Your Weekly Lex, For Strength

With our country’s independence day quickly approaching I thought I’d re-post one of my favorite posts from my favorite author. Capt. Carroll LaFon “LEX” was a Navy F-18 fighter pilot who was not only a maestro in the cockpit but a fantastic writer and poet as well. His blog “Neptunus Lex” was incredibly popular and after his untimely death flying a Israeli F-21 Kfir fighter jet in bad weather his supporters have remained loyal fans.


BFM

By lex, Tue – April 5, 2005

I never met a fighter pilot I didn’t want to gun.

BFM – Basic fighter maneuvers. Dogfighting. Mano a mano. One versus one.

Play hard or stay home.

There’s nearly nothing a fighter pilot would rather do, completely sober, than try himself against another fighter pilot in the physical and mental test of skill that is man-to-man air combat. Sure, there’s a great deal of job satisfaction to be had by shacking a weapons cache from 20,000 feet, and seeing secondary explosions – it’s lovely, in fact. But it’s not personal, it’s just business. And yes, the sensation of a near-perfect landing aboard the ship is as close as one can come to le petit mort while fully dressed. But that is a part of what we do. And it is true that in a many vs. many air combat brawl there is to be found the kind of fey, wild joy that was only paralleled perhaps a hundred years or so ago in the clashing collision of cavalry troops, there is the element of chance: You could do everything right, in a big fight, and still get killed.

Because in a huge fur ball, as a mature, multi-plane engagement is known, victory and defeat are only partly attributable to skill – engagements which follow tactical intercepts are rarely ever entirely neutral – there is always an advantage accrued to one side or the other in position, angle or altitude. And there is only so much information the human mind can process in a four vs. four or 4v6 engagement, at seven and a half g’s, with the sun scribing crazy arcs in the sky as the heavens and the sea alternately fill and fly from your windscreen. Odds are, having accepted the challenge to enter that dangerous environment (as you must – you are, after all, a fighter pilot) you will, over time, lose track of a friend, or worse – lose track of a foe. And when you lose sight, you lose the fight. It is exactly that simple. Because when you lose sight, you will most likely suffer a missile attack to the belly, a place you cannot visually clear, a place where you are blind. A place you cannot, therefore, defend. Because it’s always the one you don’t see that kills you.

Many v many fights are more like quantum mechanics than Newtonian physics – there, you take your chances, and you play the odds. If you are very good, you will mostly emerge victorious. Mostly.

But nothing is certain. Because sometimes you get the bear. And sometimes, the bear gets you.

Not so in a neutral 1v1. There, you and your adversary are perfectly matched in angle, airspeed and altitude. When the fight starts, when you accept the engagement, you will quickly enter a small space of air, bounded by the turning radii of your aircraft. It is a virtual “knife fight in a phone booth” – and while two can enter, only one will leave victorious.

In 1v1 BFM, your opponent does not shoot at your airplane – he shoots at you. When you brief the fight, you are measuring each other up. You are looking at your friend, and imagining innovative ways to kill him. You are striving for any advantage – terrain, altitude, the angle of the sun. This is not just business – it is personal.

Once airborne, on the way to the range, you’ll complete your combat checklist, to ensure that every system is optimized for the struggle ahead. The last thing you’ll do is a g-warm up: Four g’s one direction for 90 degrees, six g’s back on course. This serves to inflate your g-suit, and raise your heart rate and blood pressure – you’ll need them all.

Having reached the pre-agreed altitude, you’ll maneuver the jet to the correct distance abeam – a nautical mile and a half, quite frequently; nine thousand feet. And then you’ll strive to get exactly the right airspeed, often 350 knots. Because in a moment, the lead will make the radio call “Tapes on,” referring to the on-board video recording system – this system will capture all your weapons symbology, to ensure that any missile or gun attacks are valid. It will also record your altitude, heading and airspeed. Which you want to be exactly at the pre-briefed number. Because if you are five knots fast, and you win, it will be thought that you cheated. Which will erase the victory.

You check your orientation to the world. You look up, and fix the position of the sun: east-northeast, and 80 degrees high. Because you don’t want to let your adversary use it after the merge to hide. Because, if things work out, you’d like to use it for yourself.

“Three, two, one – fight’s on!”

