When I was 19 years old I knew everything. After all, I had a private pilot license. Looking at life from the perspective of unchastened youth, I can recall an unflinching belief that all things were imminently achievable. The possibility of penalties for failure did not show up for me at the time on any imaginable radar screen. Having risen above all apparent peers with a flying hobby beginning in high school, I was certain that I was infallible, and that I was destined for perpetually unbridled success, aerial and otherwise. It didn’t bother me in the least that I remained years away from appreciating that I was in dire need of experience, the most valuable of all personal assets, in aviation and in life.
During this time I remember basking in the privilege of flying an F-33A Bonanza from NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii, to Kauai, the Garden Island, accompanied by an inordinately trusting companion, who would later, astonishingly, persevere long enough to become my wife. We had a fine holiday, returning to the airport after dark for our return flight back to Oahu. The tower was closed and the night was moonless, and the Bonanza had only a single piston engine, but since I was an active duty crew chief/swimmer in Navy Sikorsky H-34s during that period, I was not at all intimidated by a mere 100 miles of Pacific Ocean.
Our departure was as smooth as the airfield was quiet, and we climbed to a comfortable eastbound VFR altitude, flying a heading and watching the lights of Kauai recede to a soft glow behind us. No VOR reception was available for the first half of the 40 minute flight, but I began to look for Honolulu’s lights after cruising for 20 minutes or so, maintaining a course that was bound to put us within navaid range in short order. When not even a dim glimmer on the horizon ahead appeared after half an hour, I began to tune ADF equipment, scrutinizing things a little more closely. I caught a beacon, and got the needle on the RMI to point weakly, but that couldn’t have been right, because the bearing didn’t make sense. I finally got around to checking the heading card against the wet compass, and was jolted into remembering everything I was supposed to know about gyroscopic precession, since the DG disagreed with the whiskey compass by about 110 degrees, and I quickly came to terms with the fact that we were headed straight for Tahiti. Fortunately we had plenty of fuel on board (though not enough for Tahiti), and I corrected our heading, eventually seeing Oahu’s lights and finding HNL, impressing my innocent travel mate, who mercifully never had to contemplate, as I had so quickly and so deeply, just how much water is out there southwest of Hawaii.
Years later, as I was enjoying Coast Guard HH-3F pilot transition training armed with many layers of aviation experience I had not possessed in Kauai (as well as a realization that I could not swim 100 miles after all), I was reminded of my open ocean encounter by an incident which mirrored the earlier heading confusion episode closely, on a larger and more consequential scale. A Sikorsky H-3, staging out of Coast Guard Air Station St. Petersburg in Florida, had executed an extended Gulf of Mexico search west of Tampa. The Coast Guard version of the S-61 was configured to fly 300 nautical miles offshore, hover for 20 minutes, and return to base with comfortable fuel reserves, so exhausting an HH-3F to bingo fuel is not easy, but it can be done, especially if heading errors are allowed. Somehow, this aircraft and crew, after the long hours and many twisting turns required within a complex search pattern, were victims of heading gyro splits, and they ended up flying south out of their search, instead of east, back to St. Pete. No lives were lost, but by the time the errors were noticed, fuel status was not sufficient for a return to base. As a result of this incident, those of us preparing to command H-3s were assigned an additional course of NFO navigator training back at Navy Pensacola, so I ended up with tripled reinforcement of specific experience in the science of confirming heading validity and accuracy.
Wise philosophers have long attempted to describe and illuminate the immense value of experience to the general human cause. Some have said that experience is a good school, but that the fees are high. Others have noted that experience teaches only the teachable. But for constructing and confirming quality in aviators, experience has no equal. After all, good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, though, experience comes from bad judgment.