From Reggie: Some tales you just shouldn’t tell your mother about, especially if you are a pilot and there’s a chance you’ll have to face the same demons the next day. If you have a child in flight school, best to just ignore this article and move on so you will continue to sleep well at night.
By CDR Reggie Hammond
“Key West Approach, Gunfighter 11 checking in, two one oh.”
Alcohol, fighter jets and Key West, Florida go together hand in glove. Liquid courage goes a long way towards boosting the spirits of pilots out to test their mettle against the environment, the bar scene on Duval Street and other prima donnas in the profession.
F-14 crews knew how to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and the waters just north of communist Cuba were perfect for honing the skills needed to dominate our adversaries’ thoughts.
Toadboy and I had just finished executing our best 1 v 0, where we bend the jet around against imaginary airplanes. We practiced our breathing and talking during hard pulls, performed aerobatics designed to defend against and eventually kill enemy aircraft and we focused on how to safely maneuver the airplane both extremely slow and with tons of energy or “smack”.
We were on our way back from the working area, descending into the field at the southeastern most point of the United States. The waters surrounding the islands danced with light and were pleasantly distracting, especially since we were by ourselves and I didn’t have to worry about a flight lead for today.
Training At the “RAG”
As a new Tomcat pilot, I had the benefit of flying with an elite cadre of pilots and Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs), who teach newly winged naval aviators and navigators how to employ the finest machines our nation could produce.
Toadboy was an old school, play hard but know your stuff cold, instructor RIO. I trusted him implicitly—which I guess was important for him—knowing his life was in the hands of a nugget whose abilities were still disputable.
I’m sure Toadboy had plenty of harrowing stories of night arrested landings coming aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier while it pitched around mercilessly in a foamy ocean far from land. But this was Key West and life was good, only five more minutes and we’d be “safe on deck”. Why worry?
When we left the field 45 minutes before, the weather was “clear and a million”. We’d burned through 15,000 pounds of jet fuel, mostly in full Zone 5 afterburner. Now there was a “scud” layer of low hanging clouds that had settled over half of the island where the runways were.
The F-14A was the oldest version of the formidable titanium sled known around the world. I had two underpowered TF-30 turbofan engines slung beneath me, an analog roll stability augmentation system which was best to turn off during dogfighting to avoid losing control of the aircraft, and a Head’s Up Display or “HUD” that could’ve easily been upgraded by replacing it with a cat toy dangling on the end of a Slinky.
The jet had more than her fair share of redeeming qualities though. The engines, while old, tended to “spit fire” and were one of the nastiest sights to behold when they were in “full grunt” on the catapult during a night takeoff from the carrier. Our flight control system was analog, but the aircraft was surprisingly honest if you followed certain rules.
You treat it nice, it will respond nicely.
When the cans were lit, the engines made a nice rumble and at just below Mach 1 we would say we were “tickling the number”. With the wings swept back at high speeds, the F-14 looked like a lion crouched and ready to pounce. Large white puffs of water vapor condensed in a dramatic fashion around the airframe. It was as if the jet itself was breathing rapidly on a cold Wisconsin morning.
Average flying video just looks better when set to rock ‘n’ roll music – when the pilot and RIO work as a crew, with a $30 million Camaro strapped to their backs and you feel like screaming your first love’s name out loud… it’s magic.
Inside ten miles, I manually swept the wings back to make us look like a flying tortilla chip and Toadboy made a quick call to tower. We dipped down below the scattered layer of clouds with no traffic in front of us. License to steal, I selected mid-range afterburner so we’d look like we were returning home after a sweet victory. A quick flick of my right wrist and we leveled off at 800 feet above the ground. Having the wings all the way back wasn’t necessary, it just looked cooler than leaving the wings in Auto and having them program to some mid-range position based on our speed.
The HUD, being as useless as a 100-plus pound paperweight, was good exercise for the one aviation electronics technician in every squadron that had been recruited from a high school football team specifically for extracting and replacing the massive object from the nose of the jet.
