Index – The Best of Neptunus Lex

This is what we reposted from January through September, 2016. It is what I considered to be some of his best posts over his 9 years of blogging.  I hope that the new reader will come to realize what  amazing work he did –  And this is while he had a regular job. 

Update: Since I have been going through the collection   we have for the 4th time I have put more on this index – pieces that I had in my earlier haste not thoroughly enjoyed, such as this. This index is dynamic and growing. Lex was very prolific and so many of his stories are too good not to be back out in cyberspace.

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In Memory of CAPT Carroll “Lex” LeFon, and the Wonderful Community He Fostered

Welcome. The idea was floated that a ‘talk amongst yourselves’ blog would be a good addition to for the Non-Facebook Crowd. Here it is.

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Holding my breath

By lex, on September 7th, 2004

I was a swimmer in high school. At the time, it was considered good form on short distances to go as long as you could without breathing. The thinking was that the act of turning your head to breathe could increase drag, and cost vital hundredths of seconds. Hundredths which could, over the course of a 50 yard freestyle, cost you the race.

I was always good at holding my breath. Two minutes and change was my personal best.

Once when I was about 14 or so, I was up at a resort in Pennsylvania, where my lobbyist sister, at that time a Congressional aide, was working a political campaign. There was an outdoors hot tub at this resort, in which I chose to while away some of the long hours between envelope licking sessions. Back in the 70′s, before ten year-olds blogged national conventions, that was what passed for being a politically active youth.

The hot tub seemed a perfect place to hold your breath – the sound of the bubbles in your ears masked the sound of your heart thundering in your chest as the seconds ticked away. There was a handrail entering the hot tub, which allowed me to minimize exertions to remain at the bottom, holding my breath.

About a minute or so into my most recent experiment, a couple of older guys jumped in the tub. They’d walked outside just after I’d gone under, and saw an apparently empty hot tub – warm, relaxing, inviting.

They clambered in, not seeing your scribe hugging the bottom through the bubbles breaking on the surface, fully prepared to ease back and say, “ahhhh.” Your scribe, holding his eyes and counting Mississippi’s, didn’t see them either.

Except one of them, in stepping in, kicked my arm slightly. It’s hard to imagine just what went through his mind at that moment, expecting a relaxing session in the hot tub, and finding an apparent corpse at the bottom of the pool. In retrospect, I have to admit that it would be pretty exciting.

A frantic arm searched across the bottom, running up my back before grabbing a hand full of my hair. Having found that certain purchase, I was hauled from the bottom of the pool up into the night air, sputtering and screaming in half-scalped pain as I emerged from the froth. My rescuer, no doubt anticipating a heroic CPR session on an unfortunately non-responsive victim, screamed in return to see an animated youth screaming into his face. Which in turn, frightened me all the more.

We had a good moment or two of scream, take a deep breath, scream some more. Meanwhile, his friend, no part or parcel of this experiment, danced around in frantic circles, practically wetting himself until hotel security ran up, sidearms drawn.

Good fun.

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Viper FCF

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 responsibility. 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.

There’s generally no exhaustive pre-flight briefing to prepare and deliver (or endure, for that matter). You check the weather (it’s got be good), and local NOTAMs (notices to airmen), brief with maintenance control and jump in the jet. There’s also no endless and laborious debrief, wherein every item of tactical and administrative procedure is exhaustively analyzed for mistakes, for lessons, for learning and improving.

Depending on the kind of check flight, ground procedures vary from slightly more complicated to a huge pain in the neck. A “C”-type profile means that a major flight control actuator has been changed, something that has broken the hydraulic integrity of the system. A “B” profile means a major engine repair, perhaps even a replacement. Most laborious are “A” profiles. An A-pro has usually been down for a long time for major rework, or has had both engine and flight control work done. Every system in the aircraft is checked, even those emergency systems that are rarely, if ever used.

