By lex, on July 21st, 2004
A quick sea story (not mine, I am only a messenger) now that I’ve introduced the concept of in flight refueling.
A friend of mine was coming back from a shore detachment in Oman, lo these many years ago. They’d been ashore for a couple of weeks, and were due back to the carrier, operating on the line at the extreme edge of the range feasibility arc for the returning fighters.
Who were also carrying a lot of captive ordnance and extra external fuel tanks – hauling trash on the wing stations increases drag, which in turn increases fuel consumption rates. Having enough gas to get aboard was going to be dicey – making it back to Oman once they’d passed the mid-point was out of the question.
After they got overhead the ship in relatively crappy weather (the North Arabian Sea in the summertime is routinely a mess), they were instructed to hold overhead until the deck could be made ready for their recovery. The recovery time had come and gone without the marshall controllers having passed along any approach instructions: The clock was ticking, the fuel was being burned and those little hairs on the back of the pilots necks were starting to prickle.
The flight lead called down to the ship and asked, if they weren’t too busy to tell him, what the hell was going on down there, anyway?
“We’re running downwind,” came the terse reply.
Which the lead thought would have been a grand thing to do back before the fighters had shown up overhead, looking to land. Turned out that the ship’s navigator had stumbled a bit over the charts, and the ship had been half way through her turn into the wind before an alert quartermaster’s mate mentioned that the recovery course would have them aground before the recovery was complete. Shoal water.
If you’re a ship’s CO and the choice is one of running 85,000 tons of aircraft carrier aground in the North Arabian Sea, or delaying the recovery until you’ve won some sea room, well – let’s just say that’s no choice at all.
Good news though! There was a USAF tanker 50 miles to the north, according to folks in air operations. The eight-ship of fighters was vectored to the north, keen to get radar contact and get in the basket, getting that few extra few thousand pounds of Air Force gas that would make their naval lives just that bit more comfortable. It was going to be tight.
Off they flew, into the great burning blue, yet never did a tanker show up on anyone’s radar screen. Which was strange indeed, because a tanker is a relatively large radar target, and certainly someone should have seen something.
Tense moments ticked by before the embarrassed air ops controllers allowed as how it was just, you know, possible, potentially, that the tanker was actually 50 miles south of the ship. Back the other way. See, they didn’t actually have radar contact on the tanker personally, and their info was… how do we say this? A little stale.
Eight fighters did a gentle, fuel conserving 180 degree turn back to the south, fighting the instinctive desire to wrap it up in a hard turn, and push the throttles up to get there faster. Eight pairs of eyeballs looked with disbelief at their fuel gauges, blithely ticking away to numbers they hadn’t seen before except in simulators. Eight relatively intelligent brains worked the numbers in their burning skulls and realized that it wasn’t only going to be tight – it was going to be damn tight. We might not make it, tighten up your harness straps, check your survival gear, curse your fate tight.
Tight, in other words.
The lead was actually the lowest fuel state, carrying the most amount of trash on his jet as they approached the tanker. He got rendezvoused in an expeditious (if not precisely controlled, not as who should say “controlled”) ‘manner and put his IFR probe out. The tanker’s boom operator seemed not to be in a rush however, there are checklists to follow, and USAF folks are nothing if not assiduous when it comes to completing checklists.
The lead mentioned to him in passing that he’d appreciate it if the boom operator would get the hose unspooled as expeditiously as possible, or failing that, to call his wife and tell her that he had loved her. The point being made, the boom operator skipped a step or two, brother, and reeled out the hose.
The lead looked down at his fuel gauge and saw about 200 pounds of gas remaining. Total. Enough for a little over 2 minutes of continued flight. So long as the gauge itself was accurate.
Because no one, to his certain knowledge, had ever by that time seen 200 pounds of gas on an FA-18 fuel gauge, when that FA-18 was in fact airborne.
There are times in aviation when you’ve got just the one chance to get it right. This was one of those – miss the basket just once, and you’ll be landing using the parachute silk, rather than the arresting hook. You’ll give the jet back to the taxpayer, get wet, go for a swim, take the Martin-Baker let down, dump the jet. You’ll have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy.
He got it right the first time. As his probe connected to the basket, he took one last panic-struck look at the fuel gauge, and actually saw it click to “00,000.”
No gas. No gas at all.
He actually felt the engines spool down for a moment, in an instant envisioning the airspeed decay, the falling helplessly out of the basket, the throttles going to the firewall with no response, the warning lights and tones, the female voice warning system’s (“Bitchin’ Betty’”) trying to sooth him with her calm, measured, dulcet, maddeningly repetitive words: “Engine, left. Engine, left. Engine, right. Engine, right.”
But the engines caught, and rallied – he estimated that for the first few moments, the motors were running straight from the tanker’s gas. The fuel tanks started to re-fill. He heaved a sigh of relief, the tightness in his chest easing for the first time in the last half-hour.
And then he heard his wingman on the radio, saying, “Boss – two’s got 400 pounds left.” The rest of the flight checked in with similarly bad news.
So, with about 1000 pounds in his tanks, enough for another ten minutes, the lead pulled back out of the tanker, shuttling his seven wingmen through over and over again, each getting just enough to stay airborne until the last had gotten enough to stay airborne long enough for the lead to get back in the basket again – over half an hour of white-knuckled tension until each of them could comfortably wait for any of them to get enough gas to head back to the ship.
Who by this time was into the wind, waiting for the jets to land and calling on the radio, wondering what the hell was going on up there, anyway?