“The weather is clear; you are executing a formation takeoff on Runway One-Seven-Right. At rotation, you hear a loud pop, bang, and buzz and the number two engine RPM rolls back. Lieutenant, you have the aircraft,” the instructor says as he stands behind the podium in the flight room reading the stand-up scenario of the morning.
The young second lieutenant nervously stands from one of the chairs lining the sides of the room. He opens his emergency checklist and places it on the table in front of him while standing at attention. He swallows hard as the instructors and the rest of the class wait for him to speak.
“Roger, sir, I have the aircraft,” he says. “I will maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, take the proper action, and land as soon as conditions permit.”
It is how nearly every morning begins during the Air Force’s primary flight training program. Beyond the flying and the twelve-hour days, it’s perhaps the most grueling part of the training.
Students are asked to stand in front of their peers and talk through an emergency, telling the instructor every move he will make from the moment he discovers the emergency to safely getting the aircraft on the ground. Even the slightest misspeak can result in the instructor telling him to “sit down” and ground him for the rest of the day, but handling the emergency to the instructor’s satisfaction results in a nod and a “have a seat” from the instructor. From there, either the drill is concluded or another student is asked to pick up where the first student left off.
There is a reason for such training: when the jet you’re flying is moving at six miles per minute, you have to be able to think quickly on your feet. Just knowing the procedures is not enough, but understanding and applying them under pressure is what makes the difference between life and death. The lessons learned from these scenarios are written in the blood of those that came before.
I always hated standup, but I never realized what it was actually doing for me until I had my first real emergency in a military aircraft on a hot summer morning at Vance Air Force Base near Enid, Oklahoma, while flying a Northrop T-38C Talon.
We were just a week out from graduation. The hardest parts of Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training were over. Aside from a seemingly endless supply of weather days, our class had made it through Phase III uneventfully. No one had washed out and no one was really at risk to not graduate.
So when I reported in for my flight with my Flight Commander, as well as my best friend and dorm neighbor, maybe I was a little complacent. We were going out on an advanced formation flight – one of my last solos in the program. It was supposed to be fun. With my flight commander and buddy in the lead jet, I would fly formation and practice some of the more advanced formation maneuvers in the T-38, a lead-in to the next phase of training– Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals.
The weather was not bad, with a few clouds scattered around the field and in the area. The only minor concern was the temperature. It was the last day of May and the summer heat was already starting to roll in. With the older, small-intake T-38Cs, we would have been grounded. But our class had been among the first to integrate with the new Propulsion Modernization Program jets. Although they sacrificed top end speed, they had bigger intakes, which allowed better takeoff performance. The “Pimp” jets, as we called them, kept us flying when other bases were canceling for heat/density altitude.
I did my preflight and prestart checks by wrote. There aren’t a ton of solo flights in the program, so each time you finish doing the walk-around to see only one parachute hanging on a single ladder, it’s awesome. Sorry “crew” guys, but that’s how God intended a high performance aircraft to be flown – alone and unafraid.
I taxied out with my flight lead to the end of the runway. Once cleared for takeoff, we closed our canopies and positioned on the runway. He pulled out onto the far side of the runway and stopped. I taxied into position next to him. I wiggled my fingers and toes as I gave him an exaggerated head nod, indicating I was ready.
Taking off in afterburner while flying formation takes an exceptional level of concentration. It’s stressful, but highly rewarding if you get it right. I was determined to nail it after all, since I was flying with my best bud and the flight commander.
My flight commander gave me the run-up hand signal from the back seat of the second jet. With a solo student on his wing and a student in front, he was doing the flying to give me the best platform, although I have no doubt that my buddy would’ve done just as well. I pushed up the power as I held the brakes and looked inside at the digital engine instruments.
Once I confirmed that everything was in the green, I looked back and gave another head nod. As briefed, my flight commander tapped the side of his helmet three times with his left hand and then tilted his head back toward the headrest. When he brought his helmet back down and his chin hit his chest, we simultaneously released brakes and selected afterburner. We were off to the races.
My nose wheel was slightly off center as we started down the runway. After a minor correction, the takeoff roll was looking pretty good. All of the visual references appeared to be lined up. There was a slight left crosswind pushing me toward his jet, but as I saw his nose strut decompress, our two aircraft rotated at about the same time at 160 Knots Indicated Airspeed (KIAS).
As my nose strut started to lift from the runway, I suddenly heard a loud pop and a buzz as the jet wobbled and started to yaw into my flight lead. Time seemed to stand still as my brain tried to process what was going on. I had gone from perfectly in position to suddenly watching my flight lead’s jet walk away from me.
I looked forward to see ENGINE flashing at me in the HUD. I immediately remembered the boldface procedures: THROTTLES – MAX, FLAPS 60%, AIRSPEED – ATTAIN SETOS MINIMUM. It happened almost instinctively. I firewalled the throttles, slid my hand down to confirm the flap position and lowered the nose slightly to capture the Single Engine TakeOff Speed.
I glanced down at my engine instruments to see the right side engine indications glowing red. I didn’t have time to analyze the numbers, but I knew I had just encountered some form of compressor stall. The 9000-foot runway suddenly seemed short as I watched the 3000 and 2000 foot markers fly by as the jet struggled to get airborne on one engine.
