Slow Down Young Fella, Joe Odom Follow-up

By Joe Odom

Preface – This article was originally a private direct response to the author of the article Slow Down Young Fella – Attitudes in Technical Diving by Michael Thomas. The response came from Joe Odom, the first TDI Training Director who authored many of the original TDI materials, along with being an integral part of the development of the courses still in existence today. Joe joined us for our 25-year anniversary party at DEMA this past year. Getting caught up with him again was long overdue for many of us. When he sent this response to me to forward to Michael, I was immediately drawn by his ability to explain his perspective in a way that captivated me. I then sent it to Sean Harrison for his thoughts on the response, and we collectively reminisced about the lessons and skills Joe had instilled in us many years ago when “we thought we knew everything”. We agreed that if Joe was open to it, we wanted to share it with the world. The best instructors in the world will always remember to keep learning. Enjoy.

Dear Michael,

I recently read your well-constructed article on the rush to get somewhere without necessarily having the experience to be there. The minimum standards have always put both an instructor as well as a potential dive team/buddy in the uncomfortable position of sometimes saying “No”.

First, I should note for everyone that “young fella” has absolutely nothing to do with chronological age. It has nothing to do with the number of dives. It has to do with the perception of readiness by the instructor or prospective dive team/buddy. Dive boat crews can easily spot the young fella.

While you and I could sit for days recounting examples, as I was thinking about your article a few days later, I recalled a very vivid experience that might serve to put the subject into another perspective. As you may or may not know, I am a pilot, holding an Airline Transport Pilot rating, a Certificated Flight Instructor (Gold Star) – single and multi-engine, land and sea, glider, instrument – and I have been known to turn airplanes (later gliders!) upside down and shake them.

The experience I would like to share with you concerns aerobatics in airplanes. 

Years ago, I owned an FAA certificated repair station specializing in aircraft electronics, avionics, etc. I lived in Huntsville, Alabama which is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center. They don’t call Huntsville “Rocket City” for nothing! As such, I had some wonderful friends (I loathe calling them customers) who were directly associated with NASA and other military-aerospace activities.

Virtually every one of them that I met was the epitome of “confident cool”. No one ever came up to me and said “I am an engineer, or I am an astronaut” or pretty much anything. I found out usually from others who would say “do you know who that is?” “Umm, no, I don’t, but I need to fix his airplane!” Like Sonny Morea – he had a Cessna 210 and I found out he was the guy who was in charge of the Lunar Rover. I regularly got a steady dose of being humble at the airport.

One of my regular friends was an independent consultant who lived in Arkansas and flew his aircraft to my shop to leave it for the week so that I could “take care of whatever needed to be taken care of”. My shop was just outside the mandatory radio/transponder airspace and I had it there for a reason. It was a non-towered field that did not require communications or transponder equipment. If you landed at Huntsville International, then the equipment was mandatory. So, I got a lot of business from people with inoperative avionics systems by default.

Since my business model was to be outside the controlled airspace, we would typically jump into one of the field’s airplanes and shuttle my friends over to Huntsville, since that is where their rental cars were reserved. It was a 30+ mile drive or a short 8-10 minute hop by air.

That day, as the light multiengine airplane arrived and Bill Pogue got out, he tossed me the keys and signed the maintenance authorization. Earlier that day, I had flown a 1941 Boeing PT-13 Stearman and it was still out on the ramp. Bill admired the World War II biplane and said he had never flown in one, no tail-wheel experience or even open-cockpit experience. This kind of took me aback, since, you see, Colonel William Pogue, USAF (Retired) had been an Air Force fighter pilot, exchange pilot with the RAF, Test Pilot at Edwards, member of the USAF Thunderbirds and Mission Pilot for Skylab 4! He had been slated to go to the moon, but his flight was canceled. I was always on my best behavior around him. Oh, and if you watch Apollo 13, the guy that says, “When I go up there on (Apollo) 19, I’m gonna take my entire collection of Johnny Cash along!” was supposed to be modeled on Bill. Bill never talked about the movie.

