Stranger To The Ground

Stranger to the Ground


Part I


The date is September 1965. Your reviewer is a 19-year-old private pilot with 227 hours of flying time.

Dell has recently published a book entitled Stranger to the Ground. It is paperback and contains 188 pages. The promising young author, Richard Bach has autobiographically told a story about a single flight in an Air National Guard F-84G over Europe. The New York Times says, “The incredible story of one man alone in the sky facing awesome challenges of speed and space…penetrating…stands with the works of Saint-Exupery…Masterfully told.” Your reviewer is almost nineteen years old. He is very focused on a career in aviation.

Richard Bach exudes everything a young fighter pilot should be. He has total familiarity with his aircraft. He has an unflinching devotion to duty. He has the courage to do, and courage to admit his fear. Most of all he has an eloquence to describe his experience vividly. Lt. Bach is a New Jersey Air National Guard pilot assigned to fly a special cargo of top-secret documents from Weathersfield, England to Chaumont, France. The mission is important and the weather is forbidding.

Bach’s narration of it includes a background into the details of his aircraft, his training, the Air Traffic Control Environment, and his philosophy. That, of course, is how he is able to expand a single flight into a book-length story. During the idle moments in the flight, Bach reminisces about exciting missions, inspiring people, and dead friends. An intensely proud person, he carefully develops his points, which come together in a compelling view of military aviation.

The flight is an exciting one. At one point he enters a thunderstorm, loses control on his aircraft, and barely recovers in time to save himself, his aircraft, and his precious cargo. He battles ice formation, radio failure, and a variety of unforeseen problems to accomplish his mission.

This book is a riveting story masterfully told. It offers an incisive view of the USAF, and the Air National Guard. Surely Bach is the epitome of what a pilot-patriot should be.


Part II


The date is September 1989. Your reviewer is 43 years old, with 11,580 flying hours of flying time, 2000 in fighters. He is a B-737 Captain for Delta Air Lines.

A dusty, almost forgotten book has been retrieved from long ago. Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and other successful books, wrote an autobiography of his aviation career in the mid 1960’s. Stranger To The Ground describes him as a lieutenant in the New Jersey Air National Guard before his huge success as an author.

Lt. Bach was a fool, a very eloquent, highly trained, dedicated fool, but still a fool. This is the story of a young man who risks his life, his aircraft, and likely those of people on the ground to fly a bag of papers from England to France. This book describes a single flight of a young pilot who cannot know the importance of his mission. No one will thank him or even remember its success or failure. Neither can he know that he well likely die if he flies it as assigned. The effect of this is a huge irony. That is, how can such a proficient, highly trained young man come so close to destruction? It is a study in being confident and enthusiastic to a fault.




The date is 2001. Your reviewer is 55 years old. He has 19,140 hours of flying time. He is an MD-11 Captain for Delta Air Lines.

I look back at what Richard Bach wrote and what I thought about his writing. Do I detect a pattern? We were both enthusiastic and dedicated to a fault when we were young. We became arrogant and intolerant in our middle age. Now in our mature years, what are we? I don’t know about Bach, but I’ve never been happier. I regard those early stages as a beneficial process. I have become a member of a group that seems to agree as to what the process should be. As a junior captain, I was too hard on the copilots. I appreciate them more now.




Well isn’t his a surprise. It’s 2016, I’ve been flying for fifty years, and I’m still alive. They gave me a “Master Pilot” award for that. I’ve been retired from airline flying for ten years. Flying my “bug smasher” little airplane on instrument flights still gives me a lot of satisfaction. Perhaps this gives me license to reflect on the different strategies that I have seen in aviation.

“Hot Shot” – These are mostly already dead. Flying inverted under bridges is a very short-term strategy. Probably doesn’t make for a good career, even if you survive the unnecessary risk.

“Natural” – Everyone thinks this person was born with the “gift.” In reality they study harder, work longer, and pay more attention to their flying. They excel through effort and focus. It is strategy to be emulated.

“Jerk” – Really just a fearful person. He doubts his own capabilities and diverts attention to minor flaws in those around him. He is unable to allow anyone to operate beyond his pitifully small world, even the “Natural.”

“Numbers Man” – He knows every temperature, power setting, fuel flow, etc., etc. in the book. Much of that is useless, but if conceals his weak stick-and-rudder skills.

