That time I almost died…

One sunny day not very long ago I found myself scheduled for a BFM flight. In these days of aging aircraft, such flights are rare indeed. Something about the heavy sustained G-forces and dynamic maneuvering strains the airframe, apparently…and when a certain strain threshold is reached, well, the nerdy engineer chaps say we can’t fly the airplane safely. Perhaps the wings will fall off. Or an engine will break from it’s mounting and depart the aircraft. Catastrophic failures like that would NOT be conducive to continued flight, so with much sighing and private gnashing of teeth we obey said engineers and only fly high-strain flights in order to be proficient for an impending battle. Should the worst happen, and all.

In any case, the world being what it is, the only really fun flights are those that strain the jets, so when it comes time to “maintain proficiency” by flying one, well, there are plenty of volunteers. I was among the lucky ones this time and so was quite excited for the day. There was, it seemed, an extra rich flavor in the squadron coffee, usually so vile. Instead of dragging on, the brief flew by while touching on old, well-learned lessons about how to handle one’s aircraft in the thick of the fight with an unyielding adversary. I couldn’t help dwelling on the glorious sunshine as I stepped from the squadron, my G-Suit, harness, and survival gear each attentively donned, tightened, and adjusted for comfort.

Takeoff, as usual, pressed me back in my seat with acceleration. As our flight of two climbed out into the achingly blue Southern California sky, we noted appreciatively the utter clarity of that day. No haze, no dust, no smog–just an unimpeded view in each direction. It was breathtaking.

And we were going to fight.

Our adversaries that day were F-5 aircraft from the Marine professional adversary squadron, the “Snipers.” A fighter much inferior to the Hornet in performance and avionics, it nevertheless had one significant advantage: the pilot. Sniper pilots have, on average, three thousand or more hours flying over something like fifteen years in the cockpit. They also practice fighting exclusively, being undistracted by other missions such air-to-ground sorties. And they fight Hornets a lot. All in all, our contest could be pretty evenly matched.

Which just made us more eager.

What fleet captain or major wouldn’t want to bring back gun footage of a hopelessly defensive senior adversary?

Checking into our working area, each of our two Hornets paired up with a Sniper and separated for individual fights. The setting was perfect. Farm fields and the Salton Sea below, clear blue sky above, the sun glowing in the south, and the air so clear that our Sniper’s camouflage paint job was nearly useless. We would shortly be locked in a close struggle, the proverbial “knife-fight in a phone booth” of two fighters so close in proximity that the slightest mistake could offer the other a chance to kill, and end the engagement.

There is something compelling about BFM. The acronym stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvers” and applies to fights that occur with both opponents within visual range. Normally, of course, if we can deal with our enemies beyond visual range, so much the better. Even more so if we can kill them before they can kill us. But once we’re within visual range, all bets are off. It’s pure airmanship. Both players try to maneuver their aircraft through 3-dimensional space so as to be too close or in the wrong piece of sky for their enemy to shoot them, while simultaneously attempting to set up their own shot. Doing so requires careful–even delicate!–flying in order to get the most aerodynamic performance out of the jet; it also requires the strength to fight against the centrifugal forces of an airplane arcing through the sky, measured in units of gravitational force (Gs). At the Hornet’s limit of 7.5 Gs, every finger, limb, even our heads weigh 7.5 times their normal weight. Flipping switches, moving the stick and throttle, and especially moving one’s head around to keep eyes on your adversary become quite difficult. And there is the ever-present threat of the ground to worry about, too –flying into that will end the engagement as definitively as a missile shot.

What glorious combat! Our mettle as fighter aircrew at stake, we sweated and strained against the Gs as we sought to find, maneuver upon, and kill the enemy. The ultimate challenge, an airborne cage-match, and behind the pride and reckless fun lies the haunting knowledge that one day, just maybe, our lives will depend on these skills we practiced that day. Defeat, if it comes, is sobering and frustrating. Victory is sweet.

