Category Archives: Flying

T.I.N.S.

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.

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BFM

By lex, Tue – April 5, 2005

I never met a fighter pilot I didn’t want to gun.

BFM – Basic fighter maneuvers. Dogfighting. Mano a mano. One versus one.

Play hard or stay home.

There’s nearly nothing a fighter pilot would rather do, completely sober, than try himself against another fighter pilot in the physical and mental test of skill that is man-to-man air combat. Sure, there’s a great deal of job satisfaction to be had by shacking a weapons cache from 20,000 feet, and seeing secondary explosions – it’s lovely, in fact. But it’s not personal, it’s just business. And yes, the sensation of a near-perfect landing aboard the ship is as close as one can come to le petit mort while fully dressed. But that is a part of what we do. And it is true that in a many vs. many air combat brawl there is to be found the kind of fey, wild joy that was only paralleled perhaps a hundred years or so ago in the clashing collision of cavalry troops, there is the element of chance: You could do everything right, in a big fight, and still get killed. Continue reading

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A Ride In A Ford Tri-Motor

Two days ago, I had an interesting flight. The EAA has been flying 2 of these around the country, stopping at various cities and offering rides to the public.

For $75, I got a ticket. I thought that was quite a bargain, considering the cost of flight these days.

We took off from Sacramento’s Executive Airport for an 18 minute flight around the city.

I think the Trimotor was historic for being one of the first true airliners (not a mail plane that could haul passengers). But between the Depression and the coming DC-2 I think it had a pretty short service life.

They built 199 of them.

BTW I thought it looked very similar to the German Junkers JU-52 . I learned that the main designer, William Stout (whose company Henry Ford bought) – copied German Professor Hugo Junkers ideas for all-metal aircraft. 

I asked one of the docents where you get parts for a 90 year old engine – and he said that they were P & W Wasps – (I think even the venerable Stearman had them) – parts were readily available.

So thanks to my trusty iPhone 6 SE you can ride with me – from start up to the 18 minute flight. 

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Landing grades

 

By lex, on September 7th, 2004

We grade every landing that a pilot performs aboard the aircraft carrier.

There’s a board in every ready room, displaying the color-coded grades. Everyone in that highly competitive environment knows exactly where he fits in the hierarchy of the one thing which separates every Navy pilot from his terrestrial, mortal counterparts: Landing aboard the ship. You could have an outstanding mission, replete with shacked targets, dead bandits and superior airborne leadership. But if you came back and landed on the “ace,” the one-wire, it was a bad hop.

It’s not only what wire you catch (although that is important) – it’s how you get there. While it’s pretty hard to get a good grade on the one-wire, and impossible if you bolter, there are nearly as many 4.0 two-wires as there are three-wires.

Smooth, predictable and controlled. Or at least making it look that way.

Because we’re all about appearances.

Actually, the reason why we grade landings is part of a continuous process improvement plan – we work hard to do it well when it’s easy, so that we can do it at all when it’s hard. And it does get hard. Chinese algebra hard, when the deck is moving, and the weather rolls in, and the moon is a distant memory of a time when it didn’t suck, quite so bad.

So the grades:

OK – An “Oh-kay.” A 4.0 grade, pretty much the best that you can do – above average, in other words. There’s also the OK (Oh-kay, underline) – reserved for outstanding landings with significant complicating factors – an engine out, for example. You don’t count on OK.

Next is a (OK), or “fair” pass. Fleet average. The parentheses are used in LSO shorthand to indicate “a little.” So a (OK) is a little OK. A 3.0 grade.

Next is a bolter, indicated by a “B.” A bolter is a 2.5 grade – better than the worst normal pass, the “No-grade” (2.0), defined as “below average.” A No-grade is ugly, but safely ugly. Nevertheless, you don’t want to make a habit of being safely ugly. You’re not getting paid for that.

Next down the list is a “wave-off,” a 1.0 grade, defined as “unsettled dynamics, potentially unsafe.” The “eat at Joe’s” lights come on, you add full power, and are asked to try again. Harder.

Finally comes the worst grade, the “Cut.” A 0.0 grade, defined as “unsafe deviations inside the wave-off window.” The wave-off window is that moment in space and time where no matter what the LSO tells you to do, you’re going to land. Somewhere. You definitely don’t want to get many of those. They’re career enders.

