in undergraduate pilot
training, undergraduate navigator
Contractor: Cessna Aircraft
Two Continental J69-T-25 turbojet
), each engine
s (29.25 feet
2.8 meters (9 feet)
2,891 kg (6,625 lbs)
0.4 (507 km/h, 315 mph) at sea level
10,670 meters (35,000 feet)
400 nautical mile
s (741 km, 460 miles)
pilot and instructor
"The T-37 Tweet is a twin-engine jet used for training undergraduate pilots, undergraduate navigator and tactical navigator students in fundamentals of aircraft handling, and instrument, formation and night flying."
That's a brief description the FAS gives about the T-37 -- here I'll relay my personal experience with one. During my time as a United States Air Force cadet at Colorado State University, I had an opportunity to spend an hour or so flying one of these machines with an instructor pilot (IP) named First Lieutenant Alvarez, during an exercise called Jet Orientation (JETO). In that hour I became very certain that I did not want to fly fighters for a living.
I received brief training on how to eject myself from the jet if I need to, how to open my parachute if it doesn't open automatically, and how to manually exit the plane if the explosives under my seat don't ignite when I need them to. I also learned how to operate the emergency oxygen switches if I start to pass out, how to operate the radio and cry like a schoolboy if my IP passes out, and how to try to find a "soft spot" to crash the plane (that is, away from control towers, fuel trucks, hangars, and other planes) if the IP doesn't wake up. They taught us how to breathe while under several gravities without falling asleep, how to cope with negative gravities without going all head-explody, and the best ways to not throw up during those brief times you elude gravity altogether. My training in all these things that could put my life (and those of the IP, and others in the air and on the ground) in my hands was complete in about . . . three hours.
I did not feel prepared to fly a jet.
Thankfully I didn't need to apply my scant knowledge of any of the above things except the whole "Gravity, Your Body, and You" business. And I it was definitely a good thing that I'd played fighter-simulator games on the computers in the dorms -- I was able to successfully chase down the IP's imaginary bogies and run away from imaginary threats thanks to those games. The cockpit is a side-by-side affair, with the instructor on the left, and the student on the right, so they can communicate fairly easily. Lieutenant Alvarez showed me a few aerobatic techniques, including barrel rolls, aileron rolls, and chandelles, all of which I managed to not throw up in. After each technique, the IP invited me to give it a try. The barrel roll I managed to not botch by plowing the plane into the ground, the aileron roll went smoothly (though I was a bit dizzy afterwards -- the plane sort of rapidly corkscrews on a generally straight and level attitude during one of these maneuvers), and the chandelle I didn't even attempt, because it was goddamn hard to just be in the plane when it was happening, much less try to do it myself.
Now, I didn't know much aviation jargon then, and I still don't, so I must have sounded like a complete greenhorn to Lieutenant Alvarez. At one point during the flight, we had this conversation:
1Lt. Alvarez: Okay, cadet. Let's say there's a bad guy over there. He points across his chest, parallel to the left wing. How are you gonna get behind him?
Cdt. Caliban: Well, um . . . sir, I'd kind of tip the plane over on its side, pull up hard so's it's like I'm climbing, but sideways, and hit the gas.
1Lt. Alvarez: He chuckles. Yeah, you can say that. Give it a shot.
Cdt. Caliban: Yessir. He gingerly eases the stick leftward until the wings are perpindicular to the ground. Just as the nose starts to dip to the ground, he simultaneously jerks the stick backwards as far as it will go and jams the throttle forward to the stops.
They both grunt from surprise and exertion. Cdt. Caliban's vision narrows dangerously, but focuses on the dial that measures G forces. It reads somewhere between 4 and 5. 1Lt. Alvarez quickly begins breathing like he ought to, grunting to push blood back into his extremities. Cdt. Caliban, barely conscious, rights the plane to a straight and level attitude after completing the turn.
1Lt. Alvarez: Holy shit, cadet. You were like a monster on that thing. How about I take the aircraft for now?
Cdt. Caliban: weakly Yessir. You have the aircraft. Oh, Christ.
Shortly after, the IP demonstrated Zero G. The maneuver was somewhat unsettling
in my stomach
, but I didn't believe that we were actually weightless
for that moment. After all, I was tightly strapped in and could barely move my arms enough to reach the stick, throttle, and emergency oxygen switch -- how could I tell? He took a pen from his flight suit
, dropped it in my lap and said, "Okay, keep your eyes on that," and did the Vomit Comet
thing again. Sure enough, for a brief moment the pen left my lap and wobbled in front of my nose. It was the exact maneuver
, but seeing
the pen go weightless like that brought breakfast
back up to my mouth and nose. Only the abject
fear of having to clean out the aircraft later (not to mention the sure knowledge that vomit
coating the inside of the canopy
would surely obstruct the IP's view, endangering us both) kept the food down.
Negative Gs were nothing I want to relive. "Head-explody" is indeed an accurate description of what that feels like. I didn't get the redness in my vision, primarily because I had my eyes squeezed shut to keep them in my skull. Never again. I've decided, though, that if I had to choose between being crushed to powder or exploding from a lack of external pressure, I'll take the crushing any day.
Later that day, I discovered that one of my fellow cadets and his IP were both in the clinic. Seems the IP let the cadet do something close to the same maneuver where I got up to about four and a half gees. Somehow, the cadet managed to get the plane to accelerate to just over seven and a half gravities, and they both passed out. About a thousand feet (305 meters) above the ground, the IP thankfully woke up, righted the plane, and barely landed it. The cadet got in some kind of trouble, I remember, and the IP was suspended from flying for several months. The plane had to undergo a structural overhaul, since they're not rated to go above 7 gees. There's a sucky JETO, and then there's a sucky JETO, folks.
All in all, flying the T-37 was a great load of fun. But doing that every day? Never. I applaud the pilots and navigators who can do that all the time. But no thanks, not for me.
Factual information courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists; http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/t-37.htm