Arcin’ and sparkin’
By lex, on May 10th, 2007
Briefly: It was a wonderful day to fly F-5′s in the Florida Keys, with a pair of onrushing F-14 Tomcats in front of me in the uncertain distance and an F-16N ahead and to my left as my flight lead. At the designated signal – an aileron roll, on this occasion – I went into a spacing maneuver designed to spoil the F-14 radar operators’ laboriously crafted situational awareness. Heading away now from both my wingman and the merge, making good time at about 550 knots or so in a descent, I was feeling very comfortable in the jet, not least because the Tiger II cockpit is remarkably spacious for such a small machine.
And that’s when I caught fire.
Oh, not me personally, and not the entire jet, but something in the electrical system behind the dashboard in front of me (and above my legs underneath the dash) gave up the ghost and connected at least two circuits which had been designed by the engineers to remain isolated. Suddenly my comfortable little cockpit felt rather cramped and crowded. Happened pretty quick too, just a whiff of a harsh electrical odor and then arcs and sparks followed by a billowing, choking cloud.
I found the whole experience very exciting.
Airborne, alone and on fire is no way to go through life, so rather than spend what was threatening to be the rest of my time on earth thinking about it, I reached forward through the smog, fumbled around on the horizontal console and shut off the jet’s single AC generator and then, after only a moment’s hesitation, the DC battery as well. That served to partially clear the cabin of smoke since the electrical system kept the canopy seals inflated with bleed air from the engines and with the power out, my cabin pressure started to leak past the deflating seals, taking some of the smoke with it. Actuating the mechanical ram/dump switch hastened the process along even as I switched the O2 system to 100% oxygen – just in case. My popping ears and whining sinuses seemed a small price to pay for clear air to breathe and a world that I could orient to, no matter how cold it was.
If you’re curious, I wasn’t making this stuff up “on the fly” as they say, these were among the published “boldface” procedures that pilots are required to commit to memory.
For reasons which at this point, probably seem obvious.
In a very short time the fire was out, the air was clear and my heart rate was down to a sustainable level. But I couldn’t talk to anyone, and since I was in an F-5, almost invisible in a turning fight, no one much missed me.
You almost never see the F-5.
I toyed with the idea of turning the battery switch back on to communicate with my lead – the single UHF radio could be operated off of the essential DC bus, powered by the battery – for a bit before finally committing to it. I really didn’t want to catch my legs on fire – fussy that way – but flying back to the field with no IFF (to squawk emergency codes with) and no radio (to get traffic separation and landing clearance with) seemed risky too. There were routine flights of commuter jets into Key West International that seemed to operate as though they were alone in the world, and while there are techniques for NORDO landings at military fields – fly overhead the pattern rocking your wings, turn downwind and look for a green light from the tower on final – I’d never really seen them work that well. You either missed the green light, or the controller missed shining it on you and you’d have to go around and try it again when most of all what you wanted to do was to put the damned thing on the ground and walk away from it.
Oh, sure, there was always the Martin-Baker option, but I was already on the way to completing a flying career in which my take-offs and full-stops added up to a round number, and very much wanted to keep it that way. Besides, as I’ve mentioned before, the F-5 ejection system was a frail vessel into which to pour all of your hopes. Even if it weren’t for all of those hammerhead sharks and the risks to one’s professional reputation.
Better to die than look bad.
Carefully then, and the first task to was to go around and actually turn every piece of electrical gear off before restoring system power to the essential bus. Back to the battery switch, then cautiously to the UHF radio, even as I was wending my way towards to the aerodrome at a moderate pace.
My lead apprised the situation at once, whipped his jet around and ran me down briskly – the Viper was good at that. We quickly formulated an approach plan in which he would perform all radio coordination even while I maintained the formation lead. The visual signal that I was cleared to land would be a patting motion on the dashboard, followed by a thumb’s up. It didn’t take much time to confirm the plan and shut the battery back off again, since it was standard operating procedure to brief NORDO recoveries – and many, many other emergencies – on every flight.
The landing itself was uneventful as they say, apart from my approach speed. Since I couldn’t get the flaps down, I whistled across the fence at about 220 knots as I recall. The brakes would have laughed at me for a moment before cheerfully self-destructing if I had tried to tap them at that speed, but fortunately the drag chute deployed as published in the operator’s manual and using the long runway at Navy Key West I didn’t even have to throw the hook down at the departure end cable.