Other than that, we learned quickly to rely on the horizon God gave us, when available, and used our instruments inside the cockpit in bad weather and at night. Roll and fill about one third of your bulletproof windscreen with horizon was generally a good starting point for me to execute a level turn. Any more than that and I’d better be dropping a bomb on a range somewhere.
In The Overhead
I was really hauling the chili by the time we were over the runway and would have to slow down a lot to hit 250 knots so I could safely drop my landing gear and flaps. So I rolled left about 70 degrees, throttled back to idle and started a 6.5 G pull. Normally I would have detected on my own that I used insufficient angle of bank in the turn, but the cloud layer was obscuring the actual horizon and I didn’t catch on that this false horizon was not level before my RIO did.
“You’re climbing!” was the first thing I heard from Toadboy when he noticed our altitude needle going up. Normally this is considered an advisory call to the pilot when you are this low to the ground, but since I knew everyone on deck was probably watching, I wanted to look good, so I took immediate action.
One of the first things we talked about during our brief for this flight was that I should always avoid “loaded rolls” with our analog flight control system. At slow speeds it could lead to adverse yaw where the nose of the jet opposes the direction of roll.
At higher speeds, the jet could be equally unpredictable, with proverse yaw (nose tracks in the direction of roll), roll coupling and in some extreme situations the aircraft could even depart controlled flight in violent fashion.
If you watch the movie TOPGUN, there’s a great scene where an F-14 turns hard and you see his spoilers pop up on the outer edge of the wing in what makes for a nasty looking turn. The spoilers kill or spoil lift on the outer edge of the wing and cause the aircraft to roll aggressively when at high speeds if maximum stick deflection is used.
When flying a variable geometry wing jet, with the wings swept all the way aft, and pulling 6.5 times the force of gravity while slowing through 300 knots with the roll stability augmentation system still off (oops, forgot to turn that back on when I left the working area)—pumping the stick full left without relaxing back stick pressure first is “bad”.
I don’t know if I can explain exactly what happened next other than that the jet “bucked”. The roll didn’t come like I expected it to… Instead, the nose shot up and to the right first and then the “bull” just flipped over on its back to the left and into a 20-30 degree dive in what seemed like a nano-second. I was immediately disoriented.
Thank God for a RIO Named “Toadboy”
Cue Toadboy. When you hear that time slows down in extreme situations, keep in mind that each of his directive calls was separated by only about 2-3 seconds and I kid you not – I had time to reflect on a lot of stuff in between each call he made.
“Unload,” to which I immediately responded by neutralizing the lateral stick and then jamming it forward into my radar repeater. It’s important when you strap on a jet that you tighten down your lap belts well. I’ve had plenty of bruises from doing this a little too diligently, but it’s better than kissing the canopy under negative G.
“Roll wings level,” to which I smoothly applied coordinated right stick AND right rudder and then this was when I realized just how dire our situation was. I had a face full of trees and my mind registered the situation accurately as I knew life or death depended on the next few seconds. I instantly decided not to pull my ejection handle because I had a RIO who would make that decision for us while I continued to fly the death blossom (if you haven’t seen The Last Starfighter, see it…).
“Blower,” to which I immediately slammed my left hand forward and felt the familiar “kick, kick, kick…” as each stage of the engines’ afterburners lit off in succession.
Just as soon as I realized I had knots on the airplane and was flying again, I set a good pull to try and avoid the trees, which I could swear smelled like pine trees, while simultaneously trying not to stall the wings by pulling too hard.
“Your wings are back!”
Normally I would’ve said that in this situation, at 220 knots, I’d have been good. However, having the wings still pinned back at 68 degrees aft of my 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock line at this relatively low speed and extremely low altitude would normally be a death sentence. The Tomcat was built for speed, not lift, in this configuration.
Knowing every knob, lever, switch, handle and circuit breaker in a tactical aircraft is part of being a professional and safeguarding taxpayer money. We do blind-fold cockpit checks to make sure we can find any item, even at night and with a cockpit lighting malfunction.
