Birds...Not Good Playmates!

  • Published
  • By Capt Shawn McGoffin
  • 522 FS
How does every good story start? So there I was, number two in a two-ship Surface Attack Tactics (SAT) ride in the F-16CJ at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. My flight lead and I were supporting a Flight Lead Upgrade (FLUG) Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD) sortie. Also, what made this ride even more eventful, in my mind, was the fact we were both carrying a single GBU-12, 500 lb laser-guided bomb. This was a big deal for our squadron, because we don't get the opportunity to drop heavy weapons very often. 

The mission was briefed up without incident, because in fact, this same FLUG had briefed this very same ride on three deferent occasions. This wasn't because he didn't know his stuff. It was because each time the weather was bad, or he had some sort of aircraft fallout. 

So, the plan flowed out like this. My flight lead and I were going to take off first, flow into range, do our Laser Guided Bomb (LGB) attack, and drop our bomb, followed by some quick strafing runs. After, we would climb out and flow to our hold point for our DEAD mission. The FLUG four ship was going to take off 10 minutes after us and flow into the airspace while we were in the range. 

We all stepped on time and did our pre-flights and started. About the time I started and tuned my radios, the ops frequency was already in full force, calling out Red Balls and trying to get maintenance where they needed to go. Finally, we sorted out all our problems and started our taxi to the End Of Runway (EOR). We armed up uneventfully and proceeded to the runway for departure. 

At the departure end of Runway 31, we had to wait for some last minute airfield changes, but nothing out of the ordinary. The only thing that had changed since the brief was another FLUG sortie was going to take off before us. Also, the Supervisor Of Flight (SOF) had issued Bird Condition Moderate for the airfield.  

At the briefed time, the first four ship of Vipers took off and proceeded to the Military Operating Area (MOA) uneventfully. About 4 minutes later, my flight lead and I took to the runway for takeoff. 

I need to mention my Takeoff and Landing Data (TOLD) for this mission. My rotation speed was around 160kts, liftoff 175kts, and I had a refusal speed of about 174kts. Also, unknown to me at the time, was that there was a flock of small birds camped out just to the NW of the runway intersection. 

We received takeoff clearance and started our 15- second staggered After Brunner (AB) takeoff. Lead released brakes and rotated without incident, but as I released brakes and started accelerating down the runway, I was thinking about what I would do if something happened at rotation, before refusal speed, after refusal, before I climbed into the ejection envelope, and finally after I climbed into the ejection envelope. Something did in fact happen! 

As I passed the 6,000 ft remaining marker, the flock of birds flew right in front of the airplane. At this point, I was passing through 174kts, refusal speed. I paused for a split second and then rotated the airplane. In that spit second, I can remember passing through 184kts, as I pulled the aircraft off the ground with the smell of something strange in the cockpit (fried chicken). Also, there were no impact sounds.  

As I climbed away from the ground, I frantically scanned the engine instruments. To my amazement, nothing was wrong; all seemed right. So I thought for a second about what had happened, and decided to inform my flight lead that I hit some birds. This was a huge step for me, because of the fact that I didn't hear or feel anything with the airplane, and I had a bomb on the jet I really wanted to drop. 

Finally, I keyed the mike. "One, Two, I think I hit some birds on takeoff." At this point, things started to happen fast. We started a left-hand turn, directed the Simulated Flameout Approach (SFO) pattern at Cannon, and contacted the SOF to inform him of the situation, and what our immediate course of action was. My flight lead also looked me over and saw a blood mark on the right flap. At this point, I had no unusual engine indication, and the jet was flying well. So, I decided to burn down fuel and bring it in for a straight -in full stop. 

At this point, I started thinking about the things that could go wrong. What if my engine flames out or seizes, or if I have gear problems or structural damage to the airplane? Orbiting the field at about 14,500 ft looking at the two runways, I started thinking about a similar mishap that happened about 4 months prior to a good friend of mine. 

He was on departure from the same runway, when a hawk jumped out and hit his airplane. At first, he thought it was a compressor stall, but the fact that he saw something brown pass underneath his jet, reinforced the fact that he hit a bird, a big bird. He had usable thrust, so he began a climb to the SFO pattern above the airfield. Vibrations were felt, but at the time, he didn't deem it necessary to jettison his stores and didn't carry out a flame out approach to the field. His mishap ended uneventfully,
but the damage done to the aircraft was in excess of 1 million dollars, which according to the Air Force, is a Class A mishap. 

He briefed the squadron on his mishap, and what stood out to me, was what he would've done if his engine would've failed. He talked about extending his downwind SFO pattern, jettisoning his stores, and bringing the jet down for a landing. As I listened to him recall his mishap, I never thought that this same thing could happen to me. 

As I circled the field, I thought to myself, "What will I do if the motor quits?" Each time the question came up, I had the answer, because subconsciously I had thought about it 20-30 times before. All thanks to a squadron mate that had taken a hawk through the engine, and who had taken the time and the energy to brief the squadron on what had happened to him and what he had done.

After circling the airfield for about 45 minutes, I decided it was time to put this jet on the ground. At this time, I did some last minute engine checks, throttle full mil, full AB, idle, and lots of intermediate settings. To my satisfaction, I thought this jet was good to leave the safety of High Key and proceed to a 10-mile straight-in full stop. 

I started down out of 14,500 ft with apprehension, but I knew this jet needed to get on the ground. So I scanned my engine instruments vigilantly all the way through the approach. It so happened that when it means something, the best comes out of the performer, and this was my time to shine. My approach and landing were uneventful and likely one of my best. After all, everyone was watching.
At this point, the ride was over. I taxied to EOR where I shut down, and the fire crew looked me over to evaluate the extent of the damage. As far as I could tell, five or more birds hit the airplane. I had blood on the right flap, right Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) antenna, left external fuel tank, left Angle Of Attack (AOA) probe, and down the motor. My reward for bringing the jet safely home was a pat on the back and a free tow back to the chocks. But I would rather have that than a free parachute ride and a taxi to the hospital. 

What I learned from this incident will stay with me for as long as I fly. First, go-no go decisions. Rotating was the right decision at the time, but when I reviewed my tapes, I had doubts. Should I have taken the jet airborne or not? I can say with confidence that I made the right decision. But, if I had heard impact noises, I probably wouldn't have taken the jet airborne. So, seriously think over what you would do in a split second critical phase of flight situation. You can do these scenarios 500 times in the simulator, but the first time it really happens, you have to be ready for it. 

The second thing I learned from this whole ordeal is that the BASH program is alive and well at every base. Try and understand how it works and how it applies to your base. Also, keep in mind that this plan won't guarantee that you won't hit a bird during takeoff or landing. This plan is in place to only mitigate that risk. Cannon met or exceeded the requirements in reducing the impact of birds on flying operations. 

Finally, I learned to recall past mishaps and incorporate the lessons learned into my own habit patterns. This sounds trivial, but that's exactly what I was doing, circling the field that day. Take everything the safety officer briefs you and stick it into your clue bag. Because the time may come when you are out of ideas with a sick jet, and the light bulb over your skull turns on, due to the lessons learned from a past mishap. The next thing you know, you're the hero. Think about that the next tine you read a mishap report or you're sitting in a boring safety meeting. That stuff might be worth listening to.