Just as well, the flimsy thing was mostly just for looks on a USAF jet.
No point to that story really, just thought it was time to, you know: Tell it.
By lex, on September 24th, 2007
It may be hard to imagine today, but when I was a lad an entire generation of naval aviators had grown up to fill middle and even upper leadership roles in line squadrons without ever having “seen the wolf.” The long peace between Vietnam and Desert Storm meant that nearly 20 years had gone by with little more than the occasional drive by shooting.
My first CO was a Vietnam vet, as was his XO. After that were a long succession of folks who’d never been in actual combat. It was all too possible in that environment to get a “blue bomb” mentality.
A blue bomb is a MK76 (low drag) or a BDU-48 (high drag). These were twenty-five pound practice bombs with phosphorous marker cartridges in their nose. Their ballistic profile was very similar to that of a general purpose bomb like the 500 pound MK82, but they were vastly cheaper to expend in training and there was next to no danger in doing so – the marker charge sent up a lovely little column of smoke but had no “frag envelope” to avoid.
In the days before precision guided ordnance became the norm, hitting small targets like tanks, arty tubes and trucks often meant getting down low and groveling with them. It’s great fun in training, but hard work in combat – being in gun range works both ways. But, it’s hard to hit what you can’t see, so we trained extensively in the low altitude environment.
We always trained to fight in two-ship pairs (at a minimum) for mutual support – it was good to have someone to watch your six for AAA or SAMs when you were on government time in the final attack. To make a low altitude simultaneous attack on a target required that both strikers be off target within 5 seconds of each other, or else the trailing attacker would end up flying through the frag pattern of his leader’s bombs. That could lead to dash 2 taking engine or airframe damage and potentially going for a walk in the proximity of some fairly agitated bad guys. Alternate deconfliction schemes were also devised to put greater than 30 seconds of time (and a multi-axis attack) between detonations using relatively simple spacing patterns.
Practicing these drills at low altitude was great fun, but it wasn’t until you’d tried them carrying live ordnance that the real importance of flawless execution became apparent. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve been in a 15 degree dive on final attack at 1500 feet or so above the ground in a low altitude run and realized suddenly that the timing had gotten gooned and lead’s bombs – heading towards the same target you were approaching at 500 knots – hadn’t gone off yet.
It’s very exciting.
Another example of the benefits of experience and the blue bombing mentality was driven home for me when a new change came out to our weapons computer software in the late 80′s. Someone had spent good government money to enable a “hot gun” capability during ground attack with bombs.
Now, the 20mm cannon on the FA-18 is, when selected as the primary ground attack weapon, an incredibly accurate and lethal weapon. Relatively simple ballistics and short times of flight combined with accurate air-to-ground radar ranging meant that the bullets would go exactly where the aiming dot was placed. The hot gun cross had none of that however – it was necessarily austere, since most of the processing power of the weapons computer in a dive bombing attack was dedicated towards displaying either a release point or an impact point. The hot gun cross was little more than a selectable option on the weapons display and a static cross hair drawn on the HUD.
“This software change is useless,” I told my CO one day in the ready room at sea. “You’ll never hit anything with a static gun cross, and anyway your attention will be focused on the bomb run. Why on earth did we pay good money for this software change?”
The CO, a compact, taciturn man with extensive combat experience on Yankee Station, gave one of the longest speeches I ever heard him make: “You’re not supposed to hit anything with it. You just use it to hose the target area down when you’re on the wire. Fire a long burst and rudder her around a little bit. Gives the bad guys something else to think about besides tracking you in their gunsights.”
“Oh,” I replied. Feeling – not for the last time – simultaneously better educated and a great deal more stupid.
Fear of flying, II
By lex, on September 27th, 2007
It is often said in mult-seat aviation that you should never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than yourself. A pilot should be a little bit afraid. We are but soft and vulernerable creatures: Our evolution has not kept pace with our technology, we were never meant to move through space at such enormous speeds. Our craft are fragile things, each added ounce resented by the engineers who create them, and the whole construct cobbled together built by the lowest qualified bidder. We routinely operate our machines at the borders of our understanding of physics and aerodynamics. And the earth is so unyielding.
My friend had lost his fear. He was a very good stick, although perhaps a better pilot than he was an officer. His professional life was sound, but he had contrived to make a horrible coil of his personal life. I guess you could say that he loved rather more well than he did wisely. Things fell apart.
