Monday, August 12, 2013

FOD (A Black Hat Tale)

WSO's Cockpit in the F-4 Phantom
For those who have never seen one, let me tell you, the cockpit of a fighter jet is a rather busy and cramped place. It's designed to fit the human into the machine. To make the aircrew one with their mighty steed. It doesn't have cup holders or multiple places to stow one's "stuff". It's not, in a word, designed for creature comforts.

Now in the F-4D Phantom, the model with which I am most familiar, my old job required things to be done in both cockpits. But the bulk of our switches and gizmos were in the back seat, also known as the "Pit" in Air Force parlance. (No idea what the Navy might call it, if you should one day meet an old Navy Phantom back seater, ask him. And it will be a him, there were no female Phantom crew-"persons" back when the F-4 was in Navy service. Not to my certain knowledge anyway.)

Now the bulk of my aircraft maintenance career (7-plus years) was in Radar Calibration. All F-4Cs and F-4Ds (we had both on Okinawa, only the latter in Korea) required (by spec) that their Weapon Control Systems (WCS) be calibrated once every six months. (I should also not at this point that back in the day we referred to the WCS and the radar virtually as the same thing. The cognoscenti know better, but I'm telling the story and that's what we called it, in my day.)

One of the things which had to be done prior to moving an aircraft into the Radar Cal hangar (or barn) (for such it was called in Korea, where we had an actual hangar, which was nice when the weather sucked. On Okinawa it was called the Radar Cal docks, only the front half of the aircraft was covered by a structure. And we had docks for two birds, hence the plural. And as the 18th was a bigger wing than the 8th, we tended to do two jets at a time there. But I see I've wandered...)

Yes, one of the things which had to be done prior to towing an aircraft to our little bailiwick was to remove the rear seat. Not the entire ejection seat mind you, just the seat pan itself with all the splodey stuff in it. Not for safety reasons, on the flight line we worked with the seat in all the time. Mind you that in each seat there were six safety pins. Before you slid your butt onto that seat, you made damned sure all six pins were in and in properly. More than a couple of maintenance types exitted this life at the "hands" of an improperly secured Martin-Baker ejection seat. (And at least one, to my second hand knowledge, actually committed "suicide by Martin-Baker". No doubt, very messy. But again, I see I've digressed...)

The reason for removing the seat was so that we maintenance types could get to this one box that was installed under the left panel, slightly to the rear of the WSO, on the floor of the cockpit itself. This box contained all of the magical electronics which controlled the two radar scope displays, one in front, one in back. For the life of me I can't remember the name of that box. It will probably come to me two minutes after I hit the "Publish" button. But it's not critical that you know the name, just that it's there. Also that's why we had to have the back seat removed. Those suckers always required tweaking around Radar Cal time.

In Radar Cal we'd place a small step stool on the floor of the rear cockpit, for to sit on in something approaching comfort. For calibrating the radar on the F-4 takes more than a couple of minutes. Normally we got the birds for two days, and that's operating 24-7. One part of the Air Force which truly is military is flight line maintenance. No, we don't carry rifles or sleep in the mud. But we did work long hours, in all sorts of weather. (And no, our airfields don't pitch and roll and all that. To my certain knowledge no one ever fell over the side of an Air Force runway and died from it. At least not from the fall. (Dammit, drifted off course again, I think I'm picking up a headwind as well!)

Now what triggered this story was something I read over at the Mother Ship, A Little Negative 'G' was the post, from back in August of '04. (Like I've mentioned elsewhere, I've been spending a lot of time over there in the archives, for the pleasure which is in it. The man was a brilliant writer and story-teller. It's inspirational I tell you.)

One of my pet peeves back then was our Day Shift. These guys were on Day Shift so Skip (of him this is the third mention, I also mentioned him here and here, he will get mentioned again and probably again no doubt. Skip was the best goddamned NCO I ever met. Bar none.) could keep an eye on them. He didn't exactly distrust them, but I doubt that he would let them use his car, if we had been allowed cars. Ever. They were just a little sloppy about a few things. One of which was telling us that a bird was all done, we just needed to close her up and call Job Control to come and take her away. And finding that the bird wasn't "quite ready" to re-enter the lists.

