By lex, on Thu – February 17, 2005
So, it’s flat hatting stories you want, is it?
This isn’t one of my own stories, but one of someone else’s experience.
Because flat hatting is not only unprofessional, it’s also dangerous. And no one has ever described me as unprofessional and/or dangerous. That I can recall. And it sets a very bad example pour les aûtres. And I, for one, will form no part of that.
But, because you are all kind, patient, assiduous readers, I will share with you a story (or two, depending on the reception) that I may have picked up along the way. From other guys, because you know, guys talk, word gets around, you hear things. Not guaranteeing of course that every last detail is accurate, because, after all – I wasn’t actually there. Didn’t see it. And you can’t prove a thing.
First: Some definitions are in order.
Flat hatting – inf. v. ex: I flat hat. You flat hat. They flat hat. We have flat hatted.
def: The action of taking a multi-million dollar, government provided aerial conveyance and using it for a purpose that the taxpayer, the Chief of Naval Operations, and your commanding officer would never have countenanced. If only they knew. And for which, if you get caught, you could easily find yourself seeking new employment. Usually involves low altitude, high speed flight on non-approved routes. See also: Barnstorming, screwing around, having a blast.
The year is unimportant, as is the steaming carrier deck from whence our two brave heroes launched into the tropical azure sky. They are in vicinity of the Philippine Sea, the graveyard of ships and death bed of empires. They have launched to go to a floating target, just south of Olangapo. There, they are going to drop an enormous bomb.
It is just a training flight.
The bomb is known as a Walleye – a TV guided bomb, which locks onto contrast and follows it home. It has large wings for an unpowered glide weapon, but what really sets it apart is its perfectly humongous warhead. This warhead is designed to take down large buildings, with its large, star-shaped frag pattern, elements of which move (after detonation) at speeds greater than mach 10.
That’s right: ten point zero mach. Which all of you, being clever readers, will have to admit is pretty damn fast.
One of our intrepid warriors carries the bomb, carefully slung beneath his wing by his superior BB stacking ordnance men. The other, equally trained and dangerous, carries a data link pod, used to refine the aim point of the Walleye once it has been released. The first danger boy will lock the bomb on to the target area. The second will guide it all the way to the target barge. They are both very much looking forward to really blowing some stuff up.
Because heat like this? You don’t get to bring it very often.
After a decent interval, our protagonists approach the target area. Because the Walleye is so perfectly huge, they are required to do a thorough target area search prior to release. Because it wouldn’t do to maim or kill civilians.
Imagine their dismay to find a banca boat floating in close proximity to the target.
You see, the locals, who lived their lives a little closer to the bone than we ourselves are accustomed to, had a habit of hanging around target ranges, waiting for the USN to drop practice bombs. Which they would then salvage, and turn into belt buckles and whatnot, to sell to drunken Sailors on Magsaysai Street, right there in Alongapo.
But the problem for our two heroes was this: While it was quite possible for banca boat fishermen to stand close in against a floating target and wish away the prospect of taking a 25 pound practice bomb close aboard, the same could most decidedly not be said to be true for a 2000 pound Walleye with a mach 10, star-shaped frag pattern.
No. Definitely not. Uh-uh.
Our mission oriented, get-the-job-done focused aviators wondered what to do at this point. Sure, they could just scrub the mission, and dump the 2000 pound, beautiful weapon (which really only wanted something or someone to love) into the deep blue sea, and call it a day.
Or. They could try to scare the banca boat people off. So that they could drop that thang. Right there against the target. Right there.
Care to guess, constant reader, which path your servants chose?
Yeah, I know. That was an easy one.
So anyway, a few screaming, low altitude fly-bys were attempted. Afterburners were lit, wings were rocked and fists were shaken. Somewhat unsurprisingly, none of this had any effect whatsoever on the intended audience. The banca boat fishermen, patiently awaiting their rewards, remained stolidly in place. From their perspective, it was no use to wonder why the men in the FA-18’s acted the way they did. All one could do was patiently await the certainty of the soon to be delivered bounty coming from the sky.
