So, There I was.....* Kadena AB, Japan. Scheduled for a night 2 ship flight lead upgrade ride for Bones. Remember, Bones had come to the Eagle after a tour as a T-33 pilot for the now defunct Air Defense Command (ADC).
ADC, and especially T-33s, flew a lot of Night Flights, like most of their sorties were at night, maybe even almost all. Suffice it to say, Bones had flown at night. However the ride is a requirement for the upgrade and has to be supervised by the Commander, the Ops Officer or the Assistant Ops Officer.
The weather forecast for the evening includes frontal passage of a fast moving cold front fresh out of Siberia by way of Korea, which as it passed over the nice warm ocean was lifting those water vapor filled molecules up at a great rate of speed where they would condense, forming clouds.
Clouds are usually fun, they allow you to practice low level terrain flying without any risk of of injury by hitting one of the "hills". Some clouds are not fun. The ones that are not are called Thunderstorms.
Clouds in Thunderstorms are hard, you know when you enter one because you immediately start bouncing, quite a bit. They're also very dark with short periods of blinding light. They're also quite loud, and generally filled with solid objects. However, they tend to affect a fairly small area, aviation wise, a front might cover 200 miles, 30 minutes flying time at a slow cruise. That having been said, Flying in a Thunderstorm is strongly discouraged.
General Fogelman while he was the Wing Commander at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, had a plaque put up in one of the squadron that said.
"There is no peacetime training mission of enough importance to require penetration of a Thunderstorm. Period!"
The weather forecast includes probability of Thunderstorms. The Boss and the OpsO decide their other duties require their attention and demur on Bones check flight. Which leaves me.
Now, I'm not overly worried, the Eagle can fly for a very long time and not burn much gas. It's cockpit lighting is much improved from the F-4 and AT-38. Those jets seemed to only have two settings, blindingly bright and off. So, Bones briefs the flight and sets a conservative Bingo Fuel that will allow options if needed.
We are originally scheduled for the North West Area, but the storm front is scheduled for there at our flight time, so we reschedule for the South West Area.
Step to the Jets and crank 'em up. Taxi on out and get armed. Night formation takeoff, no burners, the Okinawan's are sleeping. Prevailing winds are out of the North, so we make a wide turn to the left to head South West. Bones has me in close formation on his right wing, so I don't get much of a look see to my right, but what I do pick up are a lot of bright flashes and they seem fairly close.
We arrive in the area, and Bones drops me off at one of the start points. I finally get a chance to glance around and get things set up. Since my eyes have gotten used to the darkness, I crank down the lights to preserve that and hopefully be able to see Bones before he does me.
(As an aside, this was before the days of NVGs, the wingtip lights were on and visible easily at 50+ miles. Not training like we would fight, but...Safety!)
Look out to the North and the line of thunderstorms is quite visible, very widespread and very angry looking. I wonder how close they are to Kadena, as we've planned to RTB before they get between us and the base. One of the drawbacks to the Eagle radar was it would not present a return for an object traveling at less than 90K. The software interpreted that as the Ground and the ground was not a target, so not of interest.
If I'd been flying the F-4, I'd have had the WSO select Air to Ground mode, and he'd have been able to get a quite accurate reading of the storm. But I'm not.
We run the first intercept, knocking it off after 180 degrees of turn (The ROE for Night Flights, Not training like we would fight, but....Safety) . Head back out to the respective points and I notice as I get there, that the Line of Storms looks surprisingly close.
Another intercept, and back to my point, I can't get there. The INS coordinates are in the storm.
Bones wants another intercept, so I turn hot. As I do so, in my periperal vision, I think I see a purplish glow on the canopy, but as I focus on it, the cones in the center of my eye don't pick it up as well as the rods in my peripheral vision. I shrug it off.
Another intercept and back to my point. This time as I head back, the storm forces me to offset further south and as I turn hot, I definitely see the purple dance of St Elmo's Fire. As I'm enjoying the view, I am reminded of why thunderstorms are not to be played with as a large stroke of lightning goes ground to air in the anvil overhead. Which thanks to the light provided, I can now see.
Or could when the lights were on, now that the lightning has gone away, taking my night vision with it, things are pretty dark. I turn away from the Storm and inform Bones that in my esteemed opinion, we should head home. He asks for one more intercept.
I respond, "If we leave now, you will pass the ride, otherwise you'll do it again tomorrow."
"Juvat, switch to Approach." Smart Man!
As we turn back towards Kadena, the wall of thunderstorms appears to go from horizon to horizon. Bones starts to climb to see if we can get over the top.
Not many things can out climb an Eagle. Thunderstorms can be the exception. We talk to Approach who says the western edge of the storm is too close to a border to head west.
So off to the east we head, the storm line is only about 100 miles east and we're about 150 west. So a trip of about 350 miles. I'm sure Bones is doing the math in his head, but so am I.
Kadena has ridden out the storm, but the runways are wet. The wind is now out of the south, so we'll have to add another 50 miles or so to get set up for the approach. We should have enough gas, provided we stay at altitude.
Bones levels us off at 45K and pulls power back to Max Range Cruise. Good Man. The other option would have been Max Endurance, where we could stay airborne longer, but not fly as far.
We get around the eastern edge, and turn back to the North West. Approach has us on a wide base and splits Bones off. He's acting as the Flight Lead, but I'm the actual Flight Lead. If something happens, I want him on the ground first.
A minute or so later, they turn me on base leg, then Final for a PAR (Precision Approach Radar). Kadena didn't have an ILS approach for that runway at the time.
Touch it down, Navy Style, Aerobrake until I feel the nose starting to drop, release back pressure to get it definitely moving then back in full when the nose wheel hits. Brakes check good, and roll out.
Taxi through dearm and back to the revetments. I'm thinking that wasn't so bad, but as I do my post flight, the crew chief calls me back up the ladder and points to a small hole on the wing, blackened by burns and directly over the wing tank.
I'd rather be lucky than good.