Air-Minded: Tailhooks & Wing Landings (Updated)

A couple of recent stories in the news caught my eye and brought back memories.

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Photo credit: unknown

The first story was about an Oregon Air Guard F-15 that ran off the runway at Andrews AFB, Maryland, after an emergency landing last Saturday. Here’s an interesting detail from the news report on the incident: “Second-hand reports state that the brakes and steering failed and that the pilot missed the arresting cable/barrier or the hook did not otherwise engage it. The right main landing gear also collapsed.”

The Eagle has redundant hydraulic systems. In general, if one fails others take over, but there’s an exception, and that is the Utility A system. It operates, among other things, the landing gear, nosewheel steering, and brakes, the stuff you need to land and taxi back to the chocks. The procedure, should you experience Utility A failure, is to declare an emergency, lower the landing gear by pulling the emergency extension handle, drop the tailhook, touch down on the first brick, and take the approach end cable. The cable will stop you right now.

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Photo credit: unknown

Should you miss the cable and find yourself rolling down the runway at 150 knots with no brakes or steering, there’s another handle you can pull, but the stopping and steering it gives you is limited … there should be just enough to bring you to a stop straight ahead on the runway. They’ll have to tow you in from there. Oh, and with emergency braking there’s no anti-skid, so you’re probably going to blow the tires getting the jet stopped.

So yeah, Utility A failure is kind of a big deal, but it’s not rare either. Still, it’s not every day you have to use the tailhook to keep from running off the runway.

I don’t know what happened here, but it sure seems like Utility A failure and a missed cable. Perhaps, after missing the cable, the emergency accumulator pressure ran out before the pilot could finish stopping straight ahead; in any case he or she ran off the runway and into the dirt, which appears to have snapped the other landing gear struts.

When the Eagle was new emergency gear lowering worked as advertised. As the jets got older, though, occasionally one of the main landing gear struts wouldn’t lock in the down position. You’d still get three green lights in the cockpit, but one of the mains might collapse once weight was on the wheel. You wouldn’t know until it happened.

I was present at one of the first such incidents in the F-15. It happened in 1985 at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. My wingman and I were flying back to base after a training sortie. About twenty miles out he radioed that his Utility A hydraulics had failed. I declared an emergency with tower and let them know my wingman would be taking the cable. Knowing that after he did so the runway would be closed until ground crews could tow him off and reset the cable, we held north of the field until other aircraft in the pattern had landed. Then we split up and I landed first, with him in trail a mile or two behind.

He did everything right, but immediately upon touchdown, just short of the cable, the left main began to fold and his jet swerved left. The hook caught the cable and brought him to a stop, but he wound up half off the runway with one wingtip dug into the dirt. Not knowing what had happened, or if anything else was about to turn to shit, he blew the canopy and did an emergency egress over the low side. Later, similar incidents began to happen with other old Eagles … not often, but often enough to warrant training F-15 pilots to anticipate the possibility of a main gear collapse when landing with Utility A failure.

Over the course of my F-15 career I took the cable with Utility A failure twice, once in daylight in Japan, once in pitch darkness at RAAF Darwin in Australia. When the tailhook hits the runway at night it throws up an impressive rooster tail of sparks, as in this photo of an CF-18 Hornet just before it engages the cable:

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Photo copyright 2017 by Patrick Cardinal

That night at Darwin, the sparks were so bright in the canopy mirrors I had to look down into my lap to keep my night vision, and later that night the RAAF tower controllers sent a case of Victoria Bitters to my hotel room as thanks for putting on a great show.

Besides those two emergency landings I snagged the cable on three other occasions, not because there was anything wrong with the airplane but because the runway I was landing on was covered in ice and it was the only way to stop safely. In total, five cable engagements in nearly 2,000 hours in the jet, more than enough for me, probably about average for F-15 pilots in general.

I don’t know why the pilot here missed the cable and don’t want to speculate. Nor do I know why he or she ran off the runway after missing the cable, unless there was something wrong with the emergency braking and steering system. In any case, the airframe appears undamaged and the jet will likely fly again.


The second story, reported yesterday in the Air Force Times, brings back memories of practicing formation landings in pilot training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma.

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T-38 crash at Vance AFB, OK, Nov 21, 2019 (photo: Enid News & Eagle)

The crash occurred in November 2019 at Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, the base where I was first a student pilot and later an instructor. Two T-38s landed side by side in formation. Student pilots were flying in the front seats, their instructors in the back. At touchdown the student in the number two jet pulled back on the stick to aerobrake. He saw he was drifting toward the left side of the runway and applied right rudder to correct. Accident investigators think both the student and instructor were on the controls by that point. In the event, their jet hit the lead jet, became airborne again, rolled over lead, and impacted the grass to the right of the runway upside down, killing both the student and instructor. The lead aircraft, damaged, rolled off the right side of the runway as well, but the student and instructor in that T-38 were unharmed.

