of view.

I'm pretty close to 100% sure I'm going to do this, but the process needs to be followed; I will have to attend two meetings before submitting my membership application. The first meeting is inn two days, and there is another scheduled for two weeks after that, so this part will go quickly. I will have to go to the Sheriff's office to get finger printed and they will do an FBI background check, but that's nothing new. Once that it done and my membership is approved, I will get a training curriculum, most of which will be simple policy training and easily available online.

While I'm waiting for that, I will bone up on the flying aspect, starting with the VFR flying. That one is easier than IFR for two reasons: I need only concentrate on the weather, regulations, and flight planning since I am confident that I can fly the C-172. The bigger plane is a separate thing and can wait. The book learning will be easy because I bought the Sporty's Learn to Fly Private Pilot online training years ago for exactly the same purpose: keeping up with the things I need to know, and keeping up with new regulations.

Once I'm comfortable with that, I will do the IFR side of things. This is where I will need the most work - not only have I forgotten most of the book learning, but I am also way, way out of practice in the flying aspects too. For this I will buy the Sporty's IFR training package. I am also going to need to buy an iPad - flight planning is almost always done with an iPad app called ForeFlight. My tablet is an Android, for which there are no apps equivalent to ForeFlight, and my old iPad is exactly that: too old.

One thing that I can do right now is to get started on learning the Garmin G1000. That will be enabled by a flight simulator I have on my PC. It's called X-Plane 11, and it has a simulated Cessna 172 with a G1000. It also emulates Air Traffic Control (ATC), so I will be able to plan and fly actual flights - that will save both time and money.

So, budget. Everything related to flying costs money, and more often than not, it costs a lot of money. Just to get an idea, I put together a brief pro forma budget.

ITEM           COST
Uniforms       $150, until flight suit
IFR Training   $200
172/hr*        $40 + fuel ($5/gal, 8 gal/hr) - $80/hr ($185 mkt)
182/hr*        $40 + fuel ($5/gal, 14 gal/hr) - $110/hr ($225 mkt)
ForeFlight     $100/yr
iPad           $600 new, $450 used

* $5/gallon is very conservative - it is likely to be less given current prices. I figure I'll need about 15 hours split between the two planes to get to a decent level of competence, so initial flight training will be around $1,500, more if the CFI is getting paid.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Flying for a Purpose

I've kept quiet about this for awhile now - probably more than a year but less than three - but I have been starting to question whether flying was "worth it" for me anymore. It's deeply personal and has huge ramifications.  Factoid: I flew a total of 17 hours last year, which is practically nothing, and certainly not enough to justify the fixed costs and the maintenance work. I've even gone so far as considering selling the airplane and either getting a different airplane or just quitting entirely.

On the quitting side, there has been one huge unassailable fact to deal with: I would never be able to come back. The reason for that is by no means unique, but not something that I share with anyone but the host of other voices in my head. On the "getting something else" side, I think about doing something like buying an older Cessna or Piper and having it upgraded with a Dynon Skyview by virtues of the STC (basically a piece of paper that says a store-bought plane can legally use Dynon avionics) and cleaning up any paint and/or interior issues, the purpose being to end up with an IFR-capable travel plane. I'm instrument rated, but haven't been current since the day I sold my Tampico in August 2005. I would like to get back to that level of flying, but an RV-12 is not the way to do it. And no, there is no way of owning both, and I will not rent for that type of flying.

I started to wonder if  I was simply bored. Probably, is my guess, but.... bored with what? Flying in its entirety? Flying the same trips over and over and over? Some mix of both? While it might seem unlikely, I do have to consider than I'm closer to age 60 than I am to 55. Things change, both physically and in other realms. Or, and this is my working theory, I need for there to be more purpose for my flying than buying bargain-priced cheeseburgers in Portsmouth.