If it weren’t for the faith that he’d been raised in, he told me later – a faith he no longer truly believed in, but one that nevertheless impressed him with its doctrine that self-murder was the only unpardonable sin – he might not have survived to share his story with me, over one too many beers at the end of a hot day in a very foreign land. The story of how a kind of uncaring darkness had fallen over him. How, rather than courting death, or even tempting it, he decided to simply ignore it entirely.
Those of us that knew him sensed that something had changed, but there was nothing you could put your finger on. There were no overtly dangerous acts which might compel a peer to notify a flight surgeon or human factors council. His tactical flying and work around the ship was still razor sharp. He still smiled and laughed with the rest of us in the ready room and wardroom. I don’t know if any of us realized at the time that the neither the smiles nor the laughter ever quite made it all the way up to his eyes.
We do dangerous things as matter of course. We land high performance aircraft on the pitching decks of ships at night, in bad weather. We hurl our fragile craft towards the ground to release deadly weapons whose effects we must escape, even as we dodge the earth’s embrace. We fly at low altitude in mountainous terrain at over 500 mile per hour. At night. Looking through the soda-straw lenses of night vision devices. We fling our craft into complex aerial ballets under massive forces in the presence of numerous adversaries equally engaged. Not all of whom we see. Not all of whom see us. And that’s just in training.
It’s right in such circumstances to be a little bit afraid. To know fear is to know doubt, and to doubt is merely to acknowledge our human imperfection. We cannot know everything, cannot always sense the full environment, can not everywhere and in all things coalesce a coherent picture from a screaming chorus of sometimes conflicting inputs. To doubt a little is to check the math, to make allowances, to leave some in reserve. A doubter places a buffer around the margins when he can. Just in case.
The fearless man, the one who really doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, has no need of such luxuries. And if he is to survive in our business, he must be very, very good. Perfect, in fact. And no one can sustain perfect.
My friend went on in this dark place for several months. A tribute, if nothing else, to his abilities and some lingering sense of professional responsibility. You were expected to return the jet when you were done with it. Smashing it into the sea or flinging it into the turf was considered poor form.
My friend’s epiphany came to him, he said, on a post-maintenance functional check flight. Something or other had been removed and replaced, meaning a senior pilot had to wring it out before the plane might be flown by the less experienced. His checklist complete, he had sufficient fuel for some heavy “1v0″ maneuvering. Flying up against the edge of the envelope. Exploring the jet’s utmost capabilities in full afterburner, at max angle of attack. Looking for an advantage he might later use in a fight.
He got right up to the envelope’s edge. And then he pushed right through.
Now, the Hornet is a forgiving jet. She will take a fair amount of mishandling without protest. But like any machine she has limits. Cross over them in a sufficiently aggressive manner and she will quickly and remorselessly try to kill you and then spit on your grave.
The jet departed controlled flight violently and my friend was thrown bodily from side to side within the cockpit, his helmet smashing against the canopy. Warning tones sounded in his headset even as the familiar sibilant hiss of the airstream changed to the mad shout of a maelstrom. In moments of transition from one gyration to the next he would see kaleidoscope images of the sky and sun above, or the whitecapped sea below. The sea drawing closer with each breath. Waiting. Patient.
He fought to push himself back into the seat, lock his harness. Wrestled with the flight controls, trying to break the angle of attack, trying to regain control. Conflicting spin indicators on his digital data displays told him that he was in a “falling leaf” departure even as the altimeter unwound madly. He told himself that he would not eject, not suffer the embarrassment of being rescued and having to explain how he had pooched it. He would not go through the humiliation of a mishap investigation, and all of the professional psychological prying that would go with it. He decided that he would save the airplane from the destructive spiral he had put them in. Or else die with it.
“And that’s when I realized it,” he said to me blearily. I nodded silently: Go on.
“Upside down, hanging in the straps, fighting with the jet. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to die. I was afraid.”
In the end he saved the jet. Or who knows?
Maybe they saved each other.
By lex, on September 26th, 2007
Every job has its aggravations of course, but apart from specialized jobs within the services, firefighters and police, there are few, I think that require the daily mastery of physical fear. Carrier aviation certainly does, at least in the beginning when an aviator is first building the shell of self-confidence to hermetically surround and enclose his anxieties. It’s really, really hard and you have to do it fairly precisely. Not everyone is equally successful. Not with the flying part. Not with the fear. […]
The power of saying “no”
By lex, on November 20th, 2007
Obviously the military places great store in obeying the orders of properly constituted authority – we can’t very well go around having a council of war at every different level once the whistle blows. But for all things there is a time, and for every rule an exception.
