My Story – Dave Aldrich

Member's Bio

Dave grew up in suburban Chicago. His sister Sharon settled in Normal after attending ISU. Their mother, Olive Aldrich, moved to Normal when he started college at U of I on a ROTC scholarship. During his Senior year, Dave took Aviation 101 to become a Private Pilot. Commissioned upon graduation, he entered the Navy in June 1973. After earning his wings, he was based in Lemoore, California where he flew the A-7E, making one 7 month West Pacific cruise on the USS Kitty Hawk. After that he did a tour as a primary flight instructor flying the T-34C near Pensacola, Florida. 
In 1980 Dave left active duty to become a pilot with Eastern Airlines and joined the reserves flying the A-7B. After a year with a squadron in New Orleans, he transferred to a squadron in Atlanta, where he lived and worked. With Eastern appearing to be headed for disaster in 1987, Dave quit to start working for American Airlines and quit flying the A-7. He continued serving in non-flying jobs in the reserves,  eventually retiring as a Captain in 1994. He retired from American in 2016 then spent 5 years working for the FAA as an Aviation Safety Inspector before re-retiring.
Dave’s mother was friends with Chuck and Mary Schumacher when PAM acquired the A-7. He has been involved since his mom gave him a Lifetime Membership in October 1998.

Sea Stories

Naval Aviation Training Pipeline and Carrier Landings (Traps)
Commissioned June 1973 U.S. Navy
After 25 hours of familiarization and acrobatics in the T-34B,

Pilots selected for jet training started flying the straight wing T-2C for about 100 hours to pick up the speed, learn instrument flying, more acrobatics, formation flying, and air-to-air gunnery.


The grand finale was getting 2 day touch-and-go landings on a deck, then putting the hook down to get 4 traps and cat shots (2 touch and go/4 traps).

The morning of our qualification I recall while waiting for the weather to improve, some of the other students talked about not being able to sleep the night before. Two former Army helicopter pilots in the class talked about being as nervous as when they went into combat in Viet Nam. I’d slept well and wasn’t feeling nervous at all.

After finishing my post-start checks in the airplane, it finally hit me that landing on an aircraft carrier was really a big deal. I learned what the expression “cotton mouth” was about. The Plane Captain kept wanting me to get moving but I kept shaking my head no, until I saw another plane taxi out. Since it’s better to die than look bad, off I went. After the mission was complete, I knew where I’d been and what I’d done, but had no memory of it.

The next phase of training was in the swept wing TA-4J (two seat training version of the A-4).
That was another 100 hours of more instrument flying, bombing, air-to-air combat, and low-level navigation, once again finishing with more day carrier landings, this time 2/6. Still exciting, but no hesitation departing on that flight and could recall the traps when I was done.
At that point, pilots are designated as Naval Aviators and move on to the aircraft they will fly in the fleet for about 100 hours focusing on weapons and tactics specific to the aircraft. I was assigned the A-7 Corsair.
A-7E Corsair II
Culmination of this training is carrier qualification, this time staying aboard a ship for a few days to get 2/10/6: two touch-and-go, 10 day traps, and 6 night traps.
Day Trap
Night trap
On the first night, my roommate,  who was the star of the class, hit the ramp (back of the flight deck) on his first pass. The plane broke up and skidded down the flight deck. The pilot ejected just past the island and wound up in the water next to the ship. He removed his oxygen mask but then the wake of the ship got him tangled up in his parachute. He wound up floating face down and drowned. One deck worker was missing afterwards, apparently knocked overboard as the plane traveled the length of the ship. The next morning I inventoried my roommate’s belongings and went flying. The other 2 nuggets (pilots fresh out of the training command) and I failed to qualify while the 4 senior pilots passed. Much to our surprise, there was no empathy to be had afterwards.
Back at Lemoore we were clearly told that people get killed doing the job, to get over it, and if we didn’t qualify on the next try we’d never fly again. Welcome to the fleet.
Over time, day traps got to be fun but I was scared every time at night. I’ve never heard another carrier pilot say anything different. While I’ve never flown in combat, those that have say that night traps are scarier.

A7 in Action

Ready to launch from a waist catapult, located midship on the angle deck.

High angle dive bombing with 500# slick bombs. Could also carry 1,000# and 2,000# bombs.

Low angle bombing required high drag fins on bombs.

Firing 2.75″ diameter Hydra rockets with a 10# explosive warhead. 

“Could also carry 5” diameter Zuni rockets with a 45# warhead.
Hydras were carried in pods with 7 or 19 rockets, Zunis in pods with 4 rockets.

Could carry a tanker package to become a refueler as well as always being able to receive fuel while airborne.

Large speed brake in the belly was very effective.

Back to the ship for landing.

