Ego versus the "E-Word"

  • Published
  • By Maj Jeremy "Smuggler" Jenness
  • 354 FW/SEF
There is always a bit of rivalry between fighter pilots.  As an F-15C driver, I would joke and laugh with my Eagle buddies when we heard of yet another of "those F-16 guys" who had to declare emergency fuel and gum up the return to base flow following a large force exercise at Nellis AFB, Nev. With twice as many engines and more than twice as much fuel, there were times in the Eagle when I was low on gas, but never so low that I had to throw out the "E-word." It was a matter of pride, and yes, ego, that I always made it home without calling attention to myself. That is, until one night at Nellis, flying F-16s with the Aggressors, I became one of "those F-16 guys." 

I was fairly new in the Fighting Falcon with less than 100 hours, and less than six of those at night. I had never flown at night at Nellis, and I had never fought from the west side of the Northern Ranges -- the typical "bad guy" land. I had the only clean jet in our formation (no external fuel tanks) and was not fragged to go to the tanker to get more fuel. My job was to stay in the airspace for as long as I could to provide training and then RTB once I hit bingo fuel. Of course, as anyone will tell you who has flown fighters during Red Flag or a Weapons School LFE, even a simple RTB can be a chore, especially at night in a jet that doesn't have much fuel at engine start.

I hit bingo and removed from the fight to the west. I descended to FL190, exited the airspace over Stonewall, and prepared for the long trek home around the range complex. Having not done the recovery to Nellis from this direction, I immediately set max range airspeed and requested the most direct route I could from ATC. It wasn't long before ATC had some changes for me. In fact, three times they vectored me away from the standard recovery route for other aircraft exiting the airspace: first 30 degrees, then 20 more, then another 30. By that point, I wasn't even headed toward Nellis anymore, and the F-16 min fuel and emergency fuel numbers, as well as the techniques and options to resolve this situation, took a front seat in my mind. 

The bingo fuel I used was appropriate to get back to Nellis with "normal recovery fuel." However, rarely is there a "normal recovery" during a night LFE at Nellis, and I needed to think of some non-normal options. One option was to land at Creech AFB, which I would practically fly right over during the RTB. During the day, in VFR conditions, this was perfectly reasonable. However, with no viable precision approach into Creech, this wasn't really feasible for a dark Nevada night. Another option was to cancel my IFR clearance, cut in front of "the train" returning from the ranges, and do a visual straight in back at Nellis. Due to my lack of experience with this recovery, coupled with my lack of night experience in the F-16 and at Nellis, I ruled out this option before even stepping that night -- it was a matter of my personal operational risk management.  Another option was to ask for priority in the recovery pattern. At that moment, I calculated I would be below my normal recovery fuel, but still above min fuel. I was also vectored back on course as ATC finally fit me into "the train."

My recovery was back on track, but I maintained a very heightened sense of my fuel state and approach control vectors to aircraft in front of me. Everyone seemed to be getting a normal instrument downwind and turn to base. Those normal vectors stopped with the two-ship of F-16s that was in front of me. There was a dramatic pause from approach control as we both continued on downwind, flowing north, farther from Nellis. The calculator in my brain now had to recalculate what fuel state I would now recover with. The two-ship in front spoke up as I was running my numbers and slowing to my max endurance airspeed. They were given what seemed like a base turn, but was actually a box pattern across the final approach course. 

Then it was my turn to start that slow process of shoving my ego to the side. "Approach, Sniper 2, min fuel, looking for a base turn." "Sniper 2, Nellis Approach, copy." Well, I'd taken that first step, but I was still flying away from Nellis. After what seemed like an eternity, approach finally came back with, "Sniper 2, approach, we informed tower, but it didn't work, continue heading 360." Great. In a single-engine multi-role fighter without much gas, the margin between minimum fuel and emergency fuel isn't that great. It took a couple more calls to approach to figure out that the tower was trying to launch a couple flights of F-18s on opposite direction takeoffs. While I had a small margin of gas, the expected delay was at least 10 minutes. With the DME to Nellis growing larger by the second, that margin had become negligible. The pressure was building, and I gave my ego another shove. 

"Approach, Sniper 2, if you're going to delay me that much, then I will definitely be emer-fuel," I stated matter-of-factly, and though I had taken two large steps in that direction, I was still two syllables short of throwing out the "E-word." After a moment, Approach asked if I had the two-ship of F-16s still in sight and if I could follow them. I could see the lights of their formation, so I turned right on what I considered a base leg. As I flew toward them and picked up a radar lock, it became obvious to me that they were in a right turn in their box pattern. I would end up meeting them 180 degrees out. I had no intention of adding a night intercept to this situation, so again I had to do some more coordinating with Approach control. Between me, the other two-ship, and everything else Approach was handling, I could tell he was getting a bit task-saturated. So finally, with one last kick, my ego went tumbling into the Nevada desert.  "Approach, Sniper 2 is Emergency Fuel, Nellis in sight, proceeding on a visual straight in for Runway 21L." Finally. Despite my efforts to keep a low profile, I made it known I was an F-16, low on gas, and needed priority to land. It had a huge effect. Approach control seemed almost relieved, radio transmissions returned to a normal level, and I was handed off to tower. As I reached a normal final approach, the weight and pressure, which may have well been my ego, was lifted. I was definitely emergency fuel, but my seat cushion returned to its normal position, and I knew I was home free. All it took was to be "that guy" and make that last radio call, and I was glad I did. 

The lessons are fairly obvious, even to a young wingman. I had certainly learned those lessons before, but sometimes even experienced pilots need a refresher course. If you're unsure and unfamiliar with the mission or procedures, add some extra gas for your own bingo and comfort level, especially at night. Regardless of whether some people consider emergency fuel an actual emergency or just poor planning, if you need to, then declare it to get your aircraft and your body back on the ground -- that's why it's called "emergency" fuel. As for me, next time I plan to cut southwest, exit the ranges much closer to Nellis, and take that visual straight in. It was what I ended up doing, anyway. Besides, that evening significantly lowered my ORM assessment of doing that straight-in at night. 

As I made one of my best landings, night or day, F-15 or F-16, that evening, I had to chuckle to myself.  The radio was alive again with the two-ship of F-16s, now behind me, negotiating with tower. "Negative, we're landing behind Sniper 2. We're not ready to call the E-word yet, but we're getting close on gas."