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Reflections on lessons learned the hard way


(CNN) -- After a long, dry spell, I got current the other day. No, I am not talking about a trip into my closet to weed out some old belly-warmer ties or double knit bell-bottoms. I am talking about flying.

Jerrie Cobb
Flying with the legendary Jerrie Cobb in 1998   

It's been 11 years since I first got my private pilot's license. But it's been seven since I was last legal to fly an airplane solo .Now I'm lucky to have a job that puts me in all kinds of fun cockpits -- giving me periodic doses of the stick and rudder time I crave.

I have pulled 6 Gs in an F-15 over Florida's Tyndall Air Force Base ... shot instrument approaches in a Delta 767 simulator... flew from the Cape to Houston in a Cessna Citation owned by famed aviation instructors John and Martha King ... passed an unusual attitude training course in an Impala fighter jet over the Mojave desert ... flew low and slow over citrus groves in a Piper J-3 Cub with aviation legend Jerrie Cobb (who should have been the first woman in space) ... and brought a Space Shuttle simulator in for a half-dozen dead-stick landings.

Not bad. But there is nothing like flying a plane solo as the pilot-in-command. So, I decided to quit protesting that I did not have the time and booked a so-called biennial flight review.

As I ran through the pre-flight inspection and the checklists for the Cessna 172, I thought a lot about risks -- and minimizing them. Before any flight, you check the oil the fuel, the control surfaces, the tires and brakes. You race the engine to make sure it is performing properly. You ensure that your instruments and radios are working, you tell the tower you are ready -- and then you make that leap of faith.

As we flew, my instructor did what instructors do so well. He pulled the throttle to idle and asked me what I would do if the engine had died for real. There were options. Survivable options. A golf course right below. A small landing strip within gliding distance. It's all about seeing trouble -- not just for what it is -- but also for what it could become -- and then preserving and exploiting all the alternatives in a timely way. That includes the alternative of not going at all.

Not exactly rocket science, I know. But sometimes, even the best and the brightest miss the writing on the wall. The Challenger tragedy may be the most notorious example of this. There were many smart people -- NASA staffers and contractors -- who wanted to scrub the launch on that cold January morning exactly 13 years ago last Thursday.

The 1986 Challenger disaster   

But these were the final hours of NASA's "go-go" days. The arrogance bred contempt for what should have been painfully apparent: the icicles hanging from the orbiter, its fuel tank and rocket boosters were the not-so-subtle signs of trouble.

But the pressure and the momentum to "Go" for launch was seemingly unstoppable.

The other day, I sat down with Bill Nelson -- a former Florida congressman who now serves as that state's treasurer. Nelson flew as a Payload Specialist aboard the shuttle mission that landed only 10 days before Challenger left that awful Y-shaped scar in the sky.

He watched the liftoff in his Washington office surrounded by staffers. They dispersed when excitement turned to horror. And Bill Nelson went to his private bathroom, got down on his knees, prayed for the seven lost heroes and asked a question that has no answer: "Why were we spared?"

NASA has changed a lot since that dark day. Challenger still casts a shadow over the space agency, looming as a painful reminder when every decision is made. That is good.

The sad truth is NASA would not have changed its ways in the absence of such a disaster. I guess that's human nature.

Next time -- and every time -- I pilot a plane, I intend to remember that.

Miles O'Brien is space correspondent for CNN.

Female pilots earning respect in Gulf combat roles
January 9, 1999
Alabama man loves to fly -- and it shows
December 31, 1998
First female astronaut still hoping to go up
October 28, 1998

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Online
Assorted of links related to the F-15
Boeing Co. page on the 757/767 family
Cessna Citation
King School home page
Jerry Cobb Foundation
JSC Virtual Tour - shuttle simulator
Cessna Skyhawk
NASA page on mission 51-L (Challenger mission)
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