Plane guard ship and helicopter always ready in case somebody goes in the water.

Wings fold for parking on deck with three 1,000# bombs on a TER (triple ejector rack). Six 500# bombs could be carried on a MER (multiple ejector rack). 

If tailhook or landing gear fail, planes fly into a canvas barricade.

Corsair II with the original Corsair. 

Gray Hairs

Over the years I made notes on events that really scared me in the back of my logbook on a page that I labeled Gray Hairs. My purpose was to check back occasionally to remind myself that I, like the 14 squadron mates that were killed during my flying career, was prone to making mistakes and mortal. I learn from my mistakes, and I’ve had many learning opportunities.
5/75  The A-4 was designed with relatively long landing gear so that there was room for ordnance and/or external fuel tanks to be loaded under the low wings. I took a turn on a taxiway too fast in the TA-4 and nearly tipped over. (Not an issue in the A-7 with the wing mounted high on the fuselage.)
7/76   First month in the fleet squadron, on a two plane night road reconnaissance mission with the squadron Commanding Officer (CO) in the Sierra Mountains between California and Nevada on a pitch black night with thunderstorms in the area. Using air-to-air radio navigation, I was 2 miles behind the CO. He spotted a car traveling down a road and directed me to attack it. I rolled in but was having difficulty tracking the moving target in order to designate it to the computer. That should have been a clue. I switched to another mode of target designation at which time the warning that a 4G pull would give me less than 1500′ of ground clearance started blinking on the heads-up display. It took a moment to register what was happening, then I rolled wings level and started a hard pull-up at maximum lift angle of attack. I looked straight ahead and saw the lights of a small town, Toms Place. Left hand on the ejection handle between my legs, plane wallowing very close to stall angle-of-attack, I decided that I’d stay in the plane as long as I could see the town. (No guarantee of not hitting the ground, but that’s what I came up with at the moment.) To make matters worse, since the knob that held the dark visor in the helmet up was not working, the dark visor dropped down. Bottoming out I noticed the car and bushes going by in my peripheral vision. As I climbed to safety, the lead advised me to watch out for low pulls. I weakly muttered, “Yes, sir.” He asked if I’d scared myself. I weakly muttered, “Yes, sir.” He said we’d talk about it when we got home. One more meek, “Yes, sir.”
Sometime later I drove by Toms Place. The bushes along the road were the standard 10′ diameter bushes seen all over the West. I’m sure I was less than 100′ from the ground which must have scared the folks in the car as much as it scared me.
9/76   Still new to the squadron, during a bombing mission near Fallon, Nevada I had a fuel transfer problem that forced me to land at Fallon rather than chance going back to the base in Lemoore, California. Unable to diagnose the problem, it was decided I should fill the plane with fuel and fly it back to the base. Fallon has a 14,500′ runway, but it was closed for some reason. Checking my high elevation on a hot day takeoff distance on the 7,000′ runway, I found it was very close to what I needed. I called back to the squadron to have the distance required checked in a manual that was more accurate than what we carried in the plane. The more experienced duty officer, not knowing about me using the short runway, was dismissive of my concern and told me I had plenty of runway. Not wanting to look bad, I didn’t persist. Rolling down the runway I had two speed/distance checks which I barely made. Nearing the end of the runway but still a bit slow, I rotated, staggering into the air. Airborne, my next concern was the power line ahead. Over or under? I was able to get over it. Density altitude and intimidation lessons learned.
10/76   Can’t remember this incident, but the note says: near mid-air in the Electronic Warfare range. I guess blowing around (target area speed was 480 knots) down low (routinely under 100′ over flat terrain) in a 4 plane flight, something went wrong while practicing techniques to avoid radar detection.
1/78 One night trap while on cruise is still a vivid memory. Operating in the South China Sea on a clear night I arrived at the point 3 miles behind the ship where I intercepted the glide path at 1200′. (Normally planes fly the first part of the approach on radio channel 17, then are directed to switch up or down one channel, alternating so that the aircraft on final is the only one on that frequency.) From that distance, the ship was just a red dot in the darkness. Just as I started to descend, I heard the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) make several excited power calls followed by shouting, “WAVE OFF, WAVE OFF, WAVE OFF!” Already a bit tense, those transmissions got me even more excited. I quickly confirmed my altitude and distance from the ship and realized that the calls were for the plane ahead of me. I switched from radio navigation to the ship to inertial navigation to Singapore. If I saw a fireball I wouldn’t be waiting for instructions to divert, but would be the first one at the Raffles bar. Instead of a fireball, I saw the afterburner flames of an F-14 rise above the red dot.
F14 Afterburner
Now it was my turn to land. Getting in close I settled a little below glide path. Still shaken from what I’d heard earlier, I added too much power going high and fast. (Crossing the ramp, airspeed needed to be within 3 knots of target, and altitude within 1.5′ in order to get a wire.) I yanked the power back, paused, then slammed it back forward hoping the engine would spool up in time. I caught the second of the four wires spaced 20′ apart in the 800′ long landing area.
After a flight we’d normally go straight to Combat Information Center to debrief the mission, then the para-loft to get out of our flight gear, and finally Maintenance Control to fill out paperwork on the flight. I was too shaken to do any of that. Instead, I went straight to the Ready Room where a movie was in progress. I took a seat in the back row, staring at the ceiling. Frenchy from Maintenance Control came in to remind me to do the paperwork. I uttered, “Later.” He came back a few minutes later to ask again. “Later.” I knew that I couldn’t possibly hold a pen yet. A few minutes later Frenchy was back telling me that the Chief really wanted me to fill out the paperwork. I told him to leave me alone or I’d kill him. He decided that there was something wrong and decided to leave me alone. I finally settled down, got out of my flight gear, apologized to Frenchy, and filled out the paperwork. The LSO came by to debrief my landing. He told me I’d done just what he told me to correct the little settle. I advised him that the neither the F-14 or I heard anything from him since the frequencies got switched incorrectly when that the F-14, which had missed the first attempt to land, was fed back into the landing pattern. That would mean that the LSO didn’t hear us “call the ball” on short final, and neither of us heard the LSO acknowledge our call. Oops, errors all around. We shouldn’t have been allowed in close without the LSO hearing a ball call, and we should not have landed without the acknowledgement. I guess everybody was on edge.
3/78  While at sea, a Carrier Battle Group keeps track of everything within a 500 mile radius.
A-7 Corsair
