By lex, on November 5th, 2011
I almost didn’t launch last night, as one of my hydraulic systems stubbornly refused to provide the requisite system pressure. You don’t want to make a habit out of bailing on night flights, even when there are plausible reasons to do so, however. The maintenance jollies did their work, and I hustled down to the hold short to join my lead.
I’ve seen darker nights – we had at least half a moon – but not recently. With our engine checks complete, my flight blasted off into the gloom, his afterburner plume receding in the distance, and after a suitable interval, I followed.
In the daytime I have become inured to the long interval between, golly, we’re going pretty fast, and gosh, we’re not quite to lift-off speed yet. In the darkened cockpit that interval seemed to stretch on interminably, and I found my eyes riveted to the airspeed indicator, willing those last thirty knots to come up, even as the departure end loomed darkly nearer, illuminated by a row or horizontal red lights in the indeterminate distance that demarcate the division between the paved runway one uses to go flying with, and a three-wheeled, high speed kitty-cart trip on the unprepared desert surface. That could only end badly.
I have always been cursed by an excess of imagination, so in the absence of palatable alternatives, I did what I usually do: Pushed a little harder on the already fire-walled throttle, and put away my misgivings for later consideration.
She sprang eagerly into the air at last, despite the 4000 feet of density altitude, and courtesy of the reduced fuel load and consequent gross weight. I set pure pursuit geometry at first to join my flight lead, sighing a little bit to myself as his afterburner winked out. The Kfir is many things, but “well lit” is not among them. The challenge became rendezvousing to an acceptable distance on the three dim lights – two wings and the tail – without having a too close encounter.
When you fly a fighter in formation at night, especially when not equipped with night vision devices, you simply must trust in your flight lead. Rather than your own attitude and performance instruments; altimeter, heading indicator, vertical speed indicator. In fact you must deprecate all the customary devices used to orient oneself to such physical arcane constructs as “up” and “down”, not to mention downrange travel and geographic position. They are very nearly useless to you, especially when close aboard, since you can scarcely afford the cross-check time to scan them while remaining in a safe position. Not so close that you might drift in and hit him with a moment’s inattention – the wingman’s cardinal sin – nor so far that you might lose sight. That little array of lights 45 degrees off your nose becomes your virtual universe, and you trust that he, not burdened with the responsibility of collision avoidance, is properly flying his aircraft through the sky. Keep those little lights in sight, at an appropriate distance up from your canopy rail, and you will fly as he flies, as fast as he flies, where he is flying.
Our assigned altitude being in the mid-30,000 foot block, and our time to push out against the blue force being defined for us, I kept him in that side-pane for the length of a book, easing out just far enough to maintain awareness of my systems and fuel state, but not so far away as to lose sight, and suffer the buffoonish fate of having to ask for help in a rejoin.
The red air F-16s and FA-18s pushed out, provided their presentation, died bravely and reset for an off-target presentation. And then it was our turn to go. One element of blue fighters swept our wingline, perhaps four or five thousand feet below us, and we awaited the notification that we had been killed. It never came. We passed right to right and above a ten-plane formation of strikers, their formation lights twinkling in the coal black darkness. I could almost imagine the glow from their NVDs illuminating their faces as they strained to catch sight of our diminutive and dimly lit aircraft. We passed further on in the darkness, engaging in a wide right hand swirl with a high value asset and its fighter escort. And then we were asked to clear the area, training objectives having been accomplished. Which is where the fun started.
We cleared out of the picture, and picked our way back to the field. We had pre-briefed to recover via ground controlled approaches. Having spent the better part of an hour staring at that small triangle of lights – at times so distant that they merged into one dim and undifferentiated glow, my lead graciously asked the approach controller to take me down first, in order to give me a little bit of comfort time. But Approach had ideas of their own, and I was vectored out of the formation, told to descend and asked to fly a heading. Just as I shifted from my external scan to my instruments, I plunged into the clouds, and had a tense few moments getting oriented to the displays in front of me.
It’s called “vertigo”, the sense that the world your instruments present to you and those your mind insists upon are fundamentally misaligned. It’s caused by those tiny hairs in your middle ear that orient you to the world each day without your even thinking about it. But they are vulnerable in flight to sudden flight path changes, turns, accelerations or decelerations, which causes the fluids in your inner ear to tickle those hairs in unpredictable ways, and send messages through your nervous system that you are really in a steep and uncontrolled climb and must lower the nose immediately, when in fact you have merely slowed down to approach speed. Or that you are in a steep angle of bank, when in fact your wings are level. Having vertigo in the goo, at night, in an airplane that you have flown a mere 40 hours of mostly day and VFR flight is, too say the least, uncomfortable. Having that same vertigo in mountainous terrain, when you are not yet fully oriented either to the terrain or to the airfield, is worse.
So you do what you were trained to do, all those years before. Level the wings on the attitude gyro to stop the bleeding. Force yourself to believe in it, while denying the witness of your other senses. Ensure that there is sufficient power to maintain flying airspeed, cross-checking the throttle position with the airspeed indicator. And then you start picking away gently at the residual deviations. Climb, if you are low. Crack on a little more throttle if you’re slow. Fix one problem at a time: Verify airspeed – without which forward flight becomes problematical – and then achieve and maintain your assigned altitude, which under radar control will keep you safely away from terrain. When all of that is locked down, you work your way over quite literally by degrees to your assigned heading.
There’s a priority to these corrections of course. Altitude and airspeed are not merely crucial, they are tightly interrelated. If you descend without a throttle adjustment, the tendency is to pick up speed, and if you climb you’ll get slow. At slower airspeeds higher angles of attack and pitch angles are required to maintain level flight, and if you get very slow you’ll need all the throttle you’ve got since you may find yourself on the “back side of the power curve”. But your heading cannot too long await attention, because the safe altitude corridors are largely dependent upon the airplane tracking its assigned course. While all around you is a dark, soft whiteness that denies the possibility of any horizon to reference, or cultural lighting to fix your position. The senses narrow to sight and sound, the sound of your engine in your ears and the approach controller’s instructions. Turn right heading 290, descend and maintain niner-thousand two hundred, perform landing checks, come up three-zero-eight dot six and check in. Wheels should be down.
I broke out of the clouds with the runway in sight at a good six miles. The final controller-in-training gave some stray instructions which were quickly over-ridden by the more experienced voice of her supervisor. The omni-bearing selection line on the Garmin 510 gave me good situational awareness to the course line, while I varied throttle and pitch to maintain airspeed and rate-of-descent coming down the glideslope. Closing the runway, the landing light effectively illuminated the threshold, and I made one of the smoother landings I’ve performed thus far in the Kfir. Held the nose up past the shortfield gear, bunted to deploy the ‘chute with 8000 feet remaining on an 11,000 foot runway, and taxied clear at the end without having to tap the breaks, apart from a quick check to ensure that they were working. Cold air rushed in when the canopy came up after the engine spooled down in parking. Smiling faces, and “how’s the jet?” She’s fine. A good jet.
We debriefed the bandit lead, headed to the club and had a pint or two of Guinness (for strength!) before calling it a night.