Screwing the Pooch
As usual, in the course of my affairs, I daily stumble across catalytic stimuli that kick my cerebrations into over-drive. Before I know it, my thoughts are soon chasing their virtual tails around the cavernously empty chambers of my brain, not unlike my big Siberian male (Sooka) chases his real one, when the possibility of a walk overwhelms everything else in his frequently overstimulated canine focus. In my case, this cerebral tail chasing occasionally picks up so much inertia that it carries over into the late night, making sleep more fitful than it would be if the neighborhood Taiko drummers (fortunately they live a block over and not right next door) were having a late night session. Such was the case last night.
Two such events came together earlier in the evening as I watched some not yet thoroughly dry wood sputter and then gutter out helplessly in the fireplace. Quite likely the product of some Renwood Barbera 2007 (a delightful Sierra Foothills medium bodied red wine produced in the Plymouth, CA, part of California’s ‘Gold Rush’ region) that shorted out a few circuits in my frontal lobe, the usual crew of insane monkeys living in a remote corner of my mind must have found the key to their enclosure, become intoxicated with the Barbera’s 14.5% ETOH content and started running biochemically amok in the gray matter again.
The first of these reflective tail-chase subjects concerns a US Air Force C-17 ‘Globemaster III’ heavy lift transport that crashed at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska last July, while practicing some maneuvers for the popular annual Alaskan ‘Arctic Thunder’ Air Show; the second relates to one of my favorite grips: dimbulb ‘patriots’ who run around waving the American flag at the least provocation. Since I tend to get a bit…um, shall we say…vituperously caught-up in the subjects of my discourse, I’ll save the second topic for a later time.
Elmendorf AFB, the largest US military facility in the state of Alaska, is situated adjacent to Anchorage and it has for decades functioned as an important Air Defense facility for the USAF Alaskan Air Command (1945-1990), most recently for Pacific Air Forces (1990 through the present). During the last series of base realignment & closures, Elmendorf AFB and the nearby US Army’s Fort Richardson were combined, resulting in a huge concentration of materiel and personnel there. Accordingly, Elmendorf now serves both as a focus for Alaskan military defense activities of all types and as the venue for a killer airshow that usually keeps the gawkers and locals stoked up for weeks before the event actually takes place.
The ‘Arctic Thunder Air Show’ put on bi-annually at Elmendorf is a big favorite among aviation enthusiasts and the general public, being held in July and typically drawing a wide range of both aerial and ground displays of military technology. It is viewed by Alaskan ANG, as are all US Air Force ‘public day’ events, as a chief public relations opportunity to stimulate interest in enlisting as a member of the local ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ team. This past July one of the participating aircraft in this extravaganza was one of the C-17 ‘Globemaster III’ strategic heavy-lift jet transports that has in recent years begun to complement and replace long-range, multi-engine aircraft such as the slightly larger C-5A ‘Galaxy’ (and earlier aircraft like the C-141 Starlifter).
Employing many advanced aeronautical features (including a NASA developed super-critical wing and externally blown flaps to name just two), the C-17 was designed to carry very heavy loads directly into forward combat areas, a capability enabled by its broad array of sophisticated STOL (Short Take-Off and landing) aerodynamic enhancements that were originally investigated on earlier experimental transport aircraft like the Boeing YC-14. Equipped with rugged landing gear capable of operating off minimally reinforced, relatively short runways and able to remain airborne at extremely low speeds through deployment of lift-enhancing devices built into its wing structure, the C-17 started off its development by presenting a number of perplexing and at time frustrating challenges to engineers and flight test personnel. However, despite extensive cost-overruns and after resolution of fairly frequent development set-backs was made, the bugs were finally worked out of this massive aircraft (528,000 pounds gross take-off weight with a maximum 170,900 pound payload rating) and it has gone on to render reliable and valuable service to the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command.
This particular aircraft was practicing maneuvering for its part of the Alaskan Thunder Air Show several days before the event was to take place (July of 2010) and had a crew of four on board, three Alaskan AF Reserve officers and a regular AF crew chief. The pilot-in-command at the time of the accident, a major, had extensive experience with the C-17, having flown a number of missions during the Gulf War and according to all reports was a very capable, competent and highly trained multi-engine jet transport pilot.
