Air-Minded: the Last Step’s a Doozy

This will be a short post, inspired by this photo of an F-15A taxiing in after landing from an air defense alert scramble at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands.

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Been there, done that.

No, it’s not me. The photo dates from my time at Soesterberg, and it’s a jet I flew many times, but I didn’t have that orange marking on my helmet. Still, I can say I’ve been there, exactly where this Eagle driver was.

By “there,” I refer to fuel state, which I’m guessing was at or under emergency fuel, 800 pounds remaining. You can tell by the nose high attitude and the extension of the nose landing gear strut. The Eagle sits high when the tanks are dry.

You might also notice the inlet ramp for the #1 engine. It’s fully up, indicating the engine’s shut down. In the early days, we’d normally leave both engines running after landing, not shutting them down until we were back in the chocks. While it later became standard practice to shut the left engine down after landing and taxi back on the right engine alone, it wasn’t when this photo was taken. You could do it, though, if you felt it was necessary. More about that in a minute.

The two times I pressed it and landed with emergency fuel, I noticed right away how high the jet rode while taxiing back to parking. The nose wheel felt like it was barely touching the ground, that if I turned hard with nosewheel steering the tire might skid or slip, not having enough contact with the pavement. Both times I literally feared I might not have enough gas to make it back to the chocks and shut down the left engine as soon as I turned off the runway to save what little bit I had left. Just like the guy in the photo. Both times I was thinking I’d fucked up badly and was lucky not to have flamed out and been forced to eject. Just like, I bet, the guy in the photo.

What I remember best, though, is the last step down from the crew ladder. Normally, the lowest rung sits 12-18 inches above the ground. When the jet’s out of gas and sitting high, though, there’s an extra foot of air between the lowest rung and the ground, a hell of a stretch before your toe touches the ramp. You can easily fall on your ass getting off the ladder, as I nearly did the first time. The second time I was expecting it and managed to get down with my dignity intact.

I’m pretty sure I know who was in the jet in the photo. He wasn’t a tall person, and I bet he did fall on his ass. I also bet he learned his lesson better than I did, and didn’t fly himself out of gas a second time … like I did. But then I’ve always been a slow learner.

© 2021, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Air-Minded: the Last Step’s a Doozy

  • I worked Zulu alert and had # 2 position in the barn . Shutting engine down was a safety idea and save fuel. I had to help disarm missiles on #1 jet, then handle # 2 on arrival.
    Since realigning systems took place in the barn to be ready for next scramble. I thoroughly
    enjoyed being a crew chief.
    Michael Henderson
    P.s. Major (bull) Baker was my favorite. ‘79-82

  • Skid – I remember this strut issue when returning from an FCF (Functional Check Flight) out of Eglin AFB in the early 80s. Our normal procedure was to check the ‘FUEL LOW’ light functionality on FCFs by returning fairly low on fuel, which wasn’t hard after the Mach run, then staying in the pattern until the ‘FUEL LOW’ light illuminated, then land. After two low approaches and tight patterns, I was on the go when the ‘FUEL LOW’ light illuminated right on schedule at 1500 pounds total internal fuel remaining. I pulled up into a tight closed pattern, put down the gear and — only two gear extended. OK, now you have my attention! I broke out of the pattern to the north, while simultaneously telling the SOF/tower that I needed access to any available runway once/if I got my gear to extend. Using the landing gear emergency extension, I got the third gear to extend and indicate down and locked, and maneuvered for the closest piece of concrete, runway 19 at Eglin, if I remember correctly. With a bit of a pucker factor, I lucked out with a smooth landing, but still required the long taxi back to the 33rd Fighter Wing ramp. Once I made it to my parking slot (on fumes) and shut down, I remember staying in the jet until the fuel truck arrived, since I had a seriously nose high attitude. No sense risking a scraped tail, or a broken heel! Sundance

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