Something happened recently that set the gears in motion for testing that hypothesis: I went to Missouri to fly the B-2 simulator and found myself more pumped up about aviation than I was for the first flight of the RV-12. I learned that there are still things about flying that bring out that old enthusiasm for flying that I grew up with. There remains hope.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group of pilots almost as much as I enjoyed the simulator. I even got nostalgic for the military, something my 26 year old self would never have imagined. After some thought about it, I reached out to a local friend who happens to be a major in the Civil Air Patrol. You can meet him here:

I was. of course, aware of the CAP, but had never paid much attention to it. Joe's descriptions of the types of missions that they fly were very intriguing indeed. Most of them are quite meaningful and provide important services in support of more than just the air force. This is a partial list of what they are tasked with:
Civil Air Patrol covers several emergency services areas. The principal categories include search and rescue missions, disaster relief, humanitarian services, and United States Air Force support. Other services, such as homeland security and actions against drug-trafficking operations, are becoming increasingly important.
A CAP search and rescue (SAR) pilot
The Civil Air Patrol is well known for its search activities in conjunction with search and rescue (SAR) operations. CAP is involved with approximately three quarters of all aerial inland SAR missions directed by the United States Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Outside of the contiguous United States, CAP directly supports the Joint Rescue Coordination Centers in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. CAP is credited with saving an average of 100 lives per year.
CAP is active in disaster relief operations, especially in areas such as Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana that are frequently struck by hurricanes as well as Oklahoma and Texas which are frequented by large, damaging tornadoes. CAP aircrews and ground personnel provide transportation for cargo and officials, aerial imagery to aid emergency managers in assessing damage, and donations of personnel and equipment to local, state and federal disaster relief organizations during times of need. In 2004, several hurricanes hit the southeast coast of the United States, with Florida being the worst damaged; CAP was instrumental in providing help to affected areas. 
The Civil Air Patrol conducts humanitarian service missions, usually in support of the Red Cross. CAP aircrews transport time-sensitive medical materials, including blood and human tissue, when other means of transportation (such as ambulances) are not practical or possible. Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City when all general aviation was grounded, one of the first planes to fly over the World Trade Center site was a CAP aircraft taking photographs.
CAP performs several missions that are not combat-related in support of the United States Air Force, including damage assessment, transportation of officials, communications support and low-altitude route surveys. The CAP fleet is used in training exercises to prepare USAF pilots to intercept enemy aircraft over the Continental United States. Civil Air Patrol aircraft are flown into restricted airspace, where United States Air Force pilots may practice high-speed intercepts. 
The Civil Air Patrol also provides non-emergency assistance to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Drug Enforcement Administration, and United States Forest Service in the War on Drugs. In 2005, CAP flew over 12,000 hours in support of this mission and led these agencies to the confiscation of illegal substances valued at over US$400 million. Civil Air Patrol makes extensive use of the Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance system, mounted on the Gippsland GA8 Airvan. The system is able to evaluate spectral signatures given off by certain objects, allowing the system to identify, for example, a possible marijuana crop. 
As a humanitarian service organization, CAP assists federal, state and local agencies in preparing for and responding to homeland security needs. The Red Cross, Salvation Army and other civilian agencies frequently request Civil Air Patrol aircraft to transport vital supplies including medical technicians, medication, and other vital supplies. They often rely on CAP to provide airlift and communications for disaster relief operations. CAP also assists the United States Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary.
So, yeah, there is definitely some purpose to be had there! I was also curious about the planes they fly. The local Sr. Squadron has a Cessna Turbo 182T with a Garmin 1000 panel. And therein lies the other facet I have been lacking: a challenge. The RV-12 is about as simple as a modern airplane can be, and lacks a purpose to keep my high-end skill set current. The 182 and Garmin mix is daunting, but not nearly so much as having to take check rides now and then and fly under conditions that I normally shy away from due to a very low benefit value to balance against risk. I am NOT saying that I want to fly in thunderstorms, but the weather I limit my flying to is clear skies and light winds, some of which is attributable to the relatively light RV-12 and some of it is the lack of any reason to get off the couch.

This will be one of the welcome challenges:

I also poked around on their website and found all kinds of stuff that indicate the level of effort that is going to be required just to fit in with the personnel structure and to get through all of the training. Again, it's all very appealing. I also came across some mission brief sheets that were super interesting, but I can't find them again. A couple of them were for flights up the length of a river that runs through town - civil engineers wanted to see the state of the bridges after a period of high water. For that, they needed a photographer - that is a position I could elect to be trained in if I chose to, which most of you will recognize as being something right up my alley.

