By lex, on February 29th, 2012
I am an admittedly early riser (and am often late to bed), having been broken of that comfortable junior officer habit of sleeping on both ears until the noontime bell some years ago. “Eight hours sleep per day,” we used to say on deployment, adding that, “whatever you get at night is gravy.” To which some wag would inevitably respond that, if you could sleep twelve hours a day, it was only a three-month cruise.
Yet somewhere along the way the chain was broken, and I have yet to mend the weaker link. Faced with an early morning commitment that I cannot in good faith decline, I will set my alarm clock – as I did this morning – and wake a minute or two before it sounds. Hoping against hope that the clock will read 0300, when I know that it will read “0413″, as it did yesterday morning with a 0415 wake-up nestling in its innards.
It isn’t like you can say, well: I’m to wake at 0415, so I must to bed by 8PM, so that I can get my eight strait. Not if it were ever so.
But it is nevertheless a cruel, hard thing to bestir yourself with three hours to go before daybreak on five hours sleep, knowing that a cold fighter cockpit waits you at the end of the chain.
Oh, 25 degrees Fahrenheit is not so very cold, I know. There are gloves, and hats and Capilene underwear to whisk the cold away. None of which, I know for a certain fact, have been required in Sandy Eggo since the Little Ice Age.
But, needs must. And I made it to the church on time, bitter resentments or no.
The brief was unexceptional – TOPGUN is nothing if not standardized – the preflight uneventful, the start-up summat of a dog’s breakfast . First we had a “hung start”, wherein the engine – although liberally supplied with jet fuel, ignition and starting air – stolidly refused to catch fire. A second and more successful attempt was followed by a hydraulic system that utterly declined its duty in those frigid temperatures. A little of this and a little of that, and it was coaxed into obedience.
I may have mentioned that it was cold yesterday morning, as a result of which I had the cabin temperature knob cooking on pretty high heat from (final) start through take-off. The howling of the afterburner was accompanied by the howling of the environmental conditioning system, which in a simpler world you would call your “heater” or “air conditioner”, depending upon the conditions you were hoping to achieve. Sadly, the valve which routes engine bleed air into the cockpit to heat the space surrounding the wetware locked open, and after a few moments it became rather too warm to be comfortable.
Fortunately, I am not the first aviator to suffer through a runaway ECS, so the designers at Dassault – perhaps at IAI – thoughtfully included a manual switch to cool the cabin and prevent the pilot from roasting. As the cabin became more suitable to sustaining life however, I couldn’t help but note that the ECS was laboring unusually. At first I attributed this to the manual operations, checked that my cabin pressure schedule was keeping up with the climb to 23,000 feet and gave it no more conscious thought.
My sub-conscious, however, was keeping it in my scan, which was a good thing because only a few minutes later I checked the cabin pressure gauge – which is rather poorly situated on an ankle-high pedestal between the legs – and found that it was showing 20,000 feet of pressurization at 23,000 feet of altitude. Sub-optimal.
You can of course tighten up your oxygen mask and even go to 100% vice diluter demand, but there are other physiological symptoms of depressurization, some of them benign, others less so. I was keying the mike to tell my lead that I was dropping out of formation to return to base when I heard a strange ripping sound, which is never a good thing in flight. You are permitted the throb of the engine, and howl of the burner in full grunt. You are even permitted the occasional thumping sound (although, especially at night, you’ll find yourself monitoring the engine instruments with increased attention). Ripping sounds are not permitted.
Turned out that for some reason potentially linked to the ECS, the rain seal on the upper canopy extruded out into the windstream. Where it began unraveling like a poorly made Argyle sock. In the matter of seconds it was draped above my canopy, anchored at three 0′clock and ten o’clock to the canopy rail, and rattling in the 300 knot breeze like it just didn’t matter.
Which of course it did, what with the gasping engine intakes just behind my shoulders. I don’t know what, if any effect, five to six feet of wind whipped rain seal would have done to any of the first 17 stages of the J79 engine just behind me. And given that it was my only engine, and the only thing standing between me and a Martin-Baker let-down, I didn’t want to find out.
I slowed the jet down to around 220 knots, which is pretty damned slow in this airplane, when almost fully loaded with fuel, lowered the landing gear to give me a higher power setting on the descent and headed back to the field. Uncomfortably slow on the one hand, but on the other the rain seal seemed quite happy to remain in place at that airspeed, with no more than the occasional nervous flutter. Or maybe I was the nervous one, and just sort of projecting, like.
Now came the issue of putting the jet back on the ground. There’s no way to dump fuel in the Kfir, apart from the afterburner. Which given the circumstances was quite out of the question, since keeping the airplane slow was the priority. Landing heavy – especially at high altitude airports where the air is thin – comes with its own set of consequences, none of which are good. Higher gross weights equate to higher indicated airspeeds on final approach. Because of the density altitude, true airspeed – and groundspeed – are higher still. Stopping a heavy jet means 1) putting out the drag chute (and hoping it doesn’t part under the loads), and 2) mashing on the wheel brakes, turning kinetic energy into heat, and hoping that the brake rotors’ capacity to absorb that energy lasts at least as long as the runway before you.
They say that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. That may be true, but in reality the quality of an aviator’s judgment is evaluated by the outcome of his decisions. I decided to orbit the field with the wheels down for a while until I’d burned down sufficient gas to make a more or less normal landing, and hope that the rain seal didn’t decide to use the luxury of the time I afforded it to do something foolish. If nothing went wrong, I’d land at middling gross weight on a two-mile long runway. If something did go wrong, and the rain seal went down the intake, at the very least I’d have some explaining to do. Which I would also have had to do had I landed heavy, lost the ‘chute or burned out my brakes before getting to safe taxi speed.
You pays your money and you takes your chances, and in the end it all worked out. I burned down to about the gas I took off with, touched down successfully at a (relatively) modest 185 knots or so and had no problem getting the machine slowed and stopped.
A good thing too, because I appear to have misplaced my union card.
The second flight of the day went much better.