When It Rains, It Pours; Don't Be Your Own Raincloud

  • Published
  • By Capt Aaron Brown
  • 87 FTS
I knew it was my turn to die. As I looked through the drizzle-covered canopies of the three other Vipers lined up with me at EOR, I could see my slant-tailed killers taxiing to join us. Secretly I hoped one of the Hornets would make a mistake during our 4v4 Air Combat Training mission, so I could be a hero for Mother Russia and launch every last one of my simulated "Alamo" and "Archer" missiles into their proud Navy formation. Alas, if the Blue Air does their job, a Red Air pilot should die quickly and often. 

The weather was appropriately foreboding and while I mentally reviewed our briefed red air tactics, the most dreaded radio call of all interrupted my thoughts: "Viper flight, taxi back, you are weather cancelled." My flight lead protested, but a PIREP for clouds from 1,000 to 30,000 feet was hardly conducive to safe air combat training. After Viper 1 let the Hornets know we were cancelled, I stared incredulously as the Navy jets took the runway and blasted off into the rainy haze. What did they hope to accomplish? 

"Sorry, bud, it looks like we're done," I told the Air Force Academy cadet sitting in the backseat of my D-model F-16. He had some bad luck trying to get an incentive ride over the past few weeks of his "Operation Air Force" summer visit, and this was his last chance. Hearing the disappointment in his reply, I made my first mistake: straying from the acceptable wingman radio calls of "4" and "3, you're on fire," I asked if the Top-3 would let me take off single ship to at least get some air under the poor kid's butt. I was a little surprised when after a short delay, the response was, "Go for it!" I waved off the de-arming crew and before I knew it, I was climbing through the clouds with a cadet in the back as giddy as a school girl. 

My next task was to find some clear air, or the unlucky cadet was going to see 80 minutes of flawless Viper instrument flying. I tried calling the Hornets on their discrete frequency to see if they had found something workable. I suppose they had because they were too busy with their 2v2 to even answer me. Suddenly we burst into a bizarre bowl of clear air in the MOA, a cloudy cave about five miles wide, with a floor at 22,000 feet and a ragged ceiling at 28,000. With such a tight squeeze and no discernable horizon, aerobatics were out of the question, but I could certainly "G" it up for the kid. 

I told him to get ready for a warm up, and we pulled through an easy 4 G turn. I asked him if he was ready for more, which he affirmed enthusiastically, so I accelerated to about 420 knots at 26,000 feet, rolled to about 80 degrees of bank, and blended in the Gs for a level left turn. I planned to show him 6 Gs, but we never got there. As the jet decelerated and we approached 5 Gs, I felt an un-commanded right roll, followed by the sensation that the jet stood on its tail, and we pivoted violently right with a jarring shudder. Next, I found myself bouncing off the side of the cockpit and then hanging in my seat in an inverted spin. Not good. 

Luckily, only a month before, I had attended the F-16 Spin Recovery training at Edwards AFB, Calif. where I intentionally sent the jet out of control and recovered more than 10 times in one flight. The only difference now was that I had less altitude, no horizon, and a cadet instead of a highly experienced test pilot in my back seat. The first step for recovery is easy: CONTROLS, RELEASE. I did the next one without thinking: THROTTLE, IDLE. Now we waited. 

I never had to perform the rest of the critical checklist. It seemed like forever, but in a matter of seconds, thousands of lines of computer code helped the flight control surfaces dampen the yaw and convince the nose of the bucking bronco to dip 60 degrees down. Seizing the opportunity and using the HUD for my attitude reference, I pulled the nose through until we were pointed straight down. As we accelerated through 200 knots, I threw the throttle to MAX and pulled. As we reached wing level in the weather at 20,000 feet, the first thing I noticed was a loud whooping sound from the back seat. "WHOO! THAT WAS AWESOME!" 

"No," I replied, "That was not awesome." As I got back to a safe airspeed and pointed home, the jet seemed to be handling normally. The cadet promised me he hadn't bumped the stick to cause the un-commanded right roll. When I declared the emergency for departure from controlled flight, I think the cadet finally realized the gravity of our situation! 

I wasn't far from home, but I had a lot of altitude to lose and was very heavy with 8,300 pounds of fuel remaining. To help burn gas and descend, I elected to lower my gear, passing through about 14,000 feet. Dumbfounded, I watched as I got zero green lights and an intermittent red light in the gear handle. Not surprisingly, my first call to the SOF was something like, "You're not going to believe this." 

My problem was this: I had an airplane I needed to land ASAP because I had no idea why it stopped flying or when it might happen again, but as far as cockpit indications go, I had no gear to land on! As with most gear problems, I needed a chase ship, but I was the only F-16 dumb enough to be flying. 

