Starting the next trip….
It has been a few months since we did story time. A few weeks ago I wanted to pick up where we last left off, but sometimes life gets in the way. Fortunately training is complete, the radar is clear and we can proceed direct back to the wonderful month of September 2003.
The days following our return in early September 2003 are a blur. I honestly can only remember a couple of moments in the thirty five days between deployments. I remember how overwhelming and vibrant the colors were. After spending 182 days in a brown world, color was astoundingly refreshing. I sat outside the first time it rained and got soaked, it was enjoyable to see water fall from the sky. I remember that my Mom was sick and spent a few days in the hospital. She fully recovered and is still going strong today, but at the time it was something that really troubled me. Most importantly my wife and I were fortunate enough to conceive my daughter, our first child and number one grandchild, Natalie.
Like all good things, the thirty five days went by way too fast. I got a phone call informing me that I needed to get a check ride before I went back. No matter that for six months we were doing our job as tactical airlift pilots, we still were required to maintain the appropriate qualifications. Since it was a tactical check, there would be a formation of two aircraft. I don’t remember how many people on each airplane were being evaluated. I don’t even remember who the crew was. I do remember that the pilot of the lead aircraft was one of my best buddies Billy G.
My care/concern meter rested on zero and was quickly dropping. Just like everyone else, I focused on spending every moment with my wife not on maintaining a qualification. I think Billy and I car pooled together to the base, but maybe not. I do know that for the first time in my career, I did not crack open a book before the check ride. Billy was the Lead pilot, so he briefed everything. I took my notes, tried to remember the exact procedures for the flight and went to the airplane. My mind was not into flying, all I wanted was to get this evaluation over and head back home.
The first leg was a SKE (Station Keeping Equipment) Procedures route. On the top side of the aircraft is an aftermarket radio added after the airplane was delivered from Lockheed. Through a panel on the co-pilot’s side multiple aircraft can send and receive real time positional information so that an entire formation (I think the maximum number of aircraft was 48 but I am may be wrong about that) can fly together so that they can drop men and equipment on the same drop zone without ever seeing the ground. Originally designed for Navy ships, it was adapted to airplanes and actually works well. As long as there is no threat from surface to air missiles, but that is a different discussion. Flying SKE is the formation equivalent to flying an Instrument Approach. As long as you follow the procedures, maintain a 4000 foot buffer from all the other airplanes, and don’t get in a hurry. It is easy.
The second leg was the visual procedures leg. If flying a SKE route is color by numbers, then the visual route is true artistic expressionism. Done properly, it is just plain old fun. Go where you want, do what you want, as fast as you want. The only criteria is dropping the stuff (normally a twenty-five pound sandbag) within 400 yards of the aim point and being over the drop zone plus/minus one minute. Those are the rules, everything else is up to the whims and desires of the lead pilot. The only job of the wingman is to be in position, tell the pilot he is on fire coming from his airplane, and to take the fat one. That is what was briefed anyway and I was a great wingman.
Full Disclaimer before I proceed. Billy and I have recounted this story a couple times in the past. He has absolutely no recollection of my version of this story. In a court of law, he would be forced to hold me in contempt for perjury. Until Billy gets his own blog, this version is the official record and will stand as such. I know I am biased, but my version is much more exciting than his “I don’t remember any of that” version.
After the SKE portion, the formation did a low approach and Billy called for visual procedures. The wingman is always out of position during the transition because of several things happening at once. The main reason is the spacing, the SKE position is 4000 feet in trail. Under visual procedures the normal spacing is 2000 feet. Starting out I was just over a ¼ of a mile out of place. Normally we had a turn point early on so the wingman could use that turn to cut down the distance and not have to rely on speed only. Both Billy and I were accelerating, the normal technique was for lead to hold 220 knots and wing had 30 more knots to play with. To complete the transition, both aircraft had to descend to the low level environment.
Before I go any further, remember that I did not study anything before the flight and I assume that Billy didn’t either. The past six months we lived at 50 feet above the ground while going as fast as possible. The last time either one of us touched an airplane; there were no stop signs or speed limits. I honestly didn’t think anything of Billy accelerating towards 280 knots. I know if Billy remembered the flight, he would say that he held back and let me have everything above 280 to get into position. I never hesitated, going to maximum forward airspeed. The general rule in formation flying is the closer is easier and I coasted into position getting it tucked in tight, between 1000 and 1500 feet.
Billy wasn’t about just going fast either, he was down with the trees. Normally we flew a modified 300 foot bubble. That means that we attempt to stay 300 feet from any person, place or thing. Occasionally, we violate the bubble like passing over a ridge line. 300 feet isn’t very far from anything, especially in an airplane. On this day following Billy’s lead we flew a modified 100 foot bubble. Well below the ridge line, flying deep in the valleys, we were low, fast and tight. Occasionally we flew over a house. I have enjoyed the distinct pleasure of having a buddy buzz my house. It is like the thunder of the Lord himself. Done properly it will literally rattle the dishes out of the cabinet. It is quite possible we rattled some dishes out of their places. When you top a ridge and see a house, it is too late. You do your best to avoid it but you can’t and that is just how it goes. So what Billy left in the cabinet, I knocked to the ground.
Approaching the drop zone, Billy never slowed down. We were simulating a Container Delivery System drop. To complete the drop, the pilot flew the airplane at a high deck angle using gravity to pull a maximum of sixteen separate containers out of the back. For the check ride, the pilot’s job was to be at the right altitude for the parachutes to catch air and open before hitting the ground. Billy kept the rubber band tight and stayed low. At the absolute last minute, trading altitude for airspeed, Billy climbed from 100 feet to the drop altitude of approximately 1000 feet. I followed him up and dropped. I was flying by instruments during the drop in an attempt to fly the exact heading, airspeed and altitude to get a perfect drop. The saying is that the safest place to stand during an airdrop is on the flag that indicated the intended point of impact for the dropped item because no one ever hits the flap. To start the escape, I turned the airplane left and looked for Billy. It took me a minute to find him even though he was only 2000 feet away.
Finally I looked down and saw him flying over the highway. I kicked over the rudder and rolled into a 45 degree bank while standing the throttles up. The airplane followed my command and the speed rapidly accelerated. Clear as day my daughter was born, I remember flying up Highway 35 at 75 feet and 300 knots while he was accelerating away from me. The cars were flashing their lights at us, someone waived, it was so incredibly cool.
We landed and went in to debrief, my Evaluator asked me to stay behind. This is probably why I remember it so vividly. Johnny R. is a big old country boy who acts like a pit bull. I worked for him in different roles, and every time he would get all pushed out of shape for something and bark like a big old dog. But the truth is that inside; he is a sweet, cute, loveable little puppy. He would fight to the death for his people; he is a great pilot and an even better boss. I had long learned to ignore his bark and he long learned that I was a slacker that couldn’t be motivated.
Johnny told me that what he just saw was the best low level he had ever seen. The problem was that we only violated about ten different FAA regulations. That was the moment when I realized what we had just done. I was still in combat mode, not civilian mode. Johnny took Billy’s evaluator into the back room to discuss our collective fate. They emerged from the debate making the only decision they could, we passed because no one wanted to take our place on the rotation.
Once again, it is my understanding that Billy, Johnny or anyone else involved has no recollection of my interpretation of this flight. If anyone from the FAA ever asks, I will swear that what you just read is fiction. But as far as you know, this flight ranks in my personal top ten flights ever.
Until then, keep on rockin.
From → military