Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Night Flying, part one of several…

A day without sunshine is like, you know, night. (Steve Martin)

Steve Martin has it right. The night brings on a whole new set of rules that don’t apply in the daylight.

It all goes back to 1963 and the build-up of the notion that we could make a difference in South-East Asia and save the world from the Asian hoard. There had been some secret stuff going on down South, way South, of Itazuke. Not everyone was selected for this mission and those who came back from it were so tight-lipped that they didn’t even talk about it on Friday nights at the Club. Some of the information began to come out years later and that’s why I can write about it now (plus, it’s on Wikipedia). This is an introduction to what I’m really going to write about later. Back then, there were some folks who wanted Viet-Nam to be reunited as one nation. They busied themselves all night long, moving supplies and ammunition, weapons and people down from the North to aid and assist the guerrilla style conflict that was just getting started.

Along with the special forces advisors, enter the mighty TF-102 Delta Dagger, side-by-side, luxury seating and quick as “bob’s your uncle” over the tree tops in South Viet-Nam. It seemed to someone, way back East, that flying along the tree tops at rapid speeds, one guy looking for bad folks, conflict materiel and stuff, using the ground mapping radar, the other guy looking for tree tops and then calling in “Spooky”(aka “Puff, the Magic Dragon”) to fatally deal with said findings, (inhale) would be a good idea. Anyone see anything wrong with that premise? No, OK. Well that’s what they did for a while way back in the days of the Kennedy presidency when we were everyone’s friend and we were willing kill anyone who called us on it. Did I mention that this was at night? But I digress. So here are the fearless PACAF aviators whizzing along the jungle’s canopy-top hoping to get a return on something that looked suspicious. I suspect that the guys inwardly hoped the “Puff” wouldn’t be available so they could use the 24 2.75” FFARs in the fuselage bay doors. Oh, “Folding Fin Aerial Rocket”. What a night it could have been! If only to perch, arm, turn in and squeeze ‘em off! Here’s a picture of the widened front end/cockpit of the TF-102…

Now let’s fast forward to 1965 (can I say that?), and many of the same guys, in the same Squadron, (more or less, now a TFS, instead of an FIS), same wing 8TFW, nicer, newer airplane (factory fresh F-4Cs). We had recently flown our new Phantoms over the pond from George AFB to Thailand.

Someone out East thinks that this time the Asian hoard can REALLY be stopped at night. So here comes a frag saying kill that  bamboo bridge, again, the one in package five or somewhere up there, in the North. Only this time guys, do it at night so that the materiel will be tossed into the river by your bodacious bombing skills. We were just learning about daytime bombing at the time. We were just learning about the bridges that had five or more, underwater, approaches to one span. We were just learning about how the first two guys piss ‘em off and the last two better not use the same approach to the target. We had learned that jinking was good and flipping the switch to make the inertial nav point to Ubon was even better.

I have to admit though, the Squadron’s motto was “We get ours at night”, and it had been that since the Korean war.

Several O-4s and 5s got together and came up with a scenario for approaching the targets and illuminating them at night. It seemed like a reasonable way to do it, so they decided to try it. (ed. note, my memory has completely failed me on whether these sorties were in four ship or three, or two. Nevertheless, disregarding the facts, I will continue) 

The idea was to take-off, so far so good, with lead armed with a mixed load of flares and bombs. Number two would have the normal load of bombs for peace. We would hit the tanker, that’s another story, and then proceed to the target area. Some distance out, must have been fifty miles or so, number two would slip back into a trail position keeping the formation via radar (or, in the early days by looking at the AB igniters, but that’s another story as well). I don’t remember how far back we’d go (see above for excuse), but it must have been quite a way. So, lead finds the area of interest via the inertial nav (+ or - 50 feet!) let’s down to a briefed altitude in some G-d forsaken valley (watch out for the granite and karst) that has a stream running down the middle, over which has been built a wooden bridge which supports the nightly transportation of materiel and troops and stuff for the NVA operating down south. This was not as scary as it might seem to the uninitiated. Primarily because having flown for so long a time to get to the target area and since one had the cockpit lights all taped over with electrical tape, beacon and wing lights off for the last hundred miles, you could see by moonlight and even sometimes starlight on a good clear night. 

Over the North, in the dark of night, in a valley, looking for a wooden bridge - what could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On Single Engine Commercial Flying

 As I’ve belabored before, there is a certain amount of energy available in every flight condition. The idea is to learn how to manipulate this energy so you get what you want when and where you want it. All this to say that it works in Phantoms and it works in Boeing 737’s.