Since C-profiles are the shortest, they’re also the most eagerly sought after. Because you still have the full bag of gas to burn, once the maintenance check-list is done. And no one particularly cares what you do with that gas, so long as the you bring the jet back up, and don’t violate any rules.

The F-16N, which Navy pilots nicknamed the “Viper,” was probably the most fun FCF aircraft I ever flew. Hell, it was a fun jet anyway, with an enormously impressive thrust-to-weight ratio – essentially above 1:1 on take-off. During an FCF take-off it was considered important to raise the gear immediately once off the deck, level off a few feet above the runway, and then starting at around 400 knots, stand the jet on its tail at the departure end, climbing vertically to 16,000 feet in just a few moments. Zero to 400 in a mile and a quarter. Good clean fun.

Ostensibly this served to preserve options for a flame-out approach should the engine quit shortly after take-off. In practice, it closely mirrored what would be called a “low transition,” a maneuver severely frowned upon, carrying as it did connotations of unprofessionalism, of mere tom-foolery with government gear.

Be that as it may, it was not uncommon to see this sort of take-off in F-16s that hadn’t even had any engine work done.

Better safe than sorry.

Pointing straight up in a vertical ascent, you’d gently roll to align the wings with the departure heading, and start an easy pull over the top about two thousand feet prior to level-off altitude. As you approached this height, it was fun to try to time the roll out and level off so that you’d exactly recover at the assigned altitude – not too far below it, and never blowing through it.

In the Viper, the FCF procedures for a pro-C were pretty straight forward – some autopilot checks, a few bumps in all three control axes (pitch, roll and yaw), a rapid wind up, max g turn (9 g’s – ouch) and some gear/flap transitions. You could knock it out in 15 minutes or so over the Bay of Florida, and have a good hour to hour and a half of gas left to your own devices.

Depending on how you used it, of course.

Afterburner usage in a fighter increases it’s thrust by approximately 50%. But it increases fuel consumption by over 300%. This is why the F-22 Raptor (excuse me, FA-22 – right) had as one of its design specifications the ability to “supercruise,” i.e., achieve supersonic flight in basic (non-afterburner augmented) engine.

So if you were really having fun, and “lighting the cans” for any duration, you’d maybe have 15 minutes for the FCF, 15 minutes of “proficiency” time, and then have to go back and land.

So I decided one day to get my mach 2 qual.

Any long-time reader of these pages knows that my first love, when it comes to fighters, is the noble FA-18 Hornet. As I’ve mentioned before, if airplanes were women, you’d date the F-16, but marry the Hornet. It is a wonderful jet, but when it comes to top end speed, hauling-the-mail, oh-my-God, ludicrous speed, the Hornet tends towards the more sedate end of the spectrum. Built from the start as a multi-mission jet, there were several design compromises and a few of them tend to limit her Vmax (max airspeed achievable).

One last technical bit, and I’ll leave it alone: Because of the relationship of air pressure to altitude, fighters have two references for Vne. At low altitude where the air mass is much denser, this will be measured in knots indicated (or calibrated) air speed – KIAS/KCAS. At high altitude, with less air molecules to impinge upon the pito-static airspeed measuring system, it’s measured in mach numbers.

I’ll put it to you this way – all aircraft have a Vne (never exceed speed limit). The Hornet has one too, but it’s only to make her feel better about herself.

The Viper on the other hand has a Vne that the over-bold, unwary or unwise could exceed. Down low, the way we flew them (no external stores) it could pass Vne without breathing hard. Getting through mach 2.0, something that could only be done at very high altitude, took a little doing, however.

To do so requires a lot of room, a lot of gas and that the pilot be more than 30 miles to sea, pointed away from the land (so as not to break windows on the beach). The most efficient way to get through the number (that’s mach 1.0), and to keep accelerating, is to use what’s known as a Ritowski profile. It’s different for each aircraft, but essentially involves a high subsonic climb (0.97 mach or so) to around 40,000 feet, and a half-g unload (light in your seat) to get through the number while still at a relatively high altitude. Capturing that mach number and keeping it going during the next series of ascents and descents allows the pilot to build ever higher mach numbers until he gets to his goal.