The SOF and I started through the gear checklists as I set up for an ILS. I thought I felt the drag of the gear, but I wasn't sure of anything anymore. Meanwhile, the SOF set up a "Conference Hotel" where he phoned Lockheed engineers who were always on call to help troubleshoot airborne F-16 problems. As I broke out of the weather and passed the tower on a low approach, the SOF confirmed that my gear was down but there was no way to be certain it was locked (gear not locked tends to collapse on landing). 

The SOF recalled the only fighters airborne, and as the rest of his four-ship landed, the Hornet lead rejoined on me, clearly annoyed in his radio calls that we had cut his training short. So there I was, orbiting at 1,000 feet above the ground in light rain, in a jet that might depart at any moment, with a dissimilar chase ship inspecting my landing gear from mere feet away. Understandably, I had to tell the hyperventilating cadet to go oxygen-100 percent and "cold mic." 

Boring details aside, after 70 minutes airborne, the Lockheed engineers were certain from the evidence at hand that there was simply an electrical short in the gear sensing system and that I could safely land. Needless to say, as I set the jet down as gently as I could, I was ready to go around with afterburner at the first sign of the gear giving way. We stopped straight ahead uneventfully on the wet runway and waited for the emergency vehicles.

Now that we were safe, my mind instantly started replaying the whole sortie, trying to make sense of what just happened. Why did the jet go out of control? Was the gear problem related or just bad luck? Back in maintenance debrief, I was starting to feel proud of myself. I had just handled a multiple system EP in poor weather and saved an Air Force jet. Then the OGV flew in, assaulting me with questions! Was the pitot heat on? Did you see any icing? Did the cadet bump the stick? Was the fuel balanced? Where was the CAT switch? 

Time froze. The CAT switch? Where was the CAT switch? I thought back to the only time I would have checked it: on my initial sweep of all the switches during ground ops. There was a black hole where the memory should have been. When I came to, the OGV was already radioing for maintenance to check the CAT switch. I waited for the reply like a defendant waiting for his sentence.
For those non-Viper pilots wondering what the CAT switch is, let me explain. The F-16 was originally designed to be a lightweight and nimble air-to-air machine. As the Air Force added external fuel tanks, targeting pods, and bombs, the airplane obviously didn't handle as well. In fact, at certain gross weights and configurations, the engineers found that if they didn't limit the AOA to 15 degrees, the jet had a tendency to depart flight. Enter the CAT switch -- CAT 1 = full-up Viper, CAT 3 = 15 AOA limit. It's a simple set-and-forget toggle switch. 

Our configuration that day was clean with two wing fuel tanks. This is technically a CAT 1 configuration, although in an air-to-ground mission, we would still set CAT 3 for realistic training. But this had been an air-to-air sortie, so our flight lead had briefed us to set CAT 1 to get the best performance. 

At the step desk, I found out I would be getting the D-model with the cadet. While the single seat C-model is barely CAT 1 with two tanks, it just so happens that the D-model is not. Academically I knew this, but on that day, whether due to complacency or distraction, I hadn't checked the switch. It was now up to where the previous pilot had left it. 

The verdict was in. "The switch is in CAT 1." My stomach dropped, and I instantly fell into the downward spiral of disappointment and self-loathing every fighter pilot feels when he realizes he screwed up. I went from hero to zero with the flip of a switch. 

In the days that followed, there was much speculation and arguing over whether my jet should have departed, even in CAT 1. Even if the analysis from the engineers a week later hadn't damned me, I had already learned my lesson. When I stood up to brief my buffoonery at the next pilot safety meeting, I had this advice. 

First, there is no good excuse for missing a switch, yet it happens all the time. I have to work at identifying my own areas of complacency or moments of distraction, and if I catch it, I know I need to recheck what I was doing and be extra vigilant. 

Next, we have all heard that almost all accidents are culmination of factors that by themselves are easily handled, but together create a catastrophic event. Combine bad weather, dissimilar aircraft, an incentive flyer, and a gear short circuit with my switch mistake and questionable decision to pull Gs in a cloudy cave, and you have a recipe for disaster. What would have been the tipping point to a class A mishap? 

Lastly, I learned to listen to my instincts. There were several moments where my subconscious mind had realized I had rushed my ground ops, that the weather was too bad, and that the situation just didn't seem right. We all have a built-in ORM calculator, and the challenge becomes, "How much is too much, and when do you listen?" I wish I had taxied back with the four-ship that day. I feel very lucky that you're reading this article and not the newspaper headline, "Air Force Cadet Ejects from F-16, Eaten on Landing by Alaskan Grizzly."