By Nate S. Jaros
As most of the country is currently in a deep freeze, I thought it would be fun to reflect back to a particular time in my F-16 career where heat, and extreme temperatures was the norm. And how we as fighter pilots dealt with it, or almost didn’t.
It was August of 2008 and my Squadron, the 34th Fighter Squadron “Rude Rams” were deployed to Balad Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The heat was unbearable that summer, and regular temperatures over 120 degrees F were not uncommon. Temperatures on the ramp were even hotter, as shimmering heat reflected off the hard concrete, metal “start carts” and maintenance stuff, as well as our heavily loaded Vipers. Metal things literally burn you if you touch them at 120 degrees F in the sun.
For some amount of time during this six month deployment, I was on “mids.” Mids was after “day shift” but before “night shift” and typically we arrived at work around 1 or 2 PM, launched for a combat sortie in the late afternoon or early evening, and recovered six hours later just in time for midnight chow. Mids was a good time to do combat ops as you typically had some amount of daytime flying, and could also do some night stuff too when things cooled off and the “bad guys” started getting a little “wiley.”
But man was it hot. Just walking to the squadron from the crew car was miserable. The sun was relentless and the heat and humidity zapped the energy and fluids from you in minutes. I have never before felt that kind of heat.
When we “stepped” to go fly, remember that we had on many layers of clothing. Normal shirts and flight suits of course, but on top of that we had a thick G-suit, a survival vest loaded with goodies and a handgun, gloves, and a helmet bag full of smart packs, papers, digital transfer cartridges, flashlights, NVGs, food, water…oh, and a helmet too. It wasn’t uncommon to have ten to fifteen pounds of gear on, plus another small suitcase of stuff to carry to the jet.
We also went everywhere with bottles of water. A one liter bottle was common and most guys and gals took at least one with them for a five to six hour sortie.
When it was time to go, you were already sweating like a stuck pig by the time you stepped out of the squadron and into the moderately cool van that would take you to your aircraft.
When you arrived at your jet, it was like stepping out of a warm room and into an inferno. We’d greet our crew chief (who was already on his fourth or fifth one liter bottle of water as he’d been out at the jet prepping it for two hours, in the baking sun). A typical quick handshake ensued, followed by checking the forms on the jet, and then performing a standard five minute walk around of the aircraft checking tires, fluid levels, weapons configurations and so forth. Needless to say, by the time you were ready to climb in, you were already soaked through in sweat and maybe down halfway on your one liter bottle of water. The heavy gear and G-suit didn’t help much for cooling either.
On this particular day I remember climbing in, strapping in, and starting the engine. I was already feeling pretty exhausted and dehydrated and I consumed another few gulps of my water taking my bottle to about half full. I was soaked to the bone, there wasn’t anything dry on my body and the sweat poured from my brows under the heavy and hot helmet.
During the start sequence we had a problem. Something was wrong in the hydraulic system and the crew chief alerted me to the issue. After a minute or so, we determined that the aircraft was a no-go due to the hydraulics and I would need to go to the spare aircraft.
We’ve all had to go to the spare before… but on this day… in this heat… those were the words I just didn’t want to hear.
After shutting down the engine, it was time to collect my nest of carefully placed documents, bags, bottles, papers, smartpacks, NVGs and batteries and all the stuff required to do a combat sortie in a single seat fighter. I was also a literal hot mess by this point and even more sweat-soaked, and really feeling the effects of the heat with all the gear on. I cannot adequately describe how the heat feels, with all that gear layered on you.
I remember stepping to the spare aircraft, feeling like a lost survivor roaming the deserts of the Sahara, I eventually arrived, red-faced, soaked, and miserable at the spare Viper.
I greeted my new crew chief, re-nested and stowed my gear, and did my second walkaround of the day. I finished my now luke-warm one liter bottle of water and strapped in. By this time I had been in the 120 degree heat for nearly 34 minutes and was about tapped. The heat and excess clothing, gear, and weight had about done me in. I looked and felt like Rocky Balboa after ten rounds with The Champ.
We were always instructed and permitted to call “knock-it-off” for safety at any time. If the situation dictated due to human limits, or some other safety related incident, we could “make the call” and stop everything. I distinctly remember strapping into the spare jet, ten pounds lighter than when I left the squadron building telling myself “if this jet doesn’t start, and I have to go to another spare, I am done for the day.” I was completely overheated, and weary.
About 45 minutes after departing the squadron building, less one big bottle of water and gallons of sweat, the new jet started up nicely and I closed the canopy totally excited about the cool air now filling the cramped space around me. It was heaven and I knew that I’d be okay for continuing the combat sortie. Had it not worked, I to this day, feel that I would have had some kind of heat stroke or other heat-related injury. It was that hot.
I remember tapping into my reserve water supply, my “if you have to eject water” as we taxied out and eventually launched to go fight the fight that day, but certainly, for me…that was the hottest I’ve ever been, and closest to a heat related failure that I’ve ever known.
I’m proud that I was able to continue on that day and fly the mission, but I won’t lie about being seconds from “calling uncle” and going back into the building, head hung in shame for the heat if that second jet had failed me.
About four hours later in that sortie, as nightfall arrived for my two-ship over Iraq, I oddly remember finally feeling dry and comfortable. Just another day over Iraq.
Featured Image of F-16’s on the Ramp at Joint Base Balad, Iraq By United States Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons