By lex, on June 4th, 2006
The Brits have a small island and a thousand year navy. They’ve got Camperdown and the Nile and Trafalgar and Jutland.
Us? We’ve got Midway.
By lex, on June 4th, 2006
The Brits have a small island and a thousand year navy. They’ve got Camperdown and the Nile and Trafalgar and Jutland.
Us? We’ve got Midway.
By lex, on March 12th, 2006
I’m feeling vaguely dyspeptic and out of sorts in this blogging thing, for all that I had a wonderful bike ride this afternoon up the coast. Carmel Valley to Del Mar, and up that miserable hill. Then down again, through Solana Beach, which soon gave way to Cardiff and then finally Encinitas. At Swami’s in Encinitas I turned around and came back the way I’d gone, to the tune of 23-odd miles or so of a very pleasant day.
So to put it all away and just write something, I thought it’d be fun to share a mini-sea story with you.
By lex, on July 20th, 2004
In flight refueling is pretty much a survival skill for a fighter pilot, especially if he’s in the US Navy.
(lots of pics, dial-up readers are forewarned)
All fighter designs are compromises – make a fighter big enough to carry a lot of gas, and you generally pay a performance tax. Building more fuel capacity makes the jet larger, requiring larger, more powerful engines to drive it at high subsonic and supersonic speeds. These engines in turn will generally use fuel at a faster rate, meaning diminished returns on the investment. A larger fighter is also a disadvantage on the carrier, where the real estate cost per square foot is probably the highest in the world.
But having a smaller fuel capacity greatly impacts flight operations, since “short-legged” fighters don’t have the endurance required to support maneuvering the ship during cyclic operations – one of the great advantages that aircraft carriers have over airfields is that you can move them around, hide them and such.
The FA-18, which some of you may know is where I passed most of my time spending your tax dollars, is considered at the lower end of the fuel bearing margin for a naval fighter.
So we have to learn to get good at in flight refueling. Success means you get to keep fighting and flying. Failure means you get to either 1) Force the ship into the wind early so you can land, and then receive an invitation to take that extended climb of shame leading from the flight deck to the bridge, in order to be graced with a short but exciting, one-way conversation with a thoroughly grumpy carrier CO (and you know how Navy captains can be…) or 2) You get to do the Martin-Baker arrival (i.e., eject) when your plane runs out of gas. Because every aircraft that takes off is going to land one way or the other. This second scenario will bring you to a long green table, with many grim faces around it and no water glass in front of your chair.
The first time I’d ever “tanked” was in the training squadron in Lemoore, California (don’t bother looking it up – you wouldn’t want to go there. If you stop your car there, don’t turn the engine off: It might not start again, and you’d be stuck.) Tanking is at first a highly unnatural act – for all your flying career up to that point, you will have been taught to scrupulously avoid hitting any part of your aircraft that isn’t landing gear against anything that isn’t concrete.
But now you are expected to maneuver in very close proximity to another aircraft, await patiently while he un-spools a relatively short refueling hose, extend your refueling probe and then place it inside the refueling basket. Which isn’t at easy as it sounds, at first.
Oh, and when that’s over you’ll be expected to do it again at night. Because it’s darker, which of course makes it harder.
And we’re all about making things harder.
When your probe is out, you approach the basket using 3-5 knots of closure, looking to seat your probe exactly in the center of the refueling basket.
If you miss the basket, the odds are 50-50 that your overshoot will cause the basket and hose to thump against your fuselage, which in the best of cases gives you a nasty start, and in the worst cases either knocks off an angle of attack probe that will almost certainly be swallowed by your jet intake, causing all kinds of horrible damage to one of the things that makes airspeed, or else get wrapped around your probe, leaving you in a rather uncomfortable position. And by the way, you didn’t get that gas you were there for.
If you “lip” the basket, meaning the probe hits the outer rim, the basket will slap your fuselage again, etc, etc.
And here’s the interesting thing – as you approach the basket, the turbulence around your jet’s nose will cause the hose and basket to move up and away from your jet. At this point you have to have confidence, because the physics of the matter are that it will swing back down again and let your probe ram home.
Most of the time.
Except when it doesn’t.
