By lex, on June 9th, 2004
Sometimes the mission doesn’t make much sense.
Sometimes you do it anyway.
Everyone has a store of sea stories that makes him looks like a hero.
This is not one of those.
Fighter aviation is mercilessly unforgiving of weakness of any sort, personal, professional, or character. The pressure to compete and succeed is remarkable – sometimes it can be fatal.
I loved it.
A few years back, when I was a squadron executive officer, I was selected to be the officer-in-charge of a 10 plane detachment from my carrier to an airbase in Kuwait. The task involved an “engagement” exercise with the Kuwait Air Force. Six Hornets, two Tomcats, an S-3 Viking and an E-2C Hawkeye. Fifty or sixty troops to support the jets once ashore. Coordination was a pretty big deal, because of the political sensitivities involved. The Kuwaits are a rather proud (one could almost say haughty) people, many of the fighter pilots we would fly with (and against) were very well connected politically. So I had several trips to Kuwait City in the preceding weeks to make sure we had dotted and crossed all of our respective I’s and T’s. Drank many small cups of strong, sweet coffee.
We were actively engaged in patrolling the skies over Iraq for Operation Southern Watch (which I had begun to think my son would also be doing, one day), and ten jets couldn’t be spared while the carrier was on the line, so our detachment flew off the ship on the last day before a scheduled 5-day liberty break in the UAE.
We briefed the mission, launched and headed to Kuwait. About a hundred or so miles out, I remembered that we hadn’t gotten a very good weather brief, so I called up the USAF Supervisor of Flying at the airfield on the radio, and asked him how the weather was there.
“It sucks,” was his brief, but to an aviator, fully comprehensive reply.
“How bad?” I asked.
“We’re not flying.”
Ouch. One thing you didn’t want to do was cancel an OSW mission, if you could at all avoid it. If the USAF, with home field advantage and ILS equipment wasn’t flying, we would be in for a rough time.
So I called it a day, and turned the detachment around in flight to head back to the carrier. Get a better weather brief, think things through with senior leadership. Maybe the weather would break. The ship was surprised to hear from us – we weren’t expected. When I explained what had happened, they made the deck ready and we landed. Got out, went to look for the bigger bosses and get some guidance.
“How bad is it?” I was asked.
There was a lot of thoughtful chin pulling and grimaces. Canceling the exercise because we couldn’t get in would be bad – a lot of (Kuwait’s) money had been spent and egos had been petted. Curtailing the in port period to shoot us the next day wasn’t very palatable either – 5000 Sailors had spent 40 days on the line and were very much looking forward to kicking up their heels ashore, however austere the charms of Dubai night life might be. Too, the port services had already been engaged, and the cost of changing them on short notice was non-trivial. All that paled of course, in comparison to the thought of putting 10 carrier aircraft into the dirt because we couldn’t land. No easy choices.
I was asked to try again, and exercise my best judgment. The ship would be ready for us if we couldn’t land.
Back into the burning blue again. My wingman was a brand new pilot in the squadron – he’d only been with us a week or so. A week in which, to amuse ourselves at his expense, we severally exchanged name tags over the intervening period. Confusing the new guy as to who was who when he checks aboard is what passes for fun, half way through a deployment. Anyway, he was standing on the pillars of Fresh, New and Trusting, and I was about to knock him off at least two of them.
The air base only had a rudimentary approach aid that the Navy could use – the aforementioned ILS was incompatible with our aircraft (don’t you love “jointness”?). This particular navaid is known as a TACAN, and gives bearing and range to its location. The airfield diagram showed that the TACAN had not been placed at the runway threshold – it was displaced across from the parking apron – so we couldn’t actually use it to line ourselves up with the runway, only to find the airfield’s general location.
Fortunately for us (and I guess Saddam, back in 1990) Kuwait is very flat, with no significant vertical development. We started down into a thick brown soup, some sort of motionless dust storm which instantly turned the world into a monochromatic khaki canvas, without texture or definition. My wingie tucked in close – for the rest of the flight, until we broke up to land, I would serve as his horizon, his visual reference. Tucked in close like that, he couldn’t spare a glance at his own instruments.
We followed the TACAN into the field, accepting vectors down to 1000 feet – the minimum vectoring altitude for the airspace controller. The mileage on the TACAN clicked down, and at 3 miles, the point at which we were asked to call the field in sight, I saw nothing but that tan dust haze in every direction. Just for kicks, I kept the approach going – no one else but us would be flying in that mess, so there was no traffic conflict – and overflew the airfield without ever seeing anything.
This was uncomfortable – going lower on a subsequent approach would serve to 1) reduce the amount of gas I’d need to make it back to the ship, and 2) take me out of my protected “box,” a happy place in which I was in complete compliance with all governing instructions, procedures and guidance. Going lower would be a judgment call, in other words. If my judgment was sound, we’d get on deck and no one would be the wiser. If I misjudged, I would be hazarding my aircraft (and my wingman’s) out of policy, and could expect Stern Gazes and Difficult Questions. If we survived.
