Here’s a charmingly told story of a commercial airline pilot taking a turn or two in holding while hoping for the best at his filed destination. What it lacks in the kind of immediacy that goes with a 40-foot SAM zipping past your canopy like a bottle rocket or a hairy recovery behind the ship on a moonless night with the deck moving around it gives back with quiet professionalism and the implicit responsibility for hundreds of souls. Souls whose only conjunction is that their fate rests in the hands of two men whose names they were told on pushback from the gate. Men whose names they immediately forgot.
The rules and regulations intended to minimize the drama attendant to landing at a faraway place are legion. Routes and fuel requirements are planned down to a gnat’s eyelash and winds and weather are factored in as best they can be, but old King Chaos is a merry old soul, and he will have his play at the dice. To have an IFR license is to be offered multiple opportunities over the years to demonstrate both skill and judgment. Good judgment comes from experience of course, and experience – especially for single seat aviators – is often the bastard child of bad judgment.
One of the reasons that I never went the commercial route myself after retirement was that I was never an especial fan of just. Going somewhere. If there wasn’t a target to be bombed in the middle of the hop, or a brawl to be had with an adversary or four, or even the primal thrill of watching the landscape zoom by at 200 feet above the ground and 500 knots, well: Then it was just a cross-country. And if the risks of a cross-country flight aren’t particularly high, the rewards are vanishingly small – navigating to a distant field and landing the jet in one piece once there is considered such a core competency that failure to do so successfully is a professional death knell.
Long hours in the great high up, usually on the weekend after a work week. The sense of being pasted in the sky, sadly watching the numbers on the fuel display click down. Timing your decent to maximize available gas, one last check of the arrival weather, weighing the time/distance/weather at the alternate airport before committing to the approach for landing. Then do it again and again until eventually you’re right back where you started from, best case. Hope you enjoyed the weekend, see you at work tomorrow.
The cross-country pilot is required to preserve enough fuel to make an approach at his destination – so long as destination weather is within limits – and then perform a missed approach, full power climb out, and then cruise at best range for an approach to his alternate airfield. Plus 20 minutes of holding time, just in case. Depending on the weather at the intended destination, the Navy imposes additional weather constraints against the alternate airfield: If you’re filing into a destination that’s well and truly clobbered, your alternate must both be close enough to actually get to (with a reserve) and yet far enough away that it remains uninfluenced by the destination’s weather pattern. This can be harder than it sounds.
I flew a lot of cross-countries as a young man, gained a lot of experience – some of it the hard way. I learned that two things you never wanted to mess with were a little too much weather or a little not enough gas. I learned also that where the two intersect is where the jolly King Chaos keeps his court. After a while the novelty of carousing in a foreign ville wore as thin as the blankets in the BOQs we used to sleep at, and I settled into a routine of flying a cross-country only when I had to. In preference to riding in the tube of some wet-behind-the-ears reservist or bus driver, maybe.
As my time at the helm of the squadron I had the honor to command came to a close, I determined to take one last cross-country from NAS Lemoore, California, to NAS Key West, Florida, the home of some of my best flying memories as well as one particularly awful one. Five junior officers elected to accompany me on what was to be a long weekend: Flew there Thursday in three legs, three BFM flights a day Friday and Saturday, followed by three long legs to return to base in California on Sunday. A dozen or so volunteers among the maintenance cohort were solicited – we had to turn folks away – and sent forward with a minimal pack-up kit in case anything broke.
BFM is daylight work, so there must needs refreshments at days’ end, broken up by light exercise. Walking about, mostly. Duval Street providing an excellent playing surface. It’s thirsty work, bending a fighter around the blue. Not to mention all that walking about.
You could have almost called it a “mini-detachment,” except for the fact that a detachment to NAS Key West comes with a certain amount of bended-knee permission seeking and paperwork. There are formalities to observe and other administrative trivia – overhead your correspondent, in his wisdom, considered excessive. The ops folks at Key West would get their noses out of joint of course when presented with our fait accompli, but by the time the shore duty layabouts had bestirred themselves to actual concerted action we’d be on our merry. Which, what were they going to do, cut my hair and send me to sea?
Sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness.
I will leave for another time the who-shot-who, debriefs and subsequent debaucheries out in town, adding only that many years in the game had taught your humble scribe the wisdom of moderation on a Saturday evening, the better for to boldly pursue a western sun that recedes but never quite sinks all the way to the horizon on the trip back home.
It was wintertime, which mean two things to a Lemoore-based aviator: Stiff headwinds all the way home, what with the jet stream bending south, and better than even odds of a “Tule” fog if the conditions were right in the San Joaquin valley. The winds meant that fuel would be a factor all the way home, and the fog meant that we’d be making our approach in the august presence of King Chaos, and subject to his whims.
On our final leg we crossed over NAS China Lake in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevadas just as the sun was starting to get away from us at last in the west. The mountains were casting long shadows over the valley, and the very earth beneath us had an air of settling in for the night. I dialed up the local weather station, where the duty forecaster confirmed that there was a fog forming at Lemoore. It was currently 400 feet overcast with a mile visibility, with conditions deteriorating.