The propitious mood of the flight continued through our engagements. We fought three sets against our Sniper, getting the best of him each time. Then he called “min fuel” and headed for home. We cheerily confirmed we’d debrief after landing, and, flushed with exertion and success, we climbed up to watch our wingman. Him a newer guy, we had some friendly concern with how he’d handle his wily bandit. We were pleased, my pilot and I, to see him acquitting himself quite respectably. And when his opponent also bowed out for fuel reasons, we decided to have a fourth fight right then there–you know, just because we could. And it also went well (for us).

Hard to beat a day flying like that. One finds himself idly wondering who would be crazy enough to actually pay someone to have so much fun.

The flight back was easy as pie. In that weather, visibility extended beyond a hundred miles, so we had the field long before coming up approach. Gliding gracefully into the overhead break pattern back home in Miramar, I thought to myself, that was the perfect flight.

And it was.

But one in the flying business does not say that, even to him or herself, without feeling a suspicious twinge. And suddenly I remembered another seemingly perfect flight, scarce months earlier.

March 23, 2009 found me six days deep in Hawaii. Now, I was ever so happy to enjoy such an exotic spring break on the dime of the Marine Corps except for the fact that I was headed home from a six-month deployment just then. When we had attempted that task five days earlier, a fellow Hornet broke it’s refueling probe and had to return to Hawaii for repairs. It was my luck, of course, that the fellow Hornet’s wingman was my own, and so I found myself returning as well.

Which, the repairs being completed quickly, left us waiting on the Air Force.

Now the Hornet is designed for fighting and attacking. Highly maneuverable and passably fast (in the order of Mach 1+ and/or 800 kts), it achieves all this by being mostly wing, engine, and fuel tank. The engines are quite powerful (36,000 pounds of thrust total) and eat up the fuel at an alarming rate, even when the aircraft is just cruising. So in order to make it more than several hundreds of miles, much less the 2,300 miles of ocean separating us from home, we need to nurse at a Tanker.

And also you should know that the raison d’etre, partially, of the Air Force–specifically the Air Mobility Command–is to help military units deploy. For this purpose they own tankers, which carry required hundreds of thousand pounds of fuel required to see two Hornets across those 2,300 miles of ocean. But they like their banker’s hours in the Air Force. They do not move quickly, or easily deviate from their schedule. So we waited for them to task a tanker to us so we could finally return home.

Pleasant and relaxing as it was, Hawaii couldn’t quite make us forget our desire to get back. Though the presence of spring break tourists on Waikiki did dull the pain a bit. As did the nightlife.

But finally, on the morning of March 23, we sat looking at Honolulu and Diamondhead from the runways at Hickam Air Force Base, with a single KC-135 tanker already taken off and waiting for us airborne. The KC-135 is affectionately called “The Iron Maiden” by Hornet pilots because its refueling basket is a solid metal contraption, suspended from the end of the boom by an eight-foot hose. It’s weight makes it easy to hit with the refueling probe, but in order to get fuel, the pilot has to drive his airplane (with the basket on the probe) in towards the boom in order to create a 90-degree “knuckle” in the bearing connecting the hose and basket. When the “knuckle” rotated past 90 degrees, the valve opens to let fuel in. Pretty dicey work holding a heavy steel basket steady next to a solid airplane, it is. Add in windstream pushing the basket around and the high-pressure fuel pressing against the probe itself, and you have a stressful little task for Hornet pilots.

But, being as it was a reliable refueling system, and we were experienced aircrew with many TransPac flights under our belt, we were not worried about tanking overmuch.

Yet I must caveat the prior statement with this: TransPacs are worrisome. Flying over large stretches of water with limited fuel reserves is always a little nerve-wracking. So many things can go wrong, like weather. And if something breaks and an airplane can’t take fuel, then does it have enough left to get to a runway? If not, aircrew might find themselves forced into a most unwelcome swim, riding on the rockets attached to their ejection seats, and hopefully close enough to land (or other ships) that they can be rescued before the sharks get them. I never liked the movie Jaws, anyway.