VADM Jim Stockdale, God rest his soul, considered enigmatic during his stint as a vice-presidential nominee for Ross Perot, is one of my heroes. He spent so much time in solitary confinement, he would meditate on a particular day from his childhood and was able to recall every detail and event of some of his more interesting days from kindergarten. I have memories of this next moment seared into my mind’s eye forever, for different reasons. Fear is a powerful motivator and the “fight” in Toadboy’s voice had my full attention.
The wing sweep switch in the Tomcat is shaped like a terraced volcano. With the throttles drawn back towards your hip at the idle position, which is normal during approach to landing, you would simply click the switch into “Auto” by thumbing the little “hat” on the switch straight up without ever looking down.
Now that my left hand had nearly pushed the throttle grips through the firewall, I instinctively knew that my normal muscle movement would actually just command the wings to “Aft”, which was where they already were.
Taking your eyes off a mortal enemy, in my case the ground, and placing them elsewhere is a good way to lose a fight and was downright uncomfortable. But I looked inside at the right throttle grip to ensure I could see which way I needed to move the switch to get it into “Auto” and then pushed the “hat” forward to get the wings to start programming out. Thank God for a high lift wing. When we bottomed out, I don’t recall if my eyes were open or not but I remember feeling the awe-inspiring TF-30 Pratt & Whitney reliable engines pushing us skyward at last!
“Tower, one oh one is abeam, gear in transit, stop.”
HOLY crap, I can’t blame Toadboy for wanting his wild ride to stop, but my response inside the cockpit was, “We’re going around, man.” Landing was inevitable, but I was now a ghost trying to catch up to my body, much the way Scooby and Shaggy were known to leave a silhouette of smoke in midair when they ran scared from certain death and abandoned all their courage.
After circling the field once, we rolled out safely and shut down in front of our hangar. My knees were still knocking as I descended the ladder and got down on all fours to kiss the ground before standing back up to shake my plane captain’s hand and the rest of the looky-loos. Our Line Chief smugly pointed out that he was worried at first when we disappeared behind the hangar in a steep dive, but then he heard the afterburners plug in and he knew we’d be fine.
In the ready room, I got to have a talk with our training officer, Butkus, who calmly let me know that I was being given a safety of flight violation “down” and that I should proceed downtown, get drunk, sleep it off for a day, think about what happened and expect to be back on the flight schedule in two days.
My father was an aviation ordnanceman and retired as a Senior Chief before I started flight school. Enlisted sailors are really the salt of the earth. They don’t mess around much at work when building bombs in the bowels of the ship, or loading bombs three times their size by sheer brute force on the flight deck.
When my dad waves, his hand is a big meat hook on the end of a three-foot long flag pole. You can’t deny their aggressive spirit to get things done right. They have a way of having fun off duty that makes up for the serious nature of their duty on the ship. On the way in to work Thursday in the duty van, one of our aviation ordnancemen had a smug look on his face.
“Sooo, Lieutenant Hammond…”
“Yes?” I replied.
“I was driving in to work the other day and was crossing the bridge and looked up to see an F-14 pointing directly at me. I nearly drove off the bridge because it appeared he was going to impact the ground in front of me. I’d be driving directly into a big red ball of jet fuel, titanium, toxic substances and carbon fiber. You don’t happen to know who that was, do you?”
“Yeah, that was me, really scared the crap out of myself!”
“Okay, I already knew it was you, just wanted to make sure you knew what it was like being on the other end.”
Subtle, real subtle.
Reggie Hammond is a retired naval aviator with 750 hours in the F-14A, 2300 hours in the F/A-18E/F and 600 arrested landings. He is a volunteer for the Navy Tailhook Legacy Flight Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining the proud legacy of Navy tailhook aviation by keeping it alive and sustainable. Visit www.ntlff.org to purchase some cool gear, donate, or just to learn more about Navy warbirds.
Top Photo Courtesy Wallpaper cave