How logging 12 minutes of flight time can take years off of your life.
By: T.R. Matson
The day in October started like any other. I drove my truck from my house in Meridian, Mississippi down the two-lane highway to my office at NAS Meridian, home of TRAWING 1 where I was the Wing Landing Signals Officer (LSO). An afternoon of meetings and paperwork lay waiting for me as I was preparing to take 20 new students on their first Carrier Qualification Detachment in their initial qualification in the T-45C aircraft. For most it would be the culmination of their flight school career and the last step needed in their journey to earn their navy wings of gold.
If there was any reprieve from the afternoon of meetings, planning and paperwork it was my scheduled flight that night. A two-plane night formation lead event. I would be flying solo in the T-45C while another instructor would be in the other aircraft teaching a student the basics of night formation flying. The weather was scheduled to be perfect; the other instructor was seasoned in both night formation and teaching in the T-45C and his student was a “solid stick” and doing well through the program. I couldn’t help but think that it was going to be a good night when I eased my truck into the parking spot on base and grabbed my helmet bag.
The day of meetings went by quickly enough and before I knew it, I was sitting down to brief the flight on our mission for the night. After covering the administrative portions of the flight and going over the weather and NOTAMS we went over the departure, join up, maneuvers and recovery to base. The student was extremely sharp and well ahead of the curve when it came to the T-45C training syllabus and as I finished up the brief and walked down to get my flight gear I couldn’t help but think, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Now if you know me or have read my stories before, you know that it was during this time, somewhere between signing for the jet and putting on my G-suit and harness that I got a visitor. Mr. Murphy had tagged along in my helmet bag and unfortunately for me, I had no idea.
The maintenance professionals at NAS Meridian made the aircraft man-up flawless and within minutes I was taxing my jet out to the marshall area. As I sat there waiting for my wingman to show up, I took a moment to take stock in my current situation. I was sitting alone in a $10 million aircraft on a beautiful clear night in October and within minutes I would be rocketing off to begin an hour and a half flight that would be a pure joy. At the time I had thousands of hours of experience in multiple navy aircraft and 4 combat deployments under my belt. Of course, none of that really mattered that night because I was right where I wanted to be, under the cool night sky sitting alone in a jet waiting for takeoff.
I was brought back to reality when I saw the taxi light of my wingman approaching. After a quick flight check in on our tactical frequency, we made our way to the runway. All checklists complete, I called for takeoff and was immediately given a takeoff clearance on runway 19R. Following the brief my student wingman called for takeoff with minimum separation and was granted. He would essentially take the runway right after I started my takeoff roll and would depart right after me and rendezvous airborne. Passing the hold short I finished up my final checks and after lining up on centerline, checking my engines and flight controls I released my brakes and began accelerating for takeoff. With a rotation speed of approximately 120 KIAS I was almost to rotation when I noticed a small vibration from the aircraft. I noted it and figured it was the tire pressure of the nose wheel tires. I had this problem before and knew that if the tires didn’t have the same pressure it was possible to feel a vibration at high ground speeds. I made a mental note to write it up after the flight as I pulled back on the stick and got airborne. Shortly after, I retracted the landing gear and flaps and waited for the vibration to stop.
At this exact moment if I had looked in my mirror I would have noticed that the rear cockpit seat (which should have been empty) was now occupied by none other than the famous Mr. Murphy (Of Murphy’s law) and he was just smiling at me waiting to see how I would deal with what he was going to throw my way. As the landing gear retracted and I waited for the minor vibration to stop, I switched over to departure frequency and was about to check in. That’s when my night took a turn for worse. The minor vibration immediately and abruptly turned itself into a full-blown aircraft vibration so violent that not only was the whole airframe shaking but it was impossible to read any of my gauges, displays or HUD. It was at this moment that I realized I had to make a decision and I had to make it right now. Whether I made the correct decision or not would make the difference between me driving my truck home that night or hanging in a parachute in the trees somewhere in Mississippi, or worse.
Within an instant I felt that I had excess airspeed so I traded that airspeed for altitude and pulled up into a right-hand pattern, at the same time reducing the power to below 85% RPM on the engine to see if I could reduce the vibrations. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I did know for sure that it was not a minor difference in tire pressure causing this. Additionally, I switched back to tower on my main radio but before I called them, I needed to make a call to my wingman. A plan was formulating in my head, but I would need everything to work out perfectly for it to be successful.
“Raider 12 state your position.” I radioed on our tactical frequency.
After a long pause, “Raider 12 is in position for takeoff sir.” My student wingman said sharply.
“Raider 12 get off the runway now!” I replied
“Sir, say again?” the student replied followed very quickly by the instructor,
“Bro I’ve got you in sight, we are pulling off the runway right now….The runway will be clear in 10 seconds!” he informed me.