OK Lt Fuzz, the Phantom Phyler, the wife and baby boy are hungry, so you’re an airline pilot now. You’ve got nearly twice the weight (up to 115K pounds), not so much thrust to push that weight around with two of the PW JT8-Ds. You help to pilot the thing closest in this business to what you have been flying - the Boeing 737-200. They don’t shoot at you any more.

Let’s picture a take-off from good ole sea-level Los Angeles International. A warm summer day and the people want, no, they need to get to ‘Vegas. You pack them in - all hundred or so of them - three flight attendants (“stewardesses”, in those days) and even a TWA pilot in the cockpit, trying to get home on the jump seat. Maybe a 100K pounds or so. LAX says your cleared to go on Runway 25R, you run the throttles up, holding the brakes ‘til the engines are spooled up real good, then start the roll. What sometimes seems like a few minutes later, who ever isn’t flying calls out “eighty knots”. Well that’s good, time to let the rudder control the steering and keep on accelerating. Now there’s something called a “V-1” speed. It’s that speed at which an engine can fail and you can safely  continue with the take off and expect a controllable airplane. If there is an engine failure at any speed below V-1, you abort the take off and theoretically you stop before the end of the runway. Somebody figured this all out for various temperatures, pressure elevations and gross weights. He, by the way, has never been in an airplane and probably has a seat belt on his chair in a basement office somewhere.

On this previously pleasant day, at a speed just below “V-1”, about a hundred fifteen or so, the mighty Pratt and Whitney, twin spooled engine of the millennia, number two, on the right side, quit. Not to worry, we stopped without incident, and even taxied back to the gate area. Those were the days when you could taxi all the way back to the gate on one ground control, AND miracle of miracles (by today’s standards), the gate would still be open! We were still within limitations for brake use and heat build up so there wasn’t really anything wrong except it was better to use both engines all of the time, if available. The CSRs and Flight Attendants got the people off the plane. Some transferred to the next flight to Las Vegas (there was one about every thirty minutes at times), some left the airport, never to return, and others simply waited for us (probably sensing extraordinary expertise in the flight crew). The mechanics were soon swarming over the engine. Cowls were opened, wrenches grasped, discussions held, supervisors paced looking at their watches and management types administrated. The whole thing was over in a hour or less and the lead mechanic assured us that some gizmo had been found to be out of adjustment (probably a clerical error) and he personally had brought it back into tolerance. The engine was fixed and the airplane was cleared to go.

The people got back on, some new, some who had been with us on the first attempt, the jump seating TWA guy, the three ladies flying with us and the brave pilots. We had been topped off in fuel and there wasn’t any weather to consider - everything was a good as it gets. Cleared to go. Running down the runway in our newly certified-as-safe Boeing 737-200, eighty knots goes by and the engines are humming, V-1, rotate, V-2 (the target safe flying airspeed), and we’re airborne. One hundred and ten or so people on their way to newfound riches, home and one step closer to finishing another work day. At about fifty feet in the air the number two engine, still on the right side, quits.

This, as you’ll easily imagine, is more of a problem. Grossed out in weight, now under powered somewhat, we perform the procedures we’d been trained to do. The airplane performs well and the although I think it was straining, the one engine transport gains altitude and we turn north to a down wind at Los Angeles International. The tower yells over the radio, “Where do you guys think you’re going?” and I simply state we’re going to land. They say you can’t do that! I say watch me. Anyway, after some explanation (once safely on downwind with fifteen hundred feet of altitude), those good guys in the tower cleared out of our way all the big boys coming in from New York, Honolulu, Paris, ‘Vegas, of course, and all of the other places they came from, here to Los Angeles. Probably a thousand passengers got a ten-minute delay in their flights that day.

One hundred ten souls on our flight received a watershed moment - “Should I ever fly again?” The little Boeing that could, did. Throw a significant amount of left rudder trim. Use max power on the good engine. We flew downwind and made a reasonable base and final. We put her down on 24R, cleared the runway without incident and released the emergency crews. We actually taxied to the ramps again.

The mechanics were soon swarming over the engine. Cowls were opened, wrenches grasped, discussions held, supervisors paced,looking at the watches, shaking their heads this time and management types administrated. This time, a higher level of management was noticed and the mechanics seemed somehow more mature. The bottom line is, that there was small piece of plastic bag inside one of the pitot lines leading to the fuel control mechanism and at a certain speed or pressure differential, or something, it signaled that the engine had been turned off, and fuel was no longer required.Therefore, the fuel distribution to that engine ceased. Once the plastic bag part was found and removed I guess the engine worked fine. We got a new airplane.

