This story goes all the way back to my last check ride in the T-38 supersonic trainer before getting my wings as a full-fledged Air Force pilot. I can still hear the check pilot’s words ringing in my ears, “I have the airplane! What are you trying to do, kill us both?” Obviously, this was not my best day in the cockpit, but the lessons that came from this near-disaster are still powerfully clear and helpful.
Flying formation is one of the most challenging and exhilarating experiences of being a pilot. Flying at speeds up to 500 miles an hour, you have just a few feet separating your wingtip from the lead aircraft. He is your total frame of reference from the time you taxi onto the runway until the time you return to base. Your eyes are on him completely. Even in the clouds, everything you do is in response to his movements. You don’t even watch your own instruments.
Formation flying was something that came naturally to me. I loved the challenge and had been doing quite well, so the final check ride was a great chance to advance my class standing to get the flying assignment of my choice. Because of the danger involved in flying that close to another aircraft at high speeds, the mission is briefed in great detail before takeoff. On this mission, we would climb to 30,000 feet and enter our assigned airspace and then begin our maneuvers. We would start with a series of dogfight type exercises with me about a half-mile behind the leader and him trying to lose me with rapid turns, dives and other evasive tactics.
I was doing so well that the check pilot took control of the aircraft to try a few maneuvers himself. I was so relaxed that my excessive self-confidence caused me to miss a key radio call from the lead aircraft. He leveled out and dipped his right wing to signal for me to rejoin him on that side. We had briefed that we would rejoin at 300 M.P.H. The normal procedure is to accelerate to 350 and then reduce the power when close enough to come alongside and match his speed. I wanted to impress the check pilot so I increased my speed to 375 to close in extra fast.
At that altitude, there isn’t a lot of air to slow the aircraft and the pilot needs very good judgment when to reduce the power and not fly right past the lead aircraft. Suddenly it became obvious that I was coming in way too fast. I cut the throttles to idle and dropped the speed brakes, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. I thought about doing a roll around the lead aircraft to bleed off the excess speed, but I was still a student and not exactly “top gun” material just yet. I couldn’t quite picture myself upside down over the lead aircraft.
The only thing that I could think to do was to roll my plane the other way away from lead and hopefully bleed off enough airspeed to come back up on his wing. That is when the check pilot took control of the airplane and radioed to lead that we had broken out of the formation. My heart sank. What in the world happened? It had all been going so well and suddenly for me, the check-ride was over. I had failed. How? What was the radio call that I missed?
Because we had lost so much airspeed in the earlier dog fighting my lead had radioed to change the airspeed to rejoin on his wing from the 300 M.P.H. that we had briefed to 250. The 375 M.P.H. that I had accelerated to meant that I was going more than a hundred per hour miles faster than he was. No wonder the rejoin was a hopeless attempt doomed to failure. Just because a mission is briefed doesn’t mean that the leader can’t change the plan.
The big mistake on my part was in taking my eyes off the lead aircraft when I rolled my aircraft away from him. I should have radioed that I was unable to maintain the formation and later attempted another rejoin. Good communication, both visual and verbal is the key to successfully fulfilling the mission. I got to fly another formation check-ride later that week. I was a humbler and more attentive student on that day and did quite well.
God gives us a lot of truth in His Word for living life right where we are. He gives us a briefing for the mission of life, both for the big picture and for the day-to-day realities of our changing circumstances. Following Christ and being tuned to the voice of His Spirit is essential to living life as Jesus brings it in all its fullness. It is exhilarating to fly on another pilot’s wing banking, rolling and racing along at high speeds. It is even more thrilling to live life with our eyes on Christ as he leads us through life.
Do you know that if you read less than a chapter a day you would read the entire New Testament in about 6 months? God’s Word is just that, the living word of the living, loving God. It is life- changing, life-directing and life-enriching. It is our briefing for the mission of life.
Dad, why do you read the Bible? What do you find difficult about spending time in the Bible?
What has helped you both to do a more consistent job of listening to God?
Dad, share a verse that has helped guide you at some time in your life?
Son, take a minute and read John 6:66-69 and see what Jesus’ disciples thought about His words.
Lessons For Flying Higher
Psalm 119:18 “Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your law.”
John 10:27 “My sheep recognize my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Psalm 143:8 “Let me hear of your unfailing love to me in the morning; for I am trusting you. Show me where to walk for I have come to you in prayer.
God’s Word helps keep our eyes on Lead. It also keeps our ears tuned to those unexpected “radio calls” from God’s Spirit. What will you do about reading God’s Word more consistently?