October 2000 Issue

Unfair Treatment

Warbird pilots aren’t unprepared and warbird flying isn’t the reckless endeavor you imply it is

I was the pilot of the Grumman F9F-2 Panther referenced in your August, 2000 story “Warbirds of Attrition,” [Airmanship, August] which ran off the end of the runway at Kalamazoo/Battlecreek International Runway. I must say I am appalled that you would write such an article with apparently as little information as you had, especially about my accident. The NTSB changed its Factual Report on my accident three times because it couldn’t get it right. Apparently the information you had came from perhaps one of the earliest of the accident reports.

First, I had far more than just an hour’s conversation with a test pilot before I flew the Panther jet. I had two days of intensive ground training in that airplane, and 2,000 hours of training in other aircraft before I flew the Panther. I had done a blind cockpit check, I had been schooled by the people who had flown the aircraft before (including other Panther jet pilots), and just to make sure that this particular Panther jet had no unusual characteristics, I telephoned Chuck Sewell, a Grumman test pilot at Edwards, who had flown this very airplane after its restoration. That’s the one-hour telephone conversation referred to by the NTSB, wholly ignoring the two days of prior preparation, which I confirmed by a videotape of that preparation that the NTSB never requested, but which I sent.

On the subject of prior jet training, the impression you create is that somehow they are exotic, difficult airplanes to fly. I had been flying a Beech Duke for six years before I ever flew the Panther, and the Panther was by comparison nothing to fly compared to the Duke. It was easier to start, easier to fly, had more forgiving characteristics, had more power to weight, had more high lift devices, and the controls were much more simple. Remember, nineteen year olds flew Panther jets off the decks of aircraft carriers with only 200 hours. The Panther was simple to fly, and to suggest that these jets are somehow extremely difficult or on the cutting edge is simply not the truth.

You also infer that I had no further instruction, even after I flew the Panther, which was not true. On the contrary, I had also flown with Rick Brickert, an experienced airshow jet pilot and Air Force veteran, in a T33 to make sure I was not developing any bad habits in the Panther. Although the NTSB did not ask for that information, I provided it.

I did not tell the investigators that I prepared for flying the Panther by flying an hour or so in a Lear 24. On the contrary, I had flown a Lear 25 many years before that. What I did do, however, was fly a DeHaviland Vampire for several hours, an airplane that is also simple to fly, with an experienced airshow jet pilot who thought my performance was outstanding, and told the FAA that it was. Indeed, I also had a videotape of my first flights in the Panther, and each landing was perfect. Unfortunately, the NTSB did not ask for that videotape, but I provided it after their first botched accident report.

Your suggestion that slow acceleration during takeoff could have been due to the lower volatility of Jet A is simply unsupported by the facts. Jet A and avgas were put into that aircraft at my direction. Jet A and avgas is more than sufficient for proper operation of that engine. In fact, on the carrier in 1949 that engine was run on 115/145 avgas, cut 3% with 10/10 oil. Thus, the fuel that was in it on the day of the accident was more than sufficient to run that aircraft to its rated power. The slow acceleration on takeoff was likely due to the 85° air temperature, and probably more than the 100° temperature on the runway, which when coupled with maximum fuel weight would account for slower acceleration.

There was never a determination by the NTSB that “improper starting procedures” could have left air bubbles in the fuel pumps. That’s nonsense. No such procedure, even if there were one, could have created air bubbles in the fuel pumps. The NTSB felt that failing to purge the fuel pumps of air could have resulted in air bubbles causing the loss of engine power that I reported on takeoff. In short, the NTSB didn’t know what it was talking about. I had flown that aircraft for eleven years, and purging the pumps (except after maintenance) was not required.

Moreover, maintenance had just been completed on the reinstallation of the recalcitrant fuel control, and the fuel pumps had been bled, something the NTSB never asked, but was later provided to it.

You also suggest that the mechanics told the investigators it was not standard practice to bleed the pumps. This was never stated by any mechanic, and indeed the pumps were bled after the last maintenance, but not immediately prior to the accident flight.

You also point out and suggest that the Panther was somehow not maintained with its own set of manuals or by a maintenance team. That is untrue. I employed a fulltime mechanic to maintain the Panther, and immediately prior to the accident flight, it was maintained by a team of mechanics, who were familiar with its maintenance requirements. I also had every maintenance manual and overhaul manual for every component of that aircraft, and they were available to the mechanics who maintained it.

You also make a suggestion that many of the pilots holding FAA approvals to fly the vintage jet airplanes do not meet the FAA’s own requirements. I cannot speak to any other pilot, but I not only met the FAA’s requirements, I continue to meet the FAA’s requirements at this moment, and still have an LOA to fly the Panther. Any suggestion to the contrary, is directly contradicted by the FAA’s own letter on the subject to the NTSB on my qualifications.

You also suggest that the FAA allows ejection seats to stay hot. Unless it has recently changed its rules, the FAA repeatedly stated that civilian aircraft are not permitted to have live ejection seats.

You also suggest that currency is another problem, and that the six months between flights required by the LOAs is too long. I flew that Panther jet in airshows for eleven years. I had over 330 hours in it. You were incorrect about a tax break being in any manner the motivation for flying it or not flying it. On the contrary, and until taxes become 100%, a tax break is almost irrelevant to support the cost of flying a jet warbird. I flew my jet warbird for purposes of raising money for military families who no longer received appropriated funds for important elements of their welfare. Tax breaks were irrelevant to me.

