They were at 500 knots on their way to vertical, climbing into Arizona’s endless burning blue sky, in the start of a loop, with a solo student 1,000 feet behind them in extended trail, when Tom heard a familiar voice on the radio.
“Albuquerque Center, Awol 21, I have an emergency.”
The voice was a little high pitched and conveyed a sense of urgency, even fear. Tom, in the back seat of the T-38, had been turned around in his ejection seat to check their wingman’s position, when the student flying the jet from the front seat abruptly pulled the stick back to a 5 G acceleration without warning him, and he hadn’t been ready for it. He couldn’t turn back around to face forward with this much G and found himself jammed in an uncomfortable position with his right hand on the glare shield in front of him and his shoulders and neck twisted to the left. The g-suit around his legs and lower torso inflated too late to stop blood from draining from his head and pooling in his legs. First, his vision turned to black and white, then he lost his peripheral vision, then it was black. By the time the jet reached vertical the G’s came off completely and the blood slowly returned to his head.
Tom heard Albuquerque Center’s reply as his vision returned. “Awol 21, Albuquerque Center, what is the nature of your emergency?” Tom could now see that the wingman had maintained the proper position above and behind them, so he turned back around to face forward.
“Albuquerque, Awol 21, I have an engine fire warning light. Request return to base.”
They were now wings level inverted at the top of the loop. Tom moved his head a little left to right and back to see if he had a pulled muscle in his neck; it seemed ok. The last time that happened he had a stiff neck for days. As they began to nose down through the horizon inverted Tom said to his student, “Roll out to wings level,” so the student converted the loop into an Immelman and rolled awkwardly into an upright position. Tom knew his wingman would have trouble following this maneuver at such a slow speed, but he was far enough back that he could figure it out.
“Awol 21, Albuquerque, cleared direct Williams. Do you need any assistance?”
An engine fire in flight was unusual.
“Yeah, could you give me a vector? I’m not receiving the TACAN.”
Uh-oh, sounds like a solo student.
“Awol 21, Albuquerque, turn heading two-five-zero.”
The voice sounded like a student in his flight. Tom was new at instructing and wasn’t sure what to do. They had a lot to accomplish on this flight and had just started in the practice area, but no other instructors had checked in, so Tom decided he must be the only IP one in the areas on this frequency, and had better see if he could help. “Awol 21, this is Awol 26, are you solo?”
“That’s affirmative, sir.”
“Albuquerque Center, Awol 26, Where is Awol 21?”
“Uh, Awol 26, 21’s in Apache Low. You have an instructor on board?” His flight was in Navajo Low, which was the adjoining practice area, about 70 miles east of Williams AFB.
“Albuquerque, Awol 26, roger that, I’m going to join on 21, give me a vector please.”
“Roger, Awol 26, he’s at your 10 o’clock at 12,000 feet, about 10 miles. You’re cleared all the way to join him.” Awol 26 was at 22,000 feet, slightly nose down, full power, pretty slow at 250 KIAS but accelerating. Tom turned to see his solo wingman 1,000 feet back and slightly above.
“Johnson, do you think you can find 21 and join on him?” he asked the student pilot in the front seat.
”Go get him.”
“Awol 26 – 2, go tactical.”
Johnson pushed the nose down as he eased the throttles into afterburner, then turned left 20 degrees Their wingman moved out to tactical, a mile out and above.
“Awol 21, what is your situation?”
“I had a fire warning light on number one and I shut it down.”
“What’s your name, Awol 21?”
“Dave Smith, sir.”
“OK, Smith, this is Capt. Harter. We’re a flight of two, requesting permission to join on you.”
“Yes sir, permission granted.”
“And Smith, if you get any indications that there is actually a fire out of control, you’re going to bailout.”
“Awol 21, what’s your indicated?”
“Did you run through the engine fire in flight checklist?”
“When we catch up with you we’ll review single engine landing procedures.”
Tom could see their wingman, Lt. Jones, in position a mile out to the left and 1,000 feet above, just where he was supposed to be, in position to clear for them but not be in the way. They were now indicating 550 knots, the throttles back to military to keep them from going supersonic.
“Awol 26 flight, Albuquerque Center, Awol 21’s 12 o’clock and 5 miles.”
The sky was a typical summer blue from horizon to horizon. Although they were almost supersonic now, with smooth air and no clouds to frame their movement it seemed that they were suspended there, high above the earth. Four miles below the desert floor baked in the midday sun; the high altitude cold made the heat irrelevant to them.
Tom called Albuquerque Center, “I’m going to be off frequency for a minute.”
“Roger 26, report back.”