A-7s would fly single plane surveillance missions. We had a hand held 35mm camera and were expected to “rig” the ships we found. That involved writing down a description of the hull line, location of the superstructure, any significant features, and the name of the ship. We were also took 3 pictures, marked the location on the inertial navigation system, and noted the track number we got from the airborne E-2 radar plane. That all had to be done in two passes since three passes is considered a violation of international rules. Piece of cake: approach the vessels from the rear at 100′, do a circling wing-over while writing and talking to the E-2, then make the second pass to finish the picture taking. I got a little too comfortable with that routine on one flight and had my head down too long during the wing-over. I noticed that it seemed quiet so I looked up to discover that I was slow and nose low. Quick wings level and pull with the little G available for a very close call with the water. 
6/78   Note says low fuel landing at Lemoore. Don’t remember that event which happened in my last month with the fleet squadron.
9/78   Now teaching in the T-34C, one of my first 3 students had played defensive end in college football.
He was much bigger than me and tended to get tense. Sitting behind him, I could watch his shoulders rise as his performance deteriorated. I would take control the airplane, tell him some jokes then, when his shoulders were back down, give him control. On two occasions he froze up. The one I recall is after a touch-and-go landing he put in full right rudder as he added power. We started to swerve off the runway with me yelling “left rudder” to no avail. He wasn’t doing anything with the stick so I was able to rotate and cross control the plane as we left the runway. Then I told him I had the plane. He let go. While he did solo, at some point down the line he washed out of pilot training but went on to have a successful career as a Naval Flight Officer. 
While instructing we flew 3 hops Monday – Friday, then took it easy on Saturdays only flying 2 hops. I guess I was too busy to bother with keeping notes. I do recall another student making the same mistake on a touch-and-go. That time was complicated by the fact that by the time I got control of the aircraft, we were headed straight for the big crash truck parked on the side of the runway. I saw the crew jumping out of the truck and running away as I yanked the nose up and banked enough to get the wing over the truck before getting back down into ground effect to gain enough speed to start climbing. That student had about 600 hours of prior time before starting with Navy training. He could fly OK but wasn’t sharp on the procedures. I told him that we had a lot of procedures since we weren’t just teaching how to fly, but how to eventually operate a flying weapons platform.
Just one more scare while instructing comes to mind. A really sharp student was doing a great job on a precautionary approach to an abandoned airfield that had been active when I was a student. He hit a couple of altitude check points a bit low but I was sure that he’d correct. I was anticipating giving him an Above Average grade on the maneuver. On short final I finally realized that he wasn’t going to make the necessary correction. I took the plane and started the go-around. Short of the runway I felt 3 thumps as we bottomed out. Circling around I saw 3 freshly plowed furrows that had a line through them where one wheel had gone through. Another few inches lower and the gear would probably have dug in causing us to tumble. 
12/86   It had been years since I scared myself. The proficiency level in Navy Reserve squadrons is quite high since every pilot is fleet experienced with well over 1,000 hours. Having a family and a nice airline job tends to take the edge off. I can’t say this last event scared me since it was over before I had a chance to be scared. Due to a lack of funding, supplies and manning, our planes were in bad shape. With only one up plane available, I launched on an out and in flight. Since I thought flying airways was a waste of my time and the Navy’s money, I elected to fly a low-level in in U.P. Michigan, get fuel at K.I. Sawyer Air Force base there, then fly a low-level in central Illinois on the way back to Atlanta. The purpose of flying a low-level is to get to a target so we normally finished up the routes with a simulated attack even when we didn’t have weapons loaded. Since the plane was not ready at the scheduled launch time, I was running behind schedule. During the first low-level I debated cutting that route short or skipping the low-level portion of the flight back to Atlanta in order to have the plane back on schedule. I decided to make my decision on the next leg of the route so decided to do a weapons delivery maneuver at the next check point and do a fly over update of the inertial navigation system in case I decided to continue the route. Sure, with 9 years in the A-7 I could do two things at once. But the airplane systems wouldn’t let both procedures be set up at the same time. No problem, I decided to fly the bombing run without any weapons symbology displayed on the heads-up display with the computer set up for a flyover update. Ten miles from the “target” (the north end of the lake on Grand Island, Michigan) I pushed the speed up from enroute speed of 360 knots (415 mph) to attack speed of 480 knots (550 mph). Three miles from the target, pop up from 100′ over the water, roll inverted passing 500′ to find the target, then pull the nose down, roll right side up to prepare to drop bombs. No bombs, no symbology, no reason to get low. As I approached to target, I picked out a point to the side so I’d know exactly when I flew over. Gently pulling up, looking to the side, button pushed, update complete, I looked forward. I saw a tree, knew I was going to hit it, but was through it before I had a chance to react.
My first thought was that I was lucky to be alive. Left side screen shattered, center section opaque with sap, a small hole at the forward edge of the right side screen and several warning lights illuminated. Engine instruments were normal and steady so I locked the throttle. I noticed some motion in the side mirrors: the leading edge flaps were moving erratically so I deselected Automatic Maneuvering Flaps. Baffled about what had happened, and not in a hurry to go swimming in Lake Superior, I circled the area. Root cause analysis: primary problems were trying to do two things as once, and not flying precise weapons delivery parameters. I also realized that I had been diving over descending snow-covered terrain with bare deciduous trees but had hit one of the few taller pines in the area. Terrain ahead was rising so the tree I hit blended in with the background. All the precision I used and visual cues I’d had a week prior doing pop-up attacks with bombs on a target in Georgia were unavailable. After I had figured out what I’d done wrong and was confident that the engine would continue running, I limped over to Sawyer AFB. Since the angle of attack vane and the pitot tubes were gone, I got to practice Attitude + Power = Performance for that short flight and final A-7 landing.
The tree trunk hit the left wing at the inboard parent station – just 5′ off centerline. I flew commercial back to Atlanta while the plane stayed in Michigan for repairs. Side wind screens were replaced, dents around the intake were fixed, the engine, left leading edge flap and unit horizontal tail were replaced. The mishap was only classified as an Incident since the cost to repair the damage was below a certain level.