Given the uniqueness of the C-17’s STOL capabilities, this feature of the aircraft is usually highlighted during airshow performances and the typical air show C-17 demonstration flight includes a show-case repertory of short field take-off-and -anding simulations, cargo pallet offloads during touch-and-goes, and culminates in a rather startling demonstration of its ability to fly at snail-like speeds just above the runway without stalling out. In the latter instance airborne speeds as slow as 98 mph may be maintained 50 feet above the runway and to see a massive behemoth like this saunter slowly along in this manner is always a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.
When the accident occurred, real-time video footage of the aircraft was being taken, so the entire chain of events that led to its fatal accident has been captured on that film, a copy of which was released by the Air Force (with the final fatal moments of impact tastefully edited out, a gesture of respect for the aircrew’s families). It may be viewed on the internet by simply GOOGLING ‘Elmendorf C-17 crash’. When the aircraft impacted (not far from the base), it was engulfed in a massive fireball and all four crew were instantly killed (a predictable outcome, given the angle of ground contact, which was down and almost nose-in).
A review of the video strongly suggests that the cause of the accident was pilot error. Specifically, it appears that the pilot in control of the aircraft flew too aggressively and exceeded the safe operating parameters of the aircraft. After lifting off the runway at one point, at a high angle of attack, the aircraft gained only a slight amount of altitude before the pilot banked into a hard right turn. It appears that the aircraft came very close to assuming a 90 degree angle off the horizontal at that time and given the relatively low airspeed and the extremely low altitude, lost almost all its lift in that turn and went into an unrecoverable banking stall. Despite the extreme lift-enhancing aerodynamics of the C-17 at normal attitudes when flight controls are configured for maximal STOL maneuvers, no aircraft may enter a steep (90 degree) bank at low airspeed and low altitude safely, since complete loss of lift on the wing is an inviolable physical certainty at such moments. Not even the remarkable C-17.
Thus, the pilot, despite his excellent record and vast experience flying the C-17 aircraft, appears to have pushed the aircraft beyond the safe parameters of its low-speed, low-altitude envelope in his enthusiasm to create an exciting display for anticipated air show crowds; this simply underscores the fact that no matter how skilled and experienced one may be, the laws of physics are after all absolutely unforgiving in the final analysis. The fact that gravity can reach out and bite you in the ass when you least expect it is always something every pilot should keep fixed firmly in focus and especially when pushing 400,000 pounds of flying aluminum alloy to its limits close to the ground.
Back in the days of the early post-war Edwards AFB flight test days it wasn’t unusual to hear the term ‘screwing the pooch’ being used to refer to fatal pilot-induced flying errors, but use of that term remained mostly within the arena of arcane Air Force slang until author Tom Wolff popularized the phrase in his book ‘The Right Stuff’. In the movie version of that classic, the phrase is used by the character playing flight test pilot and Mercury Astronaut Gus Grissom and it creates an indelibly vivid impression on the viewer, given Grissom’s later and highly publicised experience with the blown escape hatch in his Mercury spacecraft.
Although it is still too early to say with any certainty that the Elmendorf’s C-17’s pilot ‘screwed the pooch’, that certainly seems to be the case, based on direct visual observations of the flight, as caught on video. What struck me most upon reading all the various news media accounts of the incident was how they all hewed compliantly to the smarmy Air Force PAO (Public Affairs Office) releases that went on and on about how the aircraft’s crew were all ‘heroes’ who gave their lives in the line of duty. Right! A 200 million dollar aircraft is lost (along with four highly trained aircrew) by an overzealous hot-shot pilot who overlooks safety constraints because he wants to give the public their money’s worth of gaping and goshing, and this qualifies him as a hero? Right!
Regardless of the fact that the pilot was someone’s much-loved husband and undoubtedly had several equally loving children, a screw-up is a screw-up and there’s no glory to be found in making catastrophic (and expensive) errors. Any doubt about that should be rather quickly extinguished reviewing the unfortunate circumstances experienced by Gus Grissom after the loss of his ‘Liberty Bell 7’ Mercury spacecraft, since in Grissom’s case, more recent analysis of events suggests that the infamous hatch blowing event did not appear to have been triggered by him. Yet thanks to author Wolff’s book and regardless of Grissom’s otherwise spectacular career in aviation, Grissom’s reputation is still unfairly clouded by those insupportable allegations to this day.