Anyone who maintains a GPA above 3.0 is professionally safe. Anyone who’s GPA starts with a 2-point-anything had better start working harder.

The LSO’s use shorthand to grade a pass – something written down as: (OK) OC NEP-BC /IM (NEP-CDIC) SDAR LOBDRIW 2, would translate into, “Fair pass: over-controlled a little not enough power on the ball call, fly through up in the middle, a little not enough power on the come-down in close, settle/decel at the ramp, low, flat, drift right in the wires. Two-wire.” As a pilot, you’d like to hear as few comments as possible, since comment quantity has an inverse relationship to landing quality.

At the end of every line period (anywhere from three weeks to three months, depending on what the carrier has been doing), the air wing will gather in the ship’s forecastle (pronounced foc’s’l) for an awards ceremony. There are songs, and skits and much buffoonery before awarding those pilots who have passed a milestone (100, 200, 300 traps, etc) and finally the “Top Ten” in landing grades. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re in the Top Ten. More especially still if you’re the number one guy, the “Top Hook.”

Because landing aboard the ship at all hours, and in all conditions, is what we do. I mean, anyone can merely fly a fighter. Right?

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Viper FCF

By lex, on August 29th, 2004

After major maintenance, an aircraft has to be flown by a specially designated check pilot on a PMCF – a post-maintenance check flight, before it’s released for general use. These are also known as FCF’s, or “functional check flights.” The designation is eagerly sought out by pilots, and sparingly bestowed. Being certified an FCF pilot carries with it a mark of professional trust, and added responsibility. Too many pilots designated a check pilot in a squadron dilutes the opportunity for the select few to stay proficient in the different check procedures.

The decision on whether or not to release a jet for general use is a serious one, demanding thorough knowledge of the aircraft and its systems, and an ability to react quickly and properly to anything that may go wrong – always an elevated risk on a plane that’s had a major re-work done.

They’re also a lot of fun.

There’s generally no exhaustive pre-flight briefing to prepare and deliver (or endure, for that matter). You check the weather (it’s got be good), and local NOTAMs (notices to airmen), brief with maintenance control and jump in the jet. There’s also no endless and laborious debrief, wherein every item of tactical and administrative procedure is exhaustively analyzed for mistakes, for lessons, for learning and improving.

Depending on the kind of check flight, ground procedures vary from slightly more complicated to a huge pain in the neck. A “C”-type profile means that a major flight control actuator has been changed, something that has broken the hydraulic integrity of the system. A “B” profile means a major engine repair, perhaps even a replacement. Most laborious are “A” profiles. An A-pro has usually been down for a long time for major rework, or has had both engine and flight control work done. Every system in the aircraft is checked, even those emergency systems that are rarely, if ever used.

Since C-profiles are the shortest, they’re also the most eagerly sought after. Because you still have the full bag of gas to burn, once the maintenance check-list is done. And no one particularly cares what you do with that gas, so long as the you bring the jet back up, and don’t violate any rules.

The F-16N, which Navy pilots nicknamed the “Viper,” was probably the most fun FCF aircraft I ever flew. Hell, it was a fun jet anyway, with an enormously impressive thrust-to-weight ratio – essentially above 1:1 on take-off. During an FCF take-off it was considered important to raise the gear immediately once off the deck, level off a few feet above the runway, and then starting at around 400 knots, stand the jet on its tail at the departure end, climbing vertically to 16,000 feet in just a few moments. Zero to 400 in a mile and a quarter. Good clean fun.

Ostensibly this served to preserve options for a flame-out approach should the engine quit shortly after take-off. In practice, it closely mirrored what would be called a “low transition,” a maneuver severely frowned upon, carrying as it did connotations of unprofessionalism, of mere tom-foolery with government gear.

Be that as it may, it was not uncommon to see this sort of take-off in F-16s that hadn’t even had any engine work done.

Better safe than sorry.

Pointing straight up in a vertical ascent, you’d gently roll to align the wings with the departure heading, and start an easy pull over the top about two thousand feet prior to level-off altitude. As you approached this height, it was fun to try to time the roll out and level off so that you’d exactly recover at the assigned altitude – not too far below it, and never blowing through it.

