Trusting the LSO
By lex, on July 8th, 2004
Real short sea story.
1987, first deployment, North Arabian Sea. I’m a raw nugget (new guy), flying maybe my fourth or fifth fleet night flight. An air intercept control mission – fleet air defense.
We’re miles from nowhere, no diverts are available. When the shooter pulls the trigger on the catapult, you’re either landing on the ship or in the water. Those are the only options available. And it’s darker than a hat full of a**holes.
Twenty or thirty minutes into the flight, I notice that the jet needs progressively more and more lateral trim to fight a tendency of the left wing to drop – there’s a “coolie hat” on the control stick which relieves control forces in flight. Now, the FA-18 automatically trims to 1g flight in pitch with the flaps in “auto,” in other words, during normal flight. Re-trimming is required in the landing configuration, but rarely when cruising around with the flaps up. A little bit of lateral trim if the aircraft is carrying an asymmetric external load. Perhaps a twitch of longitudinal (rudder) trim from time to time.
But she keeps wanting to wing drop to the left, and I keep trimming it out. Which is strange, because I’m symmetrically loaded. Eventually a light bulb goes off in the brain housing unit, and I check the external fuel quantities. At sea, the FA-18 normally carries two external fuel tanks, each carrying a little over 2000 pounds (nearly seven hundred gallons) of fuel. They normally transfer to the fuselage tanks as those empty. One of my two external tanks was empty. The other was still full. A transfer failure. Two thousand pounds of gas seven feet displaced from the longitudinal axis of the jet. Fourteen thousand foot-pounds of lateral asymmetry.
The FA-18 doesn’t carry a lot of gas, for a fighter. At sea, you’re always watching the fuel gauges, making sure that your usage rates will not deplete your available fuel faster than the recovery time permits. Because in cyclic operations, you can’t come back and land just any old time. You come back and land on schedule. If you’re early, you’ll find the deck clobbered with the next launch – the landing area will not be open – and nothing can be done. And you have to bring enough gas home to allow yourself a few attempts at the deck, in case you bolter or are waved off – either for technique (translation: You suck) or a foul deck (translation: The guy in front of you got stuck in the wires – he sucks).
So it was a little disconcerting to realize that I had 2000 pounds less gas available than I would otherwise have been entitled to.