The hundred or so folks on their way to ‘Vegas? Well we got them there three hours late. Some shaking their heads, others having fun relating the experience, still others never doubting their system for riches at “twenty-one”. They all deplaned in the desert city. Most thanked us, as is the polite thing to do, others just got off as if nothing had happened. The TWA guy? He was just thankful that he was a jump seater and not the pilot - paperwork, you know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The key to accurately expressing what goes on in a fighter squadron is to somehow figure out how there can be so much professionalism and so much trust amongst men with such varied backgrounds. The one thing that linked us all (and still does) is our love of flying and love of country. Jeanie and I went to a reunion of the 68th TFS, 8TFW and all of the guys who were there still speak of our Vietnam days as if they were only a few years back, not nearly five decades.

Discipline is the thing that makes it all work. There is a defined “peck-order” i.e. rank, that is not questioned without serious repercussions. You had better be right. Fighter pilots are trained from the beginning to realize that if something goes terribly wrong, it is on their shoulders, and theirs alone. Make it right, or perish. It sounds dramatic, I know, but it is a valid concept. There is no one to help you when you are flying and something doesn’t work correctly. So you need to know the aircraft and its systems inside and out because is the air, you are the maintenance man and crew chief combined. The systems need to be second nature as does the emergency check list. In the 60’s, the technologies involved in the F4 were pretty straight forward but not as sophisticated as modern jets, where one pretty much actuates the switch next to that feared red light when it comes on (at least in the newer Boeing products I flew). Today, many of the systems are highly automated. We had wonderful equipment, but there was still some skill involved in managing emergencies in the air. The 727, too. Thinking three-phase AC here.

A typical mission was based upon everyone’s standardization. That is to say, everyone pretty much understands and knows what’s going on and each pilot is capable of leading a multiple ship mission. This allows briefing to be somewhat standard, and as guys fly together over long periods of time through many sorties, the briefings get shorted and shorter, in fact we used to say, “everything is standard, start engines at 0845, any questions?” And that was it.

 I am speaking here of the routine flying, joining up, refueling, target acquisition and return to base. More so in my earlier years in the Deuce than in the Phantom because of the bad guys and the necessity of intel, weather and understanding the concept of sortie rate in Viet Nam flying. Requirements working with JASDF (JapanAir Self Defense Force) were sometimes different. They had a lot of older equipment which needed occasional external inspection, such as the "bubble check" (depicted above). In the picture, you can't see the GCI radar enclosure (the bubble) just to the left of the guys in the orange flight suits. And yes, the photo is photoshopped. I took out most of the scratches on the slide (!), but I didn't move, add or change the TF-102 overhead.
Of course there had to be individualized “mission briefings”. These consisted of weather in detail, target, and forecast recovery conditions were always covered. But the thing about combat (as opposed to flying for Delta Airlines) was that you were going to go anyway, regardless of the weather on either end or in the middle. I must admit though, if the takeoff weather was too bad, there would be a delay period or some effort would be made to suggest ways of getting out of there and getting joined up once you got on top. I can’t remember whether we took off in formation (two at a time) or not. I think that if we were loaded down with bombs for peace, we took off singly with about six second delay, not really sure of the time, joining up in a wide turn over the base, always heading north (oh, please make it a right turn). The reason for the single-ship take off is obvious. If one had to abort, and jettison the bombs and hardware, you didn’t want your wing man to have to transition to flying whilst maneuvering through ordinance, MERs, TERs, smoke and ground level flack all over the place. I didn’t see that much, but once an F105, fully loaded, had to abort and it was really messy.
If we were to go on an escort mission (Hi-Cap) where the ordinance was air-to-air only, no bombs and such, we took off in pairs with about ten second spacing between numbers one and two, and three and four. The weather wasn’t as much of a factor if you were slated for an escort mission. Numbers three and four could track you on the radar and join up on top. 

We were very used to flying in horrific weather in two ship formations. One of the fondest memories I have (well not fondest maybe, but really memorable) is landing on the wing of my leader in foggy conditions and being a little surprised when we touched down, not having seen anything but his aircraft for the past thirty minutes or so because of the night weather conditions. This experience also demonstrates the trust we had in each other’s ability to maneuver the aircraft in a standard, safe manner. Standardization, again, and trust, that’s it. There were no surprises when it came to the everyday operation of the aircraft. I think I’m rambling, excuse me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Back at the keyboard, I am…

Some have said that they missed my musings. Here's one I wrote as a part of my life story, "Black and White,and other ways to think that got me in and out of trouble". I can't remember now how accurate the numbers are. They are impressive though, so why not believe them?

