DEFINE YOUR MOMENT
February 1, 2019 | View PDF
As I sat in my interview some 21 years ago, I watched as two senior Delta Airline Captains leafed through my logbook. Luckily for me, it was something that I had kept up with since my first day in pilot training. At the time as part of the interview process, in addition to a physical, psych-eval and lots of testing, there was a sit-down interview one v. three with an HR rep and in my case two Captains. They wanted to see your logbook to help verify hours flown.
I sat quietly watching my logbook’s pages being turned over one-by-one. Occasionally, one of the Captains would look up and ask me about something he saw. A location, type of mission, you name it. Why were some entries in red, some in black, some blue and others in green? “There is a definite method to my madness,” I told them. Black were ordinary sorties, blue were checkrides, green were my flights as an instructor or evaluator pilot giving checkrides and red entries were combat sorties flown during Gulf War 1.
Then came the squinted eyes, the smile, the showing of my logbook to the other two interviewers and the laughter. Then the question. “Mr. Tate. Explain to us why did you draw this wonderful picture of the Grim Reaper.” Pursing my lips and taking in a deep breath, my future job at Delta Airlines was on the line here but I had to tell the truth. “Sir, that is the day I almost died.”
When people ask me how long I have been flying, there are actually two answers. I imagine that I am not the only pilot in the galaxy like me. The first answer is April 1983. That is when I entered USAF pilot training in Del Rio, Texas. The second answer is 22 November, 1988. That is the day, or rather night, that I became a pilot.
5 June 1986
As a 25-year-old 1 LT. copilot flying the KC-135, my crew and I were launched on an early morning alert scramble out of Keflavik, Iceland. We were sent out over the North Atlantic to refuel an AWACS surveillance aircraft, the same type of plane I would be flying two years later. After air refueling, we proceeded back to Keflavik just as a major storm approached the field. As luck would have it, an F-15 was being vectored in with an inflight emergency and we had to hold waiting for our turn to land. Once we started our vectors in, the storm really started to beat up the airfield. At the time, they had six runways we could use. I think today there are only four useable.
As the storm hit, the winds were insane. They would shift 180 to 270 degrees with the winds 25 knots, gusting to 45 knots with peak gusts of 55 knots. In aviation terms, not good. Not good at all. With a maximum crosswind of 25 knots on a dry runway, 15 on a wet, at any one time, we potentially had crosswinds out of limits for every piece of asphalt on that base. Keep in mind that a strong, gusty crosswind landing in a B-707 type aircraft is one of the most difficult and challenging maneuvers we have.
Checking the winds were within limits and the captain, “Hemo,” tried one approach, got one tire on the ground, started sliding off the side of the runway and we went around. Next approach to another runway, no dice and we went around. On approach #3, another runway, all was acceptable until right as we crossed the runway threshold when we had a 45 knot windshear. Yes, a windshear will kill you. Just the year before, Delta flight 191 crashed in Dallas because of one.
Well, we hit the ground. HARD! And then BOUNCED! And then ROLLED!! All the crosswinds controls “Hemo” had were for naught when the winds shifted. We went from a normal landing attitude to 30-45 degrees of bank, close to stalling airspeed and the nose pointed in the direction of oblivion. Yeah, we were looking at the crash vehicles parked along the side of the runway. Never before or since have I grabbed the throttles from the other pilot and yelled, “Go Around!” Slamming the throttles full forward, the plane slowly wallowed into the air, trying to regain some semblance of flyable airspeed and we four ghosts thankfully climbed away from Keflavik.
There are those moments in time one never forgets. This is one of them. “Hemo,” with sweat pouring down his face looked over at me with these big, blue eyes and said, “This sucks.” I will never forget that. For as long as I live, that will be etched in my memory. He started saying, things like we needed to divert to Scotland, let’s get clearance, Nav do this, Nav do that!” Meanwhile, yours truly is looking at the gas and came to one conclusion. “Dude, we don’t have the gas. You gotta put her down over there,” pointing at the slowing disappearing island of Iceland. I felt like Merlin in “Top Gun” talking to Maverick. “Come on, Hemo. You gotta get back in there. We aren’t done yet.” Or Goose, “Do some of that pilot stuff.”