As far as coming up to speed with flying the plane, there would be plenty of time for that. A typical mission requires a crew of three, with one of them being in the back seat acting as a spotter for search missions, or a photographer as mentioned above. That's where I would start. Through time, experience, and training, I would eventually move to the front seat. It's obvious to me that the time spent in the back would also provide a great place to watch and listen to get a feel for how operational flying is done in this new environment.

I'm leaving in 45 minutes to have lunch with the Major - as you can imagine, I have a LOT of questions for him!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Ultimate Flight Sim - My Day as a B-2 Bomber Pilot

 Wikipedia Commons

Through a series of events and personal relationships that aren’t unique or interesting enough to detail here, it transpired that I found myself at Whiteman AFB one fine morning, waiting with almost childlike anticipation for my turn to get some seat time in a B-2 ‘Spirit’ Stealth Bomber simulators. This would be one of the very simulators used in the training of actual Air Force Spirit pilots in the exotic and esoteric operations endemic to the amazingly complex process of stealthily, accurately, and hopefully survivably task of delivering bombs, both conventional and nuclear, to their assigned destination. As you can imagine, this is not an activity commonly offered to civilians. In fact, I myself was quite surprised when I received the invitation; I had to read it half a dozen times to make sure it said what it actually said, not what I wanted it to say. Frankly, I still can’t fathom it. The only requirements, and they were very strict on this, was that we leave all personal electronics (phones, FitBits, etc.) behind. There were no non-disclosure requirements or TSA-style detectors, and if we asked a question that they couldn’t answer due to security concerns, they politely deflected them.

Despite my initial disbelief that a civilian would ever be allowed to do something like this, I found myself poised to experience what will surely be one of my top five most memorable days of my life. It will be added to a collection of notable days that include the sunny morning that I first flew the airplane that I had spent three years building, the out-of-the-blue chance to ride in a Huey helicopter, and the day I drove four different Porsches on the factory test track in Leipzig, Germany. Oh, and I are dare not omit the day I was wed and the ensuing birth of my daughter, although those actually fall into a different category. 

This, though…. this was something so unique and completely unexpected, and let’s just come right out and say it, so cool that a lot of people simply won’t believe it. For this they can be forgiven for the simple fact that I didn’t believe it either. You can buy a ride in a Huey, You can buy the Porsche test track experience. There is no price assigned to being invited onto an Air Force base to fly an exact replica of a front line, nuclear-capable stealth bomber because it cannot be purchased. As a measure of the value of this offer, consider that it was a nine hour drive and it rained every hour of that, both going and returning, and I would do it again tomorrow if the opportunity arose. 

Our group had a two hour window for the use of the sim, and as I was in the ‘friends’ column of the ‘family and friends’ chart, I was to ‘fly’ last. I was waiting in the sim control center and I was able to see the out-the-window view and the screens that make up the majority of the instrument panel as the family members took their turns, but was really interesting was talking about the technology with the civilian factory rep that is responsible for the upkeep of the simulators. The sim is lot like airline-level sims in that it is an entirely enclosed pod perched atop a collection of massive hydraulic pistons. 

There are five servers, each supporting a different aspect of airplane operation. Some run on a Linux platform, and at least one is hosted by Windows 10. The software is kept in sync with updates to the airplane systems and flight models; it’s a twenty year old airplane, so there have likely been quite a few changes. As changes propagate through the fleet one at a time, there are periods during which not all of the fleet are identical. When this happens, the individual simulators also diverge until the fleet is again homogeneous.

Awesome stuff for a guy that has been passionate about  PC-based flight simulators since the release of the T80-FS1 Flight Simulator from subLOGIC in 1980. It cost $25 in 1980 dollars, which is equivalent to $75 in contemporaneous dollars. That program eventually became the venerable Microsoft Flight Simulator, and I had every new version of that as well. 

The state of the art these days is almost immeasurable as compared to the early days - $75 will buy you an extremely accurate PC-based simulation of modern airplanes like the F-18 Hornet, the AV-8B Harrier II, or the Top Gun star, the awesome F-14 Tomcat. As I was looking at the B-2 sim's options for throwing system failures, just about any type of weather conditions imaginable, and all kinds of emergency situations, I didn't see very much that I can't configure in most of my PC-based sims. 

