By lex, on May 2, 2006
So anyway, there I was pooting up to MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida from all the way down south at NAS Key West, Florida in an F-5E Tiger II, myself being an adversary pilot, and the F-5 being one of the three brands of filly in our stable. Now, this was a cross-country distance of maybe a couple hundred miles such that, what with driving to work, preflight planning, getting a weather brief, checking the jet out from maintenance, doing the walkaround, strapping in, starting, taxiing, getting on the departure radial, climbing to altitude, starting a let down, sequencing in to the overhead pattern, landing, taxiing in, shutting down, getting some gas and repeating the process at the other end, it might have almost been quicker to just stay in the car and drive to Tampa.
Quicker perhaps, but not nearly as much fun. Usually.
The F-5 was a pretty basic airframe – a low wing, two motor, afterburning, single-seat affair with a Rube Goldberg, pieces-left-over ejection seat, and an air-to-air radar that you could maybe use to find Florida with, on a good day, fiddle with the gains. It was a fast jet, so long as when you say “fast” your definition is broad enough to include the image of a Nash Rambler, barreling down the turnpike with greasy-haired, pimple faced Jeff Gordon wannabe with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, mashing the pedal to the metal over the course many long miles. Don’t care what dad thinks.
No one was to ever mistake it for nimble however, and fighting it was like dancing with a geriatric rhino – you’d get one good turn before you were caught in the kind of bone-jarring buffet that would leave you spitting dental fillings into your mask, keep this up. Good news was that it was a small jet – practically invisible nose on (or tail on, for that matter) such that you could sneak into a mature engagement virtually unseen.
Or I should say “mostly good news,” since on the other hand, many of us had been treated over the years by the gratifying sight of an F-14 we were all set up to merge with cooperatively, high aspect, left-to-left and co-altitude, just like it’s written in the training rules. Only to have him turn hard across our stunned and disbelieving noses at a quarter mile or so, all regardless. Which maybe sounds like it’s a pretty fair distance, and I suppose it is if you’re going at it with pistols, but at 1200 knots combined closure in fast-moving jets, you cover that distance in about 1.5 seconds. Which can make it kind of exciting.
In the debrief:
Handsome, talented and gifted strike fighter guy adversary pilot: I thought you saw me.
Beetle browed, knuckle dragging, simple fighter guy student pilot: Saw you what?
The F-5 was a fast jet on approach too, on account of its itty-bitty little wings, crossing the fence at maybe 170kts, in order to roundout to about 150kts or so for touchdown. A roundout, or flare, is what an Air Force pilot does on account of his flimsy landing gear, the F-5 being designed for shore based use, and no good at all upon a carrier. When you fly a carrier jets, by contrast, rather than horse the nose around on final approach, you maintain a constant angle-of-attack, controlling your rate-of-descent with throttles and airspeed with nose attitude. That being universally acknowledged as a more masculine way of making an approach. However, when in Rome, etc., and stuck with Air Force gear we adapted ourselves perforce to the distaff service’s sensitive ways. Only better. Of course.
Now, masculine or no, a 150kt landing was cooking on high heat for a jet that didn’t have autoskid protection for the wheel brakes, so the engineers thoughtfully equipped it with a drag chute right aft, just in case. It had a tailhook too, but that was just for the looks of the thing, all the other fighters had one too, and without a hook it might get beat up in the fighter parking lot after class.
By contrast, the drag chute was a good piece of gear and would slow you down in a trice, so long as the crosswinds were within some fairly restrictive limits, and so long as you put it out in time, the slowing effect being directly proportional to the speed the jet was moving. But we were advised to use the chute sparingly if at all while away from home, however, since there were only three people in the world left at that time who knew how to re-pack an F-5 chute, and the jet was down without it. One of these worthies was in Key West, another in Fallon, Nevada, and the third in parts unknown, but he was in any case reputed to be stark raving mad, and therefore no use to man nor beast when it came to the article of re-packing drag chutes.
So to return to the story at hand: There I was on final at MacDill AFB, a lovely runway, very nearly two miles long on account of Air Force pilots being so spoiled, etc. One of the things I’d neglected to notice on reviewing my flight information handbook however was that not only was it a rather long runway – so long in fact, so as to render the thought of even needing brakes, far less a drag chute, seem laughably optional – but it was also an exceptionally wide runway, 500 feet if I recollect, or nearly twice as wide as a Navy standard runway. Ourselves being much better stewards of the public fisc you see, and I don’t know what the influence of all those enormous aircraft the USAF flies might have on the matter. Combined with the fact that the F-5 was not equipped with a radar altimeter to know exactly how high I was, this made the runway look a relatively normal length, while simultaneously presenting me with a sight picture telling me that it was time to flare the jet, for God’s sake, while I still could. Alas! Still some hundred or so feet above touchdown height, too soon for a proper flare, not at all the way that we’d be taught.
Now once you flare a jet, you can’t un-flare it, not without running the risk of breaking off useful pieces that you’re accountable for to the taxpayer. So there I was, stuck in the landing attitude, powering down the runway’s length like any Navy pilot, only doing so in an insubstantial Air Force crate with my nose cocked up higher than the snoot of a tenured Ivy League English prof while groping blindly for the runway beneath me. And doing so, I might add, while chewing up the Prepared Landing Surface remaining at two-and-a-half miles to the minute. I finally put her down more by dint of will than by good airmanship, leaving myself roughly seven thousand feet of pavement remaining (out of an original twelve), that being considered hard up against the margin of using the drag chute on the one hand, or going off the end of the runway on the other.
I chose door number three instead, which involved standing on the brakes as hard as ever I dared, thighs trembling, not wanting to blow the tires, certainly, but wanting even more not to deploy the drag chute, which action would have meant admitting defeat, marking me forever as a quitter, not up to the task at hand, and a stone-fisted non-hack, not to mention a disgrace to the service, liable to a potential callsign change. And keeping in mind, as ever, the eternal fighter pilot truth that it was “better to die than look bad.”
The jet was clearly used to softer hand on the reins, clearly – she bucked like a convict in the electric chair while the instrument panel shuddered like a socialite in a Brooklyn pub, even as runway remaining markers flashed by like streakers at a high school football game.
Fresh out of similes, I was just at the point of wondering how I was ever going to explain running off the end of a two-mile long runway with my chute still securely packed in the back, moving too slow now to really get any good use out of it, but far too fast to be certain that I’d stop before going off-road.
God takes care of drunks and Irishmen however, and I’ve been both at times, so somehow everything came to a trembling balance just at the last crack of the final expansion joint. I taxied clear like it was all in a day’s work, shut down where the linesman directed me and took a brief detour by way of the head to ensure that I was completely presentable both fore and aft before going into the line shack and signing for the gas.
A bare half hour later I was wheels up in full grunt, acting like I owned the place and on to the next adventure. Having learned something, I now confess, about flying from that.