How Low Did You Go?

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Gregg Allred
  • 72 ABW/SEF
Nearly 20 years ago, I learned some very valuable lessons that are part of the reason that I am still alive and flying today. However, there was much more that could have been learned at the time, and it could have been learned by more than just the six pilots in the flight. Our safety culture has come a long way since then -- or has it? 

The story began benignly enough. I was in advanced jet training, flying the TA-4J Skyhawk, and we were deployed to NAF El Centro, Calif. for our bombing training phase. Our welcome to California was a beautiful, sunny day and a magnitude 4.0 earthquake. The deployment began well, but the normally good weather didn't hold. Following a brief for a four-plane bombing mission, we reconsulted the official weather version by walking outside and looking north toward the target area. The only problem was that we couldn't see that far, due to the restricted visibility that obscured the horizon and made determining the ceilings difficult. 

A check with the weather shop revealed that the weather was legally VFR, but not much else. The flight lead was an instructor pilot, and there was a second IP riding in the back seat of No. 4. There was pressure to complete the Xs, and they determined that we should give it a try. The weather didn't look that good to me, but what did I know? The ominous music should have been building in the background at this point. It wasn't unsafe to take off, but we needed a good plan to ensure safe execution of the flight, and definitely more than just "We'll take off and give it a try." 

We got airborne, successfully rendezvoused and began feeling our way to the target. We managed to stumble across the run-in line and turned for the target. When we reached the bull's-eye, lead broke up into the high dive pattern. I was No. 3, and by the time I broke, lead had already disappeared into what most people would probably characterize as clouds. However, since we were in a VFR bombing pattern, we'll just refer to it as further reduced visibility. As I reached the abeam position, I couldn't see lead or the target, but I still was visual on No. 2, and trusted him to lead me to the roll-in. As I turned for the roll-in, I looked inside and set the appropriate switches so that I could unleash a fearsome 25-pound blue bomb. A mistake here could cost me a beer for not getting a bomb off on the first pass. However, focusing on setting up the weapons system almost cost me a lot more. As I looked back outside, something was amiss. I was looking up at a lot of sagebrush. It didn't take long to realize that this wasn't good. A max performance roll, which in the A-4 doesn't take long, followed by a 6 G pull, and I was headed back up for the roll-in. At about that time, the lead IP called "off safe, off target rendezvous due to visibility." Good idea, I thought, followed by, "I hope the IP in No. 4 didn't see me." 

I now know that I had just experienced a classic somatogravic illusion. Normally in a day, visual bombing pattern, seeing the horizon in the peripheral vision was all it took to remain oriented while focusing on setting up the switches. However, with no horizon, no peripheral cues, and no scan of the ADI, orientation was left up to the vestibular system, which, safe to say, isn't adapted for the task. 

The debrief was fairly uneventful and seemed to gloss over the poor decision making until the lead said, "That's about it; any questions?" As a student worried about busting the flight, I wasn't about to say anything, although clearly there were some learning points that hadn't been brought out. However, the IP from the back seat of No. 4 was well aware that all had not gone well. He looked at me with large eyes and said, "How low did you go?" I hadn't bothered to look at the radar altimeter, as my clear view of the sage brush said that I was far too low and my visual scan was fixated on terrain avoidance. I waited for my "down," but little more was said. The debrief ended shortly thereafter, and we wandered off in search of food. It wasn't until later that I realized the lead IP was every bit as worried as I was about getting in trouble for his actions. 

At the time, I was content not to have busted the flight, but we really should have brought out more learning points. Why didn't we brief to overfly the target at pattern altitude to check the ceiling and visibility? It would have been obvious before we got that high that the pattern was unworkable. When did No. 4 realize my problem, and why didn't he say anything? When things are different from normal, keep your priorities straight. Bombs on target first pass don't count if the bombs are still connected to your airplane. 

Fast-forward 20 years and think about how the debrief would have gone in your squadron today. Is the command climate such that junior personnel feel free to speak up? Would the senior members of the flight bring out their mistakes? Would everybody have realized that since they had narrowly avoided crashing a jet and killing a pilot, they really should talk to Safety and release a high accident-potential message, so that the rest of the squadron and the Air Force could learn from their mistakes and not repeat them? Would the DO and CC have appreciated the flight's candor, or would they have hammered everybody? Since the CC and DO are probably too busy attending meetings to regularly read FSM, hand them a copy of this article and ask them at the next Commander's Call. According to mishap boards, human factors are causal in 63 percent of mishaps. Does everybody in the squadron read all applicable HAPs, HATRs, and mishap messages to learn from others?  If we want to kill fewer people and meet the SecDef's goal of a 75 percent reduction in mishaps, every squadron's safety culture needs to support sharing your mistakes and learning from others. Does yours?