It’s important not to go all the way to zero g while in full afterburner, as that tends to cavitate the fuel boost pumps, which can result in what is known to engineers as a “loss of thrust” and to a pilot as “losing the engine.” And in a supersonic F-16 at 45,000 feet, all sorts of bad things happen if you lose an engine. So watch out for that.

I got my qual one day, and found myself way the hell out away from the airfield and needing to head back. I remember being strangely reluctant – moving so high, so fast, felt like the right thing to do, to keep doing. If I turned back, I’d have to slow down, and eventually land. If I landed I’d have to get out of the jet, and walk around. If I did that, I’d be merely human again.

And part of me didn’t want to be.

But I had to, so I eased the throttle back, and began a gentle turn back towards the field, preserving altitude for the long-range, fuel conserving descent back to the field. The contrails I had left behind during my series of climbs and descents scribed white arcs in the brilliant blue sky, and looked as if they had been left by some Herculean, strangely illiterate sky writer. I wanted them to be my signature upon the heavens, I wanted them to last forever.

But they didn’t of course. Nothing ever does.

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Foot in mouth disease

By lex, on August 19th, 2004

Flight school, Pensacola, Florida, 1983. Free time is there for the asking – beaches, bars and ground school. The very occasional flight.

The opportunity to go to the gym.

Nearby was the fledgling Naval Aviation Museum (it has changed a lot since then). In my day (God, how old that makes me feel), it was little more than a dusty parking apron with a few corroded relics lying in the blazing summer sun.

Still, it was fun in a junkyard, wonder-what-we’ll-find-lying-in-the-dirt-next kind of way.

One of the things I saw was a P2V Neptune – an anti-submarine airplane from the ancien regime, half-jet, half-prop, all ugly as a mud fence.

The FA-18, which one or two of my more alert readers may be aware that I flew in my previous, glorious, pre-staff officer life, was as yet experimental at this time. From the time I started flying on the line, until the time I left the cockpit, the FA-18 was my baby, my girl. I was proud to be associated with her. Knew her when she was cool.

All pilots feel that way about their main squeeze:

“It is appearances, characteristics and performance that make a man love an airplane, and they, told truly, are what put emotion into one. You love a lot of things if you live around them, but there isn’t any woman and there isn’t any horse, not any before nor any after, that is as lovely as a great airplane, and men who love them are faithful to them even though they leave them for others.” — Ernest Hemingway

What he said.

Anyway, a day came to pass when I had a basic instrument simulator at the air base, Whiting Field. The sim instructors were retired Navy, grizzled, superannuated, reliquaries of expertise. They had to be in their 40′s, most of them.

Some were older.

I know.

So before the ride, and after the brief, I had the opportunity to chat with my instructor until the box opened up. It was good form, chatting with the instructor. Showed your humanity. Showed you cared. Sometimes you bonded.

Some times, it was worth another “above average” on your grade sheet. Not that I thought that way. Heaven forfend.

A great way to get a conversation going, I was taught, was to ask your interlocutor about himself. Get a person (a guy especially) talking about himself, and the odds are that he will remember you as a great conversationalist. Try it some time.

No better way than this for a fresh-faced ensign to bond with a hoary retiree, then: “So sir: What did you fly in the fleet?”

My instructor, as it turned out, had flown P2V Neptunes!

Hah! Neptunus victa!

“Really?? I replied, almost breathlessly, “That’s so cool! I saw one of those in the museum yesterday!”

Which didn’t, gentle reader, have entirely the desired bonding effect.

“Get in the box,” the instructor growled.

Live and learn.