As I finally got airborne, I cleaned up the gear and flaps while clearing the end of the runway at just 60 ft. My flight lead was now clearly in front of me, and my first urge was to tell him what was going on.
“Pecos Five One, Pecos Five Two,” I said over the auxiliary radio. My adrenaline was surging.
“Two go ahead,” my instructor said calmly. I know he had just watched me fall out of position and he had to know something was wrong, but he sounded like he had just woken up from a nap. That was the difference between an experienced instructor and a student with less than one hundred hours in the jet.
“Two had a compressor stall, right motor,” I said as I continued climbing out straight ahead. Both throttles were firewalled, but the right engine wasn’t making any thrust. I held the nose down to try to get some airspeed before I could turn back toward the field.
“Ok, One copies,” he said coolly.
Maintain aircraft control.
I was suddenly back in standup. Fly the plane first, and then worry about everything else. I needed airspeed and altitude to figure it out.
“Pecos Five One, Shoehorn,” the instructor in the Runway Supervisory Unit (responsible for monitoring the student traffic pattern in a small tower near the far runway) said.
“Go ahead,” my instructor replied.
Analyze the situation.
I was climbing out as I passed through two hundred knots and two hundred feet. I looked down at my engine instruments. The Exhaust Gas Temperature (EGT) gauge was latched and red, indicating the engine was overheating. I would need to pull the motor back once I was safely at altitude. I had no idea how much thrust, if any, it was producing, but I couldn’t risk losing what little bit it might give me as long as there was no fire.
“Yeah it looked like the number two aircraft had an orange spark on the right side, couldn’t tell if it was a blowout or flame,” he replied.
My flight lead gave me the lead as I turned crosswind and climbed up. Once I was at a safe maneuvering airspeed, I pulled the affected engine to idle to prevent further damage.
We talked through the indications I had as I leveled off on downwind. I was rattled, but trying to sound cool as I directed my wingman to rejoin on me. My instructor rejoined to my wing to look me over as I turned downwind and reached a safe altitude. We determined that it was a compressor stall and went through the procedures in the checklist for a compressor stall.
Take the proper action.
Just as I had been trained, I came up with a game plan, briefed the RSU and my instructor, and set up for a long straight in landing, leaving the affected engine at idle. The next obstacle would be the landing.
Aside from decreased engine performance on a hot day, single-engine landings were also dangerous in the T-38–especially with nearly full fuel. The heavier weights and raised flap settings required increased approach and landing speeds. It was something we practiced as students, but was preached as being dangerous by IPs. The T-38 was already hard enough to get the hang of at normal fuel weights and power. Getting it wrong and having to do a go around could be bad, but ending up short and going around too late would be deadly. It was a fine line.
My instructor chased me around the pattern as I set up to land using the standard visual references in the pattern. Once I had everything under control and a plan, I tried to sound cool on the radio, but failed miserably. My instructor had that part down. I, on the other hand, did not.
Land as soon as conditions permit.
We lined up on final with the other aircraft in chase. Once I confirmed we were below the gear extension speed, I called for the landing gear and we dropped our gear and 60% flaps simultaneously. What I would later learn that during that very critical phase (10:56), a bird came dangerously close to being sucked into the other intake. Fortunately, it missed. It would have been a bad day for me and the people in the Super Wal-Mart on final.
With the heavy weight, I approached at 190kts – almost thirty knots faster than normal. As I neared the runway, I could see the fire trucks waiting for me with their lights flashing. I hoped I wouldn’t need them as I timed my flare crossing the overrun.
After a bit of a float, I touched down smoothly. The RSU gave me a double-click on the radio, an action typically reserved for exceptional landings in the pattern. Mine wasn’t very exceptional, but it was an acknowledgement of my safe landing despite the circumstances.
As I slowed down, I really had no idea what to do next, having never really dealt with it before. In the simulator and stand up, the emergency always ended there. I slowed down and announced that I’d take the first taxiway, not knowing that the fire trucks were actually waiting for me at the taxiway at the end of the runway.
Since I didn’t get a “No, don’t do that, go to the end,” the dumb student in me thought it would be ok, so I taxied clear and waited as the trucks all turned around and sped to meet me from a half mile down the runway.
I shut the engines down and the aircraft was towed back. The Base Safety Officer met me and talked to me about the incident. I didn’t know if I had done things right or wrong, so I asked if I was in trouble. He said no as he showed me the remains of the two birds I had hit.
In the aftermath, I learned that at rotation, my #2 engine had ingested a bird, causing near catastrophic damage and destroying the fan blades of the small J85 engine. Even in relative success, there is always room to learn and improve. My instructor and I debriefed the things we had done well, and the things that could’ve been done better, the bottom line being that we got the airplane on the ground safely.
The training I had received paid off when I needed it the most. The entire event took less than fifteen minutes, but it was a learning experience that has stuck with me my entire career. The pressure of stand-up and emergency procedures simulators had made the real thing easier to manage.
This made me laugh a bit, however, when I was given nearly the same EP scenario during stand-up a few days later. And I was told to “sit down” after a misspeak.
Man. I’m glad I’m not a student anymore.
The video above is my HUD tape from that day. You can see the bird at 1:17 and if you turn your speakers up loud enough, you can hear the motor attempt to digest it.