My 41-Hour Bus Ride

  • Published
  • By Capt Wayne Waters
  • 77 FS
It started out in the planning stages as one of the best FAIP cross-countries seen to date (at Columbus at least). My buddy (to protect the innocent) and I planned a three-hop cross-country on Presidents Day weekend from Columbus AFB, Miss. to March ARB, Calif. We had training squares to be filled and thought it would be a great opportunity to visit somewhere different for a change. We also thought it would be nice to see family and friends in the process. Lots of flying and fun were the plan, at least we thought. 

We briefed our plan to the DO the week before the cross-country. He thought it was a sound plan and told us his biggest concern was the possibility of us breaking far from our home base. We had predicted this was going to be an issue and called T-38 bases near our destinations to ensure they would be able to support us in the event we were to break. I'll never forget the last thing he said as we walked out of his office: "Don't screw this up." We, of course, assured him that we wouldn't, and we meant it. At least we meant we would not knowingly screw up anything within our control. 

My buddy and I had more than a year of experience (300+ hours) as instructor pilots in the T-38, which, combined with UPT, was enough to get cocky and complacent, but not enough to keep us out of trouble. We had flown several times together and knew each other's abilities pretty well. 

On the first day of the cross-country, my buddy, a squadron scheduler, had to finish some work in the squadron before departing, so I showed up at base ops to check the weather and NOTAMs, finalize our plan, and file the DD 175. The weather appeared to be clear along the route of flight, but the winds at Sheppard, our first stop, were going to be close to the crosswind limits. At the time of our arrival, they were forecasted to decrease below the maximum allowable limits. I quickly thought of a backup plan, which was to go to Tinker or Vance AFB, Okla. It was only a minor change to the flight plan, and I thought if we needed to file in-flight, it would be a piece of cake. It was a few hours before we were supposed to depart, so I thought I'd go with the original plan and watch the weather to make the final call. I called Tinker and Vance AFB just to make sure they could accept us, and they said it wouldn't be a problem since it was only a gas-and-go. As we approached step time, I checked the winds again to ensure they were trending as forecasted. They were, but not as fast as predicted. I decided to delay our takeoff 30 minutes just in case. As that time expired, I called the T-38 squadron supervisor at Sheppard to see what their status was. He told me he was stepping pilots out the door, so we decided to press with our original plan. I felt like we had dodged our first obstacle and knew we had a good backup plan in case the winds again went out of limits. 

The first sortie to Sheppard was uneventful, except for my landing. The winds continued to decrease as predicted and even shifted around slightly to favor the landing runway. This ultimately led to a firm touchdown, because I wasn't paying attention to the winds. I was disappointed with myself for botching the landing in front of my bro in the back seat. He just laughed, and we taxied in to get our gas and grab a bite to eat. While we were eating, I decided to call Kirtland again, our second stop, to see if we would still have to go to the civilian side, since the ramp would be full. They politely told me that no one had cancelled, so we decided to simply taxi to the FBO on the other side after landing. 

In the T-38, you always try to go to a military base with a start cart, because it's required to crank engines. However, most approved civilian fields and FBOs have their own start cart, or at least can borrow one from the airlines that frequent the airport.  Once we arrived in Albuquerque, we shortly found out that the FBO's cart was broken. They weren't sure how long it would take to get another one. My buddy decided he would try to expedite the process of getting a start cart and pay for the fuel. I handed him the fuel card and filled out the forms for our second sortie. 

Keep in mind that there was no published guidance on where to keep the forms in the T-38, especially once you're on the ground. Normally I'd put them back in the seat, but it was windy that day. I was afraid they would blow out of the cockpit with the canopy open. For some unknown reason, I decided to put the forms in the air scoop directly behind the nose wheel tire. This scoop aids the gear when using the alternate gear extension lever, and the forms fit perfectly there. The only problem with this is that you may forget and leave them there. If the forms are left in the nose wheel air scoop, they could fall out during taxi or potentially go down the intakes in flight. That's obviously not good. 

I went inside to check on the status of the start cart. There was still no cart. I decided to go back out and speed things up by accomplishing the pre-flight. During my walkaround, I started to talk to a pilot from an aircraft nearby. This must have interrupted my habit pattern enough, because I forgot where I placed the forms. As soon the conversation ended, my buddy ran out to inform me that the FBO found a start cart. I finished my walkaround, jumped in the cockpit, and started to run my pre-start checks. My buddy and I flew enough with each other to feel confident that each had done his respective checks, so I simply said my checks were done in the front, and he responded that his were done in the back. In the meantime, the forms were still in the nose wheel air scoop. 

We taxied out and flew an uneventful mission to March ARB. We even took the nickel-and-dime tour over the Grand Canyon. Once we landed and shut down, my buddy handed me the fuel card from his pocket and asked me to put it in the forms. When I reached for them, they weren't there. I initially thought my buddy was joking around. I told him to knock it off and give me the forms, but he said he thought I had them. I looked all over the cockpit for them. We even drove back to the runway to see if they fell out when we opened the canopy. They weren't there.

I tried to think back to the last time I had them. I knew I had filled out the forms in Albuquerque, so maybe I left them at the FBO. I decided to call back to see if I had left them there. They hadn't seen them. I then feared the worst. I envisioned every page of the forms scattering over the entire Albuquerque airport and shutting down airport traffic for at least half an hour. I called back to Kirtland to confirm my worst fear, and luckily they hadn't seen nor heard about any 781 forms. 

I knew at this point I had to call back to Columbus. I did the honorable thing and confessed to losing the forms. I got grilled with questions and then remembered I had put them in the nose wheel air scoop. I considered us to be pretty lucky. What if we would have sucked the forms down the intake? I don't think my buddy would have been my buddy after that. 

To make a long story short, the 781s were never found. The transient guy at March found a small piece of the K section lodged between the wing root and the intake, but I still don't know where the rest of the pages fell. We were lucky. 

Our punishment was to return to Columbus on the next Greyhound bus, which took 41 hours. I begged the DO not to make my buddy ride the bus because it wasn't his fault. I lost. It was a painful trip, but I learned a few valuable lessons that weekend. Complacency can kill, and nothing beats good CRM. I also have never again forgotten the forms.