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Night Bounce, Put To Canvas

nightbouncecanvas

“…..I broke out of the clouds first, because being the flight lead, that’s the nature of things. I looked over and down to check my wingie’s position in the gloom below, and if I tell you will you believe me? That in all my years of flying I don’t know that I ever saw such a wondrously beautiful thing as the glow inside that cloud deck resolve itself all suddenly into an FA-18 leaping from the clouds like a beast darting from a snare, highlighted against the darkness and contrasted with the sun’s dying rays like a rocket ship, herself in full grunt, the afterburners lighting up the cloud and the sky. It made my heart skip, and if I’d had a camera at that moment to take a picture you’d all know my name by now, because that’s how famous I’d be for the taking of it. But for all the unexpected, slack-jawed, childlike wonder of that moment, it’s stuck inside my head and the beauty of it – to which these words do not give justice – will sadly die with me some day.” 

This paragraph is from his wonderful post of his time exploring Iwo Jima. He was there to practice carrier landings.

This segment of an otherwise routine flight probably lasted all of 10 seconds, if it was even that long. And yet the beauty and wonder within that small slice of time stayed with Hizzoner the rest of his life.

The Lexicans recently presented a painting of this cherished memory to The Hobbit. It was created by a Lexican who is also a renowned artist, and loves US Navy aviation.

It is now available as a print, for those interested.

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A Good Craic!

By lex, Sun – August 1, 2004

Bryan’s Bar Mitzvah, that is.

Actually, I’m fairly certain that’s not how I should describe it, but my Irish was up, and it truly was a good time.

(Lots o’ pics for the dial-up set)

I just wanted to capture a few thoughts before the sands of time and the vicissitudes of doddering age wash them away. I’ll try to avoid any hint of anthropologizing the Interesting People With Such Very Different Customs that this effort risks, however well-meaning it might otherwise be.

The temple ceremony was fascinating, in mixed English and Hebrew – between the language and the rite there were whispering echoes I felt I should almost comprehend, if only I turned my head just the right way, if only I could catch the cadence of the words. Although no doubt far different than Jerusalem worship 2000 years ago, I had the sense that this would have been a far more familiar environment to my Guy than His church is today.

There was a security guard in the parking lot – I took this in quietly, to turn over and examine later in more detail. Before the temple entrance was the simulacrum of an antique gate – a copy from a temple in old Europe that was.

 

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One of the Torah’s in the temple’s possession had belonged to this 16th century temple. It had been seized and archived by the Nazis for a historical display once their Final Solution had been fully realized. Liberated after the war, it made its way to Carmel Valley, California – becoming yet another unlikely survivor of the Holocaust.

 

Perhaps I was overcome by the atmosphere because I had my very own miniature Annie Jacobsen moment once inside: A shadow passed outside the window – a large, swarthy man, heavily mustachioed, flitted by the glass. My eyes narrowed for a moment. As he passed by the next window, I saw him for what he evidently was – a Hispanic maintenance worker. Whether my flickering suspicions were prudent in the moment, or merely the workings of an over-active imagination I leave to the reader, with this caveat: I do not think they would have occurred to me, if this vignette had presented itself outside my church.

 

After a beautiful ceremony, in which a sense of family, tradition and community were as much a part of the atmosphere as the air we breathed, we went to a reception right next door to the temple.

 

Food, fine company, even dancing – the Biscuit had a blast, events from this point on were tailor-made to her enjoyment.

 

agoodcraig2

 

 

 

Even your humble scribe managed to lever his bulk away from the table for bit of that ol’ rug cutting, with his favorite dance partner. No, there will be no pictures of that. But I will show one of the Kat’s dedication to line dancing – the casual observer would have thought precision to be a matter of great import in this exercise.

 

agoodcraig3

 

Our neighbor at the table had come with his family from Israel for the Bar Mitzvah – he’s one of the folks I took around on the Reagan last week. Really enjoyed that visit, was enjoying being off the grid for a time over here – at home, he said, he felt compelled to be on top of the news at all times, always in communication with his family and friends – here he could unplug for a bit.

 

Life during wartime, I guess.

 

His daughter went to one of our local malls, and was surprised that each open air place she visited, every crowded store, had something missing: Armed security guards.

