Sunday, November 14, 2010

Another True Flying Story

The young lieutenant, clad in his flight and G suits, walked briskly out to the flight line where the sleek Grumman Banshee crouched, waiting. The pilot walked around the aircraft, checklist in hand, inspecting to make sure that the jet fighter was flight-ready. When the pilot finished the preflight inspection, the chief petty officer who was responsible for the maintenance on the aircraft, handed his clipboard to the pilot, who signed off for the fighter, signifying he was satisfied with its airworthiness.

The pilot climbed up onto the wing and used the footholds in the fuselage to climb into the cockpit. He strapped in, connected his oxygen mask and radio cable, ran the preflight check-list, and closed the canopy. He started the engine, then did a quick radio check to confirm he had good communications, and taxied to the runway for takeoff.

The flight was to be a night cross-country navigation training flight. Such flights were rarely flown solo, but the intended wingman's aircraft was a no-go because of mechanical problems. The flight was to begin in El Paso, Texas and end at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, a. distance of about 700 miles. The course of 320 degrees would take the flight almost continuously over desert and mountain ranges, before a let down to Miramar, which was on the ocean. The flight would take about 2 hours. The fuel would be just enough to get there with about 20 minutes worth to spare. If all went well.

The weather-guessers predicted a moonless night with a westerly wind at 30,000 feet, the cruising altitude for the Banshee. There was a string of thunderstorms well to the north of the flight path, but were expected to stay put. Cloud tops on the thunderheads were higher than 40,000 feet, beyond the climbing ability of the Banshee. Moderate to severe turbulence was predicted near the storms.

The pilot informed the tower that he was ready to launch. He immediately received a clearance to takeoff and was advised that his instrument flight plan had been approved. This meant that air traffic controllers along the way knew his path, knew he was coming, and knew about when to expect him. The flight would be handed off from controller to controller as he flew toward his destination, until the last controller would handle the final approach to landing at Miramar.

The pilot lined up on the center line, locked the brakes, and advanced the throttle to full military power. The jet engine howled and the aircraft strained against the brakes. A quick check of the engine instruments, a last control surface check, and the brakes were released. The Banshee rocketed down the runway and leaped into the night sky, trailing flame from its exhaust. At 170 knots, the pilot snapped up the gear, retracted the flaps, and set the nose trim for a steady cruise climb of 250 knots. Almost immediately, the Banshee was swallowed up in the black clouds and all reference to the ground below vanished.

The climb was timed for 11 minutes. The pilot concentrated on the softly lit instruments, confirming that he was climbing to intercept the planned course and altitude. He leveled off at 30,000 feet and set the throttle for 350 knots and adjusted the trim settings for cruise.
The pilot settled into the ejection seat and began his crucial, life-preserving instrument scan, his eyes darting rapidly to each instrument and gauge, every 15 or 20 seconds, looking for any little flicker or flutter in the needles that might be an advance warning of trouble. The pilot synched the directional gyro with the compass every few minutes and checked the radio navigation equipment, while charting his progress on the navigation chart/ flight plan strapped to the kneeboard on his right knee.
The pilot busied himself with his workload, checking in with the controllers, one by one, noting the passing of navigation waypoints, calculating ground speed and the all-important fuel burn.
There was not much airspace activity at midnight. Just the occasional pilot on a long cross country checking in with a controller. While the jet fighter's canopy was clear, providing visibility for 360 degrees, there was nothing to see, but the blinking red, green and white strobe lights. The towns, cities, mountains or desert below were under the cloud layer below the speeding jet and were invisible to the pilot. No stars, no moon, no horizon. No up or down. No left or right. Just all-encompassing, endless, three dimensional blackness.
The Banshee's engine roared behind the pilot, who was comfortable with the noise it produced and the mild vibration through the airframe, as happens to all aviators. He sat alone in the cockpit, concentrating on the instruments, chewing Juicy-Fruit gum and humming to himself.

Maybe the officer's club would still be open for a hamburger and a Coke? A clean bed in the officer's quarters and a good night's sleep before the return flight the next day.

