Monday, April 4, 2016

The only time you can have too much gas, is when you're on fire!

I've posted about the cross country program at Lead -in Fighter Training at Holloman AFB before. While humorous now, with a happy ending, rest assured it was anything but humorous while it was going on. For either of us.

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.
The T-38's airfoil (wing) was very thin and would not tolerate much disruption of the airflow before losing a lot of lift.  Additionally, any ice that developed on the intake and subsequently broke off would most likely do catastrophic damage to the engine.  Hence the restriction against flying in anything worse than FORECAST light rime.

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.



  1. Damn! Now that was a hair raising tale, well told.

    Must have sucked to be Bob on the ride back!

    1. Thanks. Yeah, the repercussions went pretty high. Landing and flaming out at a different command's base brought stellar involvement from both commands. Not pretty.

  2. I'm thinking that can't have been good for Bob's career advancement.

    1. Interestingly, I don't remember anything about him after the incident. Joe went on to make Colonel, saw him at the Pentagon while I was there.

  3. Sounds like in moments such as yours when you did not think you would make it that ones clarity of thoughts is enhanced. Quite glad y'all did make it!

    Cannot imagine that Bob was a very happy camper.

    1. I do remember being VERY aware of what was going on. Just not being able to affect them.

      I'm fairly certain you're correct about camping.

  4. How many MIRs have I read where complacency is top dog in the list of contributing factors?

    I remember a flight into Fallon in winter squadron Strike U det, 80 smelly enlisted swine sitting behind a couple of J-52's and palletized cargo in a C-9. Several hours into the flight, with about another hour to go, the ride started to feel wrong. I was well aft and had a window, saw that the wings looked lumpy. Power was way up and we were in a wings level descent. I did the math and did not like the result. Long story short we banged down in front of the numbers in a cloud of shattering ice after the longest straight in in history. I hated riding in C-9's.

    1. All? Certainly the majority.

      This post was triggered by Sarge's picture of snow yesterday. Most folks like snow, also known as Frozen Water. I don't (hence I live in Texas). This event, I think, was a big determinant.

      I remember flying on the wing of an F-15 when we went through a storm cloud. Lead iced over in the blink of an eye. One second he's light gray, the next he's white. Fortunately, we went out the other side shortly thereafter and it all slewed off. Also, the aircraft was better equipped to deal with it.

  5. What's DME Precious? We wants to know, aye, yes we do!

    1. Distance Measuring Equipment (I think. I always heard and called it DME.) It was part of the TACAN (Tactical Aid to Navigation). DME provided mileage to the TACAN Station, and the other part of TACAN provided the heading to the station. So, to fly to a station, you would put the direction needle on the nose and when the DME stopped counting down and started back up, you had station passage. (Note, unless you were VERY low, the DME didn't go to zero, as there was some vertical distance from the station).

      This required a bit of skill because you also had to take into effect the wind. So putting the needle on the nose worked to get you generally headed to the station, then you would watch to see if the needle started drifting one way or the other and adjust the course accordingly.

      All this, of course, was pre-magic, AKA Inertial Navigation System and GPS.

  6. Which brings to mind a couple of tales of a SWO CO oveshooting the mooring at 32nd Street and earning the nickname, Crash.

    1. Was he the CO after earning the nickname?

    2. He was.
      It was always an adventure when he maneuvered the ship to a berth at the pier without the assistance of a tugboat.
      That, assistance from tugs, was not SOP.

  7. Is the icing restriction due to the high wing loading? I always figured that with bleed air it wasn't much of an issue.

    1. Partially, but primarily it was because of the engines. The J-85 was originally designed for the Matador missile, so one time flight. They were very susceptible to FOD. Any appreciable amount of ice going down the intake would damage it.

      That having been said, the wings couldn't take much ice before they started losing lift and approaching stall. Bleed air would have been helpful (The F-4 had it for both the wings and the canopy), but there was no capability to apply that to the wings in the T-38.

  8. Juvat, I forgot to mention that when I shared this post to Facebook, the text accompanying the link was:

    "Your Monday Juvat. The rime of the ancient aviator."

    Sorry, the line was just too good (in my head anyway) to pass up.


  9. I don't know what it is about poor fuel planning, but it seems to be a favorite near fatal mistake, and often among people with the hours and position to know better. The "should be good!" school of flight planning. Of course, in a helicopter you have more options when the fuel warning lights come on, but you can still expect to be a popular subject of conversation, possibly for years... Break/break... When we were in Iraq in 2010 we landed at a location called Commando one night under goggles and had icing form while we were on final to the LZ. I had my head out the crew chief window and first we saw snow then clear ice formed incredibly fast. We were low enough that we didn't have a problem with ice on the rotor, but the windscreen looked like someone smeared Vasoline all over it till the windshield deice got a handle on it.

    1. Yeah up until he nosed over and started down, it was mostly bad luck and bad forecasts, neither of which is an excuse. But getting us low 20 miles early was bad planning. He forgot that wingmen are always lower on gas than lead. He'd asked for a fuel check about when we left the San Antonio area, but not before we started down. Hindsight being 20/20, we should have asked to stay high for about 3 minutes more. But, being Fighter Pilots......

  10. "The rime of the ancient aviator"? Gosh! You must be a Coleridge graduate! (Say it real fast!)

  11. Coming out of DC with a single one star pax and a full bag of gas enroute to Ft. Sill. Piece of cake, unless Departure keeps you low to avoid Dullas traffic. Fuels goes fast down low! On departing the airplane at Sill, the General thanked me for the flight but warned that if I had "tapped those damned fuel gages one more time" he would have made me land. Didn't know he was that interested in cockpit ops! regards, Alemaster

    1. Ft. Sill, as in Oklahoma. Shoulda been more succinct. regards, again, Alemaster

    2. Get's boring in the back end especially if you're a pilot. It's hard not to be watching, just to see what's going on. Flying in to Sarajevo, the crew chief was in the back of the C-12 and had a laptop with a GPS on it. I ended up sitting beside him watching the approach. It was good for a few minutes of boredom relief.

  12. My first instructor made me repeat, before each flight, three things of no use to a pilot. Altitude above you, runway behind you, and gas on the ground. In General Aviation there is rarely a pressing need to go right now, except when the sheriff is coming.

    1. Yeah, I'm not sure why we took off from Tyndall in the first place, other than the storm was coming. But the forecast led us to believe we could reach the back side and be ok. There is a famous sign that hung in one of the squadrons at Davis Monthan that said, "There is no Peace Time training that requires penetration of a Thunderstorm." I always thought that was good advice. I just couldn't follow it all the time.


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