 The Phantom is capable of going straight up, for some time. It’s not as powerful as some of the birds of this modern day, but to be able to fly in something that literally took your breath away the first time you ever flew it, was something. When I was an I.P. at George AFB, everything always started out  with that introductory ride when the new student was given the stick for the first time. Granted, he had been in the simulator for his mandatory four or five “transition rides” - general airplane stuff, instruments, emergencies, etc. He had some idea of the capabilities of the plane, but when you sit down in the actual, good smelling, slightly awkward fitting cockpit for the first time you are in awe. Of course the engines start without incident (they never do in the simulator!) and that gives you a feeling that there may be a future in this business.

A side note. After simulator training, with all of the emergencies and stuff being thrown at you constantly from beginning to end of the session, it seems almost surreal to sit in the real plane and just start the engines and taxi without something happening. You are so primed for emergency procedures that normal stuff seems like a piece of cake. Maybe that’s what they ‘re thinking about when they made the training syllabus!

 Anyway, the worse thing that can happen on one of these first rides is that you think you need more power than you do to taxi, and soon you’re going thirty miles an hour or something down the taxi way. While you’re taxiing, you kind of melt into the airplane and begin to use the bird for what you want. It can become (with time) an extension of your will and in the best of times, actual manipulation of the controls is never considered. (“Go with the force, Luke!”) Again, I digress.

SO you have this newbie (other names often used, but I've been told that families read this stuff) on his first ride and your ready for take off in this airplane that has more thrust than weight (think about it). So you run up the engines, get a final OK from the tower and slam the throttles up to one hundred percent (no worries about over temping with the new fuel control mechanism), release the brakes and as soon as you begin to roll, push past the slight detent on the throttle track and mash the levers home. Goodness, that’s a strange way of putting it, wouldn’t you say? Anyway, don’t hurt your knuckles on the firewall as you go into full burner. By the time you’ve even thought of this, you’re at eighty knots and trying to remember to let go on nose wheel steering. Pull the stick full aft and wait (not long) for the airplane to take off.  It seems like you are immediately airborne and accelerating at an unimaginable rate (remember, this is 1964). OK, next thing is to retract the gear before you go over the limit speed of something near two hundred and twenty or so and get the flaps up, if you’ve used them. The Phantom was able to make an immelmann turn (a one hundred eighty degree vertical maneuver) at takeoff in this clean configuration. This was something that seemed to please all enlisted personnel and officers, Captain and below, but really pissed off those who were Majors and above. Must have something to do with staff briefings, or something. Anyway, the reason I’m belaboring all of this is because the guy on his first ride is still back there, thinking about releasing the brakes.

On the mach two run demonstration we’d do, we just climbed the airplane out at full burner and go as high you’d like within the tactical area limitations, then at about forty thousand or so (as I recall), we’d be over Ft Irwin and head for Edwards Air Force Base, all the while in burner. You let the airplane descend ever so slightly and you’d be at mach 1.6 accelerating. At mach 1.8, things slowed down a bit in terms of acceleration, but then the variable air inlet ramp would start its programmed movement to adjust the intake air to the engines and boom, boom (literally) you’d be at mach two, plus. You could observe the shock wave moving back across the canopy and skin of the plane. When it got to the static port which controlled the intakes, they would begin to close, somehow decreasing drag and increasing thrust, I guess. There was little sensation of going so fast. You were high up and the ground didn’t whizz by nearly as fast as when you were at one hundred feet or so at a mere five hundred knots. The only thing that whizzed was the ground speed indicator - maybe sixteen hundred and the DME of the Edwards TACAN.

One of the goals of the hop was to demonstrate what’s know as “Q force” and its presence at high speeds. You wouldn’t want to be able to move control surfaces quickly or to  full deflection, you’d tear the airplane apart. There was a pitot based limiter that prevented ham fisted pilots from killing themselves at high speeds like this. The student was told to put the airplane in a sixty degree banked turn and pull as hard as he could. No one was strong enough to make a tight turn. It was a good demonstration, the turn radius at that speed was probably twenty miles or more. One time, a young stud of mine used only thirty degrees of bank in the turn and most of that energy was converted to altitude. This is not a good thing when you’re already at forty thousand or more, and you don’t have an astronaut’s suit on. You do learn though, that speed equals altitude and altitude equals speed. There is energy in every flight condition and the idea is to learn how to manipulate this energy so you get what you want when and where you want it. All this to say that it works in Phantoms and it works in Boeing 737’s.