Big City Lights!

  • Published
  • By Capt Nicklaus Walker
  • 22 FS/SE
So "there I was," no kidding, I had arrived. Or at least, I thought I had. Our squadron was TDY to no other than the "home of the fighter pilot," Nellis AFB, Nev. Many fighter pilots, if not all, have dreamed of flying in and around Nellis, mainly because of its wide-open training ranges and almost perfect flying weather. It's no wonder that only the best of the best get their weapons and tactics training at a base that is so fighter-centric and has an environment that permits syllabus completion and excellent, real-world training.
Our squadron was lucky enough to be at Nellis in preparation for our Air Expeditionary Force deployment, which would take place a very short three months later at an undisclosed location in the sandbox. Our squadron "Patch" (weapons and  tactics officer) had stressed the point that all of us in the squadron, from the oldest, crustiest lieutenant colonel to the youngest member of the LPA, were in essence, "small fish in a very big pond" when it came to our tactical prowess and knowledge, in comparison to the rest of the fighter brethren flying and fighting from the hallowed desert runway of Nellis. Therefore, all of us needed to be ready to fly the simplest parts of any sortie, from the local departures to the visual flight rules (VFRs) recoveries, in order to avoid buffoonery and to focus on the important part of each sortie -- the tactical training we needed. 

Being the professional aviators that we are, each of us completed the required reading of local area operations, flying crew information files, and the Nellis in-flight guide. After completing the assignment and signing off with our initials that we had indeed read and understood the rules and regulations of flying in the area, we all felt prepared to begin our AEF spin-up and enjoy tactical flying in a weather-friendly environment to which the likes of flying in European airspace does not compare. 

On my second sortie of the long-awaited TDY, I was No. 4 of a four-ship of F-16s, slated to support a 422nd Test Squadron sortie of four A-10s, requiring our Block 50 Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses capability. The night NVG-support sortie was flown in accordance with what Air Force Operational Test and Evaluations Center had requested, and was seemingly uneventful. That is, uneventful until what I had expected to be a normal, night radar-assisted trail recovery and landing back at Nellis. During our recovery, I had the responsibility as No. 4 to pass words to squadron ops and find out what type of landing weather we could expect. As anticipated, the weather was beautiful, no clouds in sight, but some pretty heavy crosswinds were prevailing. I didn't give the ATIS info a second thought, not even the information of crosswinds near our landing limitation. 

Nos. 1 and 2 landed uneventfully and No. 3, my element lead, reminded me that the crosswinds were a little sketchy. As I was on short final, about 100 feet above the runway, getting ready to flare my Viper and land on the runway, a huge gust of crosswind sent the nose of my jet almost 30 degrees off the landing heading. I knew that I was in an unsafe position to land, so I initiated a go-around and decided to set myself up for another instrument approach. Here I was, close to min fuel, at a strange field, and tower told me to execute local climb out. Local climb out? "You have to be kidding me," I thought. From all the important local info I had read, I must have missed that vital piece of aviation info. Although I had read the FCIFs, IFG, and local area ops, I had obviously not paid close enough attention to the local IFR procedures, thinking that we would never need to know them, because of the almost constant VFR weather that exists at Nellis. Even though I knew that we would be flying at night, which meant IFR flight, I wrongfully omitted reading most of that information from the required readings. 

Overwhelmed with having just executed a go-around at night, at a strange field, and NOT knowing the local climb out, time seemed to speed up for me in the cockpit, when things should have been very normal for a professional aviator, which I had perceived that I was. I queried tower for local climb out instructions as I pitched the jet around to an outside downwind position, not knowing where the high mountain ranges were at the moment -- the same ones that had been noted in many local area briefs. 

I was thankful that the tower was able to get me the instructions necessary for me to avoid running my jet into the side of a mountain, which now seemed to be replaced by complete darkness. For a fighter pilot, this course of events SHOULD NOT have been task-saturating, but for me, on this night, they were all that I could seem to handle. But my sortie wasn't over yet; I still needed to put the jet back on the ground. With the excitement that accompanies not knowing simple climb out instructions, combined with my taking the jet around after a huge gust of crosswind, I was too worried about what should be the simplest part of our jobs: landing the jet. I had decided to carry more airspeed on the second approach, because I was concerned with the still-present crosswinds. That was the wrong train of thought, leading to me carrying too much speed for the next landing attempt, which would have caused me to land too far down the runway. 

I correctly decided to go around, but didn't have the gas to execute another instrument approach. I requested a night closed pattern to be able to land, without declaring emergency fuel in front of the rest of the test sortie aircraft, which by now were setting up for their approaches. Combined with everything that had gone wrong on the two previous approaches, accomplishing a maneuver that I hadn't seen since the B course was more than enough reason for concern. Fortunately my element lead was still on our in-flight victor frequency and demonstrated proficient and very welcomed mutual support in helping "talk me down" to a successful landing. 

Most of the military flying community might not think this was a big deal, but for me, on that night, it was. The lessons learned that night reminded me of the need to practice critical elements of basic flying. I should have read the local operations regulations more carefully, known the local climb out for the field we would be flying out of for the next two months, and should have completed an often-forgotten in-flight check we all know and love: NMAILMAN. If I would have been disciplined enough to accomplish this very easy check, it would've saved me from being task-saturated during a moment in the cockpit when I didn't need to be. I should not have thought that I was "above" reading vital local IFR regulations, disregarded a time-proven technique of safe instrument flying (NMAILMAN), and should not have imagined that I had "arrived" because we were flying at the "home of the fighter pilot." Fighter pilots are disciplined, professional, and perfectionist aviators. That night, with Vegas' big city lights glaring in the distance, I wasn't any of those.