Four hundred and one wasn’t so bad: Our precision approach minimums were 200 feet and a half mile vis, conditions we’d all practiced a hundred times in the simulator. Child’s play when you just know you’re going to break out in time to land. In a simulator.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky below us, and the visibility was unrestricted. It would have been the simplest thing in the world drop my six plane flight out of the Class A airspace and land at China Lake just as the sun set. One more night in some Q away from home wouldn’t weigh that much on top of all the others I’d spent through the years. It’d be a different matter entirely to push on to Lemoore, break the flight up for six individual approaches, find out that the field had gone below minimums after a fuel consuming approach, execute the published missed approach procedure, listen to ATC flail around creating six individual clearances for min-fuel diverts back to China Lake on a quiet Sunday evening and hope that all six aircraft could land uneventfully at a relatively unfamiliar field, surrounded on every side by mountains, after nightfall.
Pressing on for a missed approach at Lemoore would take me from direct leadership of the five FA-18 pilots literally under my wing – not to mention their irreplaceable craft – to being a high-speed cheerleader tossed on the winds of several fates outside of my control while yielding nothing in terms of overall responsibility for the outcome. I could almost hear the music playing in Chaos’ house, the squeak of the pipes, the jester’s taunts, the titterings of the court.
But just as the fans don’t go to the ball park to watch Reggie bunt, neither did we six cross the country from east to west to land short of our destination. We pressed on, and I dialed up the automated terminal information service at Lemoore: Landing runway 32L, altimeter three-double oh-two, sky condition overcast at three hundred feet, visibility three-quarters of a mile in fog. Lower than before, and probably going lower still.
Double your altitude plus ten miles is a good rule-of-thumb for an en route descent in an FA-18, so from twenty-thousand feet I requested a descent 50 miles away from the field. I had the fuel for an approach all the way to mins plus a mil-power climb and max range divert back to China Lake. That plus a five hundred pound buffer, if it came down to it. I kept in mind the fact that my wingmen – each of them at various experience levels, all of them far junior to me both in rank and total flying experience – would have used at least a couple hundred extra pounds of their own gas just staying in formation on the trip home. A quick poll on the aux radio confirmed that fact. I knew they would also use up more gas than I did as I broke the flight up for landing. Working the math quickly, I calculated that none of them would be below “bingo” fuel if they had to divert. But a couple of them would not have much to spare and from the tension that a trained and attentive ear could hear in their voices it was clear that they had done the math for themselves, good lads that they were. There were those pipes squealing again, the cymbals and the tambourines. The mutterings of the court.
I wanted to be dirty – gear and flaps down for landing – no later than six miles from the field. Working the math backwards with two miles separation for each wingman once at approach speed I kissed off dash-six at 16 miles from the field, switching him off for his own single frequency approach. His speedbrake opened between the tails as he dropped soundlessly behind us, falling rapidly aft. Detached dash-five another 30 seconds later, and then four followed by three. The miles remaining to the airfield clicking down quickly in my HUD as I maintained cruise speed to help build separation. The fog bank coming up rapidly. “Two, detach.”
Into the goo at six miles and 2000 feet, a dense white blanket enveloping my craft, the speedbrake coming out, the sound of my approach controller in my headset, ILS needles dancing in the HUD, the bucking and wind noise of the gear and flap transition. Landing checklist complete. My own work to do chasing back thoughts of wingmen following dutifully behind me, their fates firmly lashed to my own. It’s suddenly darker in the cockpit and I race to turn down the several lighting rheostats so that my eyes can adjust. The radar altimeter shows me at a 1000 feet above the ground. Five hundred feet, still in the clouds. Three hundred feet – nothing, and the first moment of real concern, like a needle in my gut that had always been there but chose that moment to shift. Right hand tightening on the stick grip, left leading a dance on the throttles – at either two hundred feet or 1/2 mile, if the runway “environment” is not in sight, I’ll be committed to a missed approach and to destinies no longer of my own making. In a fog bank it is crucial to be at exactly 200 feet at the 1/2 mile missed approach point – any higher and you may not break out. Lower is out of the question.
At exactly two hundred feet and a half-mile from the field the veil is drawn and there are the rabbit sequencers leading to the landing threshold, the reassuring familiarity of the Fresnel lens on the left, the runway lights on either side. It’s just like the simulator, except of course, comprehensively different. A very few moments later the Hornet settles to the prepared surface with her heavy, customary authority and the runway remaining markers flash by. Test brakes – good brakes. Speedbrake coming out. The music fading in the background, Chaos having chosen for now to place his attentions elsewhere, with perhaps one wistful backward glance at my tail light receding in the darkness, down the active runway. Clear at Alpha, taxi to parking. Taxi as requested.
“It’s do-able,” I report back to my wingmen on the aux radio, each of them strung out a minute in trail for five minutes behind me. Each of them now lost in the darkness of his own private thoughts, knowing only that the skipper says that a landing is possible. Knowing that they’ve got work of their own to do.
We all had a laugh about if afterwards. That’s what you do.