There it is: Left external tank nearly empty, 300 pounds of fuel. Right tank completely full – 2300 pounds. Quickly did the math: Two thousand pounds of unusable gas, also meant fourteen thousand foot-pounds of lateral asymmetry. Out of landing limits, or nearly. And a lot less gas than he’d thought he’d had, just a moment ago.
Thought for a moment, keyed the throttle-mounted radio mic switch down, flight admin frequency, just him and his lead: “Dragon one, Dragon two. I’ve got a right external transfer failure.”
“Dragon one,” came the thoughtful reply.
Over in Dragon One’s cockpit, the already darkened world outside the Plexiglas canopy went a shade darker as the flight lead’s mind turned within itself, turning over the folds of time layered flat within, sifting through nearly twenty years of flying experience for a solution to this problem: innocuous enough ashore, but potentially uncomfortable in a shipboard environment. Might as well start with the procedures in the flight manual:
“Have you put your external pressurization switch to override yet?”
“No sir, I’ll get that now,” replied the JG looking down and to his left to find the switch. He found that he was starting to get hot again, to sweat as he strained to twist around and see the switch, especially with the night vision devices blocking out all but the peripheries of his vision. The JG grunted, briefly unhappy with himself – you were supposed to be able to know every switch in the cockpit by touch even if blindfolded, and he was almost entirely sure that the pressurization override switch was the middle one in a bank of three switches directly aft of the throttles. But there was also a premium in an emergency on ensuring that the procedures were followed exactly, and many aircraft, even people’s lives had been lost by harried pilots activating the wrong switch when faced with an emergency. He knew that being upset at himself for simple things was a way to make a little problem into a larger one, so he took counsel of his lieutenant friend from earlier that day and put his discomfort in a box. “Skipper, I’m going off goggles,” he announced.
The CO pursed his lips inside his O2 mask for a moment, and as he completed the formation rendezvous, he cast an evaluating glance into his wingman’s cockpit, as though he could somehow see the young man’s face, measure his stress level before shrugging slightly, “Roger that. Step three is to cycle the external pressurization switch from “ORIDE” to “NORM” to “ORIDE” again.”
The only cue that the CO would have as to his wingman’s mental state was the sound of his voice on the UHF radio, but already he was sifting and weighing the options should the tank fail to transfer entirely. “The JG would have to take some gas from the overhead tanker into his other external to get within asymmetric landing limits and then stop that gas from transferring. That would put his useable gas “on the ball” at something like 2500 pounds” easily half what he’d normally have, too little to divert ashore with and only one attempt away from a barricade landing, and that for a kid who’s been having trouble getting aboard.
Barricade – the CO mind recoiled at the image of a barricade arrestment for this young man. Even apart from the millions of dollars of damage the barricade netting would do to the fighter, a barricade was truly the landing option of last resort: To affect the landing, the LSOs would bring a barricade jet aboard almost dangerously low, so low that on a normal landing they’d probably wave him off. Too, since the barricade engine didn’t have the self-centering function of the normal arresting gear, he’d have to be tracking straight down centerline with no drift or else he’d probably go over the side, and with the netting covering his canopy he’d be unable to eject. Finally, he would shut his engines off just prior to landing on the LSO”s “Cut ” cut ” cut!” call, so it was truly a one-shot deal. No, the CO reflected, a barricade landing was not in any way an acceptable outcome.
Having followed his imagination down that line as far as it would go, the CO briefly turned over the path of least resistance. ”If the tank wouldn’t transfer, they could just jettison the damn thing into the sea. The JG could tank up to an acceptable landing weight to make up for the lost gas, and he’d just look a little funny coming aboard, with one tank on and one tank gone.
But external tanks were rather alarmingly expensive ”.
There were only so many spares in the carrier’s hangar bay – and hurling them into the sea regardless was considered very bad form. Keep that sort of thing up and pretty soon the FA-18Cs were out of the fight. Like most of his breed, the squadron CO was not a “path of least resistance” kind of guy.
“OK, I’m on step 4 now, checklist page E51: Bleed air knob.” Cycle through “Off” to “Norm.”
—> Part XLVI – Decision time