But if you “chase” the basket, it surely will fall back again towards your aircraft you’ll lip the outer rim, the basket hits your fuselage and etc, etc.
Sometimes we get gas from Air Force tankers, which is really cool because they carry so very much of it. Navy tankers have to land aboard the ship, so the amount of fuel that they can give is measured sparingly (oh, so sparingly) by the same kinds of performance trade-offs mentioned earlier in this post.
There are two kinds of tankers in the USAF inventory, the KC-10 and the KC-135.
The KC-10, when missionized for Navy tanking (they do these things differently in the junior service) has a drogue and basket assembly very similar to what we are used to in the Navy – only bigger. Most pilots prefer this system, but I have my reservations: Sometimes the take-up reel (which absorbs the shock of the IFR probe’s impact) doesn’t work as it was designed to do – this causes a sine wave to develop in the hose itself, which travels up to the tanker, then back to your jet (with emphasis) often snapping off the refueling probe.
Which can lead to all sorts of unpleasant consequences, not least of which (in the short term) is that you didn’t get the gas you were there for.
The KC-135 on the other hand, has a rather short, hard rubber hose and a massively heavy refueling basket.
I actually prefer the -135, once you’re used to it. The basket doesn’t move as much on the approach, and if you’re at least half way towards the socket, your probe will slide home.
On the other hand, the -135 isn’t known as the “Iron Maiden” for nothing in the service, and getting hit by one of these things can shatter your canopy, turning your warm, comfortable, familiar environment into a 300 mph maelstrom.
I’ve always like the word maelstrom, by the way.
The stories of nuggets “stalling at the basket” are legion – guys get right to the tipping point, and somehow can’t move the throttles up that last little bit to close the deal. Once over the sea of Japan, I hectored a young guy with one word as he stalled at the basket – “Courage.”
He got in, we got our gas, and we got the mission complete.
This is probably as good a time as any to share with you an anecdote that I received from an officer I used to work with (interspersed with my translations):
Since it’s probably been a few months for you, I’ll have to tell you about the quite unpleasant experience I had with the good ol’ Iron Maiden 2 nights ago… I volunteered to be the sacrificial “back-side tanking” section of hornets so we wouldn’t have 4 sections simultaneously vying for use of the same target. It was an 1830 launch, 2000 recovery and as we headed west towards the target watching the sun set the scattered clouds became more broken and finally overcast. The bombs (actual GBU-12′s!) never got dropped, and we headed back to the ship to find the KC-135 in order to get back on ladder (ed: fuel state required for recovery). It was right overhead mom (the carrier) with only one chick (fighter) in tow, but it was clearly in and out of the clouds, judging by the way it lit them up through the goggles (night vision devices, NVG’s). “No worries, I’m sure he’ll get clear” I thought. The rendezvous progressed ok, but the tanker spent more time in the clouds than out. NVG training rules aside, the goggles and the radar were fine to keep track of him and his chick. Fortunately my wingman took off his goggles early and got complete vertigo during the join up – his exact words were “I think I’m upside down”. I convinced him he wasn’t and we got his mental gyro re-caged by the time we were in port observation. I made my call and was cleared into pre-contact. As I settled out the jet behind the beast, it didn’t feel terribly bumpy, but the basket was ALL OVER the place. I remember thinking to myself how the 135 is supposed to be a little more stable than that as I made the approach. Not even close. I think my radome made it closer to the center of the basket than my probe. Another try, another, another…I asked if the boom was locked down – of course it was, and after another few minutes of stabs and I got in – along with a 2 inch spark of static. That was comforting. Staying in the basket turned out to be even harder and I damn near tore that hose off due to all the bouncing around. We never did get back to VFR (visual flight rules – clear weather). I got my 2K (2000 pounds of gas, roughly 300 gallons) and gleefully eased out, thankful I still had all my probes intact and bummed that it took me so long. My wingman never got in and I told him to give up so I could find him a Hoover (S-3 Viking – so known because the sound of its engines is remarkable similar to a vacuum cleaner). Clearly the most difficult tanking experience of my young life.
The next cycle not ONE JET got into the basket which made me feel a little better about my flailing so much. There are times it’s good to be sitting on Mom.
Too true – it is wisely said that “It’s better to be on the deck, wishing you were in the air, than in the air, wishing you were on deck.”
