I was just at the beginning of my military flying experience. Actually, a familiarization flight, which was supposed to be a pleasant mix of joyride and first-hand experience on Galeb G-2, a nimble Yugoslav jet trainer I was hoping to master that summer. My instructor, the young lieutenant, was keen to show me how nicely this bird can fly. I was calm and excited at the same time.

Long winter weeks, spent learning advanced aerodynamics, meteorology, aircraft systems, and engines…were long behind me. My short-term memory is not one of my strongest qualities, but boy, did I learn the cockpit layout, procedures, and settings by heart…final test was amusing and difficult at the same time – we had to learn the exact position of each instrument, knob, and switch by heart. To test us, we were blindfolded and had to pinpoint exactly the one they called for. No general direction was accepted as the correct answer, we even had to touch it with our fingertips. “If you learn on the ground for 5, you will know in the air barely for 3 (if you are good)”, was a daily mantra and reasoning behind this drill. They were cautious for a reason. We were only the third generation of future reservist flying officers trained on Galeb G-2. Prior to that, our predecessors were flying another locally designed and produced airplane, Soko Kraguj, which was, compared to the jet-powered Galeb, like a toy. The first two generations paved a way for us, as they proved that it is not impossible, but rather feasible, to train outsiders to operate, not merely fly the Galeb. By outsiders, they meant non-commissioned officers, as regular Academy-trained future regular officers were flying Galeb in the second year, meaning almost a year and a half after they were accepted to Air Force Academy.

That’s why we strived to be as good as possible, to prove wrong everybody thinking we were not worthy of the jet. I spent countless hours in the basketball courtyard, not shooting hoops, but “flying” imaginary traffic patterns on the ground, reciting aloud all the steps in it: lining up, spooling the engine, take-off roll, speed, gear-up, flaps up, turn to downwind, speed again, flaps down, gear down, speed, turning base, flaps fully down, turning final, speed, speed, speed….over and over again. Actually, walking the traffic pattern and murmuring what I was doing, calling speeds, and even looking for “runway” over the shoulder. I must have looked like a madman, caught in a vicious, eternally repeating curse… But this was the only way I could master the traffic pattern in my head. And I needed to since everything is happening fast in jet aircraft. And I have never commanded a powered plane before in my entire life (a fact, which led to a very funny incident, but that’s for another Friday story)!

So, after many hard-working hours in the classroom and behind the books, exams, ground school – learning aircraft system, there was this splendid late spring day, when I was going to be seated with my instructor in the cockpit and we were going to fly this beast!

As we were circling the airplane and checking all the openings, commands, and gears, I even stuffed my head into the engine exhaust pipe (one needs to be sure if the engine is still there, my lieutenant said), I was enjoying the sight of this sleek, beautiful plane, and thanking all the gods that I was able to join this group of lucky teenage boys. Finally, we came around back to the ladder, and reclined against the fuselage, just in the middle of the pilot’s cockpit. “Hop in!” I heard my instructor, who promptly performed his well-rehearsed athletic jump, already standing on the wing and climbing into the back seat. I quickly climbed the ladder and jumped into the front seat. As I connected my anti-g suit hose to the blower connector, the mechanic helped me to strap in, then armed the ejection seat, and as he was descending the ladder, I think I heard him saying “enjoy!”

*

We started the engine, taxied to the runway, and took off in the southern direction along the coastline. I had only one job – to hold the commands loosely and observe and listen to everything he was saying.

We were cruising at 2000 meters, left-wing over land, right over the sea, there was not a single cloud in the sky. The air was smooth like buttermilk, not a single instrument needle was moving. I was in heaven! Suddenly I heard a voice over the intercom: “do you see that island in front, over to the right? At the end of that line of small islands.” I turned my head in the direction he indicated and indeed I saw a string of tiny patches of land and a small island of a funny shape, barely separated from the mainland. The West coast was beautiful, the color of the sea was pouring from deep dark blue to turquoise near the coastline. I was in awe.

“That’s the island of Murter”, he proudly said. I thought, his girlfriend or wife must be from there, why else would he show me exactly that one, out of thousands that were on our route.

Suddenly aircraft started banking to the right, and in the next instance, the anti-g suit started to inflate like some mad doctor was pumping the blood pressure gauge like crazy and was already pressing hard against my legs and stomach, I felt increasing pressure on my body. My vision started to blur, the field was narrowing at an alarming rate, then I started to observe blackness closing in, some red dots, and then nothing. All in a split second.

This infernal experience ended the same way it started. I was suddenly awake, my left hand was still on the throttle, my right holding the stick, not a single gauge was moving, we were traveling at 450 km/h, straight and level. The last thing I remember was the beginning of it – quite violent right bank and then nothing else. I was glancing at the instruments, everything seemed normal. My guess was, we just did a roll, a standard aerobatic routine. My gaze stopped at the G-meter (instrument measuring the G-force aircraft and its occupants were subjected to), it was showing a staggering 7.5 G, meaning we both endured forces 7.5 times greater than gravity, and we weighed 7.5 times more than normal. Now, THAT was not right! Every descent pupil, fresh from theoretical training, books, and exams knows, that roll on Galeb is done at 2.5 G maximum! Ha! My instructor should have known better!

I decided to break the awkward silence after that poorly executed aerobatic element. I said into the interphone with a slightly uppish voice: “Khm, comrade lieutenant, If I’m not mistaken, aileron roll is executed with 2.5 G max!”

He just replied with a simple “…aha…”

The rest of the flight was uneventful, near Šibenik we turned back towards Zadar Airbase, over land this time and with no fancy aerobatics. We landed, and taxied to stand, our mechanic was already waiting for us. As we switched off the engine, he climbed the ladder and quickly peaked into the cockpit, to see if everything was in order. When he saw the G-meter, he just looked back at me, and I nodded. Not a word was spoken.

*

As we were slowly walking towards the main building, with our helmets in bags, hanging over our shoulders, he suddenly said: “It was not an aileron roll, it was the second part of a barrel roll.”

I was confused, “what?” I didn’t understand. I know what a barrel roll is, but what is he trying to tell me? “As we were upside down for the first half of the roll”, he continued, “you suddenly and violently pulled the stick all the way to the belly”. “So instead of doing a normal roll, we entered a 1500 m diving barrel roll”, and “I should have warned you what I was going to do. Caught you by surprise. My fault….”

As we were approaching the building, and I was still processing what was going on over the island of Murter, I suddenly realized, that we were left with only 500 meters of height to spare! My legs suddenly turned into jelly…

“I learned my lesson”, he broke the newly established silence with a calm voice. “Never assume the other guy in the airplane knows what you are thinking.”

Never assume…. those two words eternally shaped all my future and my aviation career….

D.

Categories: Sky Stories

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