That was not the only cross country I partook while stationed at Holloman, but I wasn't an every weekend kinda guy either. I probably went on one about every three or four months or so. I think being newly married had something to do with that. Most were enjoyable, entertaining, got to see a lot of the country and relax from the day to day grind. Not all of them turned out that way, though.
So, There I was....*
It's Mid-Winter which in the high desert of New Mexico can get surprisingly cold and, with the ever present wind, the wind chill factor can get well into the dangerous range. It had been a particularly cold winter and this Texas boy was looking for somewhere warm. One of the guys in my squadron (Let's call him Bob) was organizing a cross country to Tyndall. (Yeah, I know, don't eat the oysters. Except there's an R in Winter). I asked him if there were any seats available. He told me there was one. The back seat of #2. Turns out the Assistant Ops Officer for the Squadron was in the front. (We're all retired now, so let's be informal and call him Joe.)
|I've used this picture several times, Just realized that I've flown this particular airplane. The logo on the nacelle is for the 435TFTS to which I was assigned. It is configured for a cross country (Nape can for a baggage pod). Wonder if??? Nah!!!!|
The Friday we're supposed to depart, Bob's back seater calls in sick and we can't find anybody to replace him, so it's just the three of us. Departure time arrives, it's clear, blue and a million. (Clear Blue Skies and visibility is great.) The flight to Tyndall is uneventful, although, having nothing better to do than sightsee, I notice that our groundspeed seems to be fairly impressive. I do some quick calculations (hit the stop watch and count the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) milage for a couple of minutes, get a miles per minute and multiply by 60 to get MPH, look at the True Air Speed and the difference will be the wind component). We've got a tailwind component of about 180K. The Jet Stream is our friend today.
Land at Tyndall, check out the O'Club, visit Harry's, the usual stuff. Saturday is nice enough to even get a little beach time. It's cool, but not as cold as Holloman. As we're sitting at the Beach bar, sipping a cold adult recreational beverage, the weather comes on and it looks like there's a very large cold front blowing through and heading our way. Not expected to hit Tyndall til Sunday after we leave, so shouldn't be a factor.
Wake up Sunday morning and head to Base Ops. Bob is the flight lead and he asks me to check out NOTAMS (Notice to AirMen- information about airfields that might be good to know. Like for instance that the field is closed, or the navigation aids are down for repair. Just nice to know stuff) for New Orleans, our intermediate stop. He's going to check the weather. Joe is checking on the jets.
All our chores completed, we get some coffee and find a room to "brief". While a mission brief can take an hour or two, cross country briefs typically talk about what kind of takeoff is planned, what the route of flight is, frequency's used etc. (Typically, "We'll take off in formation climb to 380, direct to TACAN x then via IFR Route to XXX then radar vectors to initial pitch out and land".) All important, but not as formal as a mission brief.
Today, though, Bob starts the brief with the weather. New Orleans is below minimums, but is expected to improve enough by our arrival time that we can shoot an instrument approach. However, the weatherman is also saying they're expecting that in the descent, we'll encounter moderate to severe icing.
Joe and I both perk up at this little piece of info. You see, the T-38 is prohibited from penetrating weather that has anything above forecast light rime icing. Meaning we can start our descent if the weatherman had said it won't be any worse than light rime, but as soon as someone reports light rime icing, we have to abort the descent and divert. To have a forecast of moderate to severe icing means we can't start a descent at all.
I'm interested to see what Bob's plan is. As is the Assistant Ops Officer.
Bob says, we'll take off, climb to altitude and when in range, contact New Orleans for a weather report. If they drop the forecast to light rime, we'll shoot the approach and land. If not, we'll divert to Randolph. Joe asks him if he's flight planned that divert. He says he's flown Tyndall to Randolph many times, shouldn't be a problem. I have also, just never in Winter.
Randolph is forecasting 1500' overcast and no icing for our arrival time.
Weather at Tyndall is starting to cloud up as we takeoff and head west following I-10. (Not literally, but the airways line up pretty well and, on a clear day, you can keep track of the highway pretty well, today was not clear.) Having nothing to do but sit in the back and watch the cloud deck go by underneath, I'm doing the ground speed thing again. Hmmm, looks like we're paying the piper today for the tail wind on Friday. We're significantly slower.
Still nothing to worry about though, plenty of fuel to get to New Orleans.
By now, we're about 15 minutes from getting handed off to New Orleans Approach Control. Bob asks for New Orleans weather. New Orleans is above minimums, but several aircraft had reported moderate clear icing in the descent.
Bob rogers that and tells Houston Center we're diverting to Randolph. Houston clears us to continue heading west.
At this point, I add another calculation into my routine. How much gas will we arrive at Randolph with?
I estimate that we'll arrive there with about 1200 lbs of gas. Dangerously low in an F-15, but above minimum fuel in the T-38. We're still ok. I tell Joe what I've figured out. He says he's come up with the same figures. So, we're on the same sheet of music.
As we get closer to Randolph, Bob clears us to contact Randolph to get an updated weather brief. We do.
Randolph is above minimums, but not by much, but has reported icing during the descent. Kelly, Bergstrom and Ellington aren't any different. Laughlin however is reported ceiling unlimited and no reported icing. Just one small problem, it's about 120 nm further west than Randolph.
Joe switches back over to Houston Center and contacts Bob to inform him of our issue. I'm working numbers as fast as I can and no matter what, we're going to be emergency fuel when we arrive at Laughlin. But, if we stay high as long as we can, and do an idle power descent starting about 60NM out, we should make it.
Bob declares the emergency and now we've got everybody's attention. We're cleared all altitudes and direct to Laughlin. Laughlin is landing to the North, so Bob offsets a little south.
We're about 80NM out when Bob reports starting descent.
I run the numbers again, they're not adding up.
I've had numerous close calls, emergencies and events that after the fact when I thought about them, realized afterward that I could have, perhaps even should have, been dead. I shrugged them off as irrelevant. This was the only time I didn't think we'd make it. I started getting ready to eject, securing everything in the cockpit. Making sure that all pockets were closed, legboard and approach plates were put away. Seatbelts, shoulder straps, helmet chin strap all were tightened. I didn't think we'd make it.
Joe and I even discussed where we were committed to land even if the jet flamed out. We basically agreed that if we got to 500' and lost the engines, we'd deadstick it in as the sink rate would probably be too much for the seats.
Bob has us lined up for a formation landing and gives the gear down sign. Joe gives a quick look at the fuel gauge and tells me he's going to hold off until 2 mile final. Would I let him know when that was, please?
I've stopped looking at the gas gauge. The DME seems to be crawling. I am sitting upright in the seat ready to go. (After the fact, I'm glad Joe didn't say anything that might have started with Bai..., cause I don't think I'd have heard anything after that.) In any case, the 2 FINALLY clicks into view on the DME, and I call 2 miles. I imediately feel a clunk followed by 3 green gear indicators. I tell Joe that we've got 3 green. He rogers that.
The formation landing is nearly perfect. Clearing the runway, Joe shuts off the left engine to conserve what fuel we have left. Not to worry, the right engine shuts itself down shortly thereafter.
It's very embarrassing to be met by what seems to be the entire base as you're towed to parking.
Joe tells me to make myself scarce for a while. I am happy to oblige.
After a couple of hours. Joe comes up to me and asks if I'd flight plan the Laughlin to Holloman leg and did I mind flying solo on his wing for that leg. Bob would be in his back seat. It was a quiet ride home.