SOF in the hot seat

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SOF in the hot seat

At some point in an aviator’s Air Force flying career, they can expect to pull SOF duty. That is Supervisor of Flying, not Special Operations Forces duty.

An Air Force Wing Commander, aka the “wing king,” usually a senior colonel or brigadier (one-star) general, has three group commanders (colonels) responsible for keeping the wing running smoothly. The Maintenance Group Commander (MA) keeps the wing’s aircraft maintained, fueled, and armed. The Combat Support Group Commander (CSG) has the “cats and dogs” supporting the wing with the base hospital, security forces (sky cops), supply (beans, bombs, bullets, and gas), civil engineers (housekeepers), pay and finance (bookkeepers), personnel (HR), etc. Finally, the Operations Group Commander (OG) runs the flying operation.

MacDillMacDill

MacDill Air Force Base is a busy facility, with over 100 jets on the ramp at any one time.

When I was an IP with the 56th Fighter Wing at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, the OG oversaw four F-16 squadrons training a variety of students. With nearly 100 F-16s on the ramp, every day was busy as we taught newly minted pilots in their first fighter aircraft, transitioned current fighter pilots from another fighter into the F-16, upgraded qualified F-16 pilots to IP status, and gave future wing kings or OGs refresher training. Training sorties ranged from primary skills (landings, aerial refueling, instruments, basic fighter maneuvers, etc.) to advanced fighter ops (bomb dropping, strafing, aerial gunnery, intercepts, and air combat maneuvering).

With the responsibility for the safe and smooth conduct of the daily flying operations, the OG had to stay on top of it all. But one person can’t be expected to be on duty continuously, when flight ops can start before daybreak and extend well into the night and oftentimes into the early hours of the next day. Obviously, the OG needed help keeping a handle on the flying operations; thus, the rationale for SOFs.

Selected by the OG based on their experience in the aircraft as well as their time at the base, SOFs were the OG’s eyes and ears whenever flight operations were underway. As the Chief of Training, my immediate boss was the OG and I was responsible to him for training SOF candidates. Once they were qualified, I ensured that they maintained their currency.

SOF duty was performed in the control tower at a station equipped with radios and phones used to communicate with various agencies. Although SOFs interacted with tower personnel, they did not control any traffic. Our job was to watch over flight operations, keep track of all aircraft aloft, monitor the weather, and assist aircraft experiencing in-flight problems—which is especially critical in a single-seat, single-engine fighter.

One day, the Tactical Air Command Inspector General (IG) team arrived from Langley AFB in Hampton, Virginia, for a 10-day visit to evaluate the wing’s conduct of its mission. Their inspection included flying with our IPs while maintenance experts would evaluate our maintainers fixing, refueling, and rearming our jets. Subject matter experts would also inspect each area of the support provided to the wing’s mission. They also dug into everyone’s paperwork to make certain we were doing it all by the book. They were in our business from top to bottom.

They would also inspect the SOF program, to include our selection process and paperwork, and SOF currencies. They would also conduct an evaluation of a SOF during an in-flight emergency. They didn’t go out and create or have to wait for an in-flight emergency; they would simulate one. However, the SOF in the hot seat for the exercise was not the only one being evaluated. There would be IG personnel in the Command Post (CP), the nerve center for the wing, as well as the tower, and also in the maintenance facilities. They would even watch how the hospital responded to any casualties resulting from the “emergency.”

During the inspection, I took my turn at SOF duty. About an hour into my tour, I received a phone call from the commander of the 72nd Fighter Squadron. He told me an F-16-qualified IG pilot had bumped a student from one of their scheduled sorties, a routine two-ship mission scheduled to fly basic fighter maneuvers in one of the military operating areas (MOAs) over the Gulf of Mexico. It was also the perfect opportunity for a simulated emergency. He told me to watch for Falcon 71 flight; the IG pilot would be Falcon 72. I thanked him for the heads up and continued my duty.

