"Trust, but Verify" by Bill Smith
When I was a young sergeant in the Air Force in the early 1970s, one of my jobs as a life support specialist was to train fighter pilots to eject and parachute safely from RF-101 aircraft. Since the Vietnam war was still ongoing, many pilots who were shot down and had ejected over North Vietnam found themselves hopelessly suspended high over the jungle floor by their parachute after landing in the dense foliage. To enhance a pilot's chance of escaping and evading the enemy, survival specialists developed a personnel lowering device that was installed in the back pad of each parachute harness. This device had 150' of tubular nylon line and enabled a downed pilot to rappel down to the ground from their parachute canopy. My job was to train the pilots to use the device.
One day, a young lieutenant stopped by my shop for his quarterly egress training session. That particular cycle, each aircrew had to be hoisted up about 3' off the floor wearing a parachute harness, hook up the lowering device to the overhead hoist frame, attach the breaking device to their parachute harness chest strap, release their parachute risers and slide down the lowering line to safety. I had great respect for these pilots and assumed they all knew what they were doing. This particular day, when it was Lieutenant Kirkwood's turn to demonstrate the device, I watched him hook up the lowering line to the overhead and release his risers. Instantaneously, he fell to the floor and landed on his backside with a thud, with blood streaming from his fingers. It only took seconds to realize he had not hooked up the breaking device to his chest strap, and when he fell, the skin on his fingers were ripped open by the breaking devise being jerked through his hand.
I was scared to death that I had severely injured one of the squadron's highly trained pilots, and the lieutenant was
equally worried the squadron commander would find out and think his was not the sharpest pilot in the unit. We both agreed not to tell anybody about the mishap. I learned then not to assume students never make a mistake. After that incident, whether I was training a general officer or a new lieutenant, I watched them carefully during all training evolutions.
Thirty years later, I found myself training balloon pilots. In 2017, I had a student doing some approaches to land in a Firefly 77. As we were getting ready for another descent, I had him check the fuel situation and then turn off the #2 tank and turn on the #1 tank in preparation for our final landing of the day. He correctly turned off #2 and then turned a knob on the #1 master tank that also supplied the vapor pilot light. As we began our approach from about 100', the pilot light went out on the single burner. Within seconds, I was frantically firing the striker trying to relight the pilot light. After what seemed like an eternity, we impacted the ground with a teeth-jarring jolt and were thrown to the floor of the basket. When we recovered, I found that the student had mistakenly turned off the #1 tank pilot light valve instead of turning on the fuel valve. Once again, I was forcefully reminded never to assume that a student knows how to do a given task and that it was my responsibility to monitor him constantly.
In January, a student pilot was flying with an FAA examiner during his first time in a racer type balloon. During a descent to perform contour flying for the practical test, the pilot applicant vented the balloon. When it began to level off too high, he vented it again and the balloon began a descent he described as “faster than (he) expected.” The designated pilot examiner
(DPE) called for a burn and the pilot applicant “gave a short burn” with one burner. The DPE, recognizing that the burn was insufficient to arrest the balloon’s descent, called for another burn while simultaneously grabbing the other burner. The balloon started to ascend and when the DPE realized that the basket was going to strike a light pole, he removed his hand from the burner and called for the pilot applicant to do the same; however, the pilot applicant did not remove his hand from the burner. When the basket impacted the pole, the load tapes sustained burn and heat damage. The DPE assumed control and flew them to an uneventful landing. Once again, an inexperienced student pilot, flying in an unfamiliar balloon made a serious error and the supervising pilot was unable to correct in time.
I have learned this basic tenet of supervision many times, but I still need to remind myself often to, as President Ronald Regan said about dealing with the Soviets over nuclear arms reductions, "trust, but verify." Commercial pilots are entrusted not only with the safety of their students, but also with the safety of other pilots they might be providing a flight review for. They must remain vigilant at all times to make sure that normal and emergency procedures are executed correctly when they are providing instruction.
I am excited to introduce my new student pilot to the balloon club. He is 13-year-old William Jones, son of Laura Benson Jones and Michael Jones. He is an eighth-grader at Sacred Heart Model School in Louisville, and has already accumulated nearly 40 hours of instruction in fixed wing aircraft as well as four flights in balloons. His goal is to be ready to solo on his 14th birthday in December and to get his license when he turns 16. William already knows a lot about aviation, so it is my job to help him reach his goals by carefully supervising everything he does in the next two years as he develops his flying skills. It is an awesome responsibility, but to see the look of pride on his face after each successful flight makes it so worth it. But, still, I must always remember to TRUST, BUT VERIFY.