Airline Career

Boeing B727 AA
Boeing B-727 Flight Engineer ’80 – ’85, Co-Pilot ’86 – ’87
Domestic, Caribbean and Latin America
Boeing B-727 Flight Engineer ’87 – ’88, Captain ’99
Domestic and Caribbean
Boeing B727 EAL
Airbus A300 EAL
Flight Engineer ’85 – ’86
Domestic and Caribbean
Captain ’04 – ’09 
Caribbean and Latin America
Boeing B767 AA
Co-Pilot ’88 – ’93, ’94
Europe and South America
Captain ’09 – ’16
Domestic, Europe, Caribbean and Latin America
McDonnel Douglas MD-11
Co-Pilot ’93, ’95 – ’99
London and Tokyo
Boeing B777 AA
Co-Pilot ’00 – ’03
London and Tokyo
Fokker F-100
Co-Pilot ’03 – ’04
Boeing B757 AA
Captain ’09 – ’16
Domestic, Europe, Caribbean and Latin America


APA is the Allied Pilots Association, the pilot union at American Airlines.

(Note to all professional pilots: never cross a picket line.)

Most fun I was ever allowed to have in an airliner was landing at Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

FAA '17 - '22

Aviation Safety Inspector, Air Carrier Operations. Conducted flight observations on Frontier, Spirit, and Global X to qualify new Captains and Check Pilots.

Routine Cabin and Cockpit Enroute Inspections on other airlines when traveling for work assignments. 

Sometimes it was tough staying awake on the jump seat or in the office.

Plenty of desk duties reviewing Safety reports, investigating accidents, pilot deviations, incidents and passenger complaints, and processing license applications.

Desk Duties