He turned the radio to channel 5, the RSU. The RSU (Runway Supervisory Unit) was a small building that looked like the top of a control tower sitting beside the touchdown zone of the runway. Inside were two instructor pilots and two student pilots controlling traffic in the T-38 overhead pattern on the outside runway. RSU was also in charge of in-flight emergencies. “Ace Control, this is Awol 26.”
“26 go ahead.”
“Awol 21 solo is leaving Apache Low with number 1 shut down and a fire warning light on. I’m about to join on him.”
“Roger 26. Need any help?”
“Negative. Will call you back after I can look him over.”
“Roger. I’ll get the fire trucks out here and I’ll listen in on Approach.”
“26.” Tom switched the radio back to channel 10, Albuquerque Center. “Albuquerque, Awol 26, back your freq.”
“Roger 26, 21 is at your 12 o’clock 3 miles.”
Tom called to the solo, “Awol 21, this is Awol 26. Give us a wing flash.” Awol 21 rocked his wings, making a highly visible a flash of white against the bright blue sky.
“I’ve got him!” Johnson called out. “He’s a little below on the right.” Tom looked out the right side of the cockpit and saw the lone T-38.
“Got him. Good job.” “Awol 26-2, do you see him?”
“Keep us both in sight. Stay in tactical until we get to initial.”
Johnson turned the jet further right and pushed the nose down a little more, “I’ll join on his left wing sir, if that’s alright.”
The students were the junior class and Tom thought they were handling this well. They closed quickly. “Better slow this baby down” . Johnson pulled the throttles to idle and opened the speed brakes. The wingman shot ahead of the flight, but turned away and started s-turning to drop back into position. They two jets were closing very fast now. “Don’t overshoot any farther than you have to,” Tom told the student. “G it up, a quick, hard pull, after you pass him.” Lt Johnson did just that; after he passed under Awol 21, still with a lot of overtake, he shot wide, made a high G turn back towards the jet they were joining. The turn dissipated a lot of energy, and they quickly found themselves at 300 knots about 100 feet out on his left wing. “Bring us up to fingertip,” Tom told Johnson.
“I don’t see anything,” Tom called to Awol 21. “We’re going to cross under and look at the other side.”
They closely examined the exterior of the T-38 but did not see anything out of place. “You look good from here.”
Tom looked up to the left and saw the wingman still out in tactical formation. Tom called to the wingman. “Awol 21 dash 3, when we get back to the field I want you to leave the formation and go into the overhead pattern. We’ll be making a straight in on the center runway. You can stay in the pattern if you like.”
“Lt Smith, is the fire warning light on?” Tom asked.
“Negative, no light.”
“What does the EGT for the left engine show?” Tom asked.
“I think you’re OK. Do a straight in to the center runway. We’ll follow you down to the flare, then go around. Any questions?”
“No questions, sir.”
Tom radioed Center; “Albuquerque Center, Awol 21, flight of three.”
“Albuquerque, go ahead.” “Albuquerque, 21-2, we’re going to do the standard[r1] arrival for a straight in runway 30 Center.”
The arrival was routine except that it was unusual to have a flight of three. When the flight turned on a 10 mile final for Runway 30 Tom called the wingman to join in to fingertip formation on the left wing, as there wasn’t enough space in the pattern for him to be in tactical. ABQ sent them to Tower.
“Awol 21 flight, go button 2.” He heard “2,” and “3.” Smith then checked the flight in on Channel 2. “Williams Tower, Awol 21 flight of three, 10 mile final for a straight in.”
“OK, Awol 21, do you need any assistance?”
“Negative.” Tom came back on; “Awol 21 lead, review single engine landing and go around procedures, that’s on page E-13.”
Tom could see Smith’s head go down as he looked over his checklist for the emergency procedures, but he kept reasonably good control of the airplane. The runway was coming up now, 3 miles out, and lead gave the hand signal to lower landing gear. Tom called to the solo wingman, “Awol 21 dash 3, cleared to leave the formation, go button 5 and enter initial for 30 Right.” Jones acknowledged and dropped back and out of sight. Tom could hear and feel the solid thump of the landing gear locking into place.
Ahead they could make out a red fire truck parked on the taxiway at the runway’s midpoint, and another pulling into position at the far end of the runway. Tom visualized the four firemen inside each truck, each wearing the heavy silver heat-resistant rescue suit. If there was a crash the fire truck would approach the burning airplane spraying foam from the nozzles over the cab, then two firemen in the silver suits would climb out of the trucks and walk into the fire. Black smoke from the burning jet fuel would fill the sky as the trucks converged on the fire, still spraying fire retarding foam from the high pressure nozzles. Soon, if all went well, the firemen would come out of the smoke carrying the pilot. Tom shook the thought out of his head.
