Three priorities are drilled into every fledgling naval aviator’s head from the day he starts flight school: Aviate, navigate, communicate – in that order. The first and eternal priority is to maintain control of the aircraft and try to keep it in the middle of the sky, staying clear of all the edges.
Having done so, it’s considered good form to be aware of where you are from moment to moment, mostly so that you’ll get to where you hope to be going but also so that you don’t go anywhere you’re not supposed to be. When you’re cruising along at 0.9 indicated Mach or so, it’s easier than it looks to get off track if you don’t pay attention, which is why the Navy invested so much money in digital moving maps and GPS-aided inertial navigation systems.
Finally, while maintaining aircraft control and boldly proceeding along the pre-planned track, you’re supposed to maintain cheerful exchanges of data with your wingman, air traffic control or tactical controllers. Occasionally they’ll have significant things to tell you, such as vectors, holding instructions, approach clearances, formation changes, SAM launches and, oh, yeah: Terrain avoidance instructions. For those times when your mission takes you to one of the sky’s edges.
If you get task saturated – and eventually everyone does – the idea is that you shed the lesser priority tasks in sequence. But you never give up the “fly the jet” bit.
In the late fall of 1987, I had returned from my first deployment and the squadron was in the middle of a readiness bathtub, with parts, flying hour money and even whole aircraft being surged forward to squadrons preparing for deployment. We were also shaking out some of the kinks in the then-new FA-18A aircraft design, such as landing gear planing links that failed to plane the main landing gear along the aircraft longitudinal axis when the wheels came down. A planing link failure could and did cause aircraft that were otherwise performing nicely to depart the runway on landing, veering off into the brambles. We were also working through the replacement of landing gear axle lever arms, which had an alarming tendency to break on landing aboard ship, causing the machine to collapse in the arresting wires and foul the flight deck. There were issues with the GE F404 engines too, including afterburner liners that blew out, and compressor turbine blades that would crack, spin off, get trapped against the whirling compressor section until white hot and then shoot out the side of the compressor casing. Some times these molten slugs went outboard, where no additional damage was done apart from violent stalls and casing fires on the offending engine. When Murphy got his vote, the slug would cut inboard through the fuselage, merrily severing hydraulic lines and electrical cabling before squirting in to the compressor section on the opposite engine, where the whole process was duly repeated.
The first case left you flying on one engine, with an elevated heart rate from all the bangs, beeps, squeaks and red warning lights in the cockpit, accompanied by Bitchin’ Betty’s dulcet tones, “Engine Left, Engine Left,” or if you were really having a blast, “Engine Fire Left, Engine Fire Left.” The second case doubled your pleasure and left you only the option of performing the Martin-Baker approach to landing.[…]