When I was a lieutenant I had a CO who used to warn us about the risks of ‘flathatting’ thus: “Don’t do it – if I catch you doing it I’ll kill you. If you’re going to do it anyway, then at least for God’s sake brief whatever it is that you’re going to do. I’ll still kill you if I catch you, but that’s better than having some stray wire cross inside your skull provoking you into an unconsidered act which not only kills you but also destroys one of my airplanes. If you at least brief it, think it through beforehand, you’ve got a much better chance of surviving – at least until you get home. You’ll be just as dead either way, but if I can’t make you think of your own life, wife, friends or family, I want you to at least think of the taxpayer.”
Clear guidance. Made sense.
The pre-flight brief, you see, is a binding contract. It’s what you say you’re going to do with the $40 million piece of equipment that government has lent you, and by implication, what you’re not going to do. If you find yourself having to call an audible in flight, it meant that the brief had been insufficiently thorough. Which is itself a “debrief point” – a rather benign sounding term which carries the connotation of having screwed something up.
Came to pass one night that I was up at beautiful Fallon, Nevada, getting a refresh ride in the FA-18 after my tour as an adversary pilot in Key West. I was all rigged out in my best go-fast gear and ready to rain death and destruction – well, 25 pound practice bombs with smoke charges anyway – on the circular bullseye at Bravo 20. High angle bombing it was, 10,000 foot AGL roll-in, 45 degree dive at 475 knots true airspeed and a 3000 foot AGL minimum recovery altitude.
The target was not so much illuminated – this was before night vision devices had become in vogue – as it was outlined by a cross-shaped series of lights. The trick was to roll in, hurtle yourself to the deck at ever increasing speed, align the dim symbology of your heads up display with the vertical axis of the target lights glimmering out of the gloom, place your weapons symbology at the theoretical intersection of the lateral axis and drop your MK76 into the pitch black hole in the middle. And then pull 4-5 g’s (which at night always ended up being more like 5-6 g’s – one each for momma and the kids) to avoid following your bomb into the target. Points on for accuracy, points off for breaking the minalt, game over for plowing in.
We tend to be simple people. We like simple rules.
Our flight lead and instructor pilot was a USAF major on exchange with the Navy. I was junior time-in-grade among the three mid-grade officers in my flight. Besides myself (dash-2) there was another lieutenant commander also on his way to a department head tour in dash-3. Since we were all relatively experienced pilots, the pre-flight brief was mercifully short: Start, taxi, take-off, rejoin, enroute, break-up, bomb, rejoin overhead, battle damage check and return to base for a 10-second break and landing. Emergencies and hung ordnance. Before too long we were airborne, joined and heading to the target.
Flight breakup, pattern entry and mud moving went exactly as briefed, with your humble narrator bearing away the prize for accuracy. Which it’s my story, innit? So I get to tell it any way I like, and that’s the way I remember it. As far as you know.
Rejoined overhead the target and checked my lead’s wings clear of ordnance. Three provided the same courtesy to me. Lead called on the radio to say that we should take cruise formation, since it was his intent to drop down to 500 feet AGL and surveil the lights around the target bullseye. On a dark night – darker than a hat full of *ssholes, as they say. Darker than six feet up a cow’s… well, you follow me I think: Dark.
In mountainous terrain. Without night vision devices. Did I mention that it was dark?
I briefly considered my options. The flight lead was in a position of authority, and he hadn’t asked us our opinion – he’d told us what to do. But this was not anything we’d even hinted at in the brief and suffice it to say it was a significant deviation from normal operations. I waited a bit for the more senior Navy guy in dash-3 to say something, but it remained quiet on the net. Finally I had to break the silence:
Your humble scribe: Do what?
Flight lead: You know, just drop down, take a look. Check it out.
YHS: I’m detaching, I’ll see you guys back on deck.
FL: Say again?
YHS: We didn’t talk about this in the brief and I haven’t got the least intention of dropping down to 500 feet at night until I’ve got my wheels and flaps down on final approach to land. Good luck, though.