In the Viper, the FCF procedures for a pro-C were pretty straight forward – some autopilot checks, a few bumps in all three control axes (pitch, roll and yaw), a rapid wind up, max g turn (9 g’s – ouch) and some gear/flap transitions. You could knock it out in 15 minutes or so over the Bay of Florida, and have a good hour to hour and a half of gas left to your own devices.

Depending on how you used it, of course.

Afterburner usage in a fighter increases it’s thrust by approximately 50%. But it increases fuel consumption by over 300%. This is why the F-22 Raptor (excuse me, FA-22 – right) had as one of its design specifications the ability to “supercruise,” i.e., achieve supersonic flight in basic (non-afterburner augmented) engine.

So if you were really having fun, and “lighting the cans” for any duration, you’d maybe have 15 minutes for the FCF, 15 minutes of “proficiency” time, and then have to go back and land.

So I decided one day to get my mach 2 qual.

Any long-time reader of these pages knows that my first love, when it comes to fighters, is the noble FA-18 Hornet. As I’ve mentioned before, if airplanes were women, you’d date the F-16, but marry the Hornet. It is a wonderful jet, but when it comes to top end speed, hauling-the-mail, oh-my-God, ludicrous speed, the Hornet tends towards the more sedate end of the spectrum. Built from the start as a multi-mission jet, there were several design compromises and a few of them tend to limit her Vmax (max airspeed achievable).

One last technical bit, and I’ll leave it alone: Because of the relationship of air pressure to altitude, fighters have two references for Vne. At low altitude where the air mass is much denser, this will be measured in knots indicated (or calibrated) air speed – KIAS/KCAS. At high altitude, with less air molecules to impinge upon the pito-static airspeed measuring system, it’s measured in mach numbers.

I’ll put it to you this way – all aircraft have a Vne (never exceed speed limit). The Hornet has one too, but it’s only to make her feel better about herself.

The Viper on the other hand has a Vne that the over-bold, unwary or unwise could exceed. Down low, the way we flew them (no external stores) it could pass Vne without breathing hard. Getting through mach 2.0, something that could only be done at very high altitude, took a little doing, however.

To do so requires a lot of room, a lot of gas and that the pilot be more than 30 miles to sea, pointed away from the land (so as not to break windows on the beach). The most efficient way to get through the number (that’s mach 1.0), and to keep accelerating, is to use what’s known as a Ritowski profile. It’s different for each aircraft, but essentially involves a high subsonic climb (0.97 mach or so) to around 40,000 feet, and a half-g unload (light in your seat) to get through the number while still at a relatively high altitude. Capturing that mach number and keeping it going during the next series of ascents and descents allows the pilot to build ever higher mach numbers until he gets to his goal.

It’s important not to go all the way to zero g while in full afterburner, as that tends to cavitate the fuel boost pumps, which can result in what is known to engineers as a “loss of thrust” and to a pilot as “losing the engine.” And in a supersonic F-16 at 45,000 feet, all sorts of bad things happen if you lose an engine. So watch out for that.

I got my qual one day, and found myself way the hell out away from the airfield and needing to head back. I remember being strangely reluctant – moving so high, so fast, felt like the right thing to do, to keep doing. If I turned back, I’d have to slow down, and eventually land. If I landed I’d have to get out of the jet, and walk around. If I did that, I’d be merely human again.

And part of me didn’t want to be.

But I had to, so I eased the throttle back, and began a gentle turn back towards the field, preserving altitude for the long-range, fuel conserving descent back to the field. The contrails I had left behind during my series of climbs and descents scribed white arcs in the brilliant blue sky, and looked as if they had been left by some Herculean, strangely illiterate sky writer. I wanted them to be my signature upon the heavens, I wanted them to last forever.

But they didn’t of course. Nothing ever does.

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Night Bounce, Put To Canvas

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“…..I broke out of the clouds first, because being the flight lead, that’s the nature of things. I looked over and down to check my wingie’s position in the gloom below, and if I tell you will you believe me? That in all my years of flying I don’t know that I ever saw such a wondrously beautiful thing as the glow inside that cloud deck resolve itself all suddenly into an FA-18 leaping from the clouds like a beast darting from a snare, highlighted against the darkness and contrasted with the sun’s dying rays like a rocket ship, herself in full grunt, the afterburners lighting up the cloud and the sky. It made my heart skip, and if I’d had a camera at that moment to take a picture you’d all know my name by now, because that’s how famous I’d be for the taking of it. But for all the unexpected, slack-jawed, childlike wonder of that moment, it’s stuck inside my head and the beauty of it – to which these words do not give justice – will sadly die with me some day.” 