But any risk can be mitigated with much planning, and so we do. Or more truthfully the Air Force does it for us. They provide us with handy little packets describing our route and scheduled refueling points, chosen so at no point while airborne does any aircraft have insufficient fuel to make at least one divert. Theoretically. We pay close attention to such things on this type of flight, and that day was no exception. As it happens the TransPac leg between Hawaii and California is the most dangerous of all, because there are literally no intermediary diverts–no friendly little islands (or even atolls) on which a runway exists to rescue a fuel-starved Hornet. One checkpoint, poetically named “FEARR,” is the midpoint of the trip: nearly 1200 miles from land in any direction. In order to fly that far, a typical Hornet would need 14,500 pounds of fuel…and our max load is only 16,500 pounds. That’s a very small margin of safety.

But we weren’t worried. We’d done this before. On the “Iron Maiden,” too. And what a nice day it was!

It was a nice day. Clear, sunny, with (as I noted earlier) Honolulu bathed in sulight across the bay and Diamondhead rising majestically behind her. At one point, airport ground control held up a commercial liner to let us pass–a commercial liner, no doubt, with several hundred paying passengers. It just didn’t seem fair, I tell you, thinking of them passengers packed liked sardines in their uncomfortable seats while we luxuriated in the unlimited visibility and raw power of a fighter aircraft, but it sure did seem right. And with that little surge of pleasure and satisfaction we blasted off into pellucid Hawaiian air for the long trip to Miramar.

We rendezvoused with the Tanker a hundred miles east of of Hawaii and formed up for the flight. TransPac flying is boring, mostly. Once you get used to the endless span of trackless ocean, the horizon sharp and clear amid the scattered puffy clouds floating just above the water, well, then you only have the other aircrew for company and whatever entertainment is on hand. Periodically, of course, everyone snuggles up to the Tanker and takes fuel when it’s their turn, and that takes some concentration and attention. Otherwise, though, you’re just waiting. Feeling that parachute harness dig into your gluteal muscles. Squinting to keep the rising sun out of your eyes. Updating the nearest divert as you pass every navigational waypoint, on the off chance something goes wrong. And possibly reading, or listening to music, or eating. It’s a lot like a road trip.

But our high spirits that day made it all quite bearable. Kith and kin lay ahead, and a warm welcome after six months (and Thanksgiving and Christmas) spent abroad. We were, in a word, cheerful. Time after time we eased in behind the tanker, carefully and smoothly refueled, and re-assumed our relaxed position in the formation. The miles grew between us and Hawaii, shrunk between us and California. Dancing in our heads were visions of our triumphant overhead break at the field after six months’ absence. It was going to be good.

Closing in on Point FEARR we snuggled back up to the Tanker for Aerial Refueling number six. This was the first of several scheduled refuelings one after the other, designed to keep our fuel tanks full in case of divert. Realistically, we would alternate on the basket with our wingman, keeping our tanks as full as possible. We watch as our lead moved up behind the KC-135 basket and began taking gas. As he was doing so, he commented over the radio, “we’re going to California, boys!” And we rejoiced, for we had just passed the half-way point and were actually closer to home than to Hawaii.

Our lead took a full load of gas. Sixteen-thousand-and-five-hundred pounds. He moved off the tanker to the right side, exactly as he had done for the last five refuelings, and we moved in from the left. We stabilized about 15 feet behind the basket, and my pilot informed the tanker of this fact by calling “Pre-contact” on the radio. The tanker issued the expected “Cleared to contact” in reply. Moving forward at the prescribed 2 knots of closure, my pilot inserted the probe in the center of the basket with characteristic accuracy. It locked. Then he smoothly pushed the basket forward toward the boom, creating slack in the hose that would cause it to bend and eventually make a “knuckle” to allow.