Long story short, our boom operator put on his parachute certain we were going to die. He didn’t want to burn so he was gonna bailout. (You cannot make this stuff up) I told him good luck since they would never find his body and he would be flying around the island for a decade with these winds. But after three more approaches and “Hemo” telling me, “If I don’t do it this time, its your turn,” he got the bird on the ground with about 2,000 pounds of gas remaining. That might seem like a lot but that is maybe one trip around the pattern before you become a 120,000-pound glider. During maintenance debrief, we were told how everybody was out watching, filming and waiting for the crash (seriously) and they brought us a six-pack of beer since we survived. Just then, another maintenance guy came in and told us we had drug the right outboard engine on the runway. Wow!! Another five degrees of bank, ten feet lower altitude and yours truly would not be writing this today. As you can imagine, that event had a huge impact on my psyche. Although three of my four checkrides at Fairchild AFB had been “Outstanding Performances,” most pilots at that time in Strategic Air Command never got one, this event really got to me. I guess when death knocks on your door and says, “Sup?”, it gets your attention. Because of my consistent performance at Fairchild over a two-year period, I was selected to fly the NATO AWACS.
Ahhhh, Germany. Beautiful country, nice people, rich history, crappy weather. Although I was a brand-new Captain in 1988, after being there just over a year, I was selected to upgrade to Aircraft Commander. In addition to my flying, I was instructing in the simulator, I had completed the flight safety course in Canada and was running the Flight Safety shop in the squadron. But there remained this pesky little thing called crosswind landings hanging out there. Although I could fake my way through them in the airplane and get a decent landing, I really did not have a good feel for them. I confided in my wife that until I did a real, no kidding max-crosswind landing in dog-poop weather, I was reluctant to upgrade. I mentioned my concern to a Canadian pilot, Major Claude Levasseur, the best pilot I have ever flown with bar none, and he took me into the simulator and showed me why the “American way” was stupid. I cannot thank him enough.
22 November 1988
I was flying an AC upgrade sortie from our base in Orland, Norway with a Norwegian Major Lundesgaard. Coming back to the base that night, there was heavy rain, strong gusty winds, and I had to fly a High TACAN penetration to an ILS circle to land to the opposite, wet runway with 17 knots crosswinds with low clouds and visibility just above that legal for a circling approach. Calling Hollywood. I know that means nothing to most of you but that type of approach under those conditions will put hair on your chest. I briefed the approach and looked at the instructor as to say, “You want it?” He looked at me and said, “Have fun, you’re in AC upgrade next week.” To his credit, he never doubted. As an instructor, I learned a lot from that.
On approach and during the circle to land, it was if gremlins were throwing 40-gallon bags of water and ice at us while trying to ride a pissed-off bucking bronco. By far the most difficult approach, until then, I had ever flown. People in the back were getting sick, some were scared and then came the landing. Remembering Claude Levasseur’s advice, and I mean this 100%, the only way any of us knew we were on the ground was the cycling of the anti-skid brakes. The IP and I looked at each other and he said, “Are we on the ground?” Of course, I acted as that was normal for me. Even the guys in the back came up to me afterwards and said they could not feel the airplane touchdown. I have never looked back since that November night. I have since learned that it is easier to get a good landing with a strong crosswind if done correctly. More than once I was on a flight with several instructor pilots during extreme crosswind conditions and more than once, the landing was deferred to me. Bring it.
The purpose of this story revolves around a quote from the movie, “Tin Cup.” “When faced with a defining moment, either you define that moment or that moment defines you.” That missed 2-foot putt at the Master’s for the championship, misspelling an easy word for the national spelling-bee championship, whatever. In life we all have challenging moments that we can control but don’t. To this day, I still remember this big, beautiful hanging curve ball that I friggen’ missed my senior year in high school. Had I screwed up that landing in Norway, who knows. I do know that nailing it cemented my flying career.
So back to the beginning, yes I have been flying since April 1983 but I have been a pilot since that cold and rainy Norwegian night in November 1988. At that point, I had seen it all and knew I could do anything in the jet. As for the Delta interview, they liked my brutal honesty with the Iceland story and although not the way they do things today, I was one of about 7 pilots given job offers that August afternoon in 1997.
So what is it going to be? Are you going to define your moment or is it going to define you? That is the question I want each of us to answer when the time comes.