My most exciting personal tanking mission (the competition is fierce) is when I was in the Arabian Gulf prior to an Operation Southern Watch mission, and refueling off an S-3 in a “sucker hole” among some thunderstorms. We were ringed pretty tightly on all sides (you do not want to fly into a thunderstorm at the best of times, far less when tanking), so the Viking pilot had the turn wrapped up pretty tight, and just getting into the rendezvous position was an act of will, as much as airmanship. Just as I settled into the basket, a static electricity discharge (read: lightning bolt) arced from the clouds to his jet, down the hose to my jet.
It felt really, really weird. I felt the shock enter through my right hand on the stick and exit through the sole of my right boot, having bounced around for a moment in the fillings of one of my molars. The gas stopped flowing (the refueling store itself had gone sneakers-up), and I was pretty sure that there was a hole somewhere in the aircraft’s skin (there usually is, when the electricity exits the jet). And I still had a four-hour mission in Iraq, which I couldn’t possibly execute without additional gas.
So I did what any of us would do: I called back to the ship, and asked for the position of the nearest functional tanker.
By lex, on May 26th, 2004
… Safely airborne, the landing gear comes up, followed by the flaps. Passing 1500 feet, a radio shift to the carrier air traffic control center’s (CATCC) Marshal Controller, who issues you vectors and altitude assignments during your climb, and passes you your holding instructions. You turnout to port away from, the ship, but you can’t avoid looking at her, a dimly lit and flickering ghost in the absolute darkness, the landing area lights and the approach lights of aircraft strung out on final approach course the only cues to her existence. No longer does she appear as she did from inside the ship, or even in the daytime overhead – her reality as a complex weapon of war, a hardened steel container with 5000 souls aboard. At this distance and in this light, she seems a brooding, implacable presence, imbued with her own unknowable vitality and purpose.
For initial CQ, you’re told to expect 15 minutes of “comfort time” before commencing your first approach. While many will dispute the existence of any degree of comfort whatsoever in the night environment around an aircraft carrier, this is designed to let you get your head on straight after that bone-rattling cat shot, and allow accomplish your let-down and approach checklists prior to throwing hurling yourself at the ship.
Holding instructions generally follow a format: “Raider 525, hold on the 160 radial, 7,000 feet. Expected final bearing is 355, altimeter 29.92. Stand-by for expected approach time.”
There is a marker showing the ship’s position on your horizontal situation display. In the lonely darkness, while carefully cross-checking your principal instruments to ensure that you are on the proper heading, you are not climbing or descending, gaining or losing airspeed, you strike a course line through the navigational marker – a 340 bearing, which yields your holding air space on the reciprocal course south-south east of the ship, the 160 radial. The final bearing is the magnetic course, adjusted eleven degrees left to compensate for the carrier’s angled deck. The final bearing need not perfectly align with the approach course; there are correction procedures once established on final. There are numerous radio calls from the controllers to other aircraft, but since they are routine, and not preceded by your call sign, your brain rejects them, they are not heard.
You work the math on your holding point – 15 + your altitude yields 23 nautical miles. Since you’re approaching the holding airspace from the downwind, you use a parallel entry maneuver to join the holding pattern, slowing to optimum holding speed.
Set up in marshal, left hand turns, six minutes exactly for one full lap. You step through the elements of your penetration / approach checklist. The canopy defog handle goes forward, and the cockpit suddenly becomes noticeably warmer. To compensate, your hand of its own volition finds the cabin temperature knob and turns it counterclockwise. It wouldn’t do to sweat, too soon. The navigational aids are all set to the proper frequencies. The divert field location is set up in your inertial navigation system – you check the range, estimate the required fuel to get there. It jibes with the numbers you’ve received from Marshal. Your hook goes down. You set your barometric altimeter warning in software at 5000, or platform – at this altitude you will break your rate of descent to avoid violating the “minute to live rule,” which states that vertical rates of descent in feet per minute will not exceed altitude remaining. Your next software warning is set at 1100, just below your next level-off altitude – if that alert should go off unexpectedly, you will know that you are “behind the airplane,” and in danger. Finally a hardware pointer, or “bug,” is set at 400 feet on your radar altimeter dial – you will not descend below 400 feet without seeing “the ball,” or glide slope indicator. Finally, you set the “Bingo bug” at a few hundred pounds above your maximum fuel landing weight. After you commence your approach, you’ll have to dump fuel in order to land. The Bingo bug should prevent you from inadvertently dumping too much gas. If you trust it. Which you don’t.
