The hardest thing I’ve ever done in an aircraft
This is a story I’ve told more than a few times, and some of you might even have heard it. In fact a couple former F-16 pilots who became professional singers, called Dos Gringos, even wrote a song about it. Whether their song is about a similar experience of their own, this is what happened to me.
On September 23, 1976, I was a senior Captain, Flight Commander, in the Air Force, recently returned from Southeast Asia flying the F-4D assigned to Hill AFB, Utah. The 366TFW at Holloman AFB, NM, had been tasked to deploy eight F-4Ds to Hahn AB, Germany, in support of the joint military exercise, Crested Cap. With six years experience in the aircraft, I was ordered to augment this force and had been sent there with one of the back-seaters from my flight. As he figures unflatteringly in this story, let’s just call him GIB (Guy in the Back).
After three hours of planning, briefing, preflight, start/taxiing, and marshalling, we launched from Holloman at 2330 local in two four-ship flights. I was flying as element lead (number three) in the first flight. Our route of flight would take us over Boston, across the North Atlantic to Scotland, then on to Hahn, with an ETA of approximately 1700 local. This is a long flight strapped into the ejection seat of a fighter. We were given “go” pills to take should we become drowsy enroute (most of the guys, me included, simply saved these to help keep us awake at the bar after arrival).
Because we were crossing the ocean, we had all been fitted with special protective clothing for some (limited) protection should we find ourselves in the water. In addition to our normal underwear, we first donned quilted thermal long john-style underwear, then a one piece rubber “poopie suit” that sealed tightly at the wrists and ankles and zipped up the front, from either top or crotch with a water tight zipper. Over that we wore the standard nomex flight suit, nylon jacket, and flight boots. Before stepping to the aircraft, we added the parachute harness, which would be attached to the parachute and restraining harnesses of the ejection seat. Walking to the planes we resembled green pudgy dough boys carrying helmet bags.
The departure went fairly smoothly with an easy rejoin into two flights of four in loose-route formation and clear, starry skies. We met up with two tankers, four on each stacked 500 ft. apart in trail (one following the other), and topped off our fuel tanks from them. We flew two aircraft on each of the tankers’ wings from there along the rest of the stateside route.
As we approached the northeast part of the country, weather began to form at our altitude (mid-20s), forcing us all to fly closer and closer to keep sight. Contrary to the forecast of only scattered clouds, the visibility continued to drop to the point at which it was less than 20 ft. Now we were in very close formation, at night, in thick, lightly turbulent clouds, with light icing. I could see the wingtip light of the tanker but not the fuselage.
Here is where things got dicey—not because of the weather, but because I really needed to pee! I had been holding off, hoping for better weather where we could loosen up the formation and relax a bit, but that had been for the last hour and now I really needed to go.
Just with this contingency in mind, the Air Force has provided me with what they call a “piddle pack.” This is a heavy, plastic bag containing a dried sponge with a neck opening of about 1.5” and an attached twist tie for closure when done. I had one of these in my lower left leg pocket and fished it out with my left (throttle) hand while I continued to fly formation with my right.
Here I should explain a couple things.
First, though I have flown several long deployments in the F-4 in the past, these were in the Southern Pacific and South China Sea and I had never had to use the piddle pack, nor had I worn the poopie suit.
Second, so far I have said little about GIB. Most back-seaters, formally called Weapons System Operators (WSOs, pronounced “wizzo”), were extremely competent, fearless, and usually able to fly the plane from the back seat well enough to refuel if needed. Not the case with GIB. I had included him on this deployment with the idea that the experience would improve his performance. This proved to be one of the worst decisions of my career! Though I had given him considerable coaching and multiple tries at flying in the past four or so hours, he was completely unable to fly the plane on his own. The best I could get from him was movement of the throttles under my continuous instruction while I flew formation with my right hand, freeing up my left to get down to business. For those of you with no formation experience, conditions like these require that you hold position relative to the wingtip, looking away no more than two seconds at a time.
So, here we are sitting in a cold, dark cockpit, bouncing along in the weather, flying formation on nothing but the wingtip light of this KC-135, and I was going to try to pee into this small plastic bag using only my left hand while controlling the plane with my right, and while continuously directing GIB in the movement of the throttles.
First, I lay the bag on the left console and begin digging through the multiple layers of protective clothing I was wearing. When I finally reached skin, I was confronted with another problematic reality. Like most fighter pilots I had a very large watch, but there wasn’t enough hose to reach the garden! On top of that it was cold, and drawn up to keep warm.
Remember that song I mentioned earlier? It is titled “(Lord please give me a) 12 inch penis.” Exactly how I was feeling at that moment! With the bag in my left hand and using the same hand to line things up in the dark, I was pretty certain I was going to soak my legs, the seat and floor of the cockpit. However at this point the need and pain had become irrepressible and I just let go.
Relief! And to my utter amazement, I nearly filled the bag—pure luck.
I don’t remember sealing and storing the bag, just the comfort of getting full control of the jet back.
The story can be ended here, but the adventure continues . . .