As I read through various media reports of this C-17 crew of ‘courageous’, ‘dedicated’, ‘patriotic’ American fliers who risked their own safety to ‘protect America’, etc., I felt a wave of virtual nausea rising within me. Back in the 50s, when an airman had wasted millions of taxpayer dollars by performing some failed hot-shot maneuver with equally catastrophic consequences, chances are his fellow airmen would scornfully regard him as a poor cluck that deserved to be pitied (since he didn't have 'the right stuff'). While they’d raise a brew or two in the O-Club to his memory, the unspoken common conviction would be that their wing-mate had ‘screwed the pooch’ (committed a preventable, fatal error) and that implied a remarkably diminished sense of professional airmanship that is unacceptable in the close-knit aviation community.
At any rate, all one reads in PAO inspired media spin-control releases about this specific incident are more of the same highly emotional, patriotic pablum stories about the supreme sacrifices made by ‘our lost heroes’. That made me reflect further on today’s politically correct culture we live in, a culture of entitlement wherein everyone is made to feel like a winner, whether they’re among the smartest, brightest, most competent upper 15% of the population or its dullest 15%.
This compulsive movement to make everyone feel important and somehow superior is so pervasive in modern America that a number of recent books have been written on the subject. One current book on this phenomenon has been fielded by sociologist Joel Best, titled ‘Everyone’s a Winner’ (200 pages, University of California Press, ISBN-10: 0520267168). In this critical look at America’s over-stated and smugly self-congratulatory culture, Best takes aim at this latest of what he terms the ‘status markers’ of artificially created success and it certainly strikes a resonant chord with me (and I hope many others, who are also tired of every Tom, Dick & Harry being glowingly lauded as some sort of ‘hero’ or another). The implication is, if it's a bit hard to gather laurels in any particular area of endeavor owing to your inherent limitations, you can create your own fame to bask in (inauthetic and disingenuous or not).
As I myself have stated numerous times in my past written opinions, there’s something very, very unsettling about heaping excessive laudatory recognition on people for simply doing occupational or professional work they undertake of their free will (and are moreover paid to do) for a living. The Alaskan ANG crew of that C-17 flew because they enjoyed aviation; they weren’t coerced into doing something they found repulsive or unrewarding. Such individuals may be ‘warriors’, but it’s a warrior’s job to fight and sometimes die. Doing so doesn’t necessarily make warriors (or firefighters, paramedics, or anyone engaged in providing public services) heroes, although particularly exceptional acts of exemplary conduct certainly should be recognised and praised, if noteworthy. Needlessly wasting a 200 million dollar aircraft and ending the lives of four aircrew so as to provide excitement and entertainment for a jaded public is not, most emphatically, a heroic act by any means construable to myself.
In a land like ours that is given over to overstatement and elaborate hyperbole that frequently defies rational understanding, the result of making every single act of our daily activities out as somehow olympian only serves to bastardise and/or commonise individuals who perform acts of exceptional heroism through conscious, reflective determination. The accidental hero (roughly defined for our purposes here as someone who involuntarily and without deliberate premeditation reacts to an event and ends up being lauded as somehow ‘heroic’) are not, after all, in the same august league as individuals who fully understand the consequences of their actions before they take them, completely understand the possible outcomes in advance, correctly perceive an otherwise untenable level of hazard that may obtain, but nevertheless shoulder unreasonable risk anyway.
As author Best notes, far too often there is also too a further hidden motivation behind much of this sort of self-serving congratulatory behavior in that it is frequently linked to a hidden sense of market opportunity. Identified as such and acted upon by the economically or socially savvy among us, the act of ‘creating heroism’ may actually arise from philistine motivations having little to do with heroism and everything to do with exploitation. Politicians are known for this trait and it is probably Rule #1 in the Politician’s Handbook: reward others for self-enhancement. In the military, its counterpart is frequently found in the reflexive passing out of medals to smooth over awkwardness or embarrassment.