This paragraph is from his wonderful post of his time exploring Iwo Jima. He was there to practice carrier landings.

This segment of an otherwise routine flight probably lasted all of 10 seconds, if it was even that long. And yet the beauty and wonder within that small slice of time stayed with Hizzoner the rest of his life.

The Lexicans recently presented a painting of this cherished memory to The Hobbit. It was created by a Lexican who is also a renowned artist, and loves US Navy aviation.

It is now available as a print, for those interested.

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Air strike

By lex, on July 27th, 2004

A tale of a training mission into the Sultanate of Oman.

In the late 80′s, while on deployment in the North Arabian Sea, I was fragged as a section lead in a larger, multi-division strike package of FA-18s and A-6s to an Omani Air Force airfield, well inland in the desert. We had a four-ship of F-14′s serving as Migsweep to clear the route and target of any air opposition, and an EA-6B electronic support aircraft, as well as an E-2C for long range air search.

Opposing us would be the surface-to-air defensive systems around the airfield, as well as the Omani Air Force.

In those days the Omanis had quite a number of British expatriates who flew with them on contract, to train their pilots and serve as a part of the Sultanate’s defensive forces. They were superb and daring pilots even though they were hampered by older equipment. They were also accustomed to routinely flying at very low altitudes in the relatively flat terrain of Oman.

There was one piece of geography that held a strange and illicit allure to certain of the US Navy pilots who trained over Oman in those days – a long, twisting canyon that started close to the coast, heading westwards for many miles, and carving a couple hundred feet below the surrounding and utterly unpopulated, inhospitable desert. It was very similar to our own Grand Canyon, if perhaps not quite as wide, and nothing like as populated with troublesome tourists or pesky park rangers. We nicknamed this crevasse “Star Wars canyon,” since flying in it was an experience akin to piloting Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter through the Death Star’s trench to deliver his fatal blow against Dearth Vader’s galactic instrument of destruction, or so I am told.

But that fatal blow in itself was analogous to what might happen to an aviator’s career, if he was found by the gray heads to have been flat-hatting in the canyon. For some though, the temptation was too hard to pass up — and once inside the canyon, no radar would reveal the pilot’s location. He would, for all intents and purposes, vanish from the face of the earth, until the canyon petered out or he lost his nerve, pulling sharply back on the stick and vaulting his eager craft into the sky at a 90 degree flight path angle –vertically up and up in full afterburner until he ran out of airspeed at 15 or 20 thousand feet or so.

The canyon walls on either side were at times breathtakingly close to a pilot’s wingtips, passing by in a blur, and the canyon itself wove its way back and forth as it unfolded in front of him at 500 knots — a speed at which the turns themselves could just be negotiated.

It was exhilarating, or so I have heard.

Because you have to understand that I myself, would never do so rash a thing. Even in my long-passed, oft-lamented youth.

Anyway.

As much fun as such flying apparently had been, we had nothing on the Brit expats, when it came to flying low. The “standard” altitude for a low-level route is about 500 feet above ground level (AGL). Experienced crews could, in authorized airspace, fly as low as 300 feet AGL. A special qualification was required to fly to 200 ft AGL — during that qualification process, an instructor in the back seat of a two-seat FA-18 would coax the student down as low as 100 ft AGL (but no lower) — an altitude at which 100% of the pilot’s attention is exclusively focused upon terrain avoidance: He does not work his radar, or check six, or fly formation, or monitor his fuel at 100 feet. He tries to avoid hitting the ground, and that is all he does. Even twice as high, at 200 feet, the mission cross-check time is measured in a (very) few seconds.

All this to lead in to the strange fact that we all had heard many stories of attack pilots flying low levels in Oman, at the very limit of their abilities and confident that they were invisible to radar, find themselves surprised to see an Omani Jaguar or Hawker Hunter fly up from underneath them.

On the day of our strike, we rendezvoused the strike package, and those of us who would need extra gas received it from the tanker. As we approached the Omani coast, the attack jets started our descent to low altitude, while the fighters swept in front of us up high. Our low altitude route served to mask our position, and so our approach to the target was uneventful. Several miles away we began an afterburner climb to avoid the target’s terminal defenses, and help us acquire our individual aimpoints. These now visible, we rolled the jets on their backs, eight of us at once, each focused on his weapons symbology, on the altitude numbers scrolling in a blur on the HUD, in the proximity of the other birds of prey swooping down, on our still-silent radar warning receivers — we had achieved surprise.