At “three” you’ll maybe creep the throttles up a bit. At “two” they’ll be on the mil power stops. At “one,” you’ll push them into afterburner, and raise the nose just a bit, to keep from accelerating past the target airspeed. Because once the fight starts, you’ll want the blowers fully engaged, you’ll want every advantage you can gain. From this point onward, it’s tooth and nail, hammer and tong. Just you and him, alone together in the phone booth with an exit just big enough for one.

————

Some have said that the art of 1v1 BFM is antiquated, a leftover from the time of airborne knights and aerial chivalry. A legacy of times past that ought to be forgone: It is useless, it is dangerous. Missiles will do the killing work at range. Sometimes when we maneuver to the edge of the performance boundaries, as we must in BFM, we cross them. Having crossed them, sometimes we crash.

Sometimes we die.

Realists say that missiles can be defeated. Purists will say that nothing teaches so well the desired attributes of aggressiveness, the desire to win, the knowledge of the airplane, the knowledge of one’s self. Others will note that from the time you see your foe in combat, and he sees you, you are 1v1 in a real, personal and very intimate sense. When you both accept the engagement, and agree to “grovel” in a full-blown fight, you have agreed that today only one of you may live, and that the other must die. With today’s weapons systems, there is no other alternative. Once you open the door, and walk into the room, it is win or die.

It is no longer business. It is personal.

————-

At nine thousand feet of separation, your turning circles do not yet intersect. No point in trading precious airspeed for position when your adversary can take the angles back without a concomitant sacrifice. You are just too close to exchange missile attacks head on, and training rules prohibit you from forward hemisphere gun attacks. Because, while these are valid in combat, in training they would lead to far too many crashes, too many deaths, as each pilot strove for advantage.

At 1.5 miles separation, you are seven seconds away from each other.

You turn in slightly nose low – to maintain airspeed, to build turning room in the vertical. The airframe is moaning from the airspeed, the afterburners throbbing behind you – your g-suit inflates and deflates as the spring-bob which controls the valve is alternately depressed and released. You look over your shoulder, with a fixity of purpose that’s maybe only paralleled in a surgical ward: You must not lose sight.

He’s in the HUD – a left-to-left pass. Check the sun – no advantage, either way. Check airspeed – slow! Bunt the nose down. Better. Grit your teeth, he’s coming. He’s coming.

He’s here.

Pull the stick back in your lap, groan under the sudden onslaught of g – your 150-pound body now weighs well over a thousand pounds. The blood is pulled from your head, down towards your abdomen and legs. The g-suit inflates, fighting it. Your vision narrows, it dims. You strain, and grunt, willing the blood back up, back to your optic receptors. You must not lose sight. You fight to breathe against the strain, against the g-suit pressing on your thorax. You gasp for air. You drown.

Hard, hard across his tail, and down now, more g, striving for advantage. The earth fills your windscreen, but it’s far, far away – 20 seconds at least. Life is measured in much shorter periods in a fight. Ten seconds is an eternity.

He counters high – you dare to smile through gritted teeth inside your mask: A mistake. What goes up, must come down. What must come down is predictable. What comes down must fight against the earth’s own g force when coming back up again. A g against him, and one for you as you add your pull to earth’s own. That’s two g’s to you.

Too close now for a missile attack. It will be a guns kill, unless he rashly tries to flee: He doesn’t. He can’t. There’s time still to spend, long seconds. but it’s all over now, all over but the crying. He made a mistake.

You only get one mistake in air combat.

You have the angles, you add the pressure. You beat him down, merciless, pushing hard – now he’s out of altitude, nowhere to go. Now he’s out of airspeed, no way to get there. You switch to guns, pull lead, solve for plane of motion, solve for range. You pull the trigger. You call him out. It’s over.

There’s nothing quite like a guns kill: Missiles are mechanical – guns are aimed, guns take skill, guns require mastery.

A guns kill is personal.

Where is Noah When you need him?

The Caravan is sick, has a cold or Corona virus, or something. Symptoms? Metal in the oil. (considered bad, potentially fatal if not addressed)

So the old girl had a doctors appointment in Arkansas first thing Monday morning. Not a problem. fly jumpers all weekend, then head off for the 2.5 hour flight to Pocahontas Arkansas. We even got done a little early on Sunday so the pilot could make most of the flight in daytime. (not as scary I guess)

But no, “I’ll leave first thing in the morning” he says. I pointed out that the weather along the route was fine at that very moment, and even though the weather was supposed to be “OK” in the morning why not just go now? Why not? Well dear reader, if you are at all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it says humans have some very basic things that they need in life. Things like, food, safety, friends, esteem and self actualization. That is the needs list for normal people. Pilots and skydivers have a different list. It’s shorter. Beer, women and aircraft. In no particular order.