The best of the bunch is DCS World and, inconceivably*, it is a free download. It comes with a high-fidelity P-51, but you have to buy any additional planes and helicopters you want, all of which are worth every penny. They are predominantly military planes ranging from WWII fighters to modern jet fighters. There are also a handful of helicopters and one general aviation plane. New planes are routinely added. Hint: wait for sales - they happen a few times a year.

These can all be flown in Virtual Reality, which adds an entirely new level of immersion that you just don't get with a flat screen - the VR experience blocks your peripheral vision which allows your eyes to be the sole contributor to your sense of balance. If you really let yourself forget that you’re sitting in a stationary chair, it is quite easy for your eyes to convince you that you are feeling actual banking and pitching movements. It is equally capable of making you airsick. 

With 45 minutes left on the clock (way more than I had hoped for!!), it was my turn to head down to the drawbridge that leads to the cockpit. Normally the drawbridge is raised to allow the pod to move freely, but as civilians we weren’t allowed to use the full motion function for reasons not explicitly given. I personally suspect that it was to avoid a messy clean-up job should one or more of us got airsick. That turned out not to matter all that much anyway, for the reasons mentioned above. The B-2 is a big airplane, but its interior is almost entirely filled with massive fuel tanks, a large void where up to 80 500 lb bombs or a couple of really huge bombs can ride, and four jet engines. The pilots get a space the size of a Ford F-150 cab. There is a large center console supporting a host of boxes festooned with a plethora of knobs, switches and displays, not a single one of which was recognizable for its function. Not that I cared; I wasn’t there to learn the plane, I was there to fly the plane. I only mention the console because it sits in exactly the spot you would want to plant your feet as you crawl into the seat. 

Once I had awkwardly plopped myself into the Pilot’s seat (the one on the left where the person primarily responsible for the flying sits) and my friend had settled into the right side seat (far more gracefully),which is known as the Mission Commander’s seat (the boss of the whole endeavor), I took a few seconds to get a feel for the space. Keeping in mind that these pilots often fly missions lasting over 24 hours, you would think the seats would be well cushioned and as comfortable as possible. You would be, in a word, wrong. I was sitting on an ejection seat and the “cushion” was a tightly packed parachute. It wasn’t quite like sitting on stone, but it was close. Being of slight build and not well endowed with natural cushioning, I cringed at the thought of having to endure that seat for seemingly endless hours in the air. I didn’t spend any more than a few valuable seconds thinking about it as I was almost instantly overwhelmed by the broad spread of screens, instruments, and other indecipherable things spread out in front of me.

My own airplane is flown with a stick (as opposed to the steering wheel-ish yoke you would see in an airliner or a Cessna) so I was instantly comfortable with it. I fly mine with my left hand, though, because my throttle is a single knob emerging from the center of the panel, but the B-2 has the throttles on the left side, just like fighters to. The stick was comfortable in my right hand, and the set of four throttle controls fell naturally under my left hand. I was surprised at how small they were; all four fit comfortably into my hand. If you compare that with the relatively massive throttles of a passenger jet, you will understand the difference. The view out of the windshield (not sure if that’s what the Air Force calls it - it probably has a three letter acronym (TLA) like just about everything else military related) was expansive. I would estimate it as around a 200° arc. As I saw later in the actual airplane, that’s a little less than they have in the actual jet, but there’s not that much reason to look around that far anyway, at least in the sim. 

We were soon ready to go and the operator set us up for the flight operation that I had explicitly requested. My desired flight scenario differed from the more typical requests, which I suspect are more commonly focused on takeoffs and landings. During more than 1,000 logged flight hours, I have done more of those that I could ever count While they wouldn’t have lacked appeal, they came nowhere near what I wanted to try my hand at, something that a civilian is very unlikely to ever do: air-to-air refueling. I have always been fascinated by it, and assumed it to be one of the more difficult skills that the already highly capable pilots must learn. If there was time left after that, though, I did entertain the notion of trying a landing.

We started out about one mile behind the KC-135 tanker, level at 25,000’ altitude and 260 knots. The speed doesn’t really matter, though - it is all about the relative speed between the tanker and the receiver. Before starting the approach to the tanker, I wanted to get a feel for the flying qualities of the bomber. The feel of flying the bomber was what you would expect from an airplane whose mission was almost completely dependent on a very stable platform: ponderous. 

