Your Weekly Lex, For Strength

Arcin’ and sparkin’

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.

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