Now invariably we'd inspect the aircraft and find crap in the cockpit. Little pieces of safety wire, the occasional washer or fastener, what the Air Force (and the other flying services) call FOD. (Finally, he gets around to telling us what the heck that title is all about!)

"FOD" is an acronym, in my day it meant one of two things Foreign Object Debris, i.e. stuff what don't belong somewhere and would you please pick that sh!t up. NOW! Or it could stand for Foreign Object Damage, as in, I thought I told you to pick that sh!t up. Now someone's going to pay. Hopefully not an aircrew, because FOD can kill them. Something where it's not supposed to be and you're in this fix:

Okay, rolling in hot, good angle-of-attack, pipper's on the target. Now hit the pickle switch and pull up. Oh sh!t, oh dear, why is the stick not pulling to the rear?
Well Ma'am, your husband died because Airman Schmuckatelli forget to remove that loose screw from the cockpit and it got kinda wedged in the controls. Yes, "crap in the cockpit", not good, pet peeve o' mine.

Other than just killing people it can be rather an annoyance as well. Pilot rolls the jet and all that dirt and crap on the cockpit floor is now on its way to the canopy, and yeah into the pilot's face as well. Trust me, that sucks. (Don't ask me how I know, I just do.)

So a clean pair of cockpits is something I always strived for. My day shift colleagues seemed to think that if they didn't make the mess, why should they clean it up? So if my shift didn't button up the bird, there were no guarantees that the cockpits were clean. Normally they were "okay", but still, their lack of attention to detail griped me. Wasn't like that in the old days, not when Gary and Tater were on the job, no Sir! (More on them someday, I promise. legends they were.) Skip couldn't be everywhere. Even though it felt like it at times. (The man could be downright scary at times. Think your Mom, with the eyes in the back of her head thing going on.)

Well, like I mentioned here, one day I was shipped off to Quality Assurance. Where, as it turns out, one of my assigned duties was inspecting aircraft coming out of Radar Cal. Gee, how about that?

The first jet I got to inspect had been buttoned up by the day shift. So could I come out and have a look before they towed it? Sure.
Uh, why is the foot long piece of safety wire in here? Is this your screw driver? Are you missing two bolts and three washers? Who buttoned up this jet? I WANT NAMES DAMMIT!
The Deputy Commander for Maintenance found my two page report on the state of cleanliness of the aircraft rather interesting. The Day Shift Radar Cal supervisor, not so much. The crew chief for that jet (who had made the mess in the first place) found it even less interesting. Seems that was not his first offense.

Yes, Skip had unleashed an anti-FOD demon on the wing. I had a crusade and FOD was part if it. After that first time, I swear you could have performed brain surgery in those cockpits when a bird came out of Radar Cal. Seems Skip actually got ahold of a vacuum cleaner from somewhere. Nice.

I also got a couple of free steak dinners out of it. But that's a story for another time.


  1. So, There I was........(all good fighter pilot stories start that way), having a phenomenal BFM ride, 1 v 1 against another F-4E just the two of us and I was having my way with my opponent. Gunned him on the first engagement which annoyed him to no end as he was a bit older and more experienced than I. Being on my second assignment, I had almost 200 hrs in the F-4 and was getting a element lead checkout! Richtofen beware! Any how, he's a little peeved that I was able to saddle up and ride him. So the next engagement, he's determined that the first will not be repeated. But he's starting out on defense, so he has a difficult job. (If the first time you see your opponent is 30 degrees off your tail and 6000' away closing, life expectancy is short in aerial combat). Fight's on, he reef's it in to me, I perform a little hi yo yo to preserve some turning room, and come sliding back down into a gun solution. He then performs the most magnificent negative g jink I had seen to date. He disappears beneath my nose causing me to lose sight. I quarter plane to preserve my 3/9 line advantage and am beginning to reposition when I hear a "knock it off". We go through the ritual and get headed straight and level, I asked him what was wrong. He said there was some FOD in the back cockpit, I asked if everything was ok and what it was. He said the jet was fine, and the FOD was some coins. Seems the WSO had not zipped his breast pocket and had some loose change there which had come up out of the pocket under negative g. Not wanting this GREAT RIDE to end, I suggested, he might roll the aircraft and let the coins fall to the canopy where the WSO could pick them up. He mentioned that the WSO, evidently collected pennies, because when he strapped in to the aircraft, he'd had between 100 and 150, he wasn't sure. So...straight in, full stop.
    Sq Commander wanted to make sure the WSO knew about the requirement to secure (navy term) the pockets, so assigned him to the Crew Chief to clear the FOD from the pit. Believe it was about 100 degrees that Southern Georgia afternoon.

