By lex, on November 24th, 2003
When someone hit the “mute” switch on my XO’s fighter…
A beautiful day in Key West. Florida. I’m part of a three-ship of bogies, fighting against a pair of FA-18s from the east coast training squadron. I’m in a TA-4J, a two-seat version of our subsonic, single engine adversary aircraft. My squadron XO is in the single-seat version, an A-4E. Our flight lead is a good friend in an F-16N – he has a radar, he gets us to the merge.
We’ve had two hacks, and are half way through the third, when I hear a “knock it off, I’m flaming out.” It’s the XO, and already he’s starting to lose altitude as the engine unwinds. It was a single engine aircraft, with the one (the only) engine driving the generator and no battery, so I know he’s already deployed the ram air turbine, or RAT. The RAT is a basically an electricity generating windmill, that deploys from the fuselage cheek into the windstream when a handle in the cockpit is pulled.
I ease power to idle and feather the speedbrakes to maintain position. We’re at around 15,000 feet, descending at about 2000-3000 feet per minute. We’ve got some time before 3000 feet (our minimum controlled ejection altitude in that aircraft) but not lots of time. I start going through the engine failure checklist from memory on the UHF radio to help him out – like me, he has it memorized. Unlike me, he’s about five or six checklist steps away from punching out of what had moments before been a perfectly suitable airplane. It’s going to hurt, physically. Pointed questions will be asked at the mishap review. One tends to get distracted.
“Zoom climb” – he pulls the nose up, but lowers it again almost instantly – not a lot of excess airspeed there, he must be pretty close to best glide profile.
“Stores jettison” – he was only carrying a tracking pod, but it couldn’t hurt to get rid of it. It’s not going to hit anyone down there in the bay of Florida.
“RAT deploy” – has to be already out or we wouldn’t be talking, but this is going to be on the mishap tape, so might as well get it right before the accident board asks me their questions. Once you get on the radio, it’s your mishap too.
“Throttle retard, check manual fuel” – maybe the manual fuel control will catch the unwinding engine…
“Throttle ignition, then idle” – here’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: will the engine catch?
“What kind of fuel flow are you getting?” I’m off the checklist here, but it’s a good question to ask. To run the engine you need electrical power (RAT provides that), movement of the fan/rotor combination (his airspeed provides that) and fuel, measured by the fuel flow gage. Kind of our own little fire triangle.
“I’m not getting any fuel flow!” the XO answers.
“I’ve got some bad news for you,” is my reply. No fuel flow, no start. He keeps trying to crank it over, but without fuel it’s not going to happen. Time to shift to another checklist – “XO, better go ahead and tighten up those lap straps and get in a good position.” Ejecting from a tactical fighter is a last resort, no one’s idea of a good time. Especially in an older aircraft like the A-4E, which despite its single engine design had a rather antiquated seat. “Let’s slow to below 200 knots, and when I count to three, pull the handle.” No mistaking which handle I’m talking about here, and the slower you’re flying when you leave the jet, the less likely you are to get serious flail injuries.
“One, two, three.” Nothing – did the seat not fire? “XO, did you pull the handle?”
“No, not yet.” There is a definite reluctance on the part of some pilots to leave the warm and familiar cockpit for the unknown and far less hospitable elements on the other side of the canopy. But it’s not a good thing to delay, many lives have been lost to delayed ejections, out of the envelope ejections. We’re running out of altitude and airspeed, and pretty much out of ideas.
We go through the countdown one more time, and this time I’m rewarded by the sight of the canopy blowing off the aircraft, followed by a very bright flash as the ejection seat rocket motor fires. He’s out. We’re low, so the parachute opens almost immediately, and he falls quickly behind, briefly out of sight. I look back at the A-4, which, unburdened by a few hundred pounds of ejection seat and pilot is now out of trim, the nose rising gracefully to stall, before doing a gentle wingover down towards the sea. The jet corkscrews slowly to the left once or twice before hitting the sea with an enormous splash. Unlike Hollywood, there’s no explosion, just turbulent water that quickly subsides, leaving no traces of what has gone before.
I circled around to the right, being careful to maintain altitude. Having briefly lost sight of the parachute, I’m not keen on re-acquiring it filling my windscreen. That would reflect poorly on my professionalism. The lead in the F-16 is coordinating search and rescue support, a Coast Guard jet is near by. The XO is in the water, and soon in his one man raft. The water is warm, but he’s pretty close to Marquesas Key, the breeding grounds, we are told, of hammerhead sharks.
Not too much time passes before the Coastie Citation jet shows up, and drops a 10 man raft from a thousand feet that damn near takes the XO’s head off. For lack of anything better to do, he jumps out of his one man raft, swims over to the larger one, now inflated, and gets aboard. In the larger raft is a package of chicklets. Lunch!
Running low on fuel myself, it’s time to say goodbye to the XO – we’ll see him on deck in an hour or so, not much the worse for wear. A scrape on his face, a stiff back, a relatively happy ending to a bad day.
The lesson? Dunno, except for maybe: It’s always good to have two motors when one decides to quit…