LOOK BEFORE YOU TURN!
BY: Jack Serig, Sr.
This event occurred flying my first cross-country night
solo out of Gary Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, in Army Primary Flight
Flight planning had been completed earlier in the day
in the classroom. Our planning equipment consisted of a E-6B dead reckoning
computer, type MB-4; a strap-on-the-knee clipboard containing our flight
log; pencils; and appropriate maps. We wore Army issue flight suits, combat
boots and baseball-style fatigue caps, with the traditional one small metal
nut pinned to the cap. We were rewarded the one-nut pin when we soloed.
We would receive two nuts upon completion of our primary training with the
Our night pre-flight briefing required that we fly a cross-country
triangular pattern over two cities, one northeast and one northwest of New
Braunfels, where Gary AFB was located, and return to Gary. Weather conditions
were clear. No haze, no moon.
We were flying Piper Cubs designated by the Army as L-4’s,
a tandem two-seater. There were no radios. We would be monitored by
two of our Air Force instructors in a radio-equipped T-6 trainer who would
fly back and forth between the several trainees’ flights, allocated different
routes, for safety. Of our flight group, I happened to finish my aircraft
pre-flight first and was number l for takeoff after taxiing to the designated
runway. Since there was no radio communication we used our landing
light to notify the tower that we were ready. The tower would clear us for
takeoff with a “green light”, “red” if there were a need for delay. After
the pre-takeoff check and upon receiving the “green light” I lined up on
the centerline climbing out to the pre-planned flight route.
There was a zillion stars peppering the sky. It
was truly a beautiful, clear night. Everything was perfect. What
could possibly go wrong? My time-distance calculations, considering wind
conditions at the assigned altitude, were within 1-minute over the two designated
cities’ checkpoints. As I turned over the second city to head back toward
Gary I noted the long line of red and green flashing wing lights of my classmates
behind, following my lead.
Our instructions on entering the airfield’s control pattern,
for landing at Gary AFB, on returning, was to enter a high pattern, flash
our landing lights, and remain at altitude while awaiting the tower operator’s
“green light”. Upon getting the “green” we were to let down to the lower
pattern level, staying in the pattern and flashing our landing light for
the final “green” to land. When I received the “green” in the lower downwind
pattern there was no one in front of me since I was the first to takeoff
and the first back. Being in the lower pattern I could see the flashing wing
lights of several ships in the higher pattern above.
Before turning to left base, the training that had been
verbally pounded into us since program inception, took over. I looked
behind to my left. Finding nothing, I looked up through the plastic
cockpit overhead canopy to further clear myself before the left turn.
The right wing light of another aircraft was descending rapidly over my craft.
It was in a diving left turn directly above me. So he couldn’t see me.
I dove straight ahead. The right wing of the aircraft above me passed
within several feet of my canopy. Had I failed to look up, and had
I made the left turn, a mid-air collision would have occurred. After realizing
I was alive, by only a few feet, I looked back to my left for his aircraft
tail number. But I was already too far below him, it was too dark, and I
was busy concentrating on pulling out of my dive and pulling out of the pattern.
I was so mad at my unknown flight-mate that all I could think about was punching
him out if I ever found out who he was. I can’t remember being nervous.
Just mad as hell!
I climbed back to the upper pattern altitude, re-entered
and went through the entire process again with the “green light” procedure,
landing without further incident. I taxied back to an open tiedown slot on
the parking apron, completed the post-flight shutdown and stepped out of
the aircraft. I fell to the ground because my legs buckled. They
felt like jelly. I actually crawled to the edge of the apron and sat
for a while gathering my strength. I was totally drained. I could not physically
walk. The apron was empty of people. Since I was last to land, all
those landing before me had proceeded to the briefing room for post flight
de-briefs with our instructors.
Never found out who my near crash-mate was. I’m
convinced he never knew I was there and he never knew how close we both had
courted disaster. I’ve always been appreciative of the constant verbal pounding
of the instructors,“LOOK BEFORE YOU TURN!”