“Check List” – Like the Numbers Man, and the Jerk, he is a weak, fearful pilot. He believes that he will be protected by strict observance to his security blanket. In a real situation he is little help. (I agree with those who define a checklist as a document to be reviewed after you have made you best attempt at conducting a procedure from memory; if you read an item and then do it, it’s a do list)

“Comedian/Joker” – Usually a very bright, but bored person. Like the Hot Shot, he takes unnecessary risk in order to reduce his boredom and/or to be regarded as cool or cute. I’ve seen this guy convince a flight attendant that there is a person trapped in the wheel well. Another idiot liked to scare the copilots by starting an engine on the takeoff roll. Flying doesn’t have to be dead serious, but it doesn’t have to be dangerous or traumatic either.

“Instructor” – He thinks he is a “Natural.” Always ready with some advice, he is convinced that his perfection should be emulated. Copilots only comply when he is present, rejecting his techniques when he is out of sight.

“Chief Pilot” – A legend in his own mind. Like the Instructor, he is an alleged repository of aviation wisdom and leadership. He loves the title and power more than flying. Rather than being selected for his flying skills, he does a job no one else wants, that of a glorified baby-sitter, disciplining misbehaving pilots.

“Normal” – I have listed several strategies to be avoided, and most of us can’t be the Natural. Those represent a tiny fraction of the people I have worked with over the years. The huge majority of the pilots with whom I have flown, share my appreciation of the beauty of flight, the goodness of people, and the satisfaction of a job well done. The new normal appreciates the value of all of the crewmembers. The days of the tyrant captain and the “set your hair on fire” fighter pilot are mostly gone. The guy or gal flying a half-billion dollar fighter doesn’t fly under bridges; the airline captain knows the value of an effective team in the cockpit.I recommend a career in aviation, not for the money, but for the joy of it.


Lindburgh said it best, “Science, freedom, beauty, adventure. What more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved.

Aviation Human Factors blog changes to Flying Stories

Since there hasn’t been much activity on the Human Factors blog, I have come to believe that we have said all we know about it. We’ll have to leave future progress in that discipline to the folks who are actually immersed in it.

I used to believe that I would write a book about my flying experiences. Mine are pretty bland compared to most, and I wouldn’t want to burden anyone with a “mercy read” of a boring book. It’s relatively easy to see if anyone is interested by posting some of the stories on a blog. I plan to tell a few stories here and see how it goes.

  1. We flew the 1956 model F-102, the venerable “Deuce.” (previously billed as the supersonic, needle-nosed sentinel of the skies). We were the “Black Knights” of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of Keflavik, Iceland. Even in 1972, the “Deuce” was getting a bit long in tooth. The quarry was the Soviet TU-95 Bear, which regularly wandered through NATO airspace. Our raison d’etre, was to protect the U.S. Navy P-3, submarine hunters from the Bears.

    Jack Webb might have described the situation thusly: “My partner and I were working the night watch out of alert during the Winter of ’72.” “Alert” meant that we “cocked” our fighters by getting everything ready to go on short (five minute) notice. Once notified by loud noises and flashing lights, we were obliged to don our anti-exposure suits and get the aircraft airborne in the allotted five minutes. These suits were tight fitting and a little difficult to manage. We called them “poopey suits,” although I’m not sure exactly why. The weather was 300 ft ceiling and one-half mile visibility in snow, with the usual 25 knots of wind. The alternate, Leuchars, Scotland, which lay 640 miles away was clear with a quartering tail wind most of the way there. The red phone rang without an accompanying klaxon. “Opcon” informed us that we were to intercept a pair of TU-95’s at a point where they would penetrate the ADIZ, then proceed to Leuchars. That would, of course, happen about three o’clock in the morning. Meanwhile we should just get some sleep. Not an easy task.

    I didn’t have to do much except follow Chuck since he was the “Old head.” At the predetermined time we donned our “poopey suits.” With an “airborne order,” rather than a scramble order, we had the luxury of proceeding to the airplanes at a leisurely pace to make our assigned take-off time. My feet were dancing on the big “Convair” cast into each rudder pedal because I was cold. There was nothing to be afraid of. After all, it wasn’t like a combat mission. The only thing to worry about was a flame-out way out there…200 miles North of the Arctic Circle…over all that cold dark…night…water.

    Kaboom. Chuck’s starter fires and jolts me back to reality.   OK, here we go. Ignition button down, throttle outboard, back inboard, bang, the starter fires, RPM, throttle forward around the horn, fuel flow, EGT, oil pressure, guarded switches down, shiny switches forward, radar on….

    “Zero one flight check.”


    Chuck’s aircraft boldly emerges from the adjacent shelter at a surprisingly fast taxi. I follow closely, on the upwind side of the taxiway.