Now, I’ve always been a devil-take-the-hindmost kind of a guy, and nobody likes to be thought of as a “non-hack.” But neither are there any posthumous awards or citations attached to augering in on a training flight. I couldn’t order my seniors to abandon what I considered a stupidly risky idea with zero upside, but being in actual command of the aircraft I’d been loaned I could choose not to participate in it. In the end, the flight lead abandoned his scheme, I rejoined the flight and we headed back to the field for landing.
In the debrief I was fully prepared for some of that characteristic fighter pilot ululation, chest-thumping and high energy ego management, but as it turned out everyone was pretty thoughtful instead. It had been a pretty stupid idea.
I think maybe all of us learned about flying from that.
Cold War stories
By lex, on October 2nd, 2007
Pictures of Arleigh Burkes refueling Russian Federation destroyers brings back memories that even in the bad old days, we still managed to have some fun. I’ve written before about the Bear Box and Gate Guard missions but may have failed to share a story I heard about that occurred during one ship’s transit through.
This particular ship was to start her transit of the box on Christmas Day, which was – in honor of the holiday – scheduled to be a day of relative rest. Holiday routine and a no-fly day to give the flight deck a day off. Since they were entering the Box and didn’t want to be caught flat-footed by long range bombers, they had changed course slightly, stood up alert 5 and 15 fighters and raised the EMCON status to increase the circle of uncertainty – they’d never be found!
Anyway, in celebration of the upcoming day and – secure in the knowledge that 1) There was no flight schedule to sweat, 2) they could sleep in a bit on holiday routine, and 3) even those godless communists wouldn’t dare come out on Christmas Day, many of the junior air wing bubbas decided to participate in miniature Christmas parties right there in their own staterooms. Complete with simulated adult beverages, the real thing being of course proscribed aboard ship by naval regulation. In celebration of the birth of Our Savior. And because Christmas at sea is kind of the suXx0r.
But there were two things about simulated adult beverages: 1) The power of suggestion is a remarkable thing. So much so that even simulated beverages invoked effects which the outside observer might have difficulty distinguishing from the real thing, and 2) You still needed ice. Lot’s of it.
The net effect of which was that one junior pilot, whom I shall call “Wes” – a man who, by 2330 or so, had probably had enough simulation for the evening – decided that, no: More ice was required. If only to ensure the continued high fidelity of the simulation. Those who loved him best might have prevented him from leaving the safety of his hootch, for simulation or not, if the Big XO were to find him out and about it in a simulated state it might very well mean the End of His Naval Career. Rules being rules.
Yet Wes was not to be dissuaded. Boldly he went forward to the dirty shirt wardroom with plastic bag in hand, and again, the disinterested observer might have noted from his gait that the ship seemed to pitch and roll more in his presence than it did for those both before and abaft him.
The air wing commander hisself – the “CAG,” a Navy captain and a man like all of his species both antiquated and humorless – was in the wardroom having his evening converse with the maintenance tong when our man Wes manuevered to the ice machine for to fill his little plastic bag. But what with all of the little simulated Christmas parties going on, the ice machine, she was empty.
These are industrial size machines, the kind that had not, in the memory of the Republic, ever gone empty before. Not in cold waters, anyway. So perhaps you could forgive Wes his first 45-60 seconds of breathily leaning on the dispense button. The machine loudly emitted evulsive sounds which precluded all conversation, but with all the will in the world it could not bring forth ice when there was none. The moment stretched on for a bit with the CAG forced to suspend his conversation while the machine fruitlessly bumped, coughed and wheezed.
Eventually he turned to Wes and with a hard look in his eye he nevertheless asked in a quiet voice, “What’s the matter, son? Have you wrenched your knee? Or something?”
Wes, who was not so fully simulated as to be unaware of the gravity of his predicament, made quick excuses before making an even more hasty exit. CAG, being a clever man as well as a post-graduate student of human nature, considered the sordid little tableau he had just witnessed in company with the protestations of the helplessly empty ice machine and decided that it would be best if he was to man the dawn alert 5 fighter himself.
From which position, at 0615 on Christmas Day, he rattled down the catapult and into the rosy-fingered dawn, the Communists having chosen to prove their godlessness by sending forth bombers in search of the task force.
Having intercepted the Bear at the appropriate distance from the carrier, he was riding shotgun in starboard cruise when a Soviet crewman pressed a sign up against the glass observation blister back by the stern gun. CAG pulled closer to read the sign which, as it turned out, spelled “Merry Christmas!” with a little smiley face.