But Mutt and Jeff really wanted to get that thing off the wing, and guide it to a shack hit, and enjoy the frisson of pleasure as their little seed blossomed into a mach 10 flower. They were not to be denied.
After a brief consultation, hero “A” (hereinafter referred to as the Bomb Boy) and hero “B” (the Pod Guy) agreed to a plan of action: Bomb Boy would get down as low, and as fast as he possibly could over the water, attempting to scare the banca boat people off. Pod Guy would take control of the (non-released) weapon, for no better reason than this was going to make some really cool video, after it was all said and done.
Bomb boy got down to 200 feet. Over the flat water, this was not particularly dangerous, but it was interesting: At that height, with no waves, depth perception (I’m told) is pretty tough. But then he squeaked it down some more – 100 feet.
This is low, for those of you who are unfamiliar. At 100 feet and 500 knots, taking into consideration one-third of one second’s reaction time, you have one-half of one second to recognize a problem and correct it. Or else don’t bother.
And then, because he wasn’t quite certain that was low enough to make the point, Bomb Boy got her just a bit lower. Fifty feet on the radar altimeter. Just a little higher than his wingspan reached from side to side. Lower than the roof of your two-story house. At nearly 600 miles per hour.
Low? Don’t breathe low. Don’t even think.
And then Bomb Boy, lined up for the banca boat, steered that baby right over the hull, going through the number as he got there. All of this (including the amazed faces of the banca boat crew) was captured on the bomb video tape by Pod Guy. Which made for much rejoicing later on, in the ready room, as the tape was played in front of a jealous and amazed junior officer protective organization (JOPA). Oh, there was much laughter and ribaldry to see the banca boat crew spill into the water as the Hornet rocked by in full blower, at fifty feet.
But the banca boat guys got the last laugh. After they went for their little swim, they climbed back in the boat and waited patiently for providence to offer up a new belt buckle opportunity. Fouling the range, and causing our heroes to fly back to the carrier in dismay. Knowing that the job had not been accomplished. Knowing that tomorrow was another day.
Flat Hatting, Part Deux
You can be going mach 2.0 in a fighter at 40,000 feet, and feel like you’re pasted in the sky. To really get the sensation of moving quickly, it’s important to have reference to the ground. The lower you go, the better that reference is visually defined, and the more gratifying the feedback.
Once you get down low, your eyes quickly acclimatize themselves to the rushing blur of the terrain sweeping under your nose. In time, the temptation to regain the feeling of speed by going just a little lower is hard to resist. You have to resist it though, because at some point you go past the point of just fooling around, all-in-good-fun, no harm/no foul buffoonery and well into the territory of “how fricken stupid could he be, flying into the ground like that?” Because you can only tie the low altitude record. You can’t beat it.
But there is, I am told, one other way to regain the sensation of speed.
Just to the east of the Edwards Dry Lake Bed , east of the Sierras in the high desert of California, there’s a neat little canyon, little more than a rugged cleft in the mountain face, which plunges quickly from the high escarpment down to the Panamint Valley floor below.
It is a sort of miniature “Star Wars Canyon ,” right in our own back yard. I’m told that you could scream above the desert floor at 450 knots and a couple of hundred feet, and then, having reached the opening to the canyon, flip your jet upside-down, and thrill for the course of seven or eight seconds to the sight of the zigzagging rock walls perhaps a hundred feet away from either wingtip. Which sounds like a lot, but trust me, it isn’t, not moving at those speeds. The folks who’ve done it? They say it’s a blast.
Low performance planes, puddle jumpers, bug smashers and bombers, for example, often get themselves in trouble flying into box canyons. Sometimes they “turn the corner” and rather than see a path ahead leading ever onward, they see a sheer rock wall, staring them in the face with grim indifference. In far too many cases, it will be the last thing they ever see. They haven’t got the excess thrust to rapidly generate a rate of climb sufficient to get above the terrain, and usually don’t have the turn radius to go back the way they came. Running rapidly out of time and out of ideas, the hapless pilots of these craft will often try to convert their pitiful supply of excess airspeed into altitude. But since they don’t go very fast anyway, it’s mostly not enough, and they end up hitting the canyon wall right at, or even just past stall speed. Which is just barely fast enough to kill you.