It was a skilled approach, well befitting a fighter pilot and professional aviator. It was a nearly identical repeat of all the previous tanker approaches thus far.

But, suddenly before our wondering eyes the hose performed a funny little jink and, instead of rotating smoothly around the basket on its bearing, it jerked the wrong way, hesitated, then violently spun to the accustomed position.

And exploded in our faces.

Our canopy was suddenly rendered nearly opaque by gallons of high-pressure jet fuel cascading over it and back along our aircraft. In a sliver of vision I caught a view of the hose flailing wildly at the end of the boom with no basket attached. Ominously, there was a large shadow on the right side of the windscreen indicating that the fuel basket was still attached. “Get back” I said forcefully, a mere instant after I heard the engines spool to idle and felt the deceleration of the airplane. In a flash I comprehended: we weren’t getting fuel; we were in an emergency; we would have to Bingo all the way home, and even so we might not make it.

Adrenaline is a funny thing. The whole event took probably two seconds or less from the time our probe touched the basket and the time we pulled away from the tanker. But already I had the awful comprehension that the trip was changed, and that it was suddenly very dangerous, and amazingly enough I couldn’t muster any emotion. No disappointment at all. Just, what happens next?

Away from the Tanker, with our canopy clearing in the windstream, I felt the engines come back up to military power. We were climbing to a higher altitude where the lower concentration of oxygen would lessen drag and make our engines more fuel-efficient. I had our nearest divert, San Francisco International, as the selected waypoint already, and we were heading direct. The Tanker began to fall behind us, and I heard my flight lead declare an emergency. He named our destination as Moffett, a military airfield as close to San Francisco as makes no difference. It was a better choice than SFO.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a friend handy.

At this point, I confirmed that we were on a max-efficiency climb, and advised my pilot of the navigation setup: “You have steering to Moffett with 1150 miles to go.” I then looked at the fuel: thirteen-thousand-some pounds.

That was below our intended Bingo. That was alarming.

I knew that some fuel had been burned as we maneuvered away from the Tanker, and began our military power climb out. I knew also that Air Force Bingos were very conservative, including some 40-minutes of loiter time over the airfield in case of weather, or something. But still, I knew it was going to be close. Especially with a large metal basket hanging off our jet. How much drag did that add to our aircraft?

My lead interrupted my depressing little reverie. “Engine look OK?” he asked. Suddenly really worried, I quickly pulled up the engine monitor page, remembering how close the probe was to the right intake, fearing for a horrible instant that some shard of the basket assembly had been ingested into our right engine. Even a small piece of metal would tear the engine apart, at best causing us to shut it down and proceed single-engine, at worst causing more extensive damage. I scanned both columns on the page, looking for tell-tale discrepancies which might indicate an engine problem. I found that the right engine was running a little hotter the left, with higher RPM and Oil Pressure. I mentioned this, but my pilot confirmed that our right engine had been that way the entire flight. So we were relieved.

And yet with Murphy’s Law and all, who knew what might happen next?

About this time we started having difficulty getting any higher. We had reached our optimum cruise altitude, 33,000 feet. Now pointed straight at our divert airfield–albeit with more than a thousand miles to go–and stabilized at altitude, we painstakingly set the our max-efficiency throttle setting. Our lead told us to fly the best jet we could; he would simply follow us. No problem, buddy! We weren’t going to deviate from the precise settings calculated for peak efficiency, not for all the tea in China.

Our on-board computers showed us landing with about 1300 pounds of fuel, adjusted. That was scary. The minimum landing fuel in the Hornet for us is two thousand pounds, which provides roughly two missed approaches in visual flying conditions, or one missed approach in instrument conditions. We were below even that safety margin. If there was weather, we might not make the runway. If we had to go missed approach (for any number of reasons), we might not make the runway. Heck, if we had a headwind, we might not make the runway! Besides, nobody really knows when the hornet runs out of fuel–is it when the meter reads zero? It’s bad form to test that, especially if the price of guessing wrong is ejection and the loss of a $38 million jet. Or would we flame out with several hundred pounds visible on the fuel gauge? We might have even less than 1300 pounds to work with. I settled in for a very anxious couple of hours.

