Scott "Elvis" McCartt
There I was, accelerating down an Iraqi air base runway in a Cessna 172 powered by an unproven diesel engine, in a combat zone, alone except for the Iraqi student pilot in the left seat. If we went down, our plan was to move away from the aircraft as quickly as possible and find a defensive position where we could remain concealed until the cavalry arrived. Aboard were the two of us, a bunch of water, a cell phone, survival radio, body armor, blood chit, an M-4 rifle, a Berreta 9mm sidearm, and 300 rounds of ammunition. We had removed all unnecessary weight but the weed eater in the front of the aircraft struggled to drag us into the air, causing the perimeter fence at the end of the 9000 foot runway to be a factor on every departure. Our mission? Make a combat pilot out of the young Iraqi Air Force officer.
The journey to this point began in LA. That's Lower Alabama or Fort Rucker, the home of Army Aviation, to be exact. My father was an Army Infantry officer and dual rated aviator. I was born there, went to flight school there, and returned as a flight instructor for the Air Force many years later. Dad took me for my first airplane flight at Ft Riley, Kansas, in the early 1970's. He sat me on a couple of phone books so I could see out the window of the aero club Cessna 172. That was the beginning of my fascination with all things having wings.
The Air Force first paid me to learn to fly a UH-1H. I would have done it for free but they said that wasn't how it worked and I'd just have to learn to accept being paid to have fun. Having earned my FAA Private Pilot certificate during college and accumulated 350 flight hours while working at the Oxford, MS, airport, I very naively assumed the Army's rotary wing flight school would not be a significant challenge. However, learning to hover was a humbling experience for me that provided roughly equal amounts of entertainment and frustration for my instructors. After graduating in 1990, I cut my real aviation teeth flying UH-1N Hueys (Bell 212) over the plains and Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. Landing in interstate medians to airlift vehicle accident victims became routine. Rescuing a woman and her two children lost in the Poudre canyon, locating a downed pilot at over 11,000 feet near Steamboat Springs, landing on the Continental Divide, and flying coast to coast in a Huey were highlights of those first few years. Next, I headed to Washington, D.C., to fly the Air Force Chief of Staff and senior Office of the Secretary of Defense officials. Flying General Fogleman was always a pleasure but we never did break him of the big airplane habit of pushing the stick forward when exiting the pilot seat. That act has a whole different effect in idling helicopters than in heavy jets that are sitting still in the chocks. Flying the New York City helicopter routes, rounding the statue of Liberty, and landing on the fantail of the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier were experiences that will always be cherished.
Instructing at Ft Rucker, a fixed wing transition in T-37s, and completion of E-3 AWACS initial training soon followed. Then, 9/11 happened. Within days I was flying 14 hour missions over the capitol of my own country. Within a year I was flying those same missions over another country, taking on 100,000 pounds of jet fuel each night in a darkened aircraft high above the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. The refueling tanker was nothing more than a voice on a secure radio, blip on a radar screen, and a dark shadow in a sea of stars until we were a hundred feet astern. At that point, one could start making out the refueling system lighting on the underside of the KC-135 or KC-10. Closure rates in the inky blackness were judged more by sense than science. Keeping a 300,000 pound jet in a cube of airspace that measured less than 10 feet on any side while traveling at 330 knots and changing gross weight by 100,000 pounds was an art perfected only through practice. We became pretty good at it.
Eventually, I worked my way back to the training world which is what I really enjoyed. USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training is a hazing and harassment program which still manages to produce very good pilots. If nothing else, it teaches you perseverance and a "fly the airplane" focus. After surviving the other USAF hazing and harassment program known as Pilot Instructor Training or PIT, I found my way to Columbus AFB. Flying from the humid Mississippi base rekindled my love/hate relationship with the 6000 pound dog whistle known as the T-37 or "Tweet". Underpowered, hot, extremely loud, and poorly equipped, the Tweet was good for few things other than teaching you to be a decent stick and rudder pilot. I loved it for that reason, though. It was pure fun once safely away from the ground. The new T-6 Texan II, into which I later transitioned, was far more comfortable and capable but helped fledgling pilots a bit too much in my opinion. The instant acceleration of the PT-6 engine and thrust from the 8 foot prop were good insurance, however, when the beginners pulled the power early on hot July short finals.
As the end of my tenure approached, the Air Force informed me that I needed to go to Iraq for a year to help establish a new Iraqi Air Force formal flight training program. While I appreciated their confidence, I was fairly certain that the term "need" was overstated. However, I soon found myself accelerating down an Iraqi air base runway, flying an underpowered Cessna 172, in a combat zone, alone except for the young Iraqi officer sitting in the left seat. To quote Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...."
Fast forward nearly ten years after another 4000 flight hours and I'm happy flying jets for an airline. Along the way, I've had the privilege of teaching Customs and Border Protection agent/pilots how to autorotate from various situations and perform tail rotor malfunction landings in AS-350s. I've watched the "kid in a candy store" reactions to the first few hours of flight on the neat little gadgets known as Night Vision Goggles. Using the F-16's APG-66 radar, I've had fun teaching aerial intercepts in Cessna Citations during all weather conditions. Teaching civilian trained CBP agent/pilots how to fly formation in a modified business jet while using infrared and HD cameras to record law enforcement events had its own set of thrills. Hanging in formation with a Cessna 210 while your Citation's gear and flaps are down is another skill acquired only by practice. The stall warning's almost continuous activation is an exhilarating experience and not for the faint of aviating heart.
I've also had the opportunity to fly offshore in S-76s and learned to land on pitching ship decks and shoot offshore instrument approaches to oil rigs. That was where I also learned about the cyclical nature of the oil industry and the meaning of the term "furlough". It was a great experience and an immersion into where I think we're headed with ADS-B and helicopter instrument flight capabilities.
Every day in aviation is an opportunity to learn and refine your thinking and skills. My path has been liberally sprinkled with good fortune, unique opportunities, and great people. For that I am grateful. I was asked as I left a non-flying job at the FAA what I'd do when I couldn't fly anymore. I didn't have a good answer then and still don't. That's the stuff of which nightmares are made.