A new series, for Sunday evenings. “Times I Almost Died.”
There are no lessons here. No larger truths. This will not change your world view.
But I have a rather large store of aviation tales, stories wherein things could have gone very wrong, that will take the pressure off Sunday evenings for a while. A month of Sundays, at least.
Date: April, 1987
Place: Fallon, Nevada – B-17 range complex
Environment: Close Air Support (CAS) training missionClose air support is a “high risk” mission. It’s typically flown at low altitude, where no self-respecting strike fighter pilot would choose to find himself, if he could at all avoid it. Down low, any gomer lying on his back with an AK-47 could put a 7.62 round somewhere important, just by sheer, dumb luck. And you’d never see it coming.
But when the folks on the ground call for CAS, it’s because they need it. Their own artillery isn’t answering the ordered bell. People are dying.
So they call fixed-wing CAS in, because a strike fighter or two with four 2000 pound bombs can make quite an impression on the enemy, if mortars, howitzers and 105′s aren’t doing the job. To put things in perspective, you, gentle reader, could pick up a 105 round, although you’d probably struggle a bit.
You couldn’t part the hair on a 2000 pounder.
And the bigger bombs get (by mass) the greater the proportion of explosive power.
CAS is hard to get just right. By definition you’re in close proximity to friendlies when you release. Getting it wrong could make things much worse, rather than better. You have to be absolutely certain. In Vietnam, over half of all CAS missions went through the target “dry” on their first look. The guys couldn’t be sure. Which sucks for the guys on the ground, because the really, really need your help.
But dropping your ordnance on the wrong side of the line doesn’t help them at all.
Timing is critical too – can’t have arty in the same airspace as airplanes, so you have to de-conflict through precise timing. Thirty seconds too early, or too late, and you’re delivering your ordnance at the same time someone else is. Which simply won’t do, at all.
So I’m in training in the fleet replacement squadron, getting ready for my first squadron tour. I’m in the Fallon Range complex, average elevation 4000 above mean sea level (MSL). And I’m holding at 8000 feet MSL, working on my timing.
You get six minutes in training from the end of your forward air controller brief to bombs on target. In combat, they will often ask for a four-minute “hack.” Because in combat, they want it bad. They need it now. They could have used it yesterday. And what are you waiting for, anyway?
Well, you’re orienting yourself to the battlefield. You’re typing in coordinates, trying to make sure you get it just right. You’re aligning yourself to the initial point, where the final attack run will begin, at 200 feet and 480 knots, or better. In your mind’s eye, you’re seeing the target, and the target’s defenses. Because anything worth bombing is worth defending. And you’re working the timing problem, because given a choice, you’d a whole lot rather not catch a 105 round in your belly, while flat on your back at 3000 feet above the turf, trying to identify the target. And the clock is ticking, and odds are you’re three minutes or so away from the target, which means that it’s almost time to push.
If you push on time, life is great. If you booger it away, and don’t count the time it takes to turn 180 degrees at a standard rate (2 minutes), plus the length of your inbound leg (generally 30 seconds to a minute), then you might as well not have launched that day. It’s a math problem. And I’m convinced that flying airplanes is chiefly a math skill, because when I’m busy with a stick in one hand, and a throttle in the other, I can’t be relied upon to get two and two to reliably equal four. My math coprocessors are all maxed out.
Except that American soldiers are dying on the ground, because you can’t do math with a stick and throttle in your hand. Which won’t do, either.
But this is only a training flight, so I shouldn’t be concerned on my first attack to find that I was 180 degrees out from my attack heading at push time, right?
You have to be on time.
If I turned at a standard rate, I’d be two minutes late. Out of the question.
But a split “S,” where you roll the airplane inverted and pull the opposite direction, the back half of a loop, if you will, is much faster. Mother Earth’s gravity helps you for the first 90 degrees of turn. Five g’s becomes six. The rest you make up in airspeed on the attack. Speed is life, more is better.
Before you do a split “S” though, you’ve got to check altitude. Because the jet is nearly full of gas, and it’s carrying 8000 pounds of live ordnance. So it’s not going to fly like an ultralight.
The altimeter shows 8000 feet. It takes about 4000 feet to do a split “S” at that gross weight. So I’ve got 4000 feet to spare, and jump into the maneuver. Roll her upside down, and pull.
And at the moment when I’m pointing straight down, and I see the cacti growing in the windscreen, it occurs to me that the average elevation in the high desert of Nevada is 4000 feet.
Which meant that I had started the maneuver at the lowest possible altitude for success. If I executed the rest of the maneuver perfectly, I would survive. Which violates Lex’s rules of fighter aviation . This story in fact, gave birth to that first rule.
It also gave birth to rule number 18, if you clicked the link.
Did it work out? Yeah. Otherwise you, gentle reader, would be reading someone else’s entry.
Was it exciting? You bet. All the excitement I could ever want.
Did I learn about flying from that? Yum-huh.
Did I shack the target, on time, with fuzed bombs? Of course I did.
After all, it’s my story.