In the case of the Air Force’s smarmy PAO coverage of this event, rather than raise (whether fairly or unfairly) the possibility of pilot error in this accident, the USAF PAO has spin-doctored away any possible taint of aircraft mishandling by entirely redirecting public attention with effusive, obscure allusions of patriotism, heroism and selfless duty to one’s nation. After all, the last thing the Air Force would want is some overly critical public observer in a position of authority bringing up questions asking how one can possibly justify such waste of lives and military materiel purely for entertainment purposes (e.g. the Arctic Thunder Air Show)? Or encourage active duty personnel to takes needless risks purely for fostering and/or maintaining important public relations with the public (whose tax dollars are being squandered in support of such non critical activities). Probably the best and most effective way of redirecting attention from the fairly obvious questions that might arise concerning non-essential activities like this is to bring out the rosey-hued rhetorical smoke-screen devices and gather everyone together in shared paeans of emotionally tinged praise for these poor lost ‘heroes’. After all, it works incredibly well on commercial broadcast television reality show programming, doesn’t it?
Another noteworthy aspect of the Elmendorf event question is its remarkable parallel to a similar aircraft loss that occurred back in June of 1994 at Fairchild AFB, in the state of Washington (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1994_Fairchild_Air_Force_Base_B-52_crash). That incident, involving a Boeing B-52H model strategic bomber, also took also place during practice for an upcoming airshow at that facility and was caused by overly aggressive maneuvering too close to the ground and beyond the safe limits of allowable airspeed and altitude restrictions for the aircraft in reference. In a manner eerily similar to that of the July 2010 Elmendorf C-17 accident, the pilot of that B-52H engaged in an excessively steep banking turn at low altitude in which the same fatal loss of lift occurred, resulting in a congruently similar catastrophic banking stall. The B-52H in question quickly assumed an unrecoverable attitude that resulted in its instantaneous destruction taking the lives of all seven airmen aboard, and it is today used as a reference in training Air Force personnel about the consequences of improper aircraft performance management. Granted that there are particular individuals who could and often did get away with pushing the envelope a bit further than normal (BGen Robin Olds comes to mind), but as a rule they are far and few between.
At the time of the 1994 incident at Fairchild AFB, the PAO there was not quite as quick to refocus public attention away from possible pilot error and direct it on superfluous aspects of aircrew heroism, but rather limited its attention to release of strictly factual information related to the crash. It is interesting and quite instructive, I think, to compare the Public Affairs Office handling of these two similar but separate events, noting the exaggerated euphemistic stance assumed in the Jul 2010 crash. Of course, as anyone associated with aircraft crashes knows, speculation in advance of the formal accident investigation is not just premature, it is unhelpful to the extreme.
Sadly, today the entire nation has absorbed the ‘wear blinders, gaze straight ahead and don’t ask questions’ mentally that is ‘political correctness’ at its worst. Even the American military embraces this dictum at the heart of its interactions with the public via the PAO and the moment something like the Elmendorf incident takes place, the PAO folks are practically wetting their pants in their haste to put damage control measures in place before anyone can use the incident as ammo in a new military cost-cutting initiative in the congress, or accuse the Air Force of some new collusion with the aerospace defense contractors (the fracas over a new Air Force tanker comes to mind).
Sadly enough, what is set into motion by the Air Force’s PAO damage controllers is then picked up as if on cue by scores of perky national news media anchors who then parrot all the usual ‘our poor, brave lost heroes’ BS on the evening news. Instead of raising the possibility that some hot-shot airman has exceeded his aircraft’s performance specifications and perhaps precipitated a thoroughly avoidable loss of extremely costly government property, we end up with another cloyingly smarmy eulogy to yet more ‘artificial heroes’. After all, it makes for more emotion, doesn't it, and modern newscasting is ALL about dredging up tears of sympathy in the eyes of viewers.
Despite all these damning observations, it's probably prudent to scale back the castigations a bit and not be too overtly critical of the Air Force’s PAO personnel for trying to damage control the Elmendorf situation with media micromanaging like this, since we live in a culture that encourages this sort of behavior, and hypocritical hyperbole is almost a national pastime, so it would often seem. Naturally there are also horrific legal considerations to be considered (and we can thank the rise of American jurisprudence for that aspect of all this). As an attorney friend once told me, "Never confuse 'the law' with justice; they're two totally different concepts."
Did the pilot of that Elmendorf C-17 ‘screw the pooch’? Am I being unfair in my arm-chair second-guessing here? Until the final accident investigation report has been released, it’s too soon to speculate with any certainty, but barring any revelations of unforeseen hardware or systems malfunction, the video of that accident appears to speak voluably for itself.