Occasionally, an unseen gust of wind bounced the Banshee around. It was just light chop. Nothing to worry about. He tightened his safety harness, but did not look outside the canopy. He maintained his scan of the flight instruments, as he had been trained to do. Nothing out there to see, anyway. Just cruising along. And then it happened.
The aircraft took a solid shot from above that sent it into a screaming dive. Before he could react, an equally vicious shot came from below that bottomed out the dive and slammed the jet nose-up in a climb. The pilot, realizing that he had entered severe turbulence, tried to even out the controls to maintain level flight. He reduced the throttle to slow the aircraft. It was taking both hands and feet to keep control of the jet. It got hit again and again by the turbulence. The aircraft rolled violently over on its port side, only to be flung to the starboard side. It was still getting hammered by the up and down drafts. The compass was unreadable, swinging 90 degrees. The directional gyro was constantly moving, making it impossible to maintain a constant heading.
Lighting and the torrential rain started a few seconds later. The lighting lit up the whole sky around the jet, with flashes arcing from cloud to cloud, which was now visible for split seconds in the flashes surrounding the jet. The pilot tried not to look outside for fear of losing his night vision. Maintain the scan! Ride it out!
And then all of the instruments went black! Electrical failure! The pilot remembered that he had had to sit in the cockpit and identify all the switches, fuses, and controls by feel while blindfolded before being qualifying to fly the Banshee. Where were the fuse breakers for the instrument panel lighting? He began to check the breakers with his fingertips, feeling for a popped breaker. Was he right side up? He felt like he was turning! Was he climbing? Descending? Without his instruments, he could not tell. No breakers had popped. He tapped the small instrument spotlight which lit up the instruments. Nothing! The turbulence was getting worse. Keeping the aircraft under control, if it was even under control, was almost impossible. If he did not regain the instruments, he was dead! He would lose control, the aircraft would inevitably spin in, and he would be a smoking hole in the desert or on the side of a mountain somewhere below.
Desperately, he unsnapped the flap on a pocket on his life vest. A small flashlight was there. He turned it on and scanned the instrument panel. The instruments were going wild with the turbulence. He needed both hands and feet to keep control of the plane, so he put the flashlight in his mouth and pointed it at the instrument panel, trying to regain his scan, jerking the light from gauge to gauge.
He keyed the transmit button on the stick to call the controller. No response. He tried again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. The communication radio was gone! At least he could not transmit.
Where was he? Off course, no doubt. The navigation radio was gone, too. So there he was, in the middle of a thunderstorm, lost, with no navigation or communication radios, and no instrument lights, at night, over mountains, in instrument conditions.
The pilot wryly thought to himself, "Well, Bolinger, you say you are pretty hot, let's see you get out of this one!" He throttled back to minimize fuel consumption and began to fly rough triangles in the sky, trying to maintain a constant altitude. This was standard procedure for lost navigation equipment and communications on an instrument flight. The theory was that a controller would note the aircraft flying triangles and try to establish communication with the pilot. The problem was that the pilot could only hope he would be noticed. It was not guaranteed. And then there was the fuel problem. How much was left? Could he get down? Was he going to have to eject?
A calm voice came through his headset. "Navy flight 634, if you copy this, turn to a heading of 060". There might be some hope! He turned to the heading ordered. And waited. "Navy flight 634, if you copy this, turn left to 270". He turned. "Navy flight 634, we have you 125 miles north east of Miramar. If you have enough fuel for the approach, turn to 300". He scanned the fuel gauges with the flashlight. It was going to be close. Real close. He turned to 300.
"Navy flight 634, turn left heading 220." The pilot turned, all the while swiveling his head, pointing the flashlight at each of the instruments. He glanced at the compass which was showing a left turn as expected. A cross check of the directional gyro, which was designed to show which direction the aircraft was flying, showed a slow turn to the right. A quick check of the turn and back indicator showed a turn to the left. Unbelievably, the directional gyro had failed! He could no longer rely on the directional gyro to help with turning the aircraft to a desired heading. He would have to rely on the compass alone and the turn and bank indicator, while forcing himself to ignore the directional gyro.
