Flight Training

Ed Gibson had once nurtured a dream of flying for the United States Air Force, but a youthful bout of osteomyelitis, a bacterial inflammation of the bone, had put an end to this particular ambition.2 Back then, even when successfully treated, it was still regarded by the Air Force as a basis for disqualification. Suddenly, with his acceptance as a scientist-astronaut, Gibson was no longer precluded from taking to the skies and flying solo in some of the country's finest jet aircraft. This, combined with his acceptance as a NASA scientist-astronaut, brought an excitement he found hard to contain.

First however, there was much to be done, and a great deal to learn. "I felt like an imposter,'' he said of his first few days with NASA. "People treat you like you know everything about the space program and you don't. So it takes a while to make that adjustment.''3

Two of their number, Joe Kerwin and Curt Michel, were already qualified pilots with jet experience, so they were exempted from this aspect of the group's astronaut training. Because of this, NASA made the sensible decision to defer the scientist-astronauts' academic and survival training until the four requiring military qualification returned from flight training. They would then combine forces with the next astronaut selection group (Group 5), in order to fulfil these phases of their training.

Kerwin learned of the decision to recruit more astronauts when he attended his first Monday morning pilots' meeting at MSC's Building 4, in the third-floor conference room. "Deke [Slayton] and Al [Shepard] were at the front of the room. The guys are sitting there, and I'm in the back, and they introduced me. Then Shepard says, 'Headquarters has okayed the selection of another group of astronauts next year.' And Dick Gordon said, 'Are they going to be pilots?' Shepard said, 'Well, I certainly hope so!' So I realised that I was here, but I didn't have a distinct role yet.'' Kerwin also recalls asking Shepard if he should keep up his medical proficiency by going to the clinic once or twice a week. Shepard responded that he didn't think it was a very good idea, as the new astronaut would have more than enough to occupy his time. ''You get your priorities in order that way,'' Kerwin admitted, ''and realise that clinical medicine is not going to be your job in this program; that keeping on top of medical research and medical issues in space flight was very important. He encouraged me to train as an astronaut. I was going to sit in that cockpit, and they had to be able to rely on me.'' As he later discovered, there were so many medical issues involved in flying into space ''that it was a very easy profession to reconcile with the duties of an astronaut.''4

Curt Michel says that, in his opinion, there was a little uncertainty in their group about their actual role within NASA, and the way in which they were being portrayed as Apollo astronauts. ''Among the various items of evidence we were asked to supply was a statement of what scientific objectives we would perform on the lunar surface,'' he wrote in his journal at the time. ''Newsmen asked us why we wanted to go to the Moon. Everyone evidently thought of us as going on a lunar landing mission, except the Astronaut Office, which kept a discreet silence beyond letting it be known that the first three landing missions would be manned by regulars.''

On 29 July 1965, while Kerwin and Michel remained in Houston, their four colleagues were despatched to Williams Air Base in Chandler, Arizona, under a special agreement between NASA and the Air Force for what that service called their Undergraduate Pilot Training Program. Owen Garriott was a private pilot, while Ed Gibson had soloed small tail-dragger aircraft (''with the instructor hiding behind the barn,'' Gibson once quipped) in San Clemente. Jack Schmitt was the only one who had never flown an airplane.

Duane Graveline had run up plenty of logged hours in light and fixed-wing aircraft, and while under pilot instruction in the T-33 jet airplane, but it was not considered sufficient experience under NASA's guidelines. ''Despite my thirty hours of IP (Instructor Pilot) time in the T-bird (to the ready-to-solo status, routine for most USAF flight surgeons at that time) and some 1,500 hours overall in dual-seat T-birds, I could not transition into a T-38 without additional training. I suppose you could quibble that I did not need the full training year required for my more academic peers, but I was so delighted to be selected as a scientist-astronaut that quibbling never entered my mind.''5

Now the four scientists faced up to some real flying in powerful jet aircraft, but first there were certain preliminaries. Flight training for the four men would entail 300 hours of classroom work and around 240 actual flying hours - all but about thirty of which would be in T-37 and T-38 jet trainers. Over the next fifty-one weeks they would work twelve-hour days beginning at 05:30 a.m. and attend classes in navigation, meteorology, radar, aviation physiology and other flight-related subjects. Like their sixty-four fellow students, they would also be required to fly many missions in a Link trainer as well as in actual aircraft. Apart from some military officer training that the other cadet-pilots had to go through, the scientist-astronauts would participate in all phases of student activity, which included a course in self-confidence. There would also be callisthenics, and supervised sports.

Assuming all four men graduated from flight training, the newly-qualified jet pilots would then link up with Kerwin and Michel back at MSC to complete their specialised astronaut training. In the meantime, Kerwin and Michel would occupy their year performing routine support assignments in the developing Apollo Applications Program.

"I loved it," Gibson recalled of the year's flight training, although he quickly added, "The military service is a bureaucratic process, and so they didn't know how to treat us. One day we'd be out there as sub-airmen picking up cigarette butts - a part of one day, as I recall - and the next day we'd be out there meeting dignitaries coming through. But we just looked like anybody else, had standard Air Force flight suits on (albeit without any kind of military insignia), and went through the classes like anybody else.''3

Gibson and Garriott were assigned to the same squadron, Graveline and Schmitt to another. Schmitt recalls that most of his group, the Class of 1967A, were Air Force Academy graduates. "So, it was a really remarkable group of young men that were going through pilot training, all of whom were about ten years younger than we were.'' Not only did the quality of the young men wanting to become pilots in the Air Force impress Schmitt, but also the staff that were part of Air Force Training Command. "They did a really remarkable and highly professional job. You can understand why American pilots do as well as they do in combat as well as in peacetime, because of the quality of training they're getting.''6 In fact one of the men in their group, Eugene Habinger, would end up as a three-star general and Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Command some thirty years later, responsible for all the US Air Force and US Navy strategic nuclear forces.1