Now no reasonable man is going to trust his airplane and perhaps his life entirely to a computer, if he can help it. The computer said 1300 pounds of fuel on deck, but I could calculate myself based on our airspeed, distance-to-go, and fuel burn exactly what we’d get to Moffett with. And I did. Constantly. I filled sheets of paper from my kneeboard pad with calculations. At first, my calculations agreed with the dismal computer projections. With that basket staring at us through the windscreen, those were indeed the worst moments of the flight.

Clearing out the cockpit for a possible ejection? Not much fun. Especially if you can anticipate waiting until the last possible minute, then pulling the handle when the engines have flamed out and the aircraft is about to fall out of the sky, all the while truusting your life to a rocket motor, a parachute, and a life jacket (the latter two of which were packed unknown hands, unknown years ago). Scary.

But as fuel burned off and we pulled back the throttle a bit to maintain the same airspeed with a lighter aircraft, the fuel-on-deck numbers crept up. It looked rosier both on computer-generated and the manually calculated projection. Looking suddenly at about 1700 pounds on deck, we decided not to jettison our tanks (now that they were empty) because we figured we could make it. Maybe. Providentially, with about four hundred miles to the coast, a tailwind picked up and grew to about 40 knots. Suddenly we were looking fat, anticipating 2100 pounds on deck! It was a relief, I tell you. And, we reminded ourselves, it didn’t count the fuel we’d save in the descent.

Nearer the coast, we flew into radio contact with Oakland Center. The tanker had radioed ahead to them our situation, so when we checked in as “an emergency flight direct Moffett” we got a cool response and no instructions. Which is exactly what we wanted. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Any excessive maneuvers off course would eat up precious fuel, and we were still hundreds of miles from the coast. But encouraging was the weather information from Moffett, which called skies clear and unlimited visibility, landing to the north. So we decided to aim south of the field and make a nice easy turn north on a six-mile final approach path that would allow us to coast into the runway using as little gas as possible. Things were starting to feel a little more manageable.

I can’t describe what it was like seeing the coast that day. The sight of California, after two hours of wondering whether we’d make it at all, after five hours of endless ocean horizons, and after six months gone was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen (until I saw my wife again after 9 years’ absence, but, well, that’s a different story).

Shortly after sighting of the coast we saw the field–easily fifty miles away, but clearly visible on that beautiful day–and took a slight cut right to facilitate our easy turn to final. As a result of our gradual descent we were looking now at a veritable surfeit of fuel: 2500 pounds on deck. Our lead, however, reminded us that we still had a heavy metal basket tenuously attached to our aircraft, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything to accidentally drop it on some unsuspecting Californian. It was the right call. Generally, if something is going to fall off the jet, it will do so when the landing gear and flaps come down, for the new protuberances on the airplane tend to disturb the airflow a bit. With the recent crash of a stateside Hornet into a house in San Diego, we were especially worried. We didn’t want to do anything stupid.

So we lowered the gear just after crossing the coast, right over the unpopulated coastal hills that separate San Francisco Bay from the Pacific. It was with trepidation that my pilot reached up for the gear handle, and for my part I kept my finger hovering over the button that would mark our position and padlocked it with my eyes (the better to follow it’s trajectory), all in case the basket decided to depart our aircraft suddenly. As the gear doors slammed open and the gear began descending, I felt keenly each and every airframe buffet from the windstream, my eyes glued to our unwelcome guest and willing it to stay on.

Fortunately, it did. The gear came down smoothly with nary a vibration from the basket.

Which made for quite a relief. At least, until we saw more clearly what lay beneath our flight path to the field, which was nothing but houses. Pretty little houses, with picket fences, in pleasant suburban neighborhoods. Where you could imagine the basket, if it came off, landing in someone’s bedroom or kitchen. Where you could imagine some family crushed by the thing. Granted, it has survived putting down the landing gear. But it wasn’t like we’d had all good luck. We were a bit tense about it all.

