Not So Silent Night

The night train had departed just after sunset and consisted of six T-38C aircraft separated by about ten miles of spacing.  My student and I were following the gaggle, made up mostly of UPT students on their first and only night solo flight.  The mission was simple: take off, transition to instrument flying, fly tacan-to-tacan from Vance (KEND) to Wichita (KICT) to Tulsa (KTUL) to Oklahoma City (KOKC) and back to Vance.  Our objective was to continue night familiarization training for the students while helping them build their confidence and proficiency in the jet.

I always enjoy flying at night.  The air seems smoother, the controllers seem a little more relaxed, and the landscape takes on a completely different personality under the soft glow of city lights.  This night was no different.

Our ’38 climbed effortlessly into the starry sky and we soon left the lights of Enid behind us.  Passing 10,000 feet my student religiously initiated an ops check verbalizing our fuel state, the status of the aircraft oxygen system, and the cabin altimeter.  I glanced at the engine instruments: RPM, EGT, Oil Pressure, Fuel Flow, and Hydraulic Pressure were all in the green.  I leaned back against my parachute and got as comfortable as I could.

My student, flying from the front seat of the aircraft, was nearing the end of the UPT syllabus and I was comfortable with his level of proficiency in the jet.  This was going to be a relaxing night of flying for me, or so I thought.

We made our way north to the lights of Wichita, Kansas.  You really didn’t need navaids on a night as clear this.  The headlights of the cars traveling on I-35 looked like a river of light flowing slowly north to our first turn point.  If all else failed, you could easily follow the position lights of the other ‘38s blinking quietly in the distance ahead of you.  As we reached Wichita we turned southeast towards the distant glimmer of Tulsa, Oklahoma

Our flight was uneventful until we found ourselves over the void between Tulsa and Oklahoma City when the Master Caution light illuminated directing my attention to the Warning and Caution Indicator panel.  A yellow “Utility Hydraulic” light was staring me in the face.  My eyes went immediately to the left hydraulic pressure indicator where I saw the needle bouncing precariously at the low end of the allowable pressure range.  I sat quietly for a moment giving my student a chance to recognize the malfunction.

“Uh…sir?  Do you see the Utility Hydraulic light?” my student asked.

I had already cracked open the emergency procedures checklist for low hydraulic pressure.

“Yep, what do you think we should do?” I asked in my best instructor voice.

“Well, I’ll dig out the checklist.  Can you take the aircraft for a moment?”

“Nope.  You want to fly a single-seat fighter next right?  You need to be able to fly and run the checklist at the same time.”  I could almost hear him cursing me from the front seat.

As my student was digging out his checklist, the caution light magically went out and hydraulic pressure stabilized.  Hmm.  I asked the student to move the flight controls around a little and sure enough the light came back on as hydraulic pressure dropped.  We were closer to Tinker AFB than Vance by about five miles.  Although this was a “land as soon as possible” EP, I knew Vance was our best option as it wasn’t much further, but offered more support with access to our Ops Desk and the Supervisor of Flying (SOF).

I wasn’t going to give my student too much of a leash when it came to a hydraulic EP at night, so I finally took control of the aircraft and turned direct to Vance as I coordinated with ATC for the early return.  The hydraulic light was intermittent as we returned to home station.  I thought perhaps it was just an indicator problem, but better safe than sorry.

As we lined up on a 12-mile final and during a moment when the caution light was not illuminated I slowed to a safe configuring speed and lowered the flaps; I wanted to make sure the flaps were down as I wouldn’t be able to extend them if the light came back on.  Sure enough, once the flaps were lowered, the Utility Hydraulic caution light illuminated and stayed on.   I lowered the landing gear handle and as expected, nothing happened.

The Alternate Gear Extension is available only in the front cockpit of the T-38C, so I had my student pull the Alternate Gear Extension handle.  There was a series of loud “thumps,” and all three landing gear position indicator lights illuminated green – much to my relief!

I continued the approach and landing from the rear cockpit (lots of fun at night, let me tell you!) as my student cheered me on from the front seat.  The fire trucks were there to meet us, and I stopped straight ahead on the runway awaiting the fire chief’s signal to shut down.

As we climbed out of the jet I saw a blood-red pool of hydraulic fluid on the runway just aft of the engine compartment being fed by a continuous drip from one of the panels directly beneath the engines.  The rest of our utility hydraulic system must have dumped when we got weight on wheels.

Handling emergencies can be difficult enough without the added complications associated with night flying.  Being intimately familiar with the some of the more serious emergency procedures (we call them “barn burners” in the military world) can certainly alleviate the added stress of handling those EPs in the dark.

Read our series on handling emergency procedures: In Flight Emergencies 101.