"Navy flight 634, you are right of course. Turn left 200." The pilot banked to the left, lining up the wingtip depicted in the turn and bank indicator with the small block that would give a three degree per second turn, a standard rate turn. Just take the number of degrees you need to turn and divide by three. Hold the turn for that many seconds and then roll out. Simple, but not when you are being hammered by turbulence. The compass was swinging wildly, the directional gyro was history and the second hand on the clock was hard to see with the flashlight in his teeth.
"Navy flight 634, you are not correcting. I am going to assume you have no directional gyro. On my signal start a standard rate left turn…now". The pilot banked to the left, trying desperately to focus on the turn and bank indicator. Hold it, hold it!
"Navy flight 634, roll out…now". The pilot rolled the wings level.
"Navy flight 634, correcting to right…start right turn…now. The pilot did. All the while frantically trying to maintain the scan on the instruments and keep the jet right side up. The turbulence was throwing the jet fighter all over the sky. For the next 20 minutes, the controller guided the jet by calling out the turns in a desperate attempt to line up the jet for the approach to Miramar.
"Navy flight 634, you are 20 miles from touchdown. Descend and maintain 2500 feet for the approach. Landing checklist should be complete. Confirm gear is down. Crash trucks will be standing by". On the pilot flew, frantically scanning the panel. The fuel warning light popped on. Low fuel! Scan!
"Navy flight 634, you are 5 miles from touchdown. Descend and maintain 1000 feet. Correcting left…3 degrees. On course, on center line. Correcting right 5 degrees. On course. Correcting left 2 degrees. On course…drifting right of center. Left 3 degrees. The pilot struggled to keep up with the minute corrections called by the controller, knowing that his very life depended on his ability to concentrate and flawlessly fly the plane. There would be no second chances this night. There was no fuel for a missed approach. He had to be right on, the first time.
"Navy flight 634, you are one mile from touchdown. Drifting right of course…turn left 3 degrees". The pilot maintained his scan, but began to take quick looks out the canopy over the nose, straining to see any sign of a runway. And then out of the torrential black rain and furiously blowing wind, the runway lights appeared! The pilot chopped the throttle, pointed the nose down, and slammed onto the wet runway. He was down safely! He braked to a stop and turned the jet around to taxi to the ramp. The rain was so heavy, he could not see which way to taxi. A lineman in a jeep with a flashing light appeared to guide the jet to the tie down area. One hundred feet short of the tie down area, the jet flamed out. It was out of fuel. He had made it by less than 3 minutes!
The pilot climbed out of the jet fighter and walked into the operations office, manned by the duty officer. The pilot stated, "I need a Jeep to get to the Officer's Quarters".
"No problem, lieutenant, one will be right here shortly. Cup of coffee? The pilot declined the offer, because he did not think he could hold the cup steady enough to drink with his shaking hands.
After patiently waiting about 5 minutes, the pilot said to the duty officer, "Where's my Jeep?"
"I haven't called for it, yet, because I was waiting on your crew to come in".
The pilot, now frustrated, said, "There is no crew. I am the crew. There is just me! I am all there is".
The astonished duty officer looked at the pilot and said, "You were up there…in that…alone?"

And that, as my Dad said to me, is the difference between the fighter boys and the bomber boys.


  1. Edge of my seat during the entire flight. Loved the photo of the bank indicator, too. And you wanna know what's ironic? Moments before taking a break from some nasty litigation, someone walked into my office and was commenting on the set of instrument panel coasters I keep on my desk. I explained what each one represented and I positioned them the way the are on the Mooney. When my visitor left, I was daydreaming about flying and decided to check your blog for any tidbits. Imagine my utter delight to find your excellent post. I felt you'd rewarded me for an arduous morning or work. Thank you - Thank you very much. Your missive was the perfect respite I needed.

  2. That was an amazing story, you, Mike are the best story teller I know! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Another terrific story. Your dad was certainly a skilled and courageous pilot. He has left you a priceless treasury of stories and you are doing a tremendous job of sharing the wealth.