Soon they were on short final, with gear down and flaps at 60%. Tom glanced inside the cockpit to check the airspeed, and then looked back out at lead, three feet beyond their right wingtip. 175 KIAS. Just right. Suddenly movement at 10 o’clock caught his eye, and his head automatically snapped to the left. There was a T-37 in front of them to the left in a steep left bank, gear and flaps down, belly up to them, at their altitude, only a few hundred feet away and closing fast. It appeared that the T-37 had been in left turn to final for the inside runway and overshot. Johnson, in the front seat, was concentrating all his attention on lead and staying in position and apparently didn’t see the T-37.
A frantic “Final go around, final go around” came over the radio on Guard from the center runway RSU controller. Tom could see the faint blue glow of the afterburner lighting on Awol 21 as he started turning right, away from the T-37. He grabbed the control stick and slammed the throttles into afterburner, then threw the gear and flap levers up.
“The student reflexively held his hands up and said “Your airplane”. Tom started a left turn and pulled the nose up simultaneously. He figured they had 100 knots of overtake on the T-37, and had about 2 seconds to get out of his way. “Can you see the T-37?”
“Yes sir, I have him.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s below us on the right.”
Tom said, “You have the airplane.” The front-seater shook the stick to indicate he had the controls. Awol 21 was on their right and had his gear and flaps coming up, but with only one engine, he wouldn’t be able to maneuver as well as they could and Tom wanted to give him room. He could see the T-37 now, several hundred feet behind them. The runway was below them now; they would have to make another pattern. “Keep us in route,” he told the student. “Give him some room.” They stayed 100 feet off Awol 21’s left wing and slightly behind him. “Awol 21 lets go to Phoenix get vectors for another straight in.”
“Roger,”Awol 21 flight, go button 3.” Tom could see his other student in the pitchout for the outside runway now. With the one engine in afterburner and gear and flaps up, Awol 21 was soon back to 280 KIAS and climbing. Lead checked them in on the radio and asked Departure for vectors for a straight in to the center runway.
“You the emergency?” Phoenix Departure Control asked.
“Roger, we’re a flight of two; lead has an engine shut down.”
Phoenix turned the flight right onto a crosswind. “Awol 21, what’s your fuel?” Tom asked.
“1200 pounds, sir.”
“Good job back there. Keep your cool now.”
The rest of the pattern was uneventful, and might as well have been just another single engine straight-in practice. Awol 21 stayed in route formation on the downwind and final. They checked lead’s gear and flaps down, and watched him fly a beautiful straight in landing. As the solo lead flared out, 2 went around: throttles to Military, nose up, gear and flaps up. They switched to Channel 5, Ace Control: “Awol 21-2, Center, request right closed traffic for 30R.” Tom looked to his right; there was an airplane on the inside downwind, but otherwise the pattern appeared clear. Down below he could see the solo lead in the landing rollout. The fire truck at the end of the runway was still in place, and he could see Safety’s blue Ford pickup there, too. He sat back and relaxed as they got clearance for a closed pattern. They rolled into a 60 degree right bank and pulled up aggressively into the closed pattern, and in a minute or so were on the runway, rolling out.
Back in the squadron parachute shop Tom ran into Major Thompson, the Squadron Operations Officer. “What happened, Tom?” he asked. Tom told him about the rendezvous and the excitement on final with the overshooting T-37. “They called over here,” he said when Tom was finished. That was an initial solo. The RSU said you were so close they thought you were all goners. Cheated death one more time, eh?” Tom smiled as he hung his parachute and helmet up on their pegs and unzipped his g-suit. Thompson was putting on his g-suit. “From what I heard you handled it pretty well, too. Keep up the good work.”
Tom was surprised, and it showed. “Thank you, sir.”
“Best damned job in the world,” Thompson said, grinning, slung his parachute over his shoulder, and headed out the door towards the flight line, student following.
Lt. Smith was in the flight room when Tom got there, surrounded by his classmates, his hands in the usual “there I was” pose. “Dave,” Tom said, and they all turned to look at him.
“Yes sir, Captain Harter,” he replied.
“Where’s your grade sheet?” he asked. He looked confused for a second, then opened the folder on his desk and handed Tom a Scantron form. Tom took a pencil from his sleeve pocket and went down to line 34, “Emergency Procedures.” He marked the “E” block, for Excellent, and handed it back to him, saying, “Good job, Lieutenant.” Smith smiled, then came to attention and saluted .
“Thank you, sir.”
The IP saluted back, then turned and went to his desk. Both of his students came to the desk and took their places. “Any questions?” he asked. “You both did well, and I’m going to be proud to see you pin those wings on in a couple of months,” “Now give me those grade sheets. You know what they say?” They both looked at him but didn’t say anything. Tom smiled. “The mission’s not over until the paperwork’s complete.”