 

SNO, myself and the Kat ran out of gas far sooner than the Hobbit and the Biscuit, who bore the burden of the family honor well after we had made our grateful exit, well fed, well satisfied, well ready for the comfort of our own places of rest.

 

The last I saw of the Hobbit, heading out the door?

 

agoodcraig4

 

A good craic.

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Air strike

By lex, on July 27th, 2004

A tale of a training mission into the Sultanate of Oman.

In the late 80′s, while on deployment in the North Arabian Sea, I was fragged as a section lead in a larger, multi-division strike package of FA-18s and A-6s to an Omani Air Force airfield, well inland in the desert. We had a four-ship of F-14′s serving as Migsweep to clear the route and target of any air opposition, and an EA-6B electronic support aircraft, as well as an E-2C for long range air search.

Opposing us would be the surface-to-air defensive systems around the airfield, as well as the Omani Air Force.

In those days the Omanis had quite a number of British expatriates who flew with them on contract, to train their pilots and serve as a part of the Sultanate’s defensive forces. They were superb and daring pilots even though they were hampered by older equipment. They were also accustomed to routinely flying at very low altitudes in the relatively flat terrain of Oman.

There was one piece of geography that held a strange and illicit allure to certain of the US Navy pilots who trained over Oman in those days – a long, twisting canyon that started close to the coast, heading westwards for many miles, and carving a couple hundred feet below the surrounding and utterly unpopulated, inhospitable desert. It was very similar to our own Grand Canyon, if perhaps not quite as wide, and nothing like as populated with troublesome tourists or pesky park rangers. We nicknamed this crevasse “Star Wars canyon,” since flying in it was an experience akin to piloting Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter through the Death Star’s trench to deliver his fatal blow against Dearth Vader’s galactic instrument of destruction, or so I am told.

But that fatal blow in itself was analogous to what might happen to an aviator’s career, if he was found by the gray heads to have been flat-hatting in the canyon. For some though, the temptation was too hard to pass up — and once inside the canyon, no radar would reveal the pilot’s location. He would, for all intents and purposes, vanish from the face of the earth, until the canyon petered out or he lost his nerve, pulling sharply back on the stick and vaulting his eager craft into the sky at a 90 degree flight path angle –vertically up and up in full afterburner until he ran out of airspeed at 15 or 20 thousand feet or so.

The canyon walls on either side were at times breathtakingly close to a pilot’s wingtips, passing by in a blur, and the canyon itself wove its way back and forth as it unfolded in front of him at 500 knots — a speed at which the turns themselves could just be negotiated.

It was exhilarating, or so I have heard.

Because you have to understand that I myself, would never do so rash a thing. Even in my long-passed, oft-lamented youth.

Anyway.

As much fun as such flying apparently had been, we had nothing on the Brit expats, when it came to flying low. The “standard” altitude for a low-level route is about 500 feet above ground level (AGL). Experienced crews could, in authorized airspace, fly as low as 300 feet AGL. A special qualification was required to fly to 200 ft AGL — during that qualification process, an instructor in the back seat of a two-seat FA-18 would coax the student down as low as 100 ft AGL (but no lower) — an altitude at which 100% of the pilot’s attention is exclusively focused upon terrain avoidance: He does not work his radar, or check six, or fly formation, or monitor his fuel at 100 feet. He tries to avoid hitting the ground, and that is all he does. Even twice as high, at 200 feet, the mission cross-check time is measured in a (very) few seconds.

All this to lead in to the strange fact that we all had heard many stories of attack pilots flying low levels in Oman, at the very limit of their abilities and confident that they were invisible to radar, find themselves surprised to see an Omani Jaguar or Hawker Hunter fly up from underneath them.

On the day of our strike, we rendezvoused the strike package, and those of us who would need extra gas received it from the tanker. As we approached the Omani coast, the attack jets started our descent to low altitude, while the fighters swept in front of us up high. Our low altitude route served to mask our position, and so our approach to the target was uneventful. Several miles away we began an afterburner climb to avoid the target’s terminal defenses, and help us acquire our individual aimpoints. These now visible, we rolled the jets on their backs, eight of us at once, each focused on his weapons symbology, on the altitude numbers scrolling in a blur on the HUD, in the proximity of the other birds of prey swooping down, on our still-silent radar warning receivers — we had achieved surprise.