At this point, Approach Control began squawking at us on the radio. They wanted us to take a vector south to get out of the way of northbound airplane passing to the east of us. We refused forcefully, citing (again) our emergency status and worrying again about fuel if we had to fly too far off course. Not to mention the gnawing concern of that basket perched precariously on a stubby fuel probe, flying over perfect suburban neighborhoods. Approach would not stop talking, however, and and as soon as we got the northbound airplane on our radar, we told them shortly we’d maintain separation ourselves and switched tower.

My lead turned toward the field first, and once we had sufficient separation from his aircraft, we followed suit. My pilot then began slowing the airplane for a normal touchdown. The, horrified, we noticed the basket vibrating. Vibrating significantly. Acutely conscious of the unsuspecting suburban residents living peacefully beneath us, we quickly accelerated to stop the basket from shaking. Not now! I thought. Not this close!

As we accelerated past 200 knots, the basket settled back. OK, then, we’ll fly it in at 200 knots.

Now our problem is landing too fast.

At that speed, the nose tire would probably burst on touchdown, which might causing us to lose control on the runway (or even flip over, which is a death sentence). But we had a little space past the neighborhoods, once we crossed the airfield boundary, in which to slow down, and a nice long runway use. It would just take a little touch from the pilot.

My pilot skillfully brought the throttles back once we cleared the house and, with barely a quarter mile to touch down, aerodynamically braked the aircraft for a gentle, 150-knot touchdown. Perfect. The basket vibrated again, true, but it stayed on…all the way through the rollout.

As our airspeed meter bottomed out on the runway, I relaxed suddenly in a slump. It was over. We had made it. Nothing dropped, nobody hurt, back to the good old contiguous U S of A. Pulling off the runway, I called for taxi, responding halfheartedly to the gibe over the radio as we taxied past the tower: “hey, is that thing supposed to be on there?” I just wanted to get out of that jet.

As I tried to negotiate the ladder down, I noticed my hands and legs were shaking. Once on the ground, I stared in disbelief at the large, heavy metal basket we brought 1150 frightening miles. I was drained, but not tired–just eerily aware of all that had happened. Mustering up as much bravado as I could, I snapped some pictures and traded some jokes with my pilot and the lead aircrew. We weren’t home yet, but we were safe, and suddenly it was all that mattered.

The Epilogue is a story in and of itself. After landing, we contacted Oakland Center to have them send the cargo plane with our Trail Maintenance element to Moffett, so we could get the basket off our aircraft. They complied, and we enjoyed a surreal dinner in the posh environment of the Bay Area while we waited for the maintainers to arrive. We greeted them awkwardly when they landed–we knew that they wanted to be home too and felt guilty that we broke to the point of needing their help. But they greeted us with powerful hugs. They had heard about the emergency were very concerned–and relieved that we had made it. It was somehow a great comfort to see them.

With characteristic Marine efficiency, they took off the basket and readied us for flight the next morning. They did it quickly enough that the could continue back to San Diego later that evening. So we made it to dry land; and they made it home. Happy evening for everyone.

As for us, we slept well in Navy housing, woke early, and made our belated return to Miramar at about 10:00. The wonder of California hadn’t left me since that first miraculous view from the Pacific less than a day prior, and I spent as much of the flight as my tasks would allow with my eyes glued to the window, looking from coast to mountain to desert. Finally we saw beloved home field, and as we entered the break I saw the rest of the squadron out to welcome us home. Not a perfect return, by any means, but a good one for sure.

Sometimes, getting home is all that matters.

So on that recent beautiful June day, returning victorious from simulated battle against a worthy adversary, I remembered that a perfect flight is, perhaps, overrated. Getting home is really all that matters. Getting you home, and your jet home. Preferably both working. And in that exact order.

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