Monday, March 17, 2008

Bird Down

We lost a T-34C on Friday. For those who've been following this blog, those are the Navy single engine trainers that make up a huge part of our traffic and operations. There are 150 of them stationed at Whiting NAS, which comprises the sectors I'm training on.

These planes are the daily bread and butter for myself and the other controllers here.

From the Pensacola News Journal:
A veteran Marine instructor and his student died Friday in a plane crash in Alabama on Friday.

Major David L. Yaggy, 34, of Pensacola, and 2nd Lt. Alexander N. Prezioso, 23, of Lake Worth, were in a T-34C Turbomentor, a two-seat, single-engine training plane, when it slammed into Chandler Mountain. Their bodies were recovered Saturday and were returned to Pensacola Naval Air Station for autopsies at the Naval hospital.

The two were flying out of Whiting Field Naval Air Station north of Milton for the first of three legs of the trip. They were headed to Huntsville, Ala., when they crashed. Their identities were released this morning at a news conference.

Yaggy was from Sparks, Md., and was a Marine for 11½ years. He served in Operation Enduring Freedom from August 2001 to March 2002 in Afghanistan. He then served two tours in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom from January to August 2003, and from August 2004 to February 2005. Yaggy graduated from the University of Richmond in 1996 and became an instructor at Whiting Field in February 2006. He is survived by a wife and daughter.

Prezioso, 23, was a Marine for nearly two years. He was a 2006 graduate from Embry-Riddle University. He was commissioned as an officer through a Platoon Leaders Course in 2006. He joined Training Squadron 6 in August. Prezioso lived in Milton with his roommates from flight school. He was not married. He is survived by his parents and a sister.

Today was declared a no-fly day by the commander of Naval Air Training. All student aviators and their instructors met today for a safety stand down that is scheduled to last the entire workday.

A memorial service is scheduled for the men at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Capt. Dave Maloney, commander of Training Wing 5, said Prezioso will be awarded his aviation wings at the memorial.

Two teams are investigating the crash. Maloney said he would not speculate on the cause of the crash.

Maloney said there are 150 T-34C aircraft used for training at Whiting Field. The last fatal crash in the aircraft was in 2000
The T-34s typically head out on "field trips" on Fridays, spend the weekend away, and recover back home on Sunday evening. I was working the Whiting departure sector on Friday afternoon and I launched a bunch of the birds headed up to the Huntsville area. It's likely that I talked to those guys as they headed out - the time frames match up perfectly. Without knowing the tail number I wouldn't know for sure.

I didn't know the pilots personally of course, but since I work Whiting exclusively I've talked to a good percentage of the students and instructors that fly out of there.

Lessons Learned

I have a strong interest in aviation accidents. Reading about them is extremely educational. One of the great advantages of it is that you get to learn from someone else's situation without having to experience it for yourself. Unfortunately, given aviation's nature, sometimes that person doesn't live to tell the tale. And when that person may have been on the other end of the radio a few days ago, it's not a good feeling.

It's tragic when anyone dies in an airplane. Flight can be so magical, exciting and inspirational that it's easy to forget how easy it is to lose your life, whether it's through human error, mechanical failure, or mother nature. One moment you're ripping along at 200 knots and enjoying the world as it blurs past you, and the next...nothing. That hair's breadth between the two can be frightening for many.

Back in WWII, the Navy and Marines would train their aviators using bright yellow Stearman N3N biplanes. "Yellow Perils" they called them, and when you're talking low-time student pilots in an open cockpit biplane, "peril" is exactly the word I'd use. In a book I read by an F-4U Corsair pilot, the author talked about several incidents that happened during his training. On more than one occasion, a student pilot would make a critical error and kill himself in a fiery crash, often right in front of the other students.

The instructors would respond to this by immediately getting the rest of the students into their airplanes and taking to the air even as the wreck still burned. They figured that the longer they would wait on the ground, the greater the chance that fear would take hold of the students. It helped the students focus, strengthening their nerves and confidence. As military pilots, the students needed to understand how to cope with the presence of death and succeed despite the risks that combat flying brought.

Today, Whiting held a safety stand-down to brief the students and hold a memorial for the pilots. Tomorrow, they'll hopefully be back in the saddle with a day full of flying ahead of them, doing what they have to do to keep going and pushing forward.

My sincere condolences to the families and friends of the pilots. At the very least, their loved ones passed away serving their country and doing something they loved, which is not a claim many can make.


Chris said...

It was a really tragic event. My prayers go out to the families.

Btw, the picture you put up is a T-34B. The current T-34's being flown are C models, which have the turboprop engine (identified by exhaust stacks on both sides of the nose). Also, the weekend trips you refer to are called "cross countries."

Thanks for your tribute to our fallen comrades.

Wicked Penguin said...

Thank you for clarifying the model in the photo. I knew the "C" was the turboprop version, but I haven't seen enough side-by-side images to tell the physical differences between the models. That was the prettiest picture of a T-34 I could find.

Regarding the trips, I'm a pilot myself and have a bit of cross country time (about 30 hours' worth). I was just noting that some T-34s head out for the entire weekend and return back to base on Sunday. It seems a little more involved than a 1 day "round robin".

Are you one of the Whiting pilots or otherwise work at Whiting?