Pulling off target, and heading back to the east, back to the sanctuary of the open sea at medium altitude. The A-6′s, who had stayed low, followed after us to the target, timing their arrival to be shortly after our bombs would have impacted, enough time to let the frag pattern settle back down.

Off target was where it would get interesting — now the Omani’s knew where we were, and would have a pretty good idea where we were going.

We had the F-14′s up high and many miles in front of us as the first line of defense. Our FA-18′s, now relieved of their simulated air-to-ground ordnance were unleashed to act as fighters, now that our primary mission of attack was complete. We shook out into an eight-ship wall of fighters, and feared nothing at all. The A-6′s remained low off target, seeking to hide in the terrain while the air defenses focused on those of us more easy to see.

A few minutes later, half-way to the coast the right-most element called, “Engaged”and then added, “defensive.” A pair of Omani Hunters, loitering in the dust below, had come up from beneath their formation, and was at the very brink of a firing solution when they were spotted. I looked over and in one glance took it all in — a tough spot for the Hornets from their defensive positions. I rocked up 90 degrees to starboard, giving a wing-flash to my wingman, wordlessly signaling my intent to engage in support. In moments we were in a hard turn, then a delirious swirl, first climbing, then descending, six of us locked in a tight circle of (simulated) death.

airstrike1

A Hawker hunter, in Swiss colors.

The first two FA-18′s were fighting for their lives, their Omani adversaries still offensive and fixated on their destruction to the exclusion of all else. My wingman and I arrived from the north at high speed as avenging angels. I shot a simulated missile at the further Hunter, calling him out of the fight, and reversed left, in a hard, climbing for a guns kill on the remaining adversary. The Hunter, in planform in my HUD as I walked the gun pipper to his wings, looked amazingly like a MiG-19 from some bygone era, and I momentarily smiled in my mask at some received memory from another time and place. He spit a flare nearly in my face as I closed to 1500 feet, but the 20mm cannon would have nothing but contempt for infrared decoys.

Just as the hammer came down, and I called, “Guns kill,” my wingman, who had been keeping my six clear, and circling the fight, called for me to, “Break left! — A pair of Jaguars had joined the fray, as unobserved to us as we had been moments before to their Hunter colleagues.

airstrike2

A Jaguar, in Swedish colors.

After the previous engagement, I had very little airspeed left with which to perform a break turn, but gave it my very best. The Hornet is a superb slow-speed fighter, and she responded beautifully, neatly pivoting around to face the coming threat — I was momentarily neutral, but at a tremendous airspeed disadvantage. I would need help.

The Jaguar two-ship flashed by me, bracketing my canopy on both sides — whichever way I turned, I would be offering a shot to one or the other bandits. I had to get some airspeed.

Full afterburner, nose low, check six — one Jaguar is in a climbing turn across my tail, the other I can no longer see — and it is always the one you don’t see that gets you. He must be turning nose low, probably across my tail as well, so I checked into the assumed threat sector and called my wingman in for support. He was already on his way, and having maintained a good airspeed package, made short work of the nose high Jag, calling him out.

The remaining Jag (who had in fact turned nose low across my tail) had ended turning directly in front of the original two-ship of FA-18s that had been jumped. They seized this morsel as a chance to repay our kindness, while salvaging a bit of their own dignity.

So yeah, I got lucky. In this business, it’s just as important to be lucky, as it is to be good.

We cleared the area of the fight before anyone else could stumble into us, and made our way to the coastline as quickly as our depleted fuel stocks would carry us. Once clear, I climbed to a very high altitude to save fuel, timing my idle-power descent to the last possible moment. I saved a thousand pounds of gas in the descent, took one lap around the overhead pattern and landed on my first attempt — the plane captain aboard the flight deck, now steaming hot in the middle of late-spring Arabian Sea day, was at first surprised, then gratified, to feel how chilled the aircraft’s skin was. It was still super-cooled from my high altitude return.