    “Kef tower, Sloe Gin Zero One Flight, taxi, airborne order time zero five.

    “(Heavy accent) Zero one taxi into poseetion und hold, cleared for take-off, your discretion.”

    “Roger, cleared to go, Zero one flight, let’s go button four.” Unlike our civilian counterparts, we always changed to departure control frequency before takeoff. That made flying formation much simpler. If this were a daytime mission, I would expect Chuck to give me the runup signal visually. Since it is very dark, there is none.   I hear Chuck’s engine start to roar. I ease the power up slowly so as not to skid on the packed snow, 70, 75, 80 (skid) back down to 78 per cent. I will wait until the take-off roll to check full power. Lead is rolling, his afterburner lights with a (normal) terrific explosion. I look away from the blinding white plume. My airplane shakes. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds; I release the brakes and move the throttle up to full military (non afterburner) power. The gauges look good. I push the throttle outboard into afterburner. The exhaust pressure ratio gauge dips and then recovers as the afterburner nozzles first open then the burner lights. I feel a dull thud and a kick of additional acceleration. Ahead, lead is rotating and disappears in a swirl of stirred up snow. Now I have a hundred twenty five knots, and start the stick back to rotate. Just a grunt more back stick, then I’m airborne. Gear up, dampers on, radar return to search, drop tanks on. I run the radar antenna a little up. I am careful to hold that climb, as there are 6,000 ft. mountains ahead. I take a peek into the scope: one, two, three sweeps…there he is coming out of the ground clutter about 2 ½ miles ahead.

    “(Yawn) Two is tied on.” The boredom in my voice belies the pounding in my chest.


    Lead levels off at 35,000 ft. in the clear. I can’t catch him until he pulls the power back for level off. Gradually, the little circle in the radar scope rotates to show my overtake increasing. My 100 knots of overtake in the blackness is revealed only by the quiet precision of the radar. Far ahead is the faint but rhythmic flashing of a red rotating beacon. My vision cannot detect the overtake.   Soon, I join up very close. That makes me feel a little less threatened by the night. It’s darker that the inside of that proverbial cow’s stomach out here tonight. Chuck yaws his airplane, the signal to loosen the formation, a little more violently than usual. I sense that he is a little aggravated with me for flying so close and thus pushing his wing up with the deflected air from my wing. I settle down for the long drive at 50 feet from his wing tip. The aurora is modestly spectacular tonight. It looks like a huge curtain whose bottom is about thirty degrees up from the horizon. The colors are beautiful, red, white, and green. It flutters as if in a breeze, then abruptly jumps to the left, then to the right. Without Chuck to fly formation on, I would be tempted to roll to level my wings with the bottom of the aurora, rather than the real horizon.

    “Sloe Gin zero one flight, this is Drainage Control. You have two targets zero six zero for a hundred and twenty.”

    “Zero One.”

    Shortly – there they are – about five miles apart – No, not out there, in the scope.

    “Don, looks like we’ll be below bingo when we get there, you take number two Bear, I’ll take the lead one.” (Regulations forbid us to split up. We should position one fighter up and back so as to be able to launch an attack if the Russians become aggressive. Chuck has decided that we will rely on their usual good nature to expedite tonight’s mission.) Bingo fuel to Leuchars is the number of pounds of fuel on board at the completion of the intercept, which will guarantee minimum fuel on Landing (1200 pounds). That number is 200 pounds more that I’ve got, but chasing the Bears south will put us a little closer to Scotland and should reduce bingo a bit as we go.

    I recheck the armament switches safe and lock the radar on to the trailing Bear. I can hear his engines, but I have no perspective other than his rotating beacon.   The “Min Range” warning flashes on the scope. There is a big silhouette ahead – the roar of his turboprops is now thunderous in the cockpit. I can feel the vibrations through the rudder pedals. In a few seconds I can see him well enough to pull along side.

    I am very careful not to pull the throttle back too abruptly. I tried that once, when I first arrived in Iceland, and it didn’t work very well for me. On that occasion I was joining up on a Bear and pulled the throttle all the way to idle. When I arrived along side the big aircraft, I quickly pushed it back up to join. The F-102 doesn’t like that and it says so by generating an “off idle compressor stall.” Nothing in aviation is more frightening and less harmful.   The engine belched fire out the intake ducts and made a horrible noise. It was so bad, that I think it even frightened the Bear crew a little. No, they likely had seen it before and were laughing at me.

    As my rotating beacon flashes, I can see the aircraft plainly. A bit surreal, yet easily beautiful. Props glinting in the dim light, red star on the tail, polished aluminum all over, clean, long, sleek. I wish you could have been there. Invisible inside I know is Ivan. From the darkness of our protective cocoons, we regard each other for a moment there, he no less threatened by this hostile environment than I am. I wonder for a moment, is he a fierce, evil killing machine, or does he have the feelings that I do? Perhaps we are we two pawns – brothers for a moment.

    “Two, you got your numbers?”

    I quickly note the tail number and the position the antennas and sensors on the big aircraft.


    “I’l head one two zero, you can join up.”


    “Sloe gin fight (British accent) this is Polestar, Leuchars lies one two four degrees for three hundred fifty three mles (very precise), the weather is clear and thirty.”

    That leaves fuel on initial approach. At 300 miles out I note my fuel and at 200 miles, I calculate how many pounds of fuel I have used to cover 100 nautical miles. Nine Hundred! As the Brits would say, “This is dreadful.” I had planned to use only 750 pounds to go that hundred miles. The quartering tail wind that we were promised has turned into a headwind. If this trend continues, I will only have less than emergency left at Leuchars. Emergency fuel is when you plan to land with 800 pounds. Not really very much for a 30,000 pound airplane.

    I can see Scotland now, can’t take time out from worrying to sightsee though. There, six miles below lies Loch Ness, Inverness, and Navy Kinloss with its twin rows of runway lights.

    “Lead, Kinloss looks pretty inviting doesn’t it?”

    “Yeah – we can make it to Leuchars no sweat.”

    “Lead’s gonnna balance up the fuel before we start down.”

    Good idea. My right side fuel is higher. I turn the left side boost pumps off. Wait a little while. Check the fuel. The balance is perfect now, all boost pumps back on.

    “Uh, approach control, zero one flight will be minimum fuel at Leuchars, I’d appreciate landing priority.”

    “Roger, tower will be listening for you on this frequency you are cleared to land.”

    Not bad, 50 miles out and cleared to land. I can see Leuchars now; it seems so close in the clear night, nestled there up against the coast. Both low fuel lights are on now. I check the fuel again. With the left side selected, the fuel gauge needle slowly swings from total (which ain’t much) down to…not half of total, but half plus 150 pounds. I feel a numb sensation. The left side isn’t feeding.

    “Zero one, this is two.”


    “Looks like I got some trapped fuel”

    “Click, click,” is the reply, probably meaning: “OK, there’s nothing better to do than what we are doing.” My only consolation is that I will use little fuel in an idle descent.

    I pull the throttle back to keep position. Down we go into what looks like a black hole, which is the English Channel, east of the base. I pull the throttle all the way back to idle and crack the speed brakes to keep formation position. Can’t see anything but black behind Chuck’s airplane. I must be very tired, because it seems like we’re pulling more than the usual amount of G’s. Chuck momentarily dips the wing on the other side of his aircraft. That’s my signal to cross under and fly formation on the left side. I slide back a little, cross under, spend a little fuel to catch up. Now the G’s lay on. This is very strange. A good leader would be very gentle when his wingman’s aircraft is low on fuel, but Chuck is maneuvering the formation abruptly. Before I can curse him, his aircraft violently pulls away; I can’t keep up with him. I find myself in a 60 degree right bank, directly over the runway, which is the normal position for a fighter break and an overhead 360 degree traffic pattern. OK, the engine is still running, I suppose that one can’t argue with success. Gear down, three greens, I can make it from here even if the engine does quit. After touchdown, I take my left hand from the throttle and put it on the drag chute handle. Maybe I shouldn’t use it. If I do, I may spend all day repacking it. If I don’t I may careen off the other end of the runway.

    The little voice says, “Pull it, you just used up all your luck today. I can feel the tug as it deploys. The “follow me” truck appears on the taxiway. I turn off the runway and open the canopy. What is that strange fragrance? It’s trees. We don’t have any of those in Iceland. Next I queue up (one queues when in Scotland) beside Chuck. The young man on the ground gives me the “chocks are in” signal, and I move the throttle back and around the shutoff stop.   I take my helmet off and put it on the canopy rail. I select right fuel gauge…200 pounds, a record low for me. One can’t beat the low fuel record; one can only tie it. The engine winds down and starts that clankety-clank sound as the compressor blades become loosely held. For a moment I contemplate how much luck I just used up. What could I have done smarter? Not much, I decide, sometimes they really are out to get you.

    Chuck says, “Hey, you sissy, you used your drag chute.”