So I asked Bill, “Hey, you want to hop over to HSV in the Stearman?” He beamed and we did the preflight and jumped in to go. As we were climbing through about 2,000 feet, he asked me if the aircraft was certified for aerobatics. Yes, it was, since it was a primary trainer designed to make pilots as fast as possible during the war. He then asked if he could try some “akro”?

This is where my object lesson began. 

We did a few straight-ahead stalls so he could get the feel of the aircraft. I told him that for a loop we would need to lower the nose to get the desired entry airspeed, then pull at +3g and relax the pull when we went over the top so it was a more round and not egg-shaped maneuver, finishing the loop we again needed to pull to level off. “Got it Bill?” I asked. He was good to go and try his hand with the big, bulky trainer.

Bill only flew jets when he was a fighter pilot, test pilot and Thunderbird, but this Stearman had a big ole Lycoming 300 hp radial engine swinging a rather large 2B20 metal propeller. Physics is not suspended just because you are flying, and those of us that fly propeller aerobatic airplanes know about the forces that include torque, P-factor and a few others. This means we have to make compensations with the flight controls in order to have the maneuver look right. Jet pilots kinda don’t have that problem.

So, Bill established entry airspeed, nice +3g pull, good float over the top and pulled out, and as I had mentally predicted, a little over 5 degrees off the entry line. So, I told Bill, “when we are going vertical the Stearman requires a bit of right rudder” to counter the whirling propeller effects. He mumbled something (it is really hard to hear each other in an open cockpit even with the intercom). As he pulled on the second loop, I said “touch of rudder now,” I immediately felt the correct input and voila, pulled out perfectly aligned. A few more things and then we were off to HSV to drop him off for his week at work as a consultant for the International Space Station.

We landed, taxied up and shut down so he could get his rental car. Bill came close to having a perfect poker face, normally quiet spoken with the nonplussed (US meaning) dry wit of many Brits I have known (I was stationed at RAF Chicksands a million years ago). He kind of motioned me off to the side as a crowd was gathering around the Stearman (it was in WWII color scheme, big yellow wings, blue fuselage, etc.)

He then asked me why I didn’t tell him when he was getting offline during the first loop. I stammered something (after all, who was I compared to this super test pilot?) and then he proceeded to get a shockingly angry face, punched me in the center chest with his finger and very firmly said, “When you are the instructor, YOU (hidden so as not to shock) INSTRUCT!!” I had never heard Bill curse before. I was stunned. I was embarrassed and humiliated. He waited for my reply.

And this is where we tie into the essence of your subject in the blog.

I told him that in pretty much all my experience teaching beginning aerobatics, we discuss the maneuver and then see how it goes. I told him that usually, “once they are pulling ‘g’ all they do is scream, blank out and when we finally recover, they ask ‘how was that?’” There were very few that you could actually talk to during a maneuver. Only after multiple tries does the student start to see a bit further on each maneuver and we practice it until standards are met (if you don’t, you die).  He kinda smiled and pulled his finger from the big bruised hole he had made in my chest (and ego). Ultimately, this must have satisfied him since he later trusted me to teach his wife to fly!

What was Bill’s message? 

NO ONE is exempt from always learning, and instructors are not exempt from instructing. His tens of thousands of spectacular flying hours did not trump my lowly 7,000 to 9,000 flying hours. There was no argument from him, just hard cold cruel facts of life.

So, in short – the young fella rarely has real spatial awareness, the seasoned one (diver or pilot) is able to accept and process multiple sensory inputs and keep their wits about them. I used to tell diving and flying students, “Relax! There is no sense dying all tensed up!”

The quality of each dive experience is far more important than just checking a box. Who is more experienced – the young diver that has 22 dives in Lake Michigan from September to November or an older diver that has 44 dives at Looe Key in almost any weather? It is the instructor’s duty to make the judgment of readiness, not logbook minimum numbers.

Your article was on point and I hope you found this memory interesting. Cheers!


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