It’s worth pointing out there is a significant punitive distinction between losing a jet because you made a mistake, and losing a jet because you violated the rules. The one will hurt your career – the other will kill it.
So don’t lose the jet, yah?
I circled around to the north, committed to another attempt. My wingie stayed glued to my wing – good man. Approaching the airfield again, I let the jet dip down to 800 feet – below the minimum vectoring altitude, but no more than a descending “overshoot” that such minimums are constructed around. This, nothing until we had just overflown the airfield, when looking down straight below me, I could just break out the air strip from its identically colored sand background. I fought down a wild impulse to yank the aircraft around in a tight spiral while locking my eyes on the runway – that’s a pretty good way to off yourself in bad weather, if you haven’t tried it. As well, there was no way my wingie would be able to land after such a disorienting break away, and a damn good chance that he’d kill himself trying, at his experience level.
So I took it around.
Two more attempts passed by, and I was about to call it quits and head back to what I imagined would be a thoroughly disappointed, disapproving ship. Just then one of the Tomcat crews reported that they had successfully landed. I know now (and knew then) that this did not mean that the field was suddenly accessible – past successes are no guarantee of future returns, and I didn’t know what kind of maneuver he had used to break through the weather – it almost had to have been a standards violation based on what I had seen. And you had to wonder if they’d fess up to breaking policy later, after you’d returned to the ship because you couldn’t land. It could be perceived poorly – no one would ever say anything, you’d never actually hear those words, “non-hack,” muttered under the breath as they turned away, but in your heart you knew (feared?) they’d be thinking it. Subject to peer pressure? Yeah, I guess.
The Tomcat crews’ landing raised the ever-present pressure to succeed up another notch – if they could do it, it could be done. Try again. I cast a jaundiced eye at my fuel gauge. Not much more time to screw around.
There was an approach technique that we were all taught to use in extreme exigency, when no other options existed and you had to land. Because as a wise man once said, every aircraft that takes off will come to earth eventually.
One way or the other.
This technique involved using the ground attack radar to map the airfield like you’d break out a ground target. Identify the runway threshold, and lay a target designation cross upon it. That brings a target “diamond” into your HUD, which could then be used to aid visual target recognition in the bomb run.
But it could also be used as a very rough approximation of a precision instrumented approach – keep the diamond lined up on the runway heading and at a negative three degrees flight path angle, and in theory you’d break out of whatever weather perfectly lined up with the runway and on glideslope. The theory versus reality part was that at a certain point, the radar would no longer update the target map, and your aimpoint would be stabilized only by the inertial navigation system (INS). The FA-18 INS was not GPS-aided at that point, so the diamond would start to drift.
I had seen approaches in good weather practice that would have worked out perfectly in poor weather execution. But those were the exception, rather than the rule. Still, Kuwait was flat, and the Tomcat had landed. It was worth a try.
But there was no way my wingman could do this and also fly wing, so I kicked him out to a one-mile trail and told him to get a radar lock on me, keep the lock box in his HUD at negative three degrees and to stay above me during the approach. We hadn’t briefed this of course, and he’d never been taught anything like that in training. We were now officially off the reservation, and out of “the box.” I knew it, maybe he did too. There was a tremor in his voice when he said, “Yes sir.”
It’s very uncomfortable to fly in that kind of weather so low to the ground without a suitable approach and landing system. Obstacles that you’d avoid visually, or procedurally on a published approach, could suddenly loom up on you. The way those power lines did at about a mile from the runway. My luck held though, and I broke the field out in time to land. The wingie landed just behind me, and even after he got out the jet his eyes were as round as saucers. No one had told him the fleet was going to be like this.
I quickly taxied back down the runway to the hold short, in order to help the rest of the aircraft land – I told them to turn their taxi lights on, and to listen up for my instructions. It wasn’t exactly the same as standing on the LSO platform on a dark night (the airfield wasn’t moving) but it was close enough.
I filed it away under the “boy that was stupid but you got away with it anyway” category. We all got on deck and celebrated with a cold Coke (no beer in Kuwait… that you can talk about, anyway) and promised we’d never do anything like that ever again.
But inside us all, we knew we might, under the right circumstances. Because competition, getting the job done, and that pressure to succeed, are all a part of the culture. We also knew that if we did things like that often enough, the luck would run out eventually. And in fighter aviation, when luck runs out, it runs out all at once.
And no, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know about flying from that. I’d been asked to use my judgment, and to evaluate it by one measure (mission success) it was good – we all landed successfully. On the other hand, continuing the approach in that kind of weather was not a very good idea, and if things had gone wrong they’d have been wrong quickly, and wrong all around. Nothing we were doing was worth an airplane or a life. Maybe if you gave me another thousand hours in fighters, I could more closely approximate the ideal.
How about it?
“The superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid having to use his superior skills.”
“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”