Right Stuff — Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Fortune and Misfortune in Surface Safety
By Nick DeLotell, FAA Aviation Safety Inspector
Let’s be clear. The Right Stuff is real. As pilots, we can all identify someone we’ve flown with who has it. Maybe it was a mentor, a copilot, or an instructor. Heck, maybe it was a student! While it’s hard to put into words and it’s not something we sit around talking about, I think it’s important to acknowledge the silent respect we have for those that have the right stuff.
What is the right stuff? Maybe it’s easier to define what it’s not. It is not super-human abilities. It is not something you’re born with. It is not standard issue in the military, and it is definitely not something you purchase in the college bookstore. It doesn’t come with a uniform, and it is not measured by the number of stripes on your epaulets. Having the right stuff does not make you immune to making mistakes.
Describing the right stuff, author Tom Wolfe wrote that it is a pilot’s “… ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawing moment — and then to go up again the next day ….” How does that translate for those of us who aren’t test pilots, who haven’t been beyond Mach 1, and who have less than one lunar landing in our logbooks? I’d argue that it’s the ability to keep your hide out of trouble and, in the event trouble finds you, the skill to safely recover that hide.
The late Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager has always been one of my heroes. Less so for his achievements, great as they were; more for his attitude and character. Despite his legendary status and being one of the main characters in the 1983 movie adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Yeager never claimed to have it. To the contrary, Yeager himself said, “I know that golden trout have the right stuff, and I’ve seen a few [ …] here and there that I’d bet had it in spades, but those words seem meaningless when used to describe a pilot’s attributes.” Even more to the point, Yeager was honest about his abilities, saying, “All I know is that I worked my tail off to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way. And in the end, the one big reason why I was a better-than-average pilot was because I flew more than anybody else. If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience.”
As for Yeager’s famous 1947 record-breaking flight through the sound barrier, he regarded it as being in the right place at the right time. Humble yet gruff, he wasn’t in it for fame or notoriety. He did it because it was his duty; it was his job.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
1 On the evening of Nov. 22, 1994, at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL), a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 collided with a Cessna 441 at the intersection of Runway 30R and Taxiway Romeo. Both people in the Cessna were killed. The NTSB cited the probable cause of the accident as “the Cessna 441 pilot’s mistaken belief that his assigned departure runway was Runway 30R, which resulted in his undetected entrance onto Runway 30R, which was being used by the MD-82 for its departure.”
The Cessna pilot had nearly 8,000 hours and was known as a conscientious, safety-oriented pilot. His logbook indicated that he had only been to STL once in the past seven years, and that was eleven months prior and in daylight.
Of the pilots involved in this collision, maybe some had the right stuff, or maybe not; that’s not something that I can judge. However, one of these pilots was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
2 On the evening of July 7, 2017, at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO), an Airbus A320 overflew Taxiway Charlie, nearly colliding with four aircraft on the ground prior to going-around. Runway 28L was closed with a large illuminated “X” and its runway lights off. The A320 was cleared to land on Runway 28R, but instead lined up with parallel Taxiway Charlie. The estimated clearance between the A320 and the tails of the largest aircraft on the taxiway was alarming, measurable in inches. The combined passenger load of the five aircraft involved exceeded 1,000, which made this incident one of the nearest we’ve seen to becoming the worst aviation disaster in history.
The A320 captain had over 20,000 hours, had no previous accident or incident history, and no records that showed failed checkrides. He had been to SFO several times, including recently, but had never seen Runway 28L “dark.” The first officer had a similar experience.
Of all of the pilots involved in this near miss, maybe some had the right stuff, or maybe not; again, it’s not something I can judge. However, two of these pilots were definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wrong Place, Right Time
From October 2019 to September 2020, there were 555 “Category D” runway incursions caused by pilot deviations, most involving general aviation pilots. In each of those 555 pilot deviations, the pilot either failed to hold short of the runway holding position markings, or landed or departed without clearance. Fortunately, there were no other aircraft in close proximity. The only thing that kept those 555 pilot deviations from being more severe examples of runway incursions was being in the wrong place at the right time. The same mistakes would have had different consequences had another aircraft been operating on the runway.
Right Stuff, Right Now
How do you strive for the right stuff, ensuring you’re always in the right place at the right time? Here are two suggestions that I’d bet Brig. Gen. Yeager would endorse.
- Work hard at it, all the way. Whether you are a student pilot with ten hours, or you have some of those coveted lunar landings, be a lifelong student of airport signage, markings, lighting, runway incursion avoidance, and the Pilot-Controller Glossary (PDF download). Low visibility have you grounded? Grab your mobile device and spend some time with the FAA’s Runway Safety Pilot Simulator and From the Flight Deck videos.
- If there’s such a thing as the right stuff, then it’s experience. Stay current, stay active, and stay engaged. The more you’re exposed to certain environments and various situations, the more acclimated you’ll become. As you gain experience, you’ll gain the moxie, reflexes, and coolness to keep yourself out of trouble. Grab your safety pilot or flight instructor and go get some taxi practice. He or she can also help you gain some experience with environments outside your comfort zone (e.g., complex airports). Low ceilings have you down? You can still practice taxiing, rain or shine.
As a pilot in command, you have a solemn responsibility to operate your aircraft as safely as possible. Whether you’re in the air or on the ground, this is your job — your duty — and at some point, your life may depend on it. What are you doing right now to get (or keep) the right stuff?
Fly safely, my friends.
Author’s Note: Writing this within days of Chuck Yeager’s passing, Dec. 7, 2020, I’d like to recognize and humbly thank the late general for his contributions to aviation, space, and humankind. “We live in fame or go down in flame — nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force.”
Nick DeLotell is an aviation safety inspector in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service in collaboration with the Runway Safety Group. He holds an airline transport pilot certificate, flight and ground instructor certificates, and is a remote pilot.