In a fighter, with afterburning engines and knots on the jet, you’ve always got the “up” option to clear the canyon. Except when you don’t.
Like when you’re flipping the jet from turn to turn around the zigzagging terrain. You see, lift is generated perpendicularly (in the “normal” plane) to the wing planform. In level, unaccelerated flight (no excess g on the jet), all of the lift opposes gravity’s pull. Since gravity is pulling you right now at 1g in the negative y -axis, 1g in the positive y-axis is required to remain level.
As you roll the jet into increasing angles of bank (AOB), increased g is required to maintain level flight: The relationship of required g to maintain level flight can be expressed as g= 1/Cos AOB. From this you’d determine that at a sixty-degree angle of bank, the g required to maintain level flight is 2.0.
And it’s probably intuitively obvious to all of you (right?) that since we’re talking about inverse relationships and cosines, that as you increase the angle of bank past 60 degrees the g required increases very rapidly – from 60 to 75 degrees, for example, it doubles to 4.0 g. In fact, at 90 degrees angle of bank, the g required to maintain level flight would essentially be infinite, which I think we can all agree would be painful for the pilot to endure, even if the airframe could generate it.
Which it can’t.
(“What if you went over 90 degrees angle of bank, Lex?”
“Well then, gentle reader, at the altitudes we’re talking about? Your lift vector would be taking you rapidly towards the site of your fatal accident.”
Just one more thing, and that’s AOA: Angle of attack can grossly be described as the difference between where your airplane is pointing, and where it’s going. (And yes Lamont, I know it’s actually the measure of the angle of the wing’s incidence to the relative air mass, measured from the wing’s mean chord line, but this is for everyone else.)
(Lamont, gentle reader, is the omnipresent voice of my guilty conscience in all things technical.)
So the point is that even when your nose is pointing into the clear air mass, it’s not at all impossible that your frail craft is hurtling towards the unyielding and dispassionate earth, carrying with it your fragile pink body. Depending on the breaks.
So with all that said, you can no doubt understand why flying down Point Hadji was so thrilling. The sensation of speed was incredible (you’ll never, no never get used to terrain on three sides of your machine), the skill required to navigate successfully (I do not say safely here, it doesn’t quite fit) under those conditions of altitude and speed was significant, and best of all, from the standpoint of the thrill seeker personality type, was the fact that there was a Very Real Chance of killing yourself. Why that always seemed to go hand in hand with good clean fun (ok, fun? clean fun, anyway?) and aviation is something that is still a mystery to me.
And as fun as it was navigating down the precipitous canyon to the valley floor below, it was probably equally exciting (again, I’m told) to fly the route in reverse, up the escarpment. Why, I know of a fellow who did so, or said that he did, and appeared at the top a mere 600 or 700 feet above a parked tour bus, which had stopped in order to give a group of eco-tourists a photo opportunity at the charming, entirely barren desert. (Isn’t it cute?)
With the sound of his approach muffled by the folds and wends of the canyon walls until really, the last possible moment, our hero essentially materialized above the gathered crowd scant hundreds of yards above their heads, upside down, in full afterburner, like some screaming, carbon-epoxy bird of prey. With a Plexiglas, bubble canopy.
They were quite surprised. This was a sight I do not think that any of them had even hoped for, when they booked the tour.
When he looked down from his aerial perch into the amazed, (not to say shocked-almost-to-death, because really, who can say at this point?) faces of the eco-tourists, danger boy reflected that the item of the first importance was to keep the plane upside-down. By doing so, he hoped thereby to obscure from the cameras only now being retrieved from the dust below to hands that had moments before been stunned into momentary lifelessness, the blazon on the vertical tail identifying his squadron.
Because without an identifying mark, the plane could have belonged to anyone, anyone at all.
Yes. Yes, he was a rather wicked man, that danger boy. I scarcely ever see him, any more.