Schmitt also believes the Air Force had difficulties in "putting up with'' the four civilians on their base. "If I remember correctly, we were told we were the first civilians ever to receive Air Force pilot wings. The Air Force seemed to tolerate us. We were probably a bit of a thorn in their side, because we could not be disciplined in the same way as the military pilots. They could just tell NASA, 'We don't want them anymore,' I guess, and then deal with NASA at that point. I think everybody was satisfied with the relationship with the Air Force. From our perspective, I think we fit in very well.''6

''Of course we were really old folks at that time,'' Garriott laughingly recalled. ''I was thirty-four years old when we went to Williams, and I think I was about the oldest one that ever went to pilot training and graduated; that is until Karl Henize joined NASA as a scientist-astronaut candidate two years later and took on similar flight training. Most of those in our training group were in the twenty-one and twenty-two-year-old range."1

Then, about three weeks after their flight training began, came a bombshell. NASA unexpectedly recalled Graveline from flight training. As he prepared to leave Williams AFB he had no inkling of what was to come. "In my enthusiasm and nai'vete, I seriously entertained thoughts that it might be for a special assignment, possibly to do with the Soviet space programme because of my background in intelligence." It was, in fact, quite the opposite; his wife had announced she was suing for divorce. It was going to get ugly, and he was forced into an immediate resignation from NASA, effective 18 August. "My impending divorce was the last thing on my mind," he mused, looking back with considerable regret to that difficult time. "But it proved to be the first thing on theirs. Definitely not my best day."5

There was a clear rationale and importance behind the flight-training requirement for the scientist-astronauts. They would have to become familiar with certain capabilities and conditions such as life support systems, acceleration, communications, vestibular activity and vertigo. As well, there was a man-to-machine integration phase to be experienced. This not only included aircraft controls, but checklists and procedures discipline, systems analysis and operation, and the relationship between the operations manual, vehicle performance, and vehicle performance specifications. Additionally, there was information and training on attitude control, lift, thrust and drag, and fuel management.

Also under scrutiny were functions associated with time dependency, which meant not only completing operations or actions, but also comfortably performing them within a given time frame. "Although unspoken," states Garriott, "I believe it was also vital to demonstrate to the earlier astronauts that these new 'science types' could work in their environment of high performance jet aircraft; that we could remain cool under pressure and would not falter in critical situations. Solo flight in T-38s in weather, at night and with very limited fuel is one of the few ways to demonstrate this to others and to gain the self-confidence that you, too, can operate in their professional world.''1

The three men knew it would prove a challenge beyond anything else they had known. Their training consisted of many hours of lectures and tutoring, including subjects such as airmanship, aviation physiology, T-41, T-37 and T-38 systems and procedures, and parachute familiarisation. They would also study the principles of flight, techniques for navigation (both electronic and by dead-reckoning), the influences ofweather, flight instruments, communications, aerodynamics, aural and visual codes, flight safety, survival and physical conditioning.

In order to achieve these goals, each of them would be expected to spend fifty hours in aircraft simulators, and thirty flight hours in the short-range, propeller-driven T-41 Mescalero, a high-wing, low-performance military version of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. They would then graduate to the twin-engine, dual-control Cessna T-37, a jet aircraft whose flying characteristics would give them the feel for handling the larger and faster T-38A Talons they would fly as NASA astronauts. Ninety hours were assigned to mastering the T-37 jet trainer. Eventually they would graduate to the supersonic T-38, in which they would fulfil 120 hours of flight training.

In-flight training itself would consist of putting each aircraft type through its performance envelopes, including ground reference manoeuvres, take-offs, patterns and landings, aerobatics, instrument flight, navigation, and formation flying. From the outset of the training, the steepness of their expected learning curve surprised Gibson. Even though he had done a little light airplane flying he quickly learned that flying Air Force style was a lot more challenging. "When you first start out," he reflected, "you think, 'I'm never going to get this.' It's like rubbing your head and patting your stomach and touching your nose with your tongue while you're shining your shoes with the back of your cuff, and trying to do all those things simultaneously. It takes a while before you get to where it becomes second nature, and then you feel comfortable doing it. But at the beginning you realise this is not a pushover.''3

Schmitt agrees that it was a difficult undertaking. ''I had a harder time learning how to fly these things, particularly on instruments, than the others did - for whatever reason that was. Eventually, I succeeded, but it was a bit traumatic for me to try to work my way through that.''6

As if things were not difficult enough for Schmitt, he broke his elbow during a game of basketball, just as the group transitioned from T-37s to T-38s. ''So, I had to sit down for a few weeks while that elbow healed, and then try to catch up, which I ultimately did. But it meant an awful lot of flying, awfully fast. Which was fine. That's the best way to learn, I think, to get all your flying in at once.''6

It was a tough year, and it was extremely hot out at Williams, but eventually the three men graduated. Garriott recalls that it was actually a pleasurable experience, and all three ''would like to have had even more time in flight, but their syllabus did not allow it.'' All finished high in their class, with standings well above the average, and were now military-qualified jet pilots. All three would continue to fly T-38s for their entire NASA careers, even on some occasions as Instructor Pilots. Later, they would also qualify in solo helicopter flight, although this new dimension to their aeronautical skills was eventually terminated as an unnecessary expense and risk.1 "Most of us got helicopter training,'' Kerwin pointed out. ''I knew I wouldn't use it to go to the Moon, but I enjoyed it anyway!''7

But for now, it was time for the three flight school graduates to return to Houston.

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