I was not the least bit surprised at the glacially slow response to control inputs, but I was shocked at the relatively high stick forces. My little airplane is flown with very, very little force or movement of the stick - it’s actually primarily controlled by light pressure on the stick rather than large motions. If you were to watch my hand during an entire flight, you would likely not see any movement larger than half an inch, and that would only be for a steepish turn at landing speed. In the B-2, it takes an estimated 10-15 pounds of force to move the stick. Full deflection of the stick to either side gives you a response of… almost nothing. That took a lot of getting used to after years of flying a plane that could do an entire roll in a second or two, if it was stressed for it. 

This was surprising, but not hard to understand. The very mission of the airplane is to be a stable platform. No one wants to spend 24 hours flying a plane that is in need of constant correction. It would be like 24 hours babysitting a precocious and hyperactive three year old. On the other hand, when you have become accustomed to instant response to your control inputs, it is a recipe for disaster to attempt an intricate refueling operation with controls with an endemic, anemic response. More on that soon. But rest assured: there is a TLA for it.

After getting a general idea of the control feel and response, I was ready to approach the tanker. The first step is to slowly approach the tanker from below and behind until you reach a position relative to the tanker called “pre-contact.” This would entail radio contact with the boom operator in the tanker, at which point the operator would drop the refueling boom down to our level. You are very close to the tanker at this point, and the goal is to very slowly begin to move closer to the end of the boom. 

Wikipedia Commons

By ‘slow’ they mean a relative velocity of about one foot per second. This is performed with very small, but very frequent, changes in the throttle positions of the four engine controls. At this point I fully understood why the throttle controls were sized as they were. The idea was to approach in a straight line and any level of asymmetric thrust on the collection of engines could induce some yaw, which would be very unwelcome indeed. Even with the small changes in thrust, there was a commensurate change in altitude. Plane goes faster, plane goes up. Unless, of course, you make quick corrections with the stick. But as we’ve seen, there are no quick responses to be had from the ultra-stable plane. Having made a control input without seeing a response, my autonomous reflex was to move the stick more. By that time, though, the plane had finally gotten around to responding to my first input, so I reacted by shoving the stick forward, resulting in the exact same over control, but in the opposite direction. This all very quickly adds up to a pilot-induced roller coaster simulator. This kind of thing naturally has a TLA - it’s known as PIO, or Pilot Induced Oscillations.

PIO in and of itself can lead to some spectacular failures. Combine it with a flying wing like the B-2, which just like every other wing wants nothing more than to climb, and you are begging for a problem. In my case, that problem ended up in an unwanted climb that went so far as to cause us to collide with the bottom of the tanker. The sim is very, very accurate in what it models, but fortunately it doesn’t model the mid-air explosion of two valuable military assets. It was also quite embarrassing. Best of all, though, we were only a reset button away from starting over and trying again. It was also only the first of two things that I did that would have broken the real airplane, but the other incident is yet to come.

My friend took over and flew us back to the pre-contact position and it was fascinating to see and feel. The left and right side throttles and control stick are tied together, so by lightly resting my hand on the controls I could feel his inputs. The astonishing thing about them was how rapid they were. Neither control stopped moving more than a second at a time. He could see and respond to changes in our movements relative to the tanker that I could not even hope to see. I like to think that the difference was due to the 30 year difference in age, but that’s just an excuse. The raw talent on display was awe inspiring. Again, that’s no surprise. B-2 pilots aren’t selected because they have just average innate abilities, after all. There are fewer B-2 pilots than there are astronauts. 

My second, third, and possibly fourth efforts weren’t as deadly, but I still failed to get into a position that would allow the refueling boom to reach the receptacle back behind the cockpit of the plane. It’s actually pretty far behind the pilot’s location, so at some point it completely disappears from view, unless you accidentally run into it, which I did at one point. You have to maintain the proper position by a combination of using the visual position of things on the tanker such as the perspective of a couple of antennas mounted on the belly of the tanker and two strips of lights, one of which helps you with fore and aft position, and the other which helps with altitude control. When you get to this point, the operation from our point of view became nothing more than flying very tight formation with a four-engine Boeing.