Falcon 71 flight soon taxied out and took off. Shortly thereafter, the tower phone rang and one of the controllers answered it. I overheard him say, “Yes sir, I’ll buzz you in.” He then turned to me and said, “Sir, someone from the IG team is on their way upstairs.”

I knew the game was afoot!

A few minutes later, an IG inspector stepped into the control tower. It was an F-16 pilot who, a year earlier, was stationed with me at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. We caught up with one another as I continued my SOF duties.

Of course, I knew why he was there, and I suspected he knew that I knew why he was there. But, neither of us broached the subject.

F-16F-16

There are plenty of failures to simulate in an F-16.

After he had been in the tower for 15-20 minutes, the SOF radio crackled to life and I heard the following: “Exercise, exercise, exercise, MacDill SOF, this is Falcon 71. Falcon 72 has a simulated flight control system malfunction and is declaring an emergency.”

The F-16 digital flight control system (FLCS–pronounced FLICK-us) has a computer that reads the pilot’s control inputs and uses hydraulic-electric motors to move the flight control surfaces; there is no backup mechanical linkage. The FLCS is redundant with four separate channels, and you can attempt one reset on a single failed channel. However, if it fails a second time, it’s time to head home. If two channels fail, it’s time to get on the ground now! I never heard of more than two channels failing, but anything’s possible.

I immediately asked Falcon 71 if I could provide any assistance. He stated they were headed home with all checklist items completed and that everything appeared normal with just one channel inoperative (Falcon 72 reported the reset had failed). However, I expected things to get worse as this was an evaluation of the entire base and they would stress the system.

The first thing I did was pick up the phone and call the OG and, as it rang, I told the tower chief to give priority to getting Falcon 72 down ASAP. When the OG answered, I briefed him on what was going on; he told me he was headed to the CP where he could monitor the appropriate radios. I then called the maintenance center and asked them to contact the MA and get him headed to the CP.

Next, I called the CP and told them to establish a teleconference with the General Dynamics Corporation in Fort Worth. GD built our F-16s and could provide experts to help us analyze and possibly fix the problem. The experts included Air Force test pilots at the factory who conducted acceptance flights on newly built jets before they were delivered to the Air Force.

At that point, one of the tower operators shouted, “OH SHOOT!” (NOT a direct quote–the second word out of his mouth had only one vowel, and it wasn’t an O). This controller was monitoring the departure end of the runway to make certain no traffic conflicts arose at his end.

I had my back to him, but spun around to see what caused this outburst and saw a large plume of dirt being spewed onto our only runway. The source of the plume was an F-16 off the side of the runway with a collapsed nose gear. Meanwhile, the engine was sucking up dirt and rocks and flinging debris all over the runway. Instead of repeating what the sergeant had said, I asked, “What happened?” He said the airplane was on landing rollout when it suddenly swerved to the left, ran off the runway, and the nose gear collapsed.

TPA and MCF locationTPA and MCF location

Tampa International (TPA) is a nearby diversion option for MacDill (MCF).

I immediately picked up my microphone and made the following transmission on Guard channel (243.0): “This is the MacDill SOF on Guard. The MacDill runway is closed until further notice. MacDill aircraft plan your fuel accordingly and plan to divert until notified otherwise. Expect the runway to be closed for several hours. Contact the Command Post with your intentions and call them upon landing at your destination. MacDill SOF, out!”

I then informed Falcon flight their “exercise” was over and they were now doing a real-world divert.

Our primary divert base was Homestead AFB (HST), south of Miami. However, we already had aircraft on recovery and in the traffic pattern who couldn’t get there. I directed the tower chief to divert them to Tampa International (TPA) and to call the TPA tower to advise them why we were headed their way; he already had the phone in his hand.

I also called the CP and directed them to call Homestead’s CP telling them we had an unknown number of airplanes headed their way.

