By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor
We've all trained for emergencies, and a few of us in the aviation family have actually had them. But when you can say you've flown 50+ years in all sorts of airplanes flying vastly different missions (including some while dodging incoming fire)...and still not had an "incident," that's saying something.
When you log that many years as a safe pilot, the FAA bestows you with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, and Phil Groshong of Eugene, OR - a member of my EAA Chapter 1457 - just received the award. Airplanista sat down (OK, virtually) with Groshong to pick his brain, and see what we can learn about Phil's process for flying safely.
The following is a VERY interesting read, from a man who obviously knows how to handle anything an airplane can throw at him. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride...
Airplanista: Give me your aviation career info, some of the airplanes you have flown, and certificates, ratings and type ratings you hold.
Phil Groshong: I have been flying since I was 15, and have been flying with Civil Air Patrol for 60 years as a cadet and then a senior. I was awarded a scholarship from the local CAP, which led to my taking lessons at the now-closed Springfield (OR) Airport. I soloed on Feb 10, 1962 in a Cessna 150, and joined T-Bird Flying Club in 1963, at a small airport in Eugene that's long gone (read about T-Bird here). At their peak, T-Bird had over 300 members and a fleet of Piper Colts, a Taylorcraft, Piper 235, and a Tri-Pacer or two. I also soloed in the CAP’s L-4 (military J-3 Cub) and began flying a T-34A that the local squadron had. Through High School and College, I accumulated about 300 hours by the time I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1967. As a member of the AFROTC, and was awarded a pilot slot with the USAF. I started USAF pilot training At Williams AFB in Phoenix in the fall of 1967, graduated from UPT (undergraduate pilot training) in 1968 and was assigned to the F4C/D.
After F4 training at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, I was assigned to the 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base in Viet Nam. I flew 200 combat missions over there, and was awarded the DFC with two oak leaf clusters, and the Air Medal with 13 Oak leaf clusters, among other awards. After Vietnam, I instructed in the T-38 Instructor to Laughlin AFB until 1974 when I was assigned as the CAP Liaison Officer to the Colorado Wing of the CAP. I continued to fly in a contract Cessna T210 in Colorado until 1976 when I resigned my active duty commission and went into the USAF Reserve.
I was hired by Saudi Arabian Airlines as a B-707 co-pilot in 1976, and flew for Saudia out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia until November of 1977, when I was hired as an instructor at United Airlines Training Center in Denver. I flew the B-727, 737, 747, 757, 767 and 777, retiring from United on June 30, 2004. I have over 27,000 hours of GA, Military and Airline flying time.
Airplanista: How did you first get interested in flying? Was there one person or one flight that lit that fire? When did you get your first pilot's license?
Phil Groshong: I have been interested in flying for as long as I can remember. The Blackhawk comic book series really caught my attention and I knew early on that I wanted to be a fighter pilot.
Airplanista: Tell us what it means to be recognized with the Master Pilot Award.
Phil Groshong: Receiving the Wright Brothers Award is recognition that you have reached the top of your chosen profession. I credit my early flight instructors, CAP mentors and Air Force and Airline professionals that went before me, for my longevity and success.
Phil Groshong: Safety has always been a top priority. My first instructor, and especially my Air Force training convinced me that if you wanted to be successful, that safety must come first. As an Airline Captain, I knew that the safety of my passengers was my primary responsibility and I took that responsibility very seriously. Continuing education and check rides with the Air Force, CAP and the Airlines forced me to be professional and conscientious about my job. Reading about the exploits of others and seeing other pilots make less than stellar decisions also made a lasting impression on me. I know that no one is protected from the unexpected, but the best pilots are always prepared, trained and watchful for anything that could develop into a safety issue.
Airplanista: What is the one bad habit some pilots have that makes their flying less safe?
Phil Groshong: I think the worst habit that a pilot can develop is complacency. The “it won’t happen to me” or “if I simply ignore it, it will go away” attitude is what gets a lot of pilots in trouble. We just never know what will happen, but we can prepare and train ourselves to the best of our ability, to be ready.
Airplanista: Tell me one personal habit you have that elevates your own safety on every flight.
Phil Groshong: I always use a checklist!.....Even If I know what should be done and have done it a thousand times. The habit of using a checklist and not trying to memorize it is what separates a novice from a professional. When I fly with someone else, I make a judgment pretty quickly whether they are “professional” or not. When flying basic GA aircraft, just a mental checklist may be enough, but you still need to go over that checklist every time you fly.
Airplanista: In your many years as an airline pilot, you obviously practiced emergencies many times. But tell us the story of your most harrowing real emergency, and how you handled it and continued the flight to a safe conclusion.
Phil Groshong: In all the years of flying there are only two incidents that I really consider very serious. In Viet Nam on my 190th mission, I was the "GIB" (guy in back) and the aircraft commander flying landed with the wheel brakes locked. The F4, like most other modern aircraft, has anti-skid that prevents you from locking the brakes. However for the anti-skid to work you must have some wheel spin. If you touch down with your feet on the brakes, the brakes will lock and in this case we blew both tires and slide off the runway. Luckily the airplane did not catch fire and both of us were able to egress without incident. The airplane was totaled.
The other incident was when I was a new United B737 captain. Climbing out of Denver, we experienced a cockpit fire. Above the cockpit door, an electrical wire bundle had sagged and was rubbing against the door frame. As we were climbing thru 30,000’ we heard arcing and saw fire and sparks above the door. I declared an emergency, did a 180 and landed back at Denver in about six minutes. The flight attendants were on the fire with extinguishers, and the co-pilot and I wore our smoke goggles and oxygen masks as we had been trained to do. The fire was more spectacular than dangerous. It burned out the galley circuits, reading lights etc. but did not affect the way the airplane flew. The fire was out in less than a minute and we landed without incident. Other than a lot of smoke and soot, it was over very quickly and most of the passengers had no idea what had happened other than experiencing a 60-degree steep turn in an airliner. Those in first-class however did get quite a show.
Airplanista: What is the one piece of aviation equipment or avionics that you think has contributed to safer flying overall?
Phil Groshong: I think the biggest improvement to safety that I have seen in my career is not a piece of equipment but the emphasis on CRM, Cockpit Resource Management. With today’s glass cockpit, there is so much information available that you simply cannot use it all. Pilot must find out what they are the most comfortable with and use that information. Distractions, in whatever form, will happen and a professional pilot always remembers the cardinal rule…FLY THE AIRPLANE! All that other stuff can be helpful but useless if you forget the cardinal rule.
Airplanista: If you could sit a young flight student down, look them in the eye, and tell them one thing about safe flying, what would that be?
Phil Groshong: I think self-discipline and knowing your personal and equipment limits are very important. As a new pilot, you will be tempted to do, let’s face it, stupid things, we've all done them. But sound training and learning from others will go a long way to keeping you safe and accident free. If you push the boundary of common sense and safe practices, it will catch up with you and you will not like the results.
Airplanista: Pilot error is a big cause of many airplane crashes. What is one thing you have done wrong on a particular flight that you caught before it became an incident, and how did you learn from that?
Phil Groshong: I remember flying a departure out of SEA one evening when the controller told us to fly a different procedure that we had been cleared for. There was very little time to look up the appropriate chart, and I was getting a line check at the time. Luckily, I had put the other departures on my yolk clipboard so I was ready before I made a wrong turn or had to ask for help. The co-pilot was not as prepared and I could see the panic on his face. Flying out of SEA was usually a very routine event but it could have been very serious/dangerous had I not prepared for the unexpected.
Top photo credit: Phil Groshong, left, with Curt Cowley of PDX FSDO, FAASTeam Program Manager.