Our hero already had a plane to fly and it wasn’t Miller Time so can you guess what need he wanted to fill? Yep. “Momma always says, womens is the devil”

So instead of getting when the getting was good our fair haired put off takeoff until tghe next morning. What difference could it possibly make?

What indeed.

Before
Image may contain: sky, outdoor and water
After

To say I was grouchy about the pilot’s decision would be an understatment.

Luckily my runway drains quickly so by late afternoon there was a strip of grass that was dry enough to use. When the pilot finally showed up (GRRRRR!) I walked him out to the runway and showed him exactly where to start his run and where to head for. (my runway is very wide so a guy can get a little lost in it)

The pilot loaded up the plane with his overnight bag and a cute blonde and fired up. I decided to park myself halfway down the runway a shoot some video. You never know when something interesting is going to happen.

Somebody wasn’t paying attention when I told him what part of the runway to use.

Wisconsin Flood

What a great weekend! Tons of people wanted to jump out of reasonably good airplanes and for the first time this year nothing on said airplane broke. The weather was perfect and only two students landed in the trees. (Ok, that kind of sucked but no one got hurt so I’ll take it) It was almost like 2020 was trying to make amends for the crap it’s pulled so far.

Clouds started to roll in at the end of the day on Sunday and we had to scramble a bit to get the last load up but we got it done. The gang wrapped up the weekend by sitting in front of the building and rehashing the jumps we made over a couple of cool beverages. My daughter Claire (AKA “Super Girl”) even complemented me on my performance on the jump we made together on Saturday. (She’s WAY better than me now and I’ll take what I can get) Yep, it was the perfect end to a perfect weekend. This skydiving business is OK.

Then it started to rain. No big deal. We’d gotten everything done and the runway was getting a little dry anyway. Perfect.

Later that evening Super Girl sent me this picture of her boyfriend.

Ha! Ha! Look how rain we got!

The kids at the dropzone are standing around drinking in the rain and splashing in the puddles. So cute. Oh, to be young again.

Then I heard my phone ringing at 3:00 AM. Now whenever the phone rings late at night it’s never good news. My guess was that hail or a tornado had destroyed the airplane. (It’s parked outside) Nope, it was an extremely drunk pilot (but I repeat myself) and he was in quite a frenzy. It seemed that some of the aforementioned gang had taken advantage of the upcoming no-fly day and continued their celebrations into the wee hours. A good thing too. Because when one of them ventured into the main building to re-stock their supplies he found that things were getting just a bit moist. Very moist. Water was pouring into the building! ( ! indeed)

Cathy and I were ready to get dressed and spring into action but the drunk skydivers (again, I repeat myself) told us that they had things under control. They got all the parachutes and gear off the floor and saved what they could.

The next morning things were just a bit different out when the jumpers who live in our trailer park woke up.

Super Girl’s front porch view.

Needless to say we have our work cut out for us.

For Want of a Nail

Last week, (month? year? Things all run together for me this time of year) our jump plane had a chip detector light come on in flight. A chip detector is a small engine probe that can detect any metal that show up in the engine oil. It looks like a small spark plug and can detect even the tiniest amounts of metal in the oil.

There is supposed to be metal in the engine, NOT in the oil! Metal in the engine oil in an indication that something in the engine is coming apart. See: bad. The engine might continue to run for years or seconds. No way to know. But when that RBL (really bad light) comes on in a multi million dollar airplane full of squishy bodies the prudent pilot puts her on the ground, fast! The jumpers? They left the pilot to deal with the problem alone. That’s one of the advantages of being a skydiver.

” Anything I can do to help? No? Ok, well . . . See ya later. Good luck!”

So we got the Caravan on the ground and sent for the calvary. The man coming to the rescue in this case is Jorge “Horhay” Mechanic extrordonaire. We unbuttoned the plane and pulled the chip detector dreading what we might see.

We were hoping for a loose wire or something. What we really didn’t want to see was what Jorge called an “afro” An “Afro” in a chip detector that is full of metal and is generally considered “bad”

“We don’t likes bad, do we precious?”

We pulled the plug with baited breath and . . . . . nothing. Whew! Well, not exactly nothing. when I looked really close I could see just the smallest of black lines on the the plug.

You can’t see the metal hair because we wiped it off. Not sure you could’ve see it any any, it was that small.

There was just one tiny little hair of metal on the end of the plug. Matel. Bummer. But at least it wasn’t an afro. We reassembled the plane and ran the engine on the ground for 10 minutes and didn’t get another chip detector light so we test flew it. Still no light. The metal was probably just some tiny random sliver of metal that somehow worked it’s way loose after all these years. Probably.

So we filled the Caravan full of squishy bodies again the next day and hoped for the best.

Guess we’ll see.

Speed is Life

I’m the jumper in blue on the left

I made my first jump in 1986 and back then we thought we had it all figured out. You jump out of the plane, fly on your belly to grab your friends and then see how many formations you can make in the short time you have left before break off. For a short time jumpers sought to increase their freefall time by wearing big floppy jump suits called Balloon suits. The theory was the more drag you have the slower you go. The slower you go the more time you have to play. In practice they didn’t work very well because of the dirty air they produced. They also had a tendency to create very slow openings, which made things a little more exciting than they were looking for.

My first rig was exactly like the brown one on the right. (I’m old)

Fast forward to today, we still fly on our belly’s (sometimes) but my new favorite thing to do is what’s called angle diving. On an angle dive you chase the leader as he rockets through the sky in an almost straight down angle. It’s very challenging because you’re going almost as fast as you can go (250 mhp +) and if you make one tiny error you will be watching your friends from the cheap seats. And one of the coolest things about it is when you breakoff from each other you actually pull a lot of G’s with your body as you pull out from the steep angle and streak across the sky. It’s . . . exhilarating.

Boring

As many of you know, I own and run a skydiving school just east of Minneapolis called Skydive Twin Cities. My wife and I have owned it for 22 years and it is probably one of the most mellow and serene jobs one could imagine. NOT!

Managing a dropzone (DZ) is a crazy way to make a living. From the time I get up in the morning my day is filled with every kind of complicated challenge imaginable. There’s the normal mundane stuff that every small business owner must face. Staffing , accounting, payroll, advertising, normal boring stuff.

Then there’s the life or death decisions that I have to make every day. How’s the weather? Will someone die because the wind picks up and they get blown into the trees? Do I have to fire that jumpmaster because he isn’t good enough to save an out of control student in freefall? Or is a tandem instructor who’s landings are so bad that I’m afraid someone will get hurt? Or did they already hurt somebody on a landing but I’ve been friends with them for 30 years and just can’t bring myself to ground them? Is the plane making a funny noise? Did we run out of toilet paper? Did someone’s dog crap in the landing area? Is that line of powerful thunderstorms going to hit us and should I spend the money to fly the plane to safety or tie it down and take my chances? The list is endless.

There’s not enough room on the internet to cover every decision I’ve made this year so I’ll just give you the high points of the 2020 skydiving season so far.

Looks like and early spring. Call the company we lease the Cessna Grand Caravan jump plane from and tell them to send us the plane early. But they can’t. The plane is getting a new hot section (engine) and won’t be ready for weeks.

I was right. The snow has melted off the runway and we could have been jumping in late March. But it doesn’t matter because the COVID -19 pandemic has shut the world down.

Some of the jump staff haven’t saved enough money to live on and we have to give them advances on their pay. (beer isn’t free you know)

Wisconsin’s lockdown ends unexpectedly but we still don’t have our big 18 passenger turbine jump plane. But our little 4 passenger Cessna 182 is available. Can we start jumping? Can’t social distance by putting 5 people in a small plane. The skydivers don’t care, let’s jump!

The battery on the 182 is bad and we’re forced to jump start the plane almost every time.

The big plane is here! It’s the end of May and we’ve lost 1/3 of our season but we can start jumping. Opening day, the weather is great and the plane is filled with paying customers. We might actually survive the season!

We make it four hours before our first injury of the season. Ambulance on the runway to cart off a tandem passenger with a back injury.

Back to jumping.

Stop jumping. The pilot calls down with a flight control emergency. He has a broken elevator trim wheel and the plane is stuck in a nose down configuration. He lands safely and we discover the shaft on the trim wheel has broken. No one has ever seen that happen before. Back to the small plane. Send most of the jumpers home.