I then called the range officer (one of our IPs) who was controlling aircraft at Avon Park, MacDill’s air-to-ground gunnery range some 75 miles east of MacDill. I did this because line-of-sight probably prevented low flying aircraft on the range from receiving my transmission. The range officer had not heard it, but assured me he would make certain our aircraft knew of the situation. There was also an emergency auxiliary field at Avon Park.

Next, I called the maintenance center and ensured that they were sending mobile teams to TPA to help park, refuel, and secure our diverting aircraft.

For the next half hour, I spoke to several of our aircraft as they diverted while listening to and logging the landing times of diverting aircraft. Finally, I had every airplane down, except for a flight of two. Between myself, the tower personnel, and the CP, we had missed one. It was time to get worried!

However, my IG friend saved the day. He handed me a slip of paper with our missing flight’s landing time, which was at TPA. Their call came during a flurry of activity as the firefighters were securing the plane and extracting the unharmed pilot from the cockpit; he had tried to raise the canopy, but it jammed because the fuselage had warped from the force of the nose slamming to the ground.

Now for Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story.” How did a student pilot turn his F-16 into an ATV? After landing, he did an aero-braking maneuver, which increases drag to help slow the airplane. It involves holding a nose-high nose attitude with the speed brakes extended and, when the horizontal tail loses authority, the pilot lowers the nosewheel to the runway and uses the wheel brakes to slow to a comfortable taxi speed.

Even at idle power, an F-16 engine produces a lot of thrust; pilots must constantly tap their brakes while taxiing. However, the MacDill runway is 12,000 feet long and 500 feet wide, so there was plenty of room to get an F-16 slowed down without excessive braking. If needed, the tailhook can be lowered to snag a departure- or approach-end barrier, bringing the airplane to a safe stop.

Pictured at right is an F-16 tailhook extended and about to engage the barrier. The black “donuts” keep the barrier elevated. The ripple in the cable at the right of the picture was caused by the main gear running over it, causing it to bounce up.

Below is an F-16 slowing after engaging the barrier.

F-16 landing

F-16 landing

F-16s have three braking systems, A, B, and Emergency. The A and B systems are electrically controlled and include an anti-lock braking system (ABS). The Emergency system is simple hydraulics with no ABS, plus the nose-wheel steering is disabled. If system A fails, you were to release the brakes, switch to system B and then reapply the brakes. Should system B fail, you again released the brakes, pulled the Emergency brake handle and gently applied the brakes.

When this student pressed on the rudder pedals to apply the wheel brakes, his feet went full forward with no braking action. He panicked and immediately pulled the Emergency brake handle and stomped on the brakes. The left main gear locked, causing the left main tire to fail, which resulted in the airplane swerving hard left and departing the runway. You know the rest of the story.

However, there’s one more item. Before the IG team left, they presented a “Hotwash Briefing” to the Wing. During that briefing, held in the base theater, they covered highlights of their visit and recognized “Professional Performers,” i.e., personnel who excelled in their duties. With a picture of each Professional Performer projected on the theater’s screen in turn, the team described why that person was being recognized. Imagine my surprise when my name was called out and my picture appeared on-screen. In it, I was cradling a phone between my left shoulder and left ear, holding another phone to my right ear using my left hand, and, with my right hand, I was holding my radio’s microphone to my mouth. I never noticed the picture being taken as I was too busy as the SOF in the hot seat!

Colonel (ret) Dale “Boots” Hill served 22 years in the Air Force, beginning his tour of duty flying 165 missions in the OV-10 as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam. He was then a T-38 IP, A-10 IP and flight examiner, and an F-16 IP and commander of the 61st Top Dawgs. He worked assignments at TAC HQ (he told other fighter pilots where to go—they would tell him where to go). At the Pentagon he served on the Air Staff as a planner for Operation Desert Storm and on the staff of the Secretary of the Air Force. He lives in Canton, GA, with his wife, Susan, near three (soon to be four) of their seven (soon to be eight) grandchildren.
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