Trust, But Verify

  • Published
  • Det 1, 53rd Test and Evaluation Group
He may not have been talking about flying airplanes at the time, but President Ronald Reagan made a wise statement when he said, "Trust, but verify." Flight leads and IPs are pretty sharp individuals. Students have to trust them, but also verify what they're saying. Don't be afraid (like I was) to speak up when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I learned this lesson the scary way as a young first lieutenant wingman flying the F-15C at Eglin AFB, Fla.  

Halfway through my mission qualification training, I was No. 2 in a two-ship during a basic fighter maneuver sortie. BFM is basically 1 v 1 dogfighting in the traditional WWII sense. My flight lead for this mission was an IP. This was the first of three sorties planned for us that day during a massive BFM surge. 

The weather was clear with unlimited visibility as we took off just after sunrise. It was absolutely beautiful. Since our airspace for the mission was less than 10 miles from our home base, my IP set a relatively low-fuel state for us to call "knock it off" and return to base. 

After the last BFM setup, we would basically set the throttles to idle and coast right in for a landing, grab some fuel, and repeat the mission. Of course that's not what happened. 

Instead of returning for a normal landing, we found ourselves in a pretty scary situation. After "knocking off" the last BFM set, I rejoined for the battle damage check and to get pointed home. By then I realized the field was completed socked in. Out of seemingly nowhere, Eglin now had an extremely low overcast ceiling, thanks to some pretty quick fog that rolled in off the Gulf of Mexico. Due to my low fuel state, I didn't have enough fuel to divert to a different airfield. If I was going to land, it had to be at Eglin. 

I never used to believe any of the human factors stuff they teach us at the altitude chamber (because it could never happen to me!), but it turns out they may know something after all. Several items the HF gurus talk about came into play that day for my IP and me. They are: 

Preparation (Mission Prep) -- My IP nor I realized the possibility of the fog rolling in and covering the field. 

Judgment and Decision Making -- My IP made the call to use a low-fuel state to begin the trip back to base. He made the decision based on the fact we were almost right on top of the field. Hopefully he was also thinking about the fact that I was a very low-time wingman. Either way, I never questioned the call.

Peer Influences -- I didn't want to say anything about the low fuel decision, because I didn't want to be known as someone who would complain or question a call made by my flight lead/IP. 

Mission Demands -- We wanted to fight as long as we could to maximize my training. And let's face it, flying BFM is a lot of fun. 

Channelized Attention -- My IP nor I realized at any time during the mission that the weather was quickly approaching Eglin. 

Situational Awareness -- While the supervisor of flying could see the fog rolling in, he never made the call to RTB all jets to prevent the need to divert to other bases, even though he knew the qualifications and weather categories of all the pilots airborne. 

I'm not blaming the SOF. The bottom line is that we had the opportunity to look outside, see the weather, speak up and call "knock it off" and RTB before fuel became an issue. Due to the reasons that I've listed, we didn't, and found ourselves with a low ceiling and not enough fuel for me to divert. The weather called by the previous flight to land was clear above the clouds, tops of the clouds at 450 feet, bottoms of the clouds just above 300 feet, and unlimited visibility below. As an MQT student, my weather category was 700 and two, meaning I needed to have a ceiling above 700 feet with a visibility of at least two miles.  

The regulations state that you're not allowed to attempt an approach for landing if you don't have the required weather minimums based on your weather cat. The regs go on to state that if you find yourself in this situation, you need to divert to an airport with suitable weather. That was not an option for me based on my low-fuel state. I was either going to break the rules or break a jet when I ejected after running out of fuel.  

My IP and I discussed our options. He decided to let me shoot the approach first. If I didn't break out of the weather on the approach by 300 feet, I would go missed. We train down to 200 feet and lower in the simulator, so I was confident that I could fly the approach in real life. If the weather was lower than 300 feet, I was to rejoin on my flight lead, and we would attempt a formation landing. I flew the approach, entering the weather as briefed at 450 feet and broke out of the thin layer of fog at 300 feet, safely landing out of the approach. I entered the weather 250 feet below my mins. 

This incident taught me to be a believer in human factors, and it also taught me to be a believer in cockpit/crew resource management. My IP and I found ourselves in the bad situation of having to break rules. In order to recover the jet, we had to break a regulation. That was the only possible way to get out of the predicament without losing a perfectly good and very expensive Eagle in the process. We didn't enjoy explaining the incident to our ops officer, but I guarantee it was a lot less painful than a Class A investigation. We got lucky.