And for me? I was gratified to have had such a great hop. Low-level nav to a target, bombs off, on target, on time, two kills, a clean get away and an OK-3 wire. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

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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.

Off they flew, into the great burning blue, yet never did a tanker show up on anyone’s radar screen. Which was strange indeed, because a tanker is a relatively large radar target, and certainly someone should have seen something.

Tense moments ticked by before the embarrassed air ops controllers allowed as how it was just, you know, possible, potentially, that the tanker was actually 50 miles south of the ship. Back the other way. See, they didn’t actually have radar contact on the tanker personally, and their info was… how do we say this? A little stale.

Eight fighters did a gentle, fuel conserving 180 degree turn back to the south, fighting the instinctive desire to wrap it up in a hard turn, and push the throttles up to get there faster. Eight pairs of eyeballs looked with disbelief at their fuel gauges, blithely ticking away to numbers they hadn’t seen before except in simulators. Eight relatively intelligent brains worked the numbers in their burning skulls and realized that it wasn’t only going to be tight – it was going to be damn tight. We might not make it, tighten up your harness straps, check your survival gear, curse your fate tight.

Tight, in other words.

The lead was actually the lowest fuel state, carrying the most amount of trash on his jet as they approached the tanker. He got rendezvoused in an expeditious (if not precisely controlled, not as who should say “controlled”) ‘manner and put his IFR probe out. The tanker’s boom operator seemed not to be in a rush however, there are checklists to follow, and USAF folks are nothing if not assiduous when it comes to completing checklists.

The lead mentioned to him in passing that he’d appreciate it if the boom operator would get the hose unspooled as expeditiously as possible, or failing that, to call his wife and tell her that he had loved her. The point being made, the boom operator skipped a step or two, brother, and reeled out the hose.

The lead looked down at his fuel gauge and saw about 200 pounds of gas remaining. Total. Enough for a little over 2 minutes of continued flight. So long as the gauge itself was accurate.

Because no one, to his certain knowledge, had ever by that time seen 200 pounds of gas on an FA-18 fuel gauge, when that FA-18 was in fact airborne.

There are times in aviation when you’ve got just the one chance to get it right. This was one of those – miss the basket just once, and you’ll be landing using the parachute silk, rather than the arresting hook. You’ll give the jet back to the taxpayer, get wet, go for a swim, take the Martin-Baker let down, dump the jet. You’ll have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy.

He got it right the first time. As his probe connected to the basket, he took one last panic-struck look at the fuel gauge, and actually saw it click to “00,000.”

No gas. No gas at all.

He actually felt the engines spool down for a moment, in an instant envisioning the airspeed decay, the falling helplessly out of the basket, the throttles going to the firewall with no response, the warning lights and tones, the female voice warning system’s (“Bitchin’ Betty’”) trying to sooth him with her calm, measured, dulcet, maddeningly repetitive words: “Engine, left. Engine, left. Engine, right. Engine, right.”

But the engines caught, and rallied – he estimated that for the first few moments, the motors were running straight from the tanker’s gas. The fuel tanks started to re-fill. He heaved a sigh of relief, the tightness in his chest easing for the first time in the last half-hour.

And then he heard his wingman on the radio, saying, “Boss – two’s got 400 pounds left.” The rest of the flight checked in with similarly bad news.

So, with about 1000 pounds in his tanks, enough for another ten minutes, the lead pulled back out of the tanker, shuttling his seven wingmen through over and over again, each getting just enough to stay airborne until the last had gotten enough to stay airborne long enough for the lead to get back in the basket again – over half an hour of white-knuckled tension until each of them could comfortably wait for any of them to get enough gas to head back to the ship.

Who by this time was into the wind, waiting for the jets to land and calling on the radio, wondering what the hell was going on up there, anyway?

 

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