By lex, on January 23rd, 2010
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.[…]
By lex, on March 12th, 2008
Short sea story:
One of my first training command CO’s had last flown the RF-8P before taking command of the training squadron. The RF-8P was a photo-reconnaissance version of the venerable Crusader jet – last of the gunfighters. The F-8 cohort were hard men, and they threw themselves into the art and science of air combat knowing their lives depended upon it. They played hard ball in the air, even in training: Mishap rates for the single engine gunfighter were atrocious compared to the newer F-4 Phantoms just coming on line during the Vietnam war.
The Navy had placed a huge investment in advanced combat systems in the F-4 Phantom to increasingly take the aircrew out of the loop, meaning that dangerous air combat training could reduced or eliminated – smart missiles would make up for dumb pilots. The Navy tried to tie the hands of the Crusader crews during training as well, but that proved a much harder policy to enforce in the single seat fighter community. Their Spartan devotion to the art of air combat paid off: The F-8 had the highest kill ratio of any US aircraft in Vietnam.
The Navy Fighter Weapons School – TOPGUN – was instituted as much as anything else because we’d come to rely on the technology of the box more than the capability of the man flying it. It was a successful expenditure of resources: Navy kill ratios after the Weapons School’s debut went from 2.3:1 to 13:1. […]
By lex, on March 1st, 2007
It’s funny how the memory well can run dry, and then something comes along and primes the pump and there’s one story after another waiting to spill out of you. This one, like yesterday’s, is not my own, but told to me by the man to whom it happened. Another Marine captain, an instructor in the TA-4J training squadron in Meridian, Mississippi. Had a livid scar across his eyebrow, a white line that ran from atop his brow half way to his right ear.
I often wondered how he got it. One day, without prompting, he told me.
It was a night bombing hop out of Cubi Point Naval Air Station, south of Olongapo in the Philipines. He was dash-2 on a dark and drizzling night – a night maybe, where wisdom might have called for discretion as the better part of valor, but that was not our culture in those days. We didn’t scrub for darkness, and we didn’t scrub for weather if there was any way around it. Only non-hacks cancelled. They were Marine attack pilots. They were going flying.[…]
When someone hit the “mute” switch on my XO’s fighter…
A beautiful day in Key West. Florida. I’m part of a three-ship of bogies, fighting against a pair of FA-18s from the east coast training squadron. I’m in a TA-4J, a two-seat version of our subsonic, single engine adversary aircraft. My squadron XO is in the single-seat version, an A-4E. Our flight lead is a good friend in an F-16N – he has a radar, he gets us to the merge.
We’ve had two hacks, and are half way through the third, when I hear a “knock it off, I’m flaming out.” It’s the XO, and already he’s starting to lose altitude as the engine unwinds. It was a single engine aircraft, with the one (the only) engine driving the generator and no battery, so I know he’s already deployed the ram air turbine, or RAT. The RAT is a basically an electricity generating windmill, that deploys from the fuselage cheek into the windstream when a handle in the cockpit is pulled.
I ease power to idle and feather the speedbrakes to maintain position. We’re at around 15,000 feet, descending at about 2000-3000 feet per minute. We’ve got some time before 3000 feet (our minimum controlled ejection altitude in that aircraft) but not lots of time. I start going through the engine failure checklist from memory on the UHF radio to help him out – like me, he has it memorized. Unlike me, he’s about five or six checklist steps away from punching out of what had moments before been a perfectly suitable airplane. It’s going to hurt, physically. Pointed questions will be asked at the mishap review. One tends to get distracted. […]
A bad weather day
By lex, on June 9th, 2004
Sometimes the mission doesn’t make much sense.
Sometimes you do it anyway.
Everyone has a store of sea stories that makes him looks like a hero.
This is not one of those.
Fighter aviation is mercillessly unforgiving of weakness of any sort, personal, professional, or character. The pressure to compete and succeed is remarkable – sometimes it can be fatal.
I loved it. […]
This story reminds me of how WAY too many ferry flights ended. When your flight is up to ten hours long and the weather forecast was already a few hours old when you took off the conditions you could expect when you finally got to your destination were frequently surprising, and never in a good way.
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.
By lex, on August 29th, 2004
After major maintenance, an aircraft has to be flown by a specially designated check pilot on a PMCF – a post-maintenance check flight, before it’s released for general use. These are also known as FCF’s, or “functional check flights.” The designation is eagerly sought out by pilots, and sparingly bestowed. Being certified an FCF pilot carries with it a mark of professional trust, and added responsiblity. Too many pilots designated a check pilot in a squadron dilutes the opportunity for the select few to stay proficient in the different check procedures.
The decision on whether or not to release a jet for general use is a serious one, demanding thorough knowledge of the aircraft and its systems, and an ability to react quickly and properly to anything that may go wrong – always an elevated risk on a plane that’s had a major re-work done.
They’re also a lot of fun.
A little not enough gas
By lex, on July 21st, 2004
A quick sea story (not mine, I am only a messenger) now that I’ve introduced the concept of in flight refueling.
A friend of mine was coming back from a shore detachment in Oman, lo these many years ago. They’d been ashore for a couple of weeks, and were due back to the carrier, operating on the line at the extreme edge of the range feasibility arc for the returning fighters.
Who were also carrying a lot of captive ordnance and extra external fuel tanks – hauling trash on the wing stations increases drag, which in turn increases fuel consumption rates. Having enough gas to get aboard was going to be dicey – making it back to Oman once they’d passed the mid-point was out of the question.
After they got overhead the ship in relatively crappy weather (the North Arabian Sea in the summertime is routinely a mess), they were instructed to hold overhead until the deck could be made ready for their recovery. The recovery time had come and gone without the marshall controllers having passed along any approach instructions: The clock was ticking, the fuel was being burned and those little hairs on the back of the pilots necks were starting to prickle.
The flight lead called down to the ship and asked, if they weren’t too busy to tell him, what the hell was going on down there, anyway?
“We’re running downwind,” came the terse reply.
Which the lead thought would have been a grand thing to do back before the fighters had shown up overhead, looking to land. Turned out that the ship’s navigator had stumbled a bit over the charts, and the ship had been half way through her turn into the wind before an alert quartermaster’s mate mentioned that the recovery course would have them aground before the recovery was complete. Shoal water.
If you’re a ship’s CO and the choice is one of running 85,000 tons of aircraft carrier aground in the North Arabian Sea, or delaying the recovery until you’ve won some sea room, well – let’s just say that’s no choice at all.
Good news though! There was a USAF tanker 50 miles to the north, according to folks in air operations. The eight-ship of fighters was vectored to the north, keen to get radar contact and get in the basket, getting that few extra few thousand pounds of Air Force gas that would make their naval lives just that bit more comfortable. It was going to be tight.