Pulling off target, and heading back to the east, back to the sanctuary of the open sea at medium altitude. The A-6′s, who had stayed low, followed after us to the target, timing their arrival to be shortly after our bombs would have impacted, enough time to let the frag pattern settle back down.

Off target was where it would get interesting — now the Omani’s knew where we were, and would have a pretty good idea where we were going.

We had the F-14′s up high and many miles in front of us as the first line of defense. Our FA-18′s, now relieved of their simulated air-to-ground ordnance were unleashed to act as fighters, now that our primary mission of attack was complete. We shook out into an eight-ship wall of fighters, and feared nothing at all. The A-6′s remained low off target, seeking to hide in the terrain while the air defenses focused on those of us more easy to see.

A few minutes later, half-way to the coast the right-most element called, “Engaged”and then added, “defensive.” A pair of Omani Hunters, loitering in the dust below, had come up from beneath their formation, and was at the very brink of a firing solution when they were spotted. I looked over and in one glance took it all in — a tough spot for the Hornets from their defensive positions. I rocked up 90 degrees to starboard, giving a wing-flash to my wingman, wordlessly signaling my intent to engage in support. In moments we were in a hard turn, then a delirious swirl, first climbing, then descending, six of us locked in a tight circle of (simulated) death.

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A Hawker hunter, in Swiss colors.

The first two FA-18′s were fighting for their lives, their Omani adversaries still offensive and fixated on their destruction to the exclusion of all else. My wingman and I arrived from the north at high speed as avenging angels. I shot a simulated missile at the further Hunter, calling him out of the fight, and reversed left, in a hard, climbing for a guns kill on the remaining adversary. The Hunter, in planform in my HUD as I walked the gun pipper to his wings, looked amazingly like a MiG-19 from some bygone era, and I momentarily smiled in my mask at some received memory from another time and place. He spit a flare nearly in my face as I closed to 1500 feet, but the 20mm cannon would have nothing but contempt for infrared decoys.

Just as the hammer came down, and I called, “Guns kill,” my wingman, who had been keeping my six clear, and circling the fight, called for me to, “Break left! — A pair of Jaguars had joined the fray, as unobserved to us as we had been moments before to their Hunter colleagues.

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A Jaguar, in Swedish colors.

After the previous engagement, I had very little airspeed left with which to perform a break turn, but gave it my very best. The Hornet is a superb slow-speed fighter, and she responded beautifully, neatly pivoting around to face the coming threat — I was momentarily neutral, but at a tremendous airspeed disadvantage. I would need help.

The Jaguar two-ship flashed by me, bracketing my canopy on both sides — whichever way I turned, I would be offering a shot to one or the other bandits. I had to get some airspeed.

Full afterburner, nose low, check six — one Jaguar is in a climbing turn across my tail, the other I can no longer see — and it is always the one you don’t see that gets you. He must be turning nose low, probably across my tail as well, so I checked into the assumed threat sector and called my wingman in for support. He was already on his way, and having maintained a good airspeed package, made short work of the nose high Jag, calling him out.

The remaining Jag (who had in fact turned nose low across my tail) had ended turning directly in front of the original two-ship of FA-18s that had been jumped. They seized this morsel as a chance to repay our kindness, while salvaging a bit of their own dignity.

So yeah, I got lucky. In this business, it’s just as important to be lucky, as it is to be good.

We cleared the area of the fight before anyone else could stumble into us, and made our way to the coastline as quickly as our depleted fuel stocks would carry us. Once clear, I climbed to a very high altitude to save fuel, timing my idle-power descent to the last possible moment. I saved a thousand pounds of gas in the descent, took one lap around the overhead pattern and landed on my first attempt — the plane captain aboard the flight deck, now steaming hot in the middle of late-spring Arabian Sea day, was at first surprised, then gratified, to feel how chilled the aircraft’s skin was. It was still super-cooled from my high altitude return.

And for me? I was gratified to have had such a great hop. Low-level nav to a target, bombs off, on target, on time, two kills, a clean get away and an OK-3 wire. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

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