In my mind I was satisfied with a clear runway but still had not informed the tower of my problem. One of the benefits of flying a single engine aircraft is we practice flying PA’s (precautionary approaches) all of the time. They are designed to keep you in the ejection seat envelope for as long as possible if you have an engine issue. The only problem is we practice them during the day. In fact, while I had done them countless times during the day, I had never done one at night and wasn’t really sure how it was going to work.
“Tower, CARP 124, emergency aircraft setting up for low key runway 19R.” I radioed as I set myself up at 3000 feet above the airport.
After a long pause, “CARP 124, Tower, understand emergency aircraft and requesting vectors for a low oil GCA approach?”
A low oil GCA approach was what we would do if we had an engine problem in bad weather or apparently at night, but I didn’t have time to think about that. My engine was severely hurt, and I didn’t have time to get vectored out for a long straight in when the runway was just below and to my right. Of course, being the professional Naval Aviator that I was (insert sarcasm) I was going to ask again nicely.
“Tower, CARP 124, negative I have an engine that’s about to quit and I need to land NOW! Setting up for a PA to runway 19R.” I replied as calmly as I could as I tried to fly the plane and also set myself up for an ejection if it came to that. Now time slows down in a situation like this and I found my hands constantly working the stick and switches around the cockpit but at the same time I was removing and stowing my kneeboard and tightening my harness because if the engine quit I knew I couldn’t delay the decision to get out. That’s the funny thing about ejections, I always thought that if I had to pull the handle I would be able to without hesitation but now as I sat in a sick jet above the Mississippi trees the thoughts of actually having to do it made me very uneasy.
“CARP 124, Tower, night PA’s are NOT authorized, fly heading 010 and maintain 2000 feet, this will be vectors for a low oil GCA runway 19R.” Tower chimed in.
“Tower CARP 124 unable standby.” I replied as I had no intention of talking to them anymore. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate…. It was drilled into us from day one of flight school and was never more important than right now. I felt that I would have one shot at this and if I screwed it up, I would be ejecting somewhere over NAS Meridian with no control of where the jet would crash. As I began my decent around the pattern it was important to keep the right amount of airspeed and energy on the aircraft all while being able to slow down enough to configure for landing. It was a dance that had to be performed correctly if I wanted to be able to keep the throttle from moving. I was concerned that if I had to add power at any point in the approach my engine would seize, and I would be having to eject.
Approaching the 90-degree pattern position I had the gear and flaps in position for landing, yet I still struggled to see my airspeed to ensure that I flew about 175 KIAS. It was at this moment that I realized why we didn’t practice these at night. All of the usual visual cues that I would have during the day were now gone and I was relying on my instruments to land. Unfortunately, due to the high vibrations I could barely read them. I was essentially “winging” it at this point and hoping for the best. With my landing checks complete I scanned out in front of the aircraft to what appeared to be a clear runway ahead of me. As time slowed even more, I could see my wingman sitting on the taxiway next to the runway watching my approach. Seeing him there made me feel confident that the runway was still clear since he hadn’t called me on the tactical radio to tell me otherwise. He knew I had my hands full.
As the radio altimeter went off telling me I was approaching the ground I brought the throttle to idle power and began to flare my landing. The key here was to not slam into the ground but also not float it too much that you didn’t have enough runway to stop. Well, maybe tonight was my night after-all because as the main gear touched down exactly where I hoped they would, I quickly got on the brakes in order to stop the aircraft.
“CARP 124 cleared to land runway 19R.” tower radioed.
Now I like to believe I have a pretty good sense of humor and even in my current situation I found it funny to get landing clearance AFTER I had already touched down on the runway. After coming to a stop on the runway and informing tower that I would be shutting down the aircraft in place, I called the squadron maintenance and was informed that a tug was already on the way to tow the aircraft back. Then I switched over to the squadron operations radio to inform them of what had happened and the student on duty replied, “Copy all CARP 124, would you like me to coordinate with maintenance to get you another jet to complete your mission?”
A smile came across my face, my hands still trembling from adrenaline or fear or both I replied, “No thanks bro I am going to call it a night if that’s ok with everyone?”
So, what’s the moral of the story? Well, I remember way back to my very first flights in training where the instructors would beat into our brains the idea of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate and would harp on us if we got those out of order. Always fly the aircraft first, because if you don’t do that you won’t have time to do the other two. All too often in aircraft mishaps this first critical step is missed. Pilots feel like they have to immediately tell ATC what is wrong or figure out where they should go. I am here to tell you to fly the plane first and take care of the rest later. Your life and the life of your passengers may depend on it, even if your only passenger is Mr. Murphy in a two-seat jet at night over the woods of Mississippi.