HomeNewsFeaturesDisplay

GO OR NO GO! - Electing to continue flight can be flirting with disaster

An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot conducts an unrestricted vertical climb from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, during Exercise Cope North, Feb. 15, 2010. The U.S. Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force conduct the exercise annually at Andersen to increase combat readiness and interoperability.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

GO OR NO GO! - When an F-16 pilot elected to continue his flight after smelling oil, he almost didn’t make it back to base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

KUNSAN, Korea -- So there I was over the Yellow Sea off the coast of Kunsan, Korea, beginning an engagement called basic fighter maneuvers ... better known as "dogfights." This should be an easy kill because I'm a new F-16 instructor pilot, and I am invincible. There's nothing I can't handle. I've been slapped around so much lately by old instructor pilots in the squadron that I know everything there is to flying this jet.

Yeah right!

One's ready; Two's ready ... fights on!

I push the throttle up to full afterburner and slightly unload to accelerate toward the bandit's turn circle and get set for a 9G turn. The focus is totally on flying the jet, conserving energy and controlling your lift vector to eventually enter the control zone for guns. It's all man and machine against an opponent ... nothing more, nothing less. It's a three-dimensional skill that's in flux at all times, and there is no definitive answer to any questions on the subject -- just lots of opinions and techniques. In the end, all that really matters is if the pipper is on the bandit or not; otherwise you've failed in your mission as a fighter pilot.

As I'm accelerating toward the bandit's turn circle, the faint smell of burning oil started coming through the environmental control system. I've smelled this smell before so it should be OK since it's probably because of a water separator problem (the oily smell you get in humid environments). So, I elected to continue in full afterburner to properly enter the turn circle so I could put 9Gs on the jet and ultimately gun the bandit.

As I carved through the skies at 9Gs, the smell intensified to a point that it distracted me from focusing on fighting and properly executing the anti-G straining maneuver -- a maneuver if not done correctly can cause you to lose consciousness.

I finally couldn't stand it any longer because of the intensity of the smell continuing to increase. So, I knocked it off and started climbing and pointing my nose toward home. It's a built-in flight discipline reaction from many years of emergency procedure simulators.

"I think I have an oil system problem," I transmitted over the radio as calmly as possible.

All was quiet on the radio. Every F-16 pilot knows that either the word "engine" or "oil" transmitted over the radio is serious and requires the utmost in concentration to properly analyze and quickly develop a plan of action to recover the jet safely.

My eyes have always been trained to look at the small, peanut-size oil pressure gauge anytime I suspected a problem with the engine. Today, my eyes about popped out because the oil was reading below 10 psi ... not good. About all I could do now was point toward home, climb, use minimal throttle movements and pray.

My first thought besides the frigid waters below me was "Hey, this is just like the sim; I even got the 'caution, caution' from Betty and then the dreaded ENG 016 MFL (Maintenance Fault List) and the ENG LUBE LOW PFL (Pilot Fault List) to go along with it. Wow, this is just great."

I pushed us over to the supervisor of flying's frequency and explained my game plan. Since we were 60 miles out over the cold Yellow Sea wearing "poopy suits," I went to my training. Whenever I can reach a one-to-one ratio between altitude and distance, I'm going to pull the throttle to idle, glide and hope for the best.

It seemed like an eternity, but I soon reached a 1:1 with Kunsan. Finally, I could relax just enough to allow the seat cushion to reform in the seat.

After circling down from high key and landing the jet, maintenance said I had about one minute left on the engine before it would have seized. That's about the amount of time it would have taken me to finish our dogfight, which would have meant the bandit would have won the fight as I ejected into the drink!

It was another lucky day for me, and the Lord was keenly watching over me.

Electing to continue is just one of those crap-shoot games we tend to face in our aviation careers and can only get you in trouble. Why do we let these human factors build up and control our every move?

The best way I've found to combat situations like this is to keep it conservative and simple. That allows me to prioritize and concentrate on what's important versus channelizing my attention and making a bad decision. If something doesn't look, smell or sound right, then it's time to knock-it-off and analyze the systems to see what's wrong.

Electing to continue would have been the wrong decision on this winter's day. However, I continue to see mishap after mishap in databases because pilots or other aircrew members continue to press and make bad judgment calls when they should have knocked it off and gone home.

I challenge you to avoid flirting with mishaps by staying in the books, knowing your systems like the back of your hand, staying as proficient as possible in the basics of flying, maintaining flight discipline, and not pressing beyond your personal or aircraft limits by electing to continue.

I'm totally in favor of completing the mission and making an impact for the war; however, pressing beyond the limit in an attempt to be a hero only means we are going to have less jets and people to fight the war.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Retired Lt. Col. Ned Linch finished his Air Force career as the chief of flight safety for 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern Command at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. A command pilot, he accumulated more than 3,000 flying hours in the F-16 and F-111, including over 150 combat hours.