The official accident report, recently released, placed blame on the instructor in the second aircraft for not reacting quickly enough to the student’s error. The part of the story I’m thinking about, the main subject of the Air Force Times article, is about the family of the student who was killed, who want the Air Force to stop teaching formation landings in pilot training, calling them, per the article, a “’dangerous and wholly unnecessary maneuver’ that provides no practical benefit, no longer practiced by front-line combat pilots.”

Naturally I feel for the dead student’s family. By the point at which he was practicing formation landings in the T-38, he was nearing the end of pilot training, about to graduate and put on his wings. Moreover, if he was flying the T-38, that meant he’d been selected for fighters or bombers … the elite among student pilots. Surely it was a sudden, out-of-the-blue loss, and I can see where his family would think it a senseless one.

But wing landings aren’t senseless at all, nor are they “no longer practiced by front-line combat aircraft.” I practiced them as a student in both the T-37 and T-38, and later, as a T-37 instructor, taught student after student to do them safely. Once I started flying F-15s, wing landings were almost an everyday occurrence, as they are for all fighter and attack aircrews. Many a radio- or instrument-out wingman has been brought safely home on lead’s wing, taken all the way to touchdown in the worst sort of weather, with low ceilings and poor visibility, conditions that would have prevented them from ever finding their way home. This has been true forever, and will stay so.

More to the point is something my pilot buddies and I asked one another in November 2019 when we first heard about the accident at Vance AFB: “Have you ever heard of anyone crashing during a wing landing, even in pilot training?” The answer, from everyone I know, was “no.” We’ve been training student pilots to land on the wing from WWI to the present day, routinely doing them in combat aircraft even longer … and doing it safely.

The dead student’s parents said one thing I heartily agree with, though. They ” … called on the Air Force to speed up the process for replacing the T-38 — which the Air Force began using for training in 1961 — with the T-7A Red Hawk.”

Damn straight. The last T-38s were built in 1972, making the youngest ones nearly 50 years old. Not only that: designed as they were to train pilots to fly Century-series fighters like the F-104, T-38s are unforgiving to fly, particularly at low speeds and high angles of attack. Frankly I can’t believe the Air Force is still using them in pilot training, and the sooner we get the T-7s on line, the better.

Update (5/13/20): Oh for fuck’s sake.

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The Air Force needs a good war to get its courage back.

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “Air-Minded: Tailhooks & Wing Landings (Updated)

  • This comment is from my friend Ben, who was a student of mine in the T-37, later became a pilot training instructor himself, and flew both the F-4 Phantom II and A-7 Corsair in combat. I’ll quote his remarks in full:

    Paul Woodford, the author of this article, was my IP in the T-37. I have landed on his wing as a solo student in the T-37. It’s even older than the T-38 and no longer in service with the USAF.
    This tragic accident is the only time I’ve ever heard of a formation landing accident and I’ve participated in scores of them as an instructor, wingman and flight lead.
    In fighters, a formation is treated like any other “target” on the scope of an air traffic controller. Getting everyone in tight is a great way to expedite the recovery of aircraft especially at busy airports. We did formation takeoffs, but those didn’t make as much sense as landings because there are other ways to get a formation in the air rather than on each others wings. Normally, when taking off, our jets were heavy and laden with bombs and missiles. That’s not a good configuration for getting tangled up.
    Paul writes about taking an approach end barrier in this article as well. I can’t really remember how many of those I’ve done mostly in the F4 which had a dozen malfunctions that warrant it and a few times in single-seaters. The F15 wreck at Langley is a mess. That jet is done. As I recall, the most common reason for taking the barrier in any of the fighters I’ve ever flown was a hydraulic problem usually something that requires an alternate means of lowering the gear and/or the flaps. In the F4 not having flaps on landing means adding 20knots to your landing speed. That may not sound like a lot but it really adds energy to the when going from 155knots to 175knots mainly because of that pesky energy equation that squares the velocity.
    The crown jewel of barrier-mandated landings is a hydraulic failure with a blown accumulator that locks the flaps up, slats in and no nosewheel steering or anti-skid. The jet comes in around 200knots with your feet on the horizon landing attitude. Never had to do it in real life but practiced it a lot. From the back seat it’s darn near impossible without a crosswind to crab into.
    Throw a nickle on the grass for the two airmen who lost their lives at Vance AFB last November. Tragic and very sad. But let’s not lose count of the airmen who were saved by being tucked into lead’s wing for a safe trip to the runway. Formation landings are important.

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