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Writing Lesson Plans from the Edge of Space

Writing Lesson Plans from the Edge of Space

“Get out, get out, get out.”

Captain Todd Hubbard heard these words via radio from the El Camino chasing him down the runway – but he’d already come to that conclusion himself. Moments earlier, Hubbard had initiated a takeoff roll in his U-2R “Dragon Lady,” an Air Force high altitude reconnaissance jet purpose-built as a spy plane for the CIA in the 1950s.  It was July 18, 1984.

Photo of Todd Hubbard in gear“The nose just kept coming down,” Hubbard recalls. “The yoke was not helping.” 

Fifteen seconds after leaving the ground on a would-be routine high-altitude mission, donning the same space suits that the shuttle astronauts wore at the time, Hubbard lay on the ground with broken ribs, a broken jaw, broken back, and a mouth full of fragments of shattered teeth, wearing a parachute that was pulling him towards the fiery inferno that was once his airplane.  “My chase car saw that the tail had separated [from] the rest of the airplane – still with 17,000 pounds of thrust – but, now I had no way of maintaining pitch.”

A wiring issue with the ejection seat caused Hubbard’s yoke not to stow properly and prevented the canopy from being jettisoned into the slipstream of the airplane. He ejected through the canopy with a force 30 times that of gravity. “I’m short enough that the top of my seat took the brunt of that explosion.”

“They put me on a backboard and put a tarp over me to protect me, because there were secondary explosions going off the main wreck. Then, they carted me off to the hospital.”

“I want people to know why people are important. What was it that they stood for?  What was it that they passed on so that the rest of us are better?”

Hubbard had just 110 hours in the U-2 at the time. He would retire with over 1,100 hours in the Dragon Lady.

Hubbard believes that it’s actually the flying itself that allowed him to stay in the program. “My brain stopped thinking about [the ejection] and started thinking, ‘OK, what do I have to do next?’ Whether it was to taxi, or to takeoff, or anything during the mission… But it was hell away from the airplane.”

On Dec. 27, 1992, the United States gained its first combat-kill using an F-16 when an Iraqi MiG-25 was shot down after challenging the No-Fly zone at the 32nd parallel established under Operation Southern Watch. Sadaam Hussein exploded with anger and sought to shoot down a U-2 – just to have a trophy to prove he was still in charge. Less than a week later, one of his MiG-25 “Foxbats” achieved target solution (“missile lock”) on Hubbard’s U-2, which had been patrolling the edge of the no-fly zone. Using a heat-seeking missile, this wasn’t a surprise. “What else is up there at 70,000 feet causing heat?  Nothing.” Hubbard believes that the Iraqi pilot likely did not know the capabilities of his missiles at the time. “[I] had a real flunky, I’ll tell you. If that had been a Soviet pilot, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”

Photo of crashed plane on runwayHubbard’s experiences in the United States Air Force left him skilled in leadership and passionate about the human factors elements of piloting an airplane. Shortly after the ejection, Hubbard received his master’s degree in Aerospace Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In 2000, while working as an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) instructional systems designer for Boeing and designing courseware for the FAA, Hubbard earned a Doctoral degree in Education focused on human factors and pilot training from Oklahoma State University. He began teaching at the University of Oklahoma in 2012.

Hubbard’s classrooms challenge the status quo every day. Rather than be met by a lengthy lecture or PowerPoint presentation, students taking Hubbard’s Flight Deck Environmental Issues, Aerospace Ethicsor Crew Resource Management courses engage in extraordinary discussions, which often revolve around one of Hubbard’s dozens of “go to” stories of his experiences flying the U-2, T-37, or KC-135 aircraft. Hubbard described it perfectly in a 2018 article for the college blog when he said, “My passion is human factors related to flight, but the intensity of that passion comes when I talk about things that can get you killed.”

Photo of man in uniform receiving pinClassroom dialogues range from the expected and serious stories of the ejection and near shoot-down, to less “front page news” events where Dr. Hubbard had to challenge himself to ensure the safety of his airplane – including a U-2 high altitude flight where he lost cockpit heating and had to think outside of the box to keep himself alive at more than 70,000 feet. Another one of Hubbard’s favorites is discussing a no-flap precision approach in the U-2, which is essentially a series of stalls in instrument conditions to stay on glideslope.

“Some of these stories are based on life things that I’m hoping students will catch… I try to be relevant for today’s world. I want to leave breadcrumbs on how to do that for everybody I teach. I want everybody to understand what experiences they still need to have to make them whole, and then, once they have those experiences, what they should do to pass those on to somebody else.”

The conversational environment of a Todd Hubbard classroom keeps students glued to the material without even realizing it. Dr. Hubbard has a way of working in the important and syllabus-required content into his own stories without ever coming across as “teaching.” Woven into each story is something to capture the attention of everyone in the classroom – those interested in becoming career pilots, air traffic controllers, and those seeking a management job in aviation. Discussions include the chain of events for each story, followed by conversations which seek to understand the physiological and psychological elements that preceded and would ensue each event.

Photo of plane on runway“I want people to know why people are important. What was it that they stood for?  What was it that they passed on so that the rest of us are better?”

In addition to teaching in the classroom, Dr. Hubbard has published and edited scholarly books and journal articles focused on pilot training, pilot selection, human factors and situation awareness in aviation. He is also engaged in numerous research projects for the Federal Aviation Administration. Currently, Hubbard is preparing to research ways the FAA and airlines can protect essential flight crews (pilots, flight attendants, etc.) from pandemics such as COVID-19.

As the lead faculty for the School of Aviation Studies, Hubbard also serves as a representative and advisor for his colleagues. He champions their promotions and the advancement of their courses and research endeavors. He is a key element in the growth and expansion of the School of Aviation Studies and is working hard during this current administrative transition to ensure the school has what it needs to maintain relevancy and program excellence as we continue into this new decade. His goals to accomplish this include the addition of faculty and researchers, the development of a human factors lab, the addition of courses and new major offerings, and the creation of a master’s degree program.

With all of the incredible accomplishments, titles, projects and publications on his resume, Todd Hubbard says it’s creating a connection with students that has been the most rewarding part of his career. “Faculty members live for the [students] who will take time to develop relationships with them. Faculty members want very much to be a part of the mentoring process with young minds.” In a perfect world, Hubbard would like to spend more time doing one-on-one or small group research projects with students.

“It’s in those projects that I feel the most alive.”

Learn more about the OU Extended Campus School of Aviation Studies, or return to the Crimson Flyer Newsletter.

Brennan Jackson

Brennan Jackson, University of Oklahoma