You mention that there is an implied trust involved, and when that trust is violated the lives of innocent spectators are jeopardized. It is important that you understand that every jet pilot I have ever met has met that implied trust and more. We have always trained and we have always maintained our airplanes to a level to make certain that spectators, the pilots, or anyone else are not injured or killed. That’s the reason why in all of the years since jet fighters have been allowed to be owned by civilians, there have been fewer accidents in those aircraft for any reason than in virtually any other airplane that can be identified. In fact, the civilian accident rate for jet fighters, with all the pilots you claim are ill-trained, is less than the Air Force or the Navy have in similar model aircraft, with all of the training and all of the intense maintenance that they are purported to impart to these aircraft and their crews.

I cannot speak to the other accidents, but I can tell you that my ego had nothing to do with either my desire to fly the airplane or the crash that occurred. It was a mechanical failure that was well documented, but unfortunately ignored by the NTSB. An x-ray of the fuel control showed a fractured part that was repeatedly a problem, and had been sent out for repair on at least four occasions prior to my accident. The accident flight was, indeed, the first flight after that part was reinstalled. Unfortunately, that part was never repaired by the repair facility, even though the fuel control was noted as overhauled by that company. In fact, our examination after the accident revealed that rather than being overhauled, the lead tags put on by the manufacturer in 1949 were still intact, meaning that the overhaul facility didn’t even dismantle the fuel control for which it was paid handsomely. The FAA and the NTSB did nothing to discipline that company.

There was, in fact, a breach of trust that caused my accident. That breach of trust was the failure of a company, licensed by the FAA, and who had represented that it had overhauled and repaired that fuel control on four separate occasions, and nonetheless breached its trust to me, to the people on the ground below (fortunately none of whom were hurt), and breached its legal obligations to the FAA.

For you to take everything out of context and hyperbolize what amounts to nothing but completely uninformed opinion on what occurred is a disservice to me and the many hundreds of other jet warbird owners who are well trained and sufficiently qualified to fly their aircraft safely in front of hundreds of thousands of appreciative spectators. This article should have been used as a means to show how incompetent the NTSB investigation was, not to attack a pilot who was current, qualified and took both maintenance and his flight proficiency seriously, and didn’t hurt anybody but himself in this crash, something that has been lauded by lots of pilots, including those who fly jet fighters for a living.

-Arthur Alan Wolk
Philadelphia, Pa.


Losing Battle...
I just finished “The Battle Within” [Editor’s Log, August], and to say I’m shocked would be an understatement! For the editor of a publication that describes itself as being “The monthly journal of risk management and accident prevention” to be flying single engine at night over water with small children is, in my opinion, not only very foolish, but bordering on criminal behavior.

I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt by assuming you had on board proper floatation devices for all passengers, and a means to signal rescue craft in the event of an engine failure and subsequent ditching. Speaking of ditching, if you were lucky enough to survive a water landing at night, did it ever occur to you how difficult it might be to rescue one or more small children from the cabin of your sinking Lance?

And what if you were incapacitated by the impact of aircraft with the water in the darkness? Would you call this risk management, I certainly wouldn’t.

Divert to the Bahamas at night? Perhaps safer than penetrating a mature thunderstorm, but not a well-thought out option in my opinion. And did it ever cross your mind that while dodging those blips on your Stormscope you still might expose yourself to some potentially very nasty turbulence in associated IMC?

I hope the next time you plan a flight after or into darkness you’ll give some thought to those innocent kids riding behind you and depending upon your good decision making, because they don’t yet know the hazards.

And who am I to be passing judgment on your decision making? It really doesn’t matter, but for the record, I soloed in 1959. I was a CFII, and spent 36 years as an airline pilot, and hold type ratings on the MD-11, DC-10, B727, 707, 747, BAC-111, and Lockheed Electra. I was also a check airman on the 707, 727, 747, and DC-10.

-Jim Piper
Via e-mail

Ken Ibold replies: Thanks for your feedback. I respect your opinion and suspect you may be overreacting to the situation at hand. Let me supply some additional information that was not present in the column. At 9,000 feet, the Lance has an engine-out glide range of about 10 nm. Our route of flight took us a maximum of six miles offshore.

Our research shows a survival rate of more than 95 percent in controlled ditchings. In the event of an engine problem, I would consider a controlled ditching 50 feet offshore in 4 feet of water to be a much better option than coming down in whatever unseen surprises might be awaiting on terra firma.

And as an aside, the airplane, which does routine duty to the Bahamas, is fully equipped with flotation devices, a raft and a survival kit. Therefore, the risk of the overwater leg had, in my opinion, less risk than a similar leg conducted entirely over land.

As for the central Florida thunderstorms, I have been based in Florida through nearly my entire flying career. The behavior of the afternoon/evening thunderstorms is fairly predictable and, because on this occasion they were isolated and not associated with a front, the task of circumnavigating them would have been fairly easy if they had not dissipated, which they did, in fact, do.

While I accept the fact that flying a single at night carries with it some additional risk, I don’t think on this occasion I did anything foolish, much less bordering on criminal behavior. Supplied with this more complete information, you have another chance to tell me I’m an idiot. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

... Well, Maybe Not Lost Entirely
Jim Piper replies: Everything you said was what I was hoping you would say regarding your preparation for this flight. You’re right, I assumed the worst.

Some additional information not in my “resume’” is that I grew up on the beach in Southern California and have been a Los Angeles County ocean lifeguard for 43 years in addition to my airline career. Adding to this I’ve been a surfer since age 12, and a sailor for 40 years including races from California to Hawaii. As a member of the county lifeguards “Underwater Rescue and Recovery Team,” I’ve helped remove bodies from aircraft in as deep as 160 feet of water.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know the ocean pretty well and I doubt that ditching at night in the ocean carries a 95 percent survival rate. Perhaps all unplanned water landings, but not at night in the ocean with small children.

I’d suggest you give some additional thought to “night overwater” when the children are along.