One Dark and Moonless Night

  • Published
  • By Capt Laura Nealon
  • 4 FS/SE
Like most pilots, I never really gave much thought to how I would react to an in-flight emergency (IFE) outside of the monthly emergency procedure simulations.  That all changed one night when I suddenly found myself facing a serious engine problem, which is really serious when you only have one engine to begin with. Add to that the complications associated with a low illumination night, a strange field, and new checklist procedures, and I was in for a lesson in what kind of preparation and forethought I should have been giving to potential emergencies. 

When it was initially conceived, the sortie was simple enough: fly as red number two for an opposed surface attack upgrade ride. The mission was a night vision goggle (NVG) upgrade for the blue flight lead, a rather demanding sortie for him; but for my flight lead and I, it was to be a short, easy flight to reset our night currency. In the end, the sortie was quite short, but became anything but easy, when I found myself alone and unafraid. 

The first big change that occurred prior to the sortie in question was when I arrived in the squadron to find a major checklist change. This particular change involved a complete change to the handling of several engine emergencies. The checklist changes were so significant that the alterations required more than a half hour of cut-and-paste changes prior to flying.  Because of all the additional duties required of me that day, I hurried through the update with only a quick scan of the new procedures. 

Change two for the sortie came just prior to the brief when the two-ship split into separate singletons to support another upgrade sortie in separate airspace.   As a fully qualified NVG wingman, this was completely legal for me to fly single-ship red air. This change did drive up the ORM rating for the sortie quite a bit, but was approved through the appropriate squadron leadership. 

Takeoff and departure to the area occurred during civil twilight, so cockpit illumination was not much of a concern, until we were in the midst of "the war." By the time I was setting up the egress presentation, the sky glow had faded and the moon was not to rise for another 3-4 hours. The extremely dark night would have made formation flying difficult, but was not much of a concern for me as I was on my own. 

This particular presentation involved a preplanned turn and descent from one red air altitude block to the next lower block. Little did I know that this tactic was going to alter the rest of the sortie to my great benefit. Thirty seconds after executing this maneuver, I was called dead and began flowing back toward home. I was sure that the excitement was over for the night ... until the master caution lit up. This alone isn't enough to get much of a reaction from Viper pilots, as the jet has many nuisance warnings that are experienced on many sorties. Imagine my surprise when I glanced at the pilot fault list display and saw the dreaded "ENGINE LUBE LOW" fault.  

I was even more surprised to see that the fault disappeared after clearing the master caution. A quick look at my oil pressure, and I was feeling better as pressure was well within normal limits.  Since things didn't appear to be going south too fast, I took a deep breath, wound the clock, and started working through the checklist. As I started flipping through the checklist at night with nothing but a dim finger light to illuminate the pages, I discovered that the checklist didn't match what I had remembered. Apparently the latest changes affected just the procedure that I needed and I hadn't taken the time to become familiar before flight. 

Now for a little background information on the F-16 oil system. There are two basic malfunctions: a loss of oil quantity indicated by an ENGINE LUBE LOW fault, and a loss of oil pressure as indicated by the pressure gauge and a low pressure light. There is a slight chance that a faulty quantity indication can be caused by maneuvering and sloshing of oil. These false indications are relatively rare because of a 30-second delay built into the fault reporting system. To rule out a false warning, the checklist originally called for the pilot to maintain straight, level, unaccelerated flight for approximately 45 seconds, clear the fault, and see if it reoccurred. If the fault didn't reoccur, this was cause for a precautionary landing, but was not a land-as-soon-as-possible condition. An oil pressure malfunction was considered an absolute indication of a problem, and required jettisoning stores and landing as soon as possible. 

To complicate matters, the wing had recently experienced several oil pressure gauge problems where pressure was indicating low or zero, without any associated low pressure or low quantity lights, when there was no problem with the system.   Guidance at the time was that any low pressure indication unaccompanied by warning lights was still to be treated as a critical fault, while the low quantity indications were to be treated differently. On the morning of my IFE, the checklist changes altered these procedures. 

That night, I struggled to reconcile what I knew about the systems and the checklist with what I was reading. My first thought was that I was misreading the checklist or was possibly on the wrong page. After all, I couldn't find any mention of the possible false indication caused by maneuvers. Having just completed a 360-degree spin while descending 10,000 feet, I was sure that my problem was just oil moving around in the tank. There was no way that I had a serious emergency, at night, by myself, far from the home field. 

Hesitant to do anything drastic like jettison my tanks without another pilot to back me up, I contacted my original flight lead on the radio and discussed the problem with him. We both felt that this was most likely a faulty indication that would allow me to fly back to home base. Just to be sure though, we contacted the supervisor of flying who was able to review the technical orders and recommend an immediate landing at a nearby divert field from a simulated flameout (SFO) approach. 

About this time, my blood pressure begins to rise. We practice SFOs all of the time, but never at night and always with the reassurance that there is a "go around" option. Now I was being asked to fly a very steep approach into a divert field, without the normal daytime visual references.  This particular field has a much shorter runway than the home field, as well as fewer approach and runway lights. 

Luckily, the approach went well. I was able to fall back on the excellent simulator training that I had received, and judged my round out and flare based on a few visual cues and the use of the radar altimeter. After getting the jet stopped and verifying with the fire department that I didn't have hot brakes, I began to relax. Up until that point, I was afraid of messing up the approach and highlighting what I thought was a false indication. 

All my concerns were to disappear and my gratitude for the supervisor of flying assistance greatly increased when I saw the large amount of oil covering my centerline fuel tank and the trail of oil down the runway. As it turns out, the new checklist procedures were implemented for a good reason, and I was just minutes away from becoming a "glider pilot."