Tue 23 Aug 2005
The XO called 304’s wingman on the aux freq and told him to escort the crippled jet back to the ship. After a few terse words of advice, “Throttle idle on the bad motor - if it keeps chugging, for God’s sake shut it down. If he can’t maintain altitude on the one motor, don’t let him forget to jettison his stores someplace safe. Join us if you can after getting him aboard the ship - we’re not waiting though.” Man, what a mess. “Hammer’s, switch Sabre on prime. Liberty, the Hammer package is going feet dry, minus two.”
In 304’s cockpit the temperature seems suddenly to have risen almost to a boiling point. The pilot squirms and shifts in his ejection seat as the text warning messages stack up on his left digital data indicator, accompanied by the warning tone sounding its “deedle-deedle” shrieks repeatedly in his headset with each new malfunction. His eyes scan the list in growing alarm as he struggles to maintain aircraft control - any one of these would be a serious problem, and now they are coming at him one after another in staccato succession: FLAPS SCHED, ENG R, FLT CONTR, ADC, STALL R.
The thought of how this came to pass, this dramatic chaos from perfect order just a few moments before, brings a screaming brown buzz of incipient panic in the back of the pilot’s head: “Can’t happen! Why! My fault! Idiot!” as well as half-formed curses which he struggles to stuff down into the box where useless things must go at times like these when you’re very, very busy. Later on perhaps there will be time for self-recrimination, but just now he can’t afford to be distracted by thoughts of his own mortality or the professional consequences. The voices recede into the background noise, but don’t quite disappear - they’re waiting for another chance to pull at him, tug at his arms, drag him down into the whirlpool of despair. Throwing her hat in the ring to add to the confusion, “Bitchin’ Betty,” the female voice warning system, speaks to the pilot in maddeningly repetitive and urgent tones to inform him of major malfunctions - she emphasizes in her eerie not-quite-mechanical voice that she thinks he really ought to pay attention to: “Flight controls! Flight controls!”and “Engine right! Engine right!” He hears the squadron XO’s guidance to his wingman on the aux frequency, but can’t process it over sounds of the warning system alerts and the continuous BANG! BANG! sounds coming from behind and below him as his right engine comes apart. This massive device, itself costing more money than he would make in a twenty-year career, is in the process of noisily devouring itself at 33,000 RPM, having first ingested an evidently indigestible high tensile steel angle of attack probe. That probe in turn ought to be supplying inputs to the air data computer and flight control computers from its position on the forward fuselage, and would be still, if only he had calmed down behind the tanker and gotten the job done. It’s all happening too fast and the voices sense their moment and start shrieking at him again about how screwed he is and how it’s all his fault and how do we get away from this? (Maybe we can hide - how can we hide?)
Stop it! You’re trained for this! Calm down! Go away!
Priorities: Maintain aircraft control. Analyze situation. Take corrective action.
Got it. Well, she’s still flying, but I’ve got to make the bleeding stop before that engine catches fire. “I’m shutting down the right motor,” he passes to his wingman. I hate this, he thinks.
“Roger, confirm right engine and you might want to get the wheels down while you’ve still got hydraulics,”replies his wingman.
“Good call, thanks,” he says, and checking in his heads-up display to verify that he is below gear speed, he reaches over by his left knee to lower the gear handle even as he pulls the right motor (double check right throttle - screwed if you shut the wrong motor off) to the fuel cut-off position. The right engine powers the landing gear hyd circuits, and although there are accumulators in case of emergency, the main system tends to be more reliable. He’s still on the memorized portion of the emergency procedure checklists, and presses the right fire light as well (double check right firelight) in order to cut off fuel flow upstream of the throttle’s fuel shut-off valve.
The wind stream noise rises significantly in the cockpit and he feels a sudden deceleration as the as the landing gear fall into the breeze. He breathes a sigh of relief as the gear indicator lights turn green, one by one: Nose. Left. Right. Good. “Deedle-deedle” shrieks the warning tone again, and “Engine right! Engine right!” Betty redundantly adds, as additional warnings add themselves to the stack on his left display: R AMAD, OIL PR R, R BOOST LO. Well, he thinks, gritting his teeth, those at least are all to be expected. That’s what you get for shutting down a motor in flight: The engine turns the accessory gearbox, which in turn provides oil and fuel boost pressure. This feels like the simulator training he’s received, and although it’s been a while since he’s been in the sim, he feels himself starting to gain control of the situation. Still flying, and nothing’s getting worse now. Got fuel for a while. Got time now to break out the checklists and work through this one thing at a time. He calls his wingman on the aux radio, “Two, call back to the ship and see what you can do about getting me a ready deck. Tell the squadron rep that I’m single engine with the right motor off but three green on landing gear. Tell him that I’ve got a bunch of flight control cautions but that the handling qualities are OK.”
He pulses the stick a little as if to confirm his last sentence: Hmm. A little squirrelly in pitch, and we’re starting to get a little slow - flaps half, maybe. Yeah, half flaps.
Again he reaches by his left knee and selects the flap handle to half - no more than half flaps in single engine flight, or he won’t have enough excess thrust to maintain altitude. The flaps indicator flickers amber for a moment, and the pilot is momentarily concerned that the switching valves which route left engine hyd fluid to right engine control surfaces are sticking - if the flaps don’t come down, there’s no way he’s landing back aboard ship. He feels the customary bobble as the flaps finally deploy into position, the green “Half” light comes on. Still getting slow. Maybe bring the left throttle up. More. More. Uh-oh: It’s on the firewall and I’m still decelerating. Little bit of afterburner - WHOA! He fights a sudden, uncommanded lift of the nose, like a boat rising to meet a wave, a nervous, drifting yaw to the right, the screaming “WHEEEEE” of the stall warning tone. He bunts the stick forward, hard - no gentle caress this, but a panic pulse, a video game move. In the sudden switch to almost 0 g, he floats in the seat straps while he reaches out with his left leg to stab with fear-augmented strength on the left rudder. She lifts again, hesitates, settles - the stall tone goes from a constant scream to abbreviated bursts. These slow, they stop. Almost lost her there, dummy! Got to be careful when you’re slow and single engine - asymmetric thrust in burner can put you out of limits. And you’re still high, so there’s less lift. Trade altitude for airspeed. Lower the nose; let’s pick up some knots.
“Two, be advised: I can’t maintain altitude. I’m going down.”