By lex, on November 20th, 2007
Obviously the military places great store in obeying the orders of properly constituted authority – we can’t very well go around having a council of war at every different level once the whistle blows. But for all things there is a time, and for every rule an exception.
When I was a lieutenant I had a CO who used to warn us about the risks of ‘flathatting’ thus: “Don’t do it – if I catch you doing it I’ll kill you. If you’re going to do it anyway, then at least for God’s sake brief whatever it is that you’re going to do. I’ll still kill you if I catch you, but that’s better than having some stray wire cross inside your skull provoking you into an unconsidered act which not only kills you but also destroys one of my airplanes. If you at least brief it, think it through beforehand, you’ve got a much better chance of surviving – at least until you get home. You’ll be just as dead either way, but if I can’t make you think of your own life, wife, friends or family, I want you to at least think of the taxpayer.”
Clear guidance. Made sense.
The pre-flight brief, you see, is a binding contract. It’s what you say you’re going to do with the $40 million piece of equipment that government has lent you, and by implication, what you’re not going to do. If you find yourself having to call an audible in flight, it meant that the brief had been insufficiently thorough. Which is itself a “debrief point” – a rather benign sounding term which carries the connotation of having screwed something up.
Came to pass one night that I was up at beautiful Fallon, Nevada, getting a refresh ride in the FA-18 after my tour as an adversary pilot in Key West. I was all rigged out in my best go-fast gear and ready to rain death and destruction – well, 25 pound practice bombs with smoke charges anyway – on the circular bullseye at Bravo 20. High angle bombing it was, 10,000 foot AGL roll-in, 45 degree dive at 475 knots true airspeed and a 3000 foot AGL minimum recovery altitude.
The target was not so much illuminated – this was before night vision devices had become in vogue – as it was outlined by a cross-shaped series of lights. The trick was to roll in, hurtle yourself to the deck at ever increasing speed, align the dim symbology of your heads up display with the vertical axis of the target lights glimmering out of the gloom, place your weapons symbology at the theoretical intersection of the lateral axis and drop your MK76 into the pitch black hole in the middle. And then pull 4-5 g’s (which at night always ended up being more like 5-6 g’s – one each for momma and the kids) to avoid following your bomb into the target. Points on for accuracy, points off for breaking the minimum altitude, game over for plowing in.
We tend to be simple people. We like simple rules.
Our flight lead and instructor pilot was a USAF major on exchange with the Navy. I was junior time-in-grade among the three mid-grade officers in my flight. Besides myself (dash-2) there was another lieutenant commander also on his way to a department head tour in dash-3. Since we were all relatively experienced pilots, the pre-flight brief was mercifully short: Start, taxi, take-off, rejoin, enroute, break-up, bomb, rejoin overhead, battle damage check and return to base for a 10-second break and landing. Emergencies and hung ordnance. Before too long we were airborne, joined and heading to the target.
Flight breakup, pattern entry and mud moving went exactly as briefed, with your humble narrator bearing away the prize for accuracy. Which it’s my story, innit? So I get to tell it any way I like, and that’s the way I remember it. As far as you know.
Rejoined overhead the target and checked my lead’s wings clear of ordnance. Three provided the same courtesy to me. Lead called on the radio to say that we should take cruise formation, since it was his intent to drop down to 500 feet AGL and surveil the lights around the target bullseye. On a dark night – darker than a hat full of *ssholes, as they say. Darker than six feet up a cow’s… well, you follow me I think: Dark.
In mountainous terrain. Without night vision devices. Did I mention that it was dark?
I briefly considered my options. The flight lead was in a position of authority, and he hadn’t asked us our opinion – he’d told us what to do. But this was not anything we’d even hinted at in the brief and suffice it to say it was a significant deviation from normal operations. I waited a bit for the more senior Navy guy in dash-3 to say something, but it remained quiet on the net. Finally I had to break the silence:
Your humble scribe: Do what?
Flight lead: You know, just drop down, take a look. Check it out.
YHS: I’m detaching, I’ll see you guys back on deck.
FL: Say again?
YHS: We didn’t talk about this in the brief and I haven’t got the least intention of dropping down to 500 feet at night until I’ve got my wheels and flaps down on final approach to land. Good luck, though.
Now, I’ve always been a devil-take-the-hindmost kind of a guy, and nobody likes to be thought of as a “non-hack.” But neither are there any posthumous awards or citations attached to augering in on a training flight. I couldn’t order my seniors to abandon what I considered a stupidly risky idea with zero upside, but being in actual command of the aircraft I’d been loaned I could choose not to participate in it. In the end, the flight lead abandoned his scheme, I rejoined the flight and we headed back to the field for landing.
In the debrief I was fully prepared for some of that characteristic fighter pilot ululation, chest-thumping and high energy ego management, but as it turned out everyone was pretty thoughtful instead. It had been a pretty stupid idea.
I think maybe all of us learned about flying from that.