By lex, on December 3rd, 2011
So, anyway. It was a matter of your correspondent and his wingman being classified as “bogies”, ID unknown and therefore having to be visually identified before weapons could be employed upon them. The two fighters we were flying against had contrived to get split up somehow, and it fell upon the one of them to VID the two of us, and we are wee, sma’ aircraft compared to the Super Hornet. I had the fortune to be in the lead and he had the misfortune to be tally-ho only of my wingman, about a mile or so behind me. He was all “shoot-shoot, Kfir” even as I was swinging his wingline. He never saw me, I don’t think – the Kfir pretty much vanishes when it’s nose on to you – although clearly his air intercept controller was aware of my motions, for your man was jinking and jiving and heading for the deck. To no avail, as it turns out. And the other fighter popped me shortly after, so the celebrations back in Banditville would have been short lived: Here’s to Lex and those like him, damn few left.
Heading back to the field proved by far the more exciting part of the flight. I’ve hinted to you about the presence of a dust storm, which seemed to concentrate on Naval Air Station Fallon like it had nowhere else to go. Summat to do with the howling winds, and the local farmers having recently turned over their topsoil, obedient to their own rustic rhythms. The approach controllers feigned surprise that we eight of us should head back to the field, some hour or so after we had left. And would be wanting to land. And in that wanting – a union of rubber to pavement devoutly to be wished – we would be requiring the services of the radar approach fellows, ordinarily good sports that they are, but suddenly sore pressed.
I had oodles of gas, and certain of the fighters were low fuel state, so I graciously offered to take the last number in the line. Got sequenced summers in the middle there despite my good intentions, which as it turned out was not so bad a thing at all.
My first approach was an ASR, or surveillance approach. It’s classified as a “non-precision” approach, and I haven’t flown one in year of Sundays, maybe more. You get lined up with the runway using radar vectors, and are then requested to descend to your minimum descent altitude, typically a few hundred feet above the airport. Unlike the precision radar approach (PAR), you are not told whether you are above or below the glideslope, but “recommended” altitudes are given every half mile. The minimum descent altitude is typically higher on an ASR than a PAR, but the advantage of an ASR in moderately foul weather is that you can dive down a little earlier, break out early and make your way to the field visually, which is what I did. But the chap who controls you in the radar room and the fellow who issues landing clearances in the tower are located in separate spaces, and actually getting your Kfir from final approach to drag chute status requires a degree of coordination that was not, in the event, forthcoming. Go around, you greasy b*stard.
So I did.
Up, up into the burning blue, only it was more of a burning brown, a flat, ugly khaki that admitted no possibility of ground reference whatsoever. That denied the very possibility of there being a ground, or sky, far yet that coveted runway. Vectored around the box-shaped pattern to a PAR on the second bout, and I did a fair job of following the controllers commands for heading and descent rate. I may have mentioned to you previously that my current mount is rather high spirited, she requires minute attention to pitch attitude, throttle settings and trim to keep her more or less in order, and coming aboard at almost 200 knots, you have to stay ahead of her. And by “you” I include the approach controller. Small drifts from centerline in close to the runway can become rapidly unsalvageable. At 200 feet above the ground and a half mile from the dust-blown runway, I had nothing. Missed approach point, do it again.
I sighed a bit, as the power came up, raised the gear and checked my fuel state. What had seemed a very comfortable margin a scant 15 minutes ago had me sucking my seat cushion into the alternate receptacle. I had sufficient fuel to make one more approach, and then I’d have to go summers else. How was the weather at Reno, I politely asked? Clear and million, I was told. So I had that.
Turning from downwind to base, still stuck in the clag, I heard approach tell a two-ship of Hornets, fiercely desirous of landing themselves, that the field was now below precision approach minima, and what were their intentions? While these two younkers were thinking it through, I took the opportunity to inform approach of my intentions. I’d be landing elsewhere, thanks for nothing.
Was given a climb to 10,000, which took me out of the goo and made me happy. Was given a vector of 180 degrees, which was not quite exactly the wrong course for Reno, but ’twas near enough. This made me unhappy. I cancelled my IFR clearance and executed a further climb to 16,500, turning to a 310 heading and dialing in Reno in the GPS. Less than ten minutes enroute, 900 liters remaining, estimating 600 liters on deck. A sufficient margin, if not a luxurious one.
Landed, as I have said, just as the sun was going down. Was offered the chance to land on the 9000 foot runway, begged leave to land on the 11,000 foot one instead. Permission granted.
I don’t know that Reno tower has much work to do once the sun has gone down, for your man was very conversational. “What the hell is that thing you’re flying,” he asked, or words to that effect. Oh, just an F-21 Kfir, I was happy to state, an Israeli variant of the Mirage F5. (And isn’t that a lovely video?)
Maintenance bundled out to Reno in a truck, taking a little more time than I had getting there. They met me by the jet and helped me put her to bed.
Drove back to Fallon that night, back to Reno in the morning, prepared to fly her back. Got lots of looks from those gathered in the fixed base operator’s lobby, along with some well-meant, but employment-terminating recommendations on the kind of departure I orta do. The keys are in it, I didn’t say, for any such as who’d like to overfly the hamlet of Sparks in full grunt at 500 feet. Vertical departures coupled with aileron rolls, too.
There was United Airlines 757 (I believe) taxiing to the same runway as your host intended to use, and although I was already first in line for take-off he really put the spurs to her and caught up. It’s either customary for 757 jocks to taxi at 30+ knots, or he merely wanted a better look for himself.
“Home” again in a trice, an uneventful landing and shut down. Turned around for noon brief, and 1415 launch, flying in company with a Super Hornet and four Vipers against four other Superhornets who whirled and flailed at one another even as I attempted – unsuccessfully, I might add – to sneak past and attack “the ship”.
They’re damned good, these kids.
Prior to our departure, an F-16 launched on a functional check flight. It’s customary in the F-16 during an FCF to do what would ordinarily be characterized as a “low transition”, a take-off in which the pilot gets just airborne, sucks up the landing gear and flies level some thirty or so feet above the runway in full blower. Totally unprofessional, and potentially career-ending on a routine sortie, but as I said, usual for a check flight. The thinking being that if the only engine decides to play the fool, you have sufficient smack on the jet to pitch up to the flameout pattern and execute a dead-stick landing, theoretically.
It’s also a whole lot of fun.
There were four fighters in the marshal area watching this performance with a professionally critical eye. On a crystal clear day, his long afterburner plume shortened to an impossibly bright dot at the runway’s departure end. He pitched up into the vertical, realigned his lift vector to his on course heading and leveled off at probably 16,000 feet or so. I looked over to my wingmen, and saw each of them following his flight path, their faces upturned and – I inferred – just a bit of envy in their hearts. What they didn’t know, and I did, was that such experiences have a use-by date. These things don’t last forever. What they don’t know, and I do, is that you do get second chances.
Then we buckled on our oxygen masks and went flying.