By lex, on July 8th, 2004
Real short sea story.
1987, first deployment, North Arabian Sea. I’m a raw nugget (new guy), flying maybe my fourth or fifth fleet night flight. An air intercept control mission – fleet air defense.
We’re miles from nowhere, no diverts are available. When the shooter pulls the trigger on the catapult, you’re either landing on the ship or in the water. Those are the only options available. And it’s darker than a hat full of a**holes.
Twenty or thirty minutes into the flight, I notice that the jet needs progressively more and more lateral trim to fight a tendency of the left wing to drop – there’s a “coolie hat” on the control stick which relieves control forces in flight. Now, the FA-18 automatically trims to 1g flight in pitch with the flaps in “auto,” in other words, during normal flight. Re-trimming is required in the landing configuration, but rarely when cruising around with the flaps up. A little bit of lateral trim if the aircraft is carrying an asymmetric external load. Perhaps a twitch of longitudinal (rudder) trim from time to time.
But she keeps wanting to wing drop to the left, and I keep trimming it out. Which is strange, because I’m symmetrically loaded. Eventually a light bulb goes off in the brain housing unit, and I check the external fuel quantities. At sea, the FA-18 normally carries two external fuel tanks, each carrying a little over 2000 pounds (nearly seven hundred gallons) of fuel. They normally transfer to the fuselage tanks as those empty. One of my two external tanks was empty. The other was still full. A transfer failure. Two thousand pounds of gas seven feet displaced from the longitudinal axis of the jet. Fourteen thousand foot-pounds of lateral asymmetry.
The FA-18 doesn’t carry a lot of gas, for a fighter. At sea, you’re always watching the fuel gauges, making sure that your usage rates will not deplete your available fuel faster than the recovery time permits. Because in cyclic operations, you can’t come back and land just any old time. You come back and land on schedule. If you’re early, you’ll find the deck clobbered with the next launch – the landing area will not be open – and nothing can be done. And you have to bring enough gas home to allow yourself a few attempts at the deck, in case you bolter or are waved off – either for technique (translation: You suck) or a foul deck (translation: The guy in front of you got stuck in the wires – he sucks).
So it was a little disconcerting to realize that I had 2000 pounds less gas available than I would otherwise have been entitled to.
I called my flight lead, and together we went through the various trouble shooting steps, trying to un-stick the transfer valve. Positive and negative g are applied. I’ve cycled the arresting hook and refueling probe. Nothing seemed to work as the fuel in my left tank stayed stubbornly full.
Decision time – a full external tank is a liability. Merely carrying its weight around uses gas that you no longer have available. But, jettisoning the tank into the sea comes with a certain amount of baggage as well, they’re not cheap.
The decision is made to bring me aboard first, at the beginning of the recovery, with all the trapped gas. First I’ve got to go to the tanker to take a little gas into my right external, to keep me inside asymmetric landing weight limits. Then I have to turn the external transfer switches off – I’m not allowed to use that gas, otherwise the jet is out of limits again.
Because of weight limitations on landing, the combination of the trapped fuel in my left tank, and the “saved” fuel in my right, I’ve only got about 2500 pounds available to me for landing the jet.
That’s not a lot.
In the daytime, an experienced pilot might elect to land with 3500 pounds. At night, because it’s harder (oh my God, it’s so much harder), he’s expected to save 4500 pounds. The wise man will recover with over 5000 pounds. Because things could happen, down there. You never know. Best to be safe.
With 2500 pounds, if I bolter I’ve got to find the tanker, plug in and start transfer within about 3-5 minutes. Any less, and I’ll be at a barricade fuel state. And you don’t want to barricade. It makes a mess of the jet, and it carries a significant risk of failure (read: We hardly ever do it. You might easily die). Too, a barricade approach is very highly demanding. The ship’s captain would rather stand on his head naked in a hailstorm than barricade a nugget.
Which means this: Find the tanker in the 3-5 minutes, get plugged and receiving, or go for a swim. In the North Arabian Sea, miles from nowhere. If you had to eject, there’s every chance they might find you, before the parachute dragged you under. It could happen.
Or, you could land on the first try.
I thought I’d try and do that. That would be good.
So I’m on the approach, working my butt off, trying to set myself up for success. The time comes to call the ball, and I’m looking good. Not a lot of experience yet, so I’m still stuffing demon doubt into his little jack-in-the-box, where he will still keep trying to pop out, saying, “Impossible! Can’t be done!”
The time comes when I’m sure I’ve got the ramp made. I ease power a bit, thinking, “If CNO didn’t want you to catch the 1-wire from time to time, he wouldn’t have put it there.”
Thing is, there’s a lot of water between the jet and the ramp at the point the pilot thinks he has the ramp made. It’s one thing to land early. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to smack into the back of the ship. The Landing Signal Officers are explicitly chartered to ensure you don’t “hit the ramp,” among other things.
So my squadron mate, “Booter,” gives me a “Power” call. Not screaming, but not whispering either. He’s saying to me, “Not yet, Lex. You aren’t home yet. Keep flying the jet.”
So I bump the throttles up a bit. There, that should satisfy him. And then, because I really don’t want to bolter, and see if I can find that tanker in less than 3-5 minutes, I ease them back again.
“POWER!” he shouts, almost instantly. So I run the throttles up a little further, and scanning the meatball, which is now heading down below the datums like an elevator at a resort hotel, I bump them up a little further. In fact, I bump them up to the stops. And a moment or two later, I’m in the wires, safely stopped, engines screaming, lights flashing.
The Air Boss tells me to throttle back, throttle back, they’ve got me.
And the reply that formed in my mind, which thankfully doesn’t leave my lips, is “Boss, do I bother you when you’re taking a sh*t?”
But I learned to trust the LSO.