All of this is merely mechanical – it serves to keep your mind occupied, your thoughts away from the trial to come. Sufficient to the moment, the evil therein.
As your eyes adjust to the darkness, you are continuously fiddling with a numerous rheostats to dim the instrument panel lights, the console floods, the HUD and other numerous display levels – you want them to be as dim as possible, so that when the time comes to transition from instruments to the carrier’s approach aids, your eyesight will be as sharp as possible.
The radio crackles, this time the call is for you: “Raider 525, Marshal, your approach time is 32.” You write the number down on you kneeboard card, and cross-check the clock. Seven minutes and 26 seconds from now. An awkward number to work from, you turn back towards the push point, crossing it with six minutes and 50 seconds to go. Better.
Two standard rate turns of two minutes each will burn four minutes, leaving two minutes and 50 seconds collectively on the downwind and upwind legs. Divide that number by two and you have one minute and 25 seconds, but the ship is steaming away from you on both legs, so you subtract ten seconds (the speed differential between the ship and your aircraft is at a ratio of 1:10) and start your turn back towards the ship when that time has elapsed. Your heart begins to race in your chest.
In the Vietnam War, human performance physiologists wanted to examine the effects of combat stress on naval aviators – they wired them for EKG’s, attached to battery-powered recorders. When the data was later analyzed, the physiologists were surprised to find that, based on pulse and breathing rates, the aviators were under higher stress during their night approaches to the carrier, than they had been in actual combat, when they were being shot at.
You hit the push point right on time, and call “commencing.” Idle power on the throttles, as you deploy the speed brakes. A sharply nose-down attitude is required to maintain your target airspeed of 250 knots in this configuration. The ocean races up to meet you, unseen in the darkness, as your vertical velocity indicator spikes to a negative 5000 feet per minute.
You carefully watch the unwinding altimeter, crosscheck airspeed and refine your course. At 5000 feet, the female voice warning system, or “Bitching Betty,” fills your headset: “Altitude, altitude,” she croons, unconcerned. You have been expecting her.
In come the speed brakes, and you raise the nose while bumping the power up to maintain 250 kts and 2000 feet per minute rate of descent. You call “Platform” on the radio, are directed to switch to approach frequency, and check-in.
You switch freqs, but wait a moment before speaking, as you have been trained – fortunately it turns out, since the voice of the LSO’s speaking to someone ahead of you in the landing patter is suddenly heard calling, demanding, and shouting for, “A little power Power… POWER… WAVE-OFF, WAVE-OFF!”
You flinch a bit, as though you had been struck. To have stepped on that transmission would have been very bad form indeed, but while you are momentarily grateful for your training in radio discipline, you also wonder what the hell is going on down there…
Part 3 is here
If you have been an F/A-18 driver, you have probably heard her voice, if not seen her. Here she is, retiring from Boeing.
H/T to Spill.
It is where ships go to die.
Forrestal and Saratoga are unrecognizable.
Constellation arrived a couple of weeks ago.
The three Good Ships I made cruises on are in the queue. Independence, Ranger and Kitty Hawk.
Old friends they are to so many who chose the sea.
The times are indeed, a changing.
“Goldie, how many times have I told you guys that I don’t want no horsin’ around on the airplane?” The words came from B-52 Aircraft Commander Major Kong in the dark movie Dr. Strangelove in response to being apprised by Lt. Goldie, his radio operator, that Wing Attack Plan R for Romeo was in effect. Nuclear war with the Rooskies.
Slim Pickens (Major Kong) and his crew get ready to go toe to toe with nukes. And before they can be recalled the CRM 114 radio that should receive the message calling off the attack destroys itself, and Major Kong’s crew becomes the opening act to World War III.
I don’t propose at all that I am an expert on the CRM 114, in fact it doesn’t exist. It was made up for the movie, although we all know there has to be some device or devices like it out there. Continue reading →