The plane is fixed! (Don’t ask me how)

Another great weather day! The dropzone is filled with jumpers again and things are looking up!

One of the instructors calls in and tells us he’s tested positive for COVID-19. Great, I tell the staff they all have to get tested. The instructor calls back. It turns out that he doesn’t have COVID-19 after all, just his girlfriend.

Last load of the day. Thunderstorms are coming and we have to hurry to get a student one last jump. I go along to make a jump just for kicks. Halfway up the pilot calls me into the cockpit. He has a chip detector warning light on the instrument panel. This warns us that there might be metal in the oil. (very serious) We all jump, leaving the pilot to deal with the potential engine out landing.

The plane is grounded.

How’s your spring going?

What’s my Favorite?

I know I’ve said in the past that Greenland is my favorite place in the world to fly. That was something of an overstatement. What I meant to say was that it is one of my favorite places to fly. Greenland is indeed beautiful. (You literally can’t take a boring picture when flying over Greenland) It is also a part of the world filled with the sense of adventure that I crave when flying. (you’re not in Kansas anymore)

But is it my favorite? Well, I don’t know. I never thought about it like that. So dear reader let’s explore this together. Over the next few days (months, years? You know how I can be) I will select a part of the world that I’ve flown over and we can examine the pros and cons together.

Dad Can Make it Safer

Transportation Safety Board of Canada Says IFR Approaches Are Confusing

King Air

Among the issues identified during a 2018 overrun investigation was, “The rules governing instrument approaches in Canada are too complex, confusing and ineffective at preventing pilots from conducting approaches that are not allowed, or banned, because they are below the minimum weather limits,” according to Canada’s Transportation Safety Board. In other parts of the world, a flight crew is not allowed to begin an instrument approach if the reported weather is below published minimums for a given approach except in Canada, where “flight crews are permitted to conduct approaches in visibility conditions that are below what is published.”

The TSB recently issued these findings as part of its report of a February 2018 accident in which a chartered Beech King Air A100 ran off the end of the runway at Havre-Saint-Pierre, Quebec. The airplane was substantially damaged but luckily all occupants escaped with only minor injuries—or none at all. As part of the report, the TSB asked Transport Canada to simplify approach and landing minima as presented in a TSB video.

The King Air A100 was conducting a charter flight under instrument flight rules, from the Sept-Îles Airport, Quebec, to the Havre St-Pierre Airport, Quebec, with two crew members and six passengers. “Prior to departure, the weather at Havre St-Pierre aerodrome indicated a visibility of 3/4 of a statute mile in light snow…enroute, the crew received updated weather, which indicated the visibility had deteriorated to just 1/4 mile in heavy snow—well below the minimum visibility allowed to conduct the approach. However, the pilot believed he could continue the approach safely.” When the pilot did manage to catch sight of a small patch of runway, he continued the landing, touching down just 700 feet before the end of the runway. The aircraft overran the end and came to a stop in a large snowbank approximately 220 feet beyond the end of the runway.

The TSB said, “Flight crews have to consult multiple reference documents and consider a variety of factors to determine if an approach is allowed. The current rules also make it difficult for ATC to determine whether an approach is authorized. As a result, ATC will clear an aircraft for an approach regardless of the published minima, leaving the ultimate decision to conduct the approach to the flight crew.” The TSB added that, “based on the pilot’s interpretation of the various factors and exceptions relating to the approach ban, the pilot incorrectly believed he was allowed to conduct the approach.”

So to recap. A couple of dumbshit pilots decide to go “take a look” Nothing wrong with that. I’m all in favor of shooting an approach where it looks doubtful but possible. I’ve made it work a few times myself. No, I didn’t go below minimums. That would be dangerous and wrong. And you can’t prove anything.

The trick is that you have to fly a nice stabilized approach. And if you don’t get lucky you got to go around. The very last thing you want to do is go trolling around for the runway when the conditions are well and truley dogshit. But no, these two clowns had to go and wreck it for everyone. Now Canada says no more. If it’s not a nice sunny day stay home and play cards. Or words to that effect. This is why we can’t have nice things.

More Oops

Ouch, That’s gotta hurt. This was sent to me from the company that we lease our jump plane from. I’m not sure exactly what happened but my guess is that someone got distracted while taxiing or they thought they had the brakes set when in fact they didn’t. Either way I can’t even imagine what the bill for that little oopsie dasiy is going to be.