AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 24

SAFETY SPOTLIGHT

Tale of two flights

BY RICHARD MCSPADDEN
Senior Vice President
AOPA Air Safety Institute

A desert aerial perspective

AOPA Air Safety
Institute Senior
Vice President
RICHARD
MCSPADDEN

led the U.S. Air
Force Thunderbirds
in more than
100 flight
performances.

TREKKING NORTHBOUND at 100 mph and 1,000 feet agl
over barren New Mexico terrain in a new-to-me 1993
Piper Super Cub, I noticed a contrail some six miles
above me blitzing east. My, how things have changed.
Some years ago, I would have been up there leaving a
contrail with six others, on the point of a formation of
U.S. Air Force F-16 Thunderbirds as we sped crosscountry to another airshow. The scenery there and that
flying experience-so vastly different.
Leading the Thunderbirds, I was surrounded by
exceptional pilots and supported by a world-class maintenance and logistics team. By the time I showed up
to fly, all the planning and preparation had been done
by an industrious and detailed team: routing, air-to-air
refueling tankers, weather, notams all reviewed thoroughly. When I stepped out to my airplane, it had been
fueled, preflighted; my bags, dropped off earlier, would
be strapped in and secured. Checklist neatly placed on
the cockpit console turned to the prestart page, a cold
flask of water placed in my left G-suit pocket.
We crossed the country dozens of times a year, followed by a command post spring-loaded to react if
we ran into problems. At our destination, an advance
team had scouted every detail, alerting us to any potential risk. We'd have custom numbers stenciled on the
ground to mark our exact parking spots and dedicated
marshallers to park us. After shutdown, by the time we
unstrapped and removed our G-suits to greet local dignitaries, the maintenance crew would be elbow deep
inspecting our airplanes, checking fluids, and downloading data that would be analyzed before we finished
dinner to verify systems and engine performance.
I'm frequently asked what it was like to lead the
Thunderbirds. My answer never measures up. It was
everything you might imagine it to be, and more. Dressed
head-to-toe in the colors of this great nation, surrounded
by extraordinarily talented and dedicated people to
whom I would-and did-entrust my life, I flew one of
the most advanced airplanes ever built to every corner
of this country and received the admiration our fellow
citizens feel for their Air Force. We were under no illusion that the reception we received was for us personally;
it was for the power, pride, and precision of the U.S. Air
Force that our operation reflected. So often I wished that
the airmen and airwomen doing the tough work changing engines on a sweltering desert flight line, or guarding

24 | AOPA PILOT October 2020

a B-52 on a lonely ramp in the frigid North Dakota winter could receive the respect we did; could see how proud
the American people are of their Air Force, of them.
Pilots ask if I ever got tired of flying the same profile repeatedly. From their perspective, it must look
the same every time. It never was. The profiles (six of
them-high, low, and flat shows with various combinations of aircraft), were demanding to fly, and they were
never the same. Something was always different: sun
angle, wind, clouds, show layout, aircraft lineup, my disposition, any of my five wingmen's dispositions, density
altitude; the list is long. Each of them impacted our performance. Most days we handled it well. Some days, we
were extraordinary; other days, not so much.
The days were full. The flying was fast, loud, exciting,
stressful. There was substantial pressure to achieve perfection. Our Air Force deserved nothing less. I loved it.
Sauntering above the New Mexico desert in my Super
Cub, doors open, pop music playing on satellite radio,
was quite a contrast to the intensity of the Thunderbirds
experience. Just me. No other airplane around for miles
except those contrails high above. I did all the planning,
packing, preflighting, and fueling. My Garmin GDL 52
helped with weather. I wasn't talking to anyone; didn't
need to, didn't want to. No one would be at the destination to meet me. I wasn't even sure yet where I'd stop for
the night. If I had to put down unexpectedly, I'd use the
tent and sleeping bag I kept in the back for contingencies and call for support with the satellite transmitter
or use the personal locator beacon in my survival vest.
This is blissful flying, that captures the grandeur of
flight like none I have experienced. One thousand feet
is high enough for perspective, but low enough to feel
immersed in the surroundings. You can feel drafts when
you cross a ridge and smell petrichor after a rain. Crops
wave in the breeze, as do people when you pass. I go for
long stretches pondering things big and small, the most
frequent being how I got so fortunate to be here, in this
moment, at this time. I love the freedom, the independence, the accountability of it all.
Up in the contrails, I loved that too. How fortunate
to know them both, each a different flying experience,
both magnificent.
Go fly.
AOPA
EMAIL richard.mcspadden@aopa.org



AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020

Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - Intro
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - Cover1
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - Cover2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 3
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 4
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 5
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 6
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 7
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 8
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 9
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 10
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 11
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 12
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 13
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 14
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 15
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 16
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 17
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 18
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 19
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 20
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 21
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 22
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 23
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 24
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 25
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 26
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 27
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 28
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 29
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 30
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 31
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 33
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 34
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 35
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 36
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 37
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 38
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 39
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 40
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 41
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 42
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 43
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 45
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 46
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 47
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 48
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 49
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 50
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 60
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 69
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - 71
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - Cover3
AOPA Pilot Magazine - October 2020 - Cover4
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