Low Levels

By lex, on July 30th, 2009

There’s something almost addictive about high speed, low level flying. Watching the world unfold beneath you close at hand is undeniably thrilling, and the blur of the scenery as you get lower and lower is a great adrenaline rush.

Truth be told, I was never as big a fan of low level navigation as some of my buddies in naval aviation. There were guys who lived for flying low.

I’ve had my fun down below 500 feet, don’t get me wrong. But I was never as avid about it as some I knew. It was an important skill to maintain – terrain masking can get you close to certain well-defended targets without getting lit up by SAMs and AAA. But to me, a low level flight at 200 feet was like a night carrier landing: I was always acutely aware of impending mortality. The bad guys might get you if you flashed some thigh. The ground was less forgiving.

It focuses you, being three seconds away from an irrecoverable attitude. Puts you in prey mode, rather than predator. You have to be hyper-vigilant when the ground has a Pk of 1.0.

I was one of those fliers who generally preferred to stay in the middle of the air whenever I could – I tried to stay away from the edges. I wanted a way out, should something go awry. I didn’t mind a few moments of contemplation when an engine decided to play the fool, just for one example.

I might have all started back in the training command. We cut VFR sectional charts in strips, laid speed, time and distance vectors on the chart. Were taught to turn on time if we missed the visual checkpoint.

My first low level flight in the T-2C Buckeye was with Lucky Jack, who was four-fifths of his way to being a black ace. I studied the hell out of my first strip chart, and flew a good flight. We had a second flight immediately thereafter. Two strip charts was one too many for me to memorize, and the second flight didn’t go nearly as well. We didn’t have an INS in those jets, and one farm on the flat Mississippi countryside looked much the same as any other.

My next instructor at low level nav had the reputation of being basically a lunatic. He was a divorced Marine captain with a brash attitude, contempt for his students and no apparent fear of death. His psychological profile fit the classic “failing aviator”, the guy who had something to prove to everyone else, the guy whose highest aspiration was to be known as the “best pilot in the squadron.”  Too many guys like that have augered in trying to keep the plates of their professional life spinning at high velocity even as their personal lives fell apart.

The senior students spoke in whispered tones about the time he’d taken the jet from a student and flown beneath a bridge spanning the Blackwater River. Before I flew with him I wrote out my first will. Not because I thought I would die that day. Because I thought I might.

This was well before the Navy adopted “human factors councils” to evoke the gossip swirling around the small town of a squadron that somehow never quite burbled up to the mayor. You sucked it up, strapped it on, hoped for the best. And wrote your will.

It all culminated years later in night low levels under night vision goggles at 200 feet in mountainous terrain. The strange truth of the matter was that, because the resolution of the NVDs increased as you got lower, you actually felt more comfortable at 200 feet than at 500. Of course, I knew of a few guys who died very comfortably when they neglected their mission cross-check times. If you had three seconds between straight and level to windscreen full of dirt, you had to sandwich navigation, radar work, RWR awareness and fuel/engine scans – not to mention formation, in a two-ship – between glimpses at your flight path. I mostly shed that other stuff in favor of not hitting the ground, and was always happy to point the nose at the moon and climb to the local obstacle clearance altitude when it was time to knock it off.

I was put in mind of all of this by reading the NTSB report on Steve Fossett‘s mishap . The millionaire adventurer took off in Decathlon and never returned. The thrust of the report was that he took of from a private Nevada strip for a “Sunday drive”, was seen 9 miles from the airfield still at 150-200 feet above ground level, climbed over the eastern Sierras and turned his IFF off a few minutes before the primary contact faded. Investigators theorized that he got caught in downdraft that exceeded the climb capability of his Decathlon at high density altitude. He had a 300 foot per minute rate of climb available to him, and it looks like that wasn’t enough.

The guy was an extremely experienced pilot, so he probably he thought he knew the risks he was taking on. People usually do. I doubt Mr. Fosset took to the sky last year thinking he was going to die. I wonder if he thought that he might.

Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.

— Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. Circa early 1930′s

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Flying

One response to “Low Levels

  1. Pingback: Neptunus Lex: Stories on Naval Aviation and Safety | The Lexicans

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