After going “feet wet” northeast of Boston and emerging from the weather, we were released from our initial tankers to set up for rendezvous with the next flight of five tankers. The F-4 had only an Inertial Navigation System (INS) and TACAN for navigation. We were to meet the tankers on a specific radial/DME about 100 miles east of the BOS TACAN. As we approached the designated mileage, there were no tankers in sight despite their claim that they were orbiting at that point. Studying my CDI, I realized that we were about five degrees south of the desired radial, putting us about 9 miles from the tankers. Looking north, sure enough my (then young) eyes spotted what looked like five faint stars in a row near the horizon, I notified Lead, and the join-up was made on the trailing two tankers. Everyone cycled through another refueling for top-offs and confirmed good systems prior to getting much further from land.
Since emerging from the weather, I had noticed that the pitch control on my plane felt much more “touchy” than was normal. This was only a nuisance in loose formation, but when the precision of formation refueling became necessary, the challenge escalated. After working through the first refueling I realized what the problem was. The F-4 has a bellows system designed to dampen the pitch response to control inputs as speed increase. This system was meant to help prevent over-Gs at high speed and used an airspeed probe located about halfway up the vertical stabilizer. This probe had an electric heater that was activated by the pitot heat system. Apparently the probe heater had failed some time earlier in the flight, and was now iced up, resulting in the pitch control reverting to its most sensitive setting. Fortunately, I was able to continue to receiving fuel as we flew east.
For those unfamiliar with deployment refueling this is the way it works: each refueling point is based on the assumption that one or more of the receivers will not be able to take on fuel at that point and must have sufficient fuel remaining to divert to the designated alternate for that refueling point. Based on this rule, the further we were from landing points the more often we had to top off the fuel tanks. Over the middle of the Atlantic, we were almost refueling constantly. As we used up the fuel of the last two tankers, they dropped out and returned to home base while we moved up to the next two. The fifth tanker was there as a spare in case one of the others developed a problem. In an operation like this, there are also C-130 “Duckbut” aircraft assigned to orbit along at various points below our route to act as rescue support should a crew be forced to eject. I have not heard of anyone actually being rescued using this contingency, and considering the water temperature, was not very confident in the chances.
Sometime after sunrise, and just following our fifth refueling, I was startled by illumination of the Master Caution light located just below the edge of the glare shield on the top portion of the instrument panel. A quick scan of the warning annunciator panel in the lower right corner of the cockpit revealed the Fuel Low caution light illuminated as well. Canceling the Master Warning light (so it would re-illuminate should an additional malfunction occur), I paused to analyze the situation.
In the F-4, the engines receive fuel from a feed tank located behind the cockpits in the fuselage. It only contains a small amount of fuel, but is fed from the pressurized wing and drop tanks. The Fuel low level sensor is located in this tank, and activates when this tank is no longer being refilled and its quantity starts to decrease. I obviously had fuel in all of my tanks, but the illumination of this light meant either a malfunction in the warning system, or a failure in the fuel transfer system.
Verifying that I had not left the refueling door open (which depressurizes the tanks) and assuming the worst, I pushed up the power, announced the predicament, and requested an immediate hook up. In a few minutes I was again receiving fuel and the light went out. Though I waited near the boom, for a good while, it never came on again—just another little gremlin to keep me alert. My best guess is that because of the prolonged cold operation, the switch that activates the pressurization had stuck, and the repeated refueling freed it up again.
For the rest of the way to Germany I wanted to let GIB practice his airmanship, but we made little progress. He just really didn’t seem to care to learn… and it turns out he never would. A few years later he washed out of Air Force pilot training.
We got our last top off approaching Scotland before the tankers dropped down to RAF Mildenhall for recovery, leaving us to continue on our own to Hahn AB where, of course, it was IFR with overcast skies. The clouds were high enough that we did not require a PAR approach (only precision approach option in an F-4) and proceeded to set up for sequential TACAN penetration—teardrop descents—and approaches. I was to be the third for landing. We were now eleven and a half hours into the flight. After rolling out on final approach, I broke out of the clouds near the FAF and lowered the gear and flap handles. Though I could feel the gear extending, this action was greeted with another Master Caution light accompanied by the Util Hyd Press annunciator light. “Aww Sh**!”
I had lost pressure in the hydraulic system that normally powers the gear, flaps, brakes, nose wheel steering, and backs up the primary flight control system. There are emergency backup systems to blow down the gear and flaps in this situation. Landing at this point was out of the question because it would necessitate lowering the tail hook and using the arresting cable to stop the plane. This would close the runway to further landings, putting the remainder of the flight in jeopardy.
I pushed up the power, initiating a go-around, declared an emergency, and explained the situation to all on frequency. Climbing back into the weather, we completed the checklists and held until the rest were safely down and clear of the runway. Again, I flew the penetration and approach, this time with the gear and flaps blown down and locked and the tail hook extended. The arresting cable was located at mid-field on the ~8,000 ft. runway. The hook caught on the first try and we came to a pretty quick stop, though the plane did slew sideways with no control over the nose wheel. Of course we were greeted by fire trucks and blue cars, as we stiffly lifted ourselves from the seats. When we climbed down I think someone even handed us beers!
I used my last swig to wash down the go pill and headed for the bar. 45 years and over 25,000 hours later, this was the most difficult flight I ever flew.