That’s not easy. One challenge is the aforementioned PIO, but with the added complexity of areas of turbulence generated by the tanker. Suffice it to say, twenty minutes or more of this kind of flying results in a pool of sweat, and in my case, a crease in the surface of the parachute from instinctive clenching of certain muscles. It took a few minutes to get a feel for the inputs I would need to maintain the relative position, but there wasn’t nearly enough to become adept at it. I managed to get the boom attached twice, which is actually very, very gratifying, but it turns about that you only have 6 (or was it 9?) feet to get slowed down to the precise speed of the tanker. Both times I got connected, I was only able to stay that way for a few seconds.

That was good enough for me, and by that point we only had a few more minutes to try a landing. Unfortunately, the heading of the tanker was away from the base and we had travelled over 200 miles while I was ham-fisting my way through an operation as delicate as brain surgery. My friend called the operator and had him give us a 200 knot tailwind, but it still wasn’t enough. Just to have something to do, he suggested we do some low altitude flight, his suggestion being 100’ above the ground. This is not the forte of a stealth bomber, though, and to be brutally honest, the graphics down that low were far worse than what I have at home on my PC-based sims. I had a better suggestion.

We were doing 500 knots, so there was plenty of energy to quickly climb up a few thousand feet. After asking for permission, I decided to try a barrel roll. If you aren’t familiar with the term, Wikipedia has this to say:

A barrel roll is an aerial maneuver in which an airplane makes a complete rotation on both its longitudinal and lateral axes, causing it to follow a helical path, approximately maintaining its original direction. It is sometimes described as a "combination of a loop and a roll." The g-force is kept positive (but not constant) on the object throughout the maneuver, commonly between 2–3 g, and no less than 0.5 g. The barrel roll is commonly confused with an aileron roll.

Because Wiki referenced it, this is what they have to say about the aileron roll:

The aileron roll is commonly executed through the application of full aileron in one direction. In some lower powered general aviation and aerobatic training aircraft, prior to applying aileron input, the pilot must begin the maneuver by trading altitude for airspeed (i.e. diving). This helps achieve enough airspeed to complete the roll without losing rudder and aileron control. The minimum airspeed needed depends on the aircraft's design, but is generally about 120 to 200 knots. Because full aileron is applied, structural limitations prevent many aircraft from performing the maneuver at very high speeds.

With the roll rate of the B-2 being accurately described as “glacially slow,” and the very likely chance that it would simply fall out of the sky once inverted, I deemed the barrel roll as the safest choice. And in order to spare you the suspense, here’s what happened: I did it. We made it all the way around, albeit with substantial loss of altitude. At this point I had already experienced something only a handful of other people have ever done. I was satisfied well beyond even my most optimistic hopes. But there were still two minutes on the clock. What to do? Hmmmm.

A loop. I wanted to try a loop. My friend had never heard of anyone completing a loop in the sim, but I was gung-ho to try it. I suspect that it probably has never been tried by an actual pilot - I know that simulator training is treated as being every bit as serious as flying the actual airplane and I doubt that a pilot working towards the responsibility of delivering nuclear weapons cannot afford getting a reputation of being frivolous. Not the case for me - I had precisely nothing to lose.

Having already made a short story long, here’s a brief synopsis of how it went. 

I climbed us back up to 8,000’, put us in a shallow drive to get as much scoot as the bird would take, and pulled the stick about halfway to two-thirds back. I didn’t want to use full back stick in the beginning of the loop because I intuited that I was going to need a lot of altitude to survive the backside of the loop. We went across the top of the loop at a pretty slow speed, but it was enough to get the nose headed back down. I pulled the throttles to idle, but I didn’t think to deploy the speedbrakes.  We actually made it through the loop, but I am pretty sure that it would have over sped and over G’d the airframe. It definitely would have caused a brutal meeting with the Wing Commander. I will never know if the speedbrakes would have alleviated that or not, but it doesn’t matter: I made a loop in a full-fidelity simulation of a B-2 bomber.

If that wasn’t enough (and it sure as h*** was!!), doing that loop also conveyed upon me a minor and short-lived celebrity status with the squadron of B-2 pilots later in the day when they gathered for some drinks and comradery. If someone had told me about all of this back in the early 80’s when I was a lowly airman maintaining the side-looking reconnaissance radar on the infamous SR-71 Blackbird and was in awe of the astronaut-ish pilots, I would never have believed that some day I would be chatting with them as if we were peers.

I hope to never forget that day.

* It does mean what I think it means.