    1. Sounds like that WSO needed to find a different career.

      Seriously, pennies in his flight suit pockets, unsecured? Damn!

      Great story by the way. "Hi yo yo", "reef's into me", "negative g jink", I love it when pilots talk shop. How were you able to type all that? I mean I pictured you describing all of that with your hands, of course.

    2. Well, flew it with my hands of course, then typed as fast as I can, then flew a little more with my hands....

    3. Why of course. (Oddly enough, I can actually picture this in my mind.)

  2. Heh. The comments are as good as the story. ;-)

    1. juvat has good stories. Hope he'll continue to share.

  3. "... no one ever fell over the side of an Air Force runway..."

    Some day I will have to tell the story about fall off my back lawn.

    I can remember cleaning out the double-bottoms in CIC on a regular basis because the ETs and other repair folks would leave potential "missiles" down there that would roll around and make extraneous noise when we were underway.
    Fortunately for us, there was no health hazard.
    Every now and again we would find a marble and know that it had been left on purpose.

    1. Okay, lawns are a whole 'nuther story.

      Noise, what? That's a problem?

      So explain sonar to me...

    2. Sonar is used to make Greenpeace and submariners unhappy ...oh yeah, and sleeping shipmates.
      You'd actually have to hear it to understand just how bleeping unnerving that sound can be.

  4. First (unwritten rule) on FCF's was get to altitude 'gently' then roll that sucker over, pick up all the crap that landed on the canopy and present it to the MMCO on landing... We actually carried MAF bags just for that. :-)

    1. I'm guessing you mean no sudden maneuvers, no high-G stuff. Most Phantom FCFs I had the opportunity to watch launch involved a full power climb to altitude with a very steep pitch up after wheels up.

      Those were fun to watch.

      (And I just read one of Lex's posts regarding FCFs. He mentioned the rapid climb as well. I'll have to hunt that link down. Oops, found it, it was the post prior to the one linked above -

  5. Was the Phantom dual-controlled? I saw the joystick in your photo. I'm not sure this is the same model as the ones you worked on, but there's a slightly better WSO seat pic down a bit on this page: There are VERY few photos of that backseat in general though- as always, the NFOs never get much respect!

    1. Throughout it's lifetime (in the Air Force, can't speak for the USN) the Phantom was dual controlled. (The WSO tells me that most F-model Rhinos are not!) Normally the GIB was also a rated pilot.

      It's tough to find a good backseat picture. That one you link to looks about right for what I used to work on. Just the glare shield around the scope looks wrong for the C and D models. Of course my pic has no glare shield. But it is either a C or a D from what I remember of that cockpit. (And I did spend a LOT of time back there!)

      The WSO says there aren't many good photos of where NFOs sit because generally NFOs are too busy working to take pictures. Says the pilots are always taking "selfies" and generally have time on their hands. So there are a lot of front seat pics!

      But I wouldn't know anything about that...

    2. Pilot Selfies! Hilarious, and about right. She's funny. In flight school an instructor stated that most pilots are first-born children. Then one of my classmates (all of us were NFO students) got the whole class rolling when he asked if most NFOs were second-born.

    3. Interesting. Big Time is the first born in his family. The WSO is our youngest.


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