By lex, on August 19th, 2007
I think it’s safe to say that while it’s not true that every night bombing hop ends up as a fiasco, it’s also true that a disproportionate number of fiascoes seem to occur during night bombing evolutions. There is something about hurling yourself at the ground at a 45 degree dive angle at 500 knots while chasing HUD symbology towards a successful release on a poorly lit target in the absence of any visual reference cues while the altimeter unwinds like a yo-yo in the presence of mountainous terrain that tends to capture a man’s attention pretty comprehensively. Sometimes? Between attack runs?
It can be hard to pull your head out of the merely personal and rebuild the “big picture.”
My first night bombing hop in the Hornet occurred when I was a junior officer going through training in the Fleet Replacement Squadron many years ago, back as the earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the lands. Our instructor pilot and flight lead for the event was a former F-14 jock whose call sign was “Legion.”
Actually, no. But it might as well have been.
You see, back when the Hornet was brand new and the writing was not yet on the wall we got two sorts of instructors from the Tomcat community: Hard charging guys who wanted a chance to be on the leading edge of a new program and people whom the F-14 bubbas didn’t mind losing to the “other” team. Some of the latter guys had “personality issues” and others were merely slackers. Legion fell in the second category, a essentially capable guy whose destiny it was not to be named a superior flight lead. We are not all of us called to greatness.
Our mission was a four-ship “heavy” ordnance mission against the Bravo 17 live impact area in Fallon, Nevada. If we three students were mildly (or otherwise) surprised to discover that we’d be dropping live ordnance for the first time – and that at night – we didn’t show it. I mean, these instructors were pros, right? They knew what they were doing. And anyway, questioning their authority when it came to physical safety was considered borderline wanking.
They took points off for wanking.
So we tried to take it all in stride with maybe 50 hours in the fighter and – for most of us – no more than about 300 total hours of flight time. Which may sound like a lot if you’re paying for it out off your paper route earnings, but is considered pretty meager for military types. Dropping live ordnance. In mountainous terrain. At night.
For the first time.
“Legion” briefed a 300 knot rendezvous from a 10-second separation, afterburner take-off. I was dash two, and – having waited the appointed interval – plugged the blowers in for to make the expeditious rejoin. Which, in the event, was a great deal more expeditious that I had expected since Legion, sensitive of a thundercloud formation outboard of the rendezvous circle, had slowed his jet to 230 knots, greatly diminishing the turn radius. He also wrapped up the turn from the briefed 30 degrees angle of bank to about 45 degrees or so to avoid going into the weather. Good headwork as far as it went, but even better would have been to communicate this deviation to the plan to the rest of us. This was, as it turned out, asking rather too much our man.
That whole “called to greatness” thing.
I could tell that something was amiss when I found myself at an 80 degree angle of bank turn, peeking over the left leading edge extension while slamming the throttles to idle and extending the speedbrakes in a desperate attempt to avoid hitting my flight lead. At night. Carrying four 500-pound live bombs. I was intuitive that way.
It did not much help matters that, just as I was congratulating myself on having miraculously arrived in stabilized formation, Legion roused himself from whatever deep distractions kept him from, you know, leading his actual flight to ask of dash three in a conversational tone whether or not he had two in sight? At all?
Two was your humble scribe hisself, so, being as self-interested as the next goober, this was a question whose answer I eagerly attended to. “Mrmph!” came three’s cogent reply even as I witnessed the light pattern from his airplane go slashing underneath my jet mere feet away, thirty degrees offset from the lead’s flight path before disappearing into the weather on our port side. Whether dash four was wiser from three’s experience or merely unmanned from having nearly witnessed a three-plane midair collision (carrying live ordnance, at night) he bailed out of the rendezvous attempt entirely, reversing his turn to the left and promising to catch up. In time. If he could. Three ended up joining out of the weather carrying a vicious case of vertigo at about the same time as four caught up on the starboard side some minutes later.
Somewhat troubled at heart but silent on the radios we pressed on to the target. Surprisingly, that part of the mission went famously, leaving us to rejoin again overhead the target when the mission was complete. This I approached with a good bit of caution, but three – distracted by the lights of the nearby metropolis of Fallon (population ~ 7500) – managed to blow the rendezvous entirely taking four with him off into the moronosphere. It was at just that moment when the O-2 that had been arcing around at 3000 feet above ground level in order to 1) spot our hits, and 2) bust our chops in the event of a minimum altitude bust decided that dropping a LUU-2 flare would be just the thing to get us all sorted out.
LUU-2′s had been used during the Vietnam war to illuminate target areas for high angle dive bombing by A-4 and A-7 attack aircraft. They were parachute retarded and brilliantly incandescent. Being up to this moment blithely unaware of their existence however, the sudden appearance of a miniature sun below our aircraft served only to confuse we few, we goofy few, we band of students even more. Both three and four – who had been on the very cusp of gaining a degree of situational awareness – felt their eyes irresistibly drawn to the paraflare below, instantly losing whatever night vision they had arduously built up over the preceding forty minutes. For my own part, glued as I was to my lead, I merely suffered from an almost debilitating bout of nausea-inducing vertigo, as the world appeared to turn upside down, the g-forces holding me down in my seat warring with the sunlight below my wing in competition for the attention of the little bones inside my ear that tell me when I’m sitting upright, or not.
Finally concluding that the briefed mission was irrecoverable, at least from an administrative standpoint, Legion wisely detached the still-mesmerized dash three and four to follow us back to the field. As we turned away from the now-guttering flare, I regained some sense of up and down, at least sufficient to fly Legion’s wing back to the overhead pattern to break downwind and land with three and four behind us a couple of miles.
As I configured the jet for landing, “Bitchin’ Betty” announced to me that we had a “Flight Controls” issue. Indeed, there on the right digital data display I noted that my trailing edge flaps were showing “X’s” indicating that they were not scheduling properly based on airspeed and angle of attack. I suppose I should have taken the jet around for troubleshooting, with lead joining on my wing while I did so, but at that point I wanted nothing more than to be on deck and the jet was flying perfectly well, albeit at a somewhat higher than normal airspeed. I kept my mouth shut, gave lead a little more interval off the approach turn and made my own approach to land on centerline.
I landed hot of course and, concerned about blowing a tire, left off for a moment tapping the brakes, very happy just to be on deck. The tower controller interrupted my sigh of relief by keying his mic and calling on the radio in evident alarm, “Three, you’re overtaking two rapidly on the landing rollout!”
“Three is still on downwind,” came the protesting reply. Still airborne in other words.
Now, math is not my strong suit gentle reader, but I was nevertheless grounded in the basics enough to know that if it was not three overtaking two then the only alternative was that two – your humble narrator – was overtaking one. Who, it turns out, had chosen that particular evening to sample the pleasures of a max-brakes full stop landing. With nearly all of his external lights out. All of them but for a wee-bitty tail light that got rather closer than to our own nose than our friends could have wished for, even given the fact that I stomped on the wheel brakes with everything I had.
Fortunately, Legion could work the math as well and gave up his unbriefed performance demo by giving his own jet a shot of power to keep her rolling. We turned off the runway at the end almost together, his eyes as big as saucers in the glow of the taxiway lights.
For many years that was the worst flight I ever flew. But I did learn about flying from that.