There wasn’t a single cloud interrupting the azure sky as we stepped out of the crew bus onto the concrete of the south ramp. The jets, mostly T-38 A-models, sat poised and ready to leap into the bright September sky. My jet, a shiny black T-38, was prepped and ready for my pre-flight inspection. I couldn’t contain a smile as I thought of the morning of relaxing flying ahead of me.
I was to take one of two jets to Mesa-Gateway Airport in Phoenix where we would drop off one of the last remaining white-painted T-38s in the inventory. The jet would have its paint stripped in preparation for a gloss black paint job – officially inaugurating it into the adversary fleet for the F-22s at Holloman Air Force Base, NM.
As I walked out to the jet that morning I had no idea that such an easy trip would turn into an ordeal that would challenge my airmanship and draw upon over a thousand hours of T-38 time in order to land safely at my destination.
The weather report sent over by the local weather shop did not indicate anything too crazy along our route of flight or at our destination. My flight lead for the day was another dual qualified F-22/T-38 pilot who had recently re-hacked his IP qualification in the T-38 after racking up some time in the F-22. We decided to double-check the weather in phoenix on the Internet to ensure we had the most up-to-date information available.
Mesa-Gateway, also known as “Willie”, was calling for southerly surface winds with clouds scattered at 5,000, broken at 10,000 and overcast at 15,000. I had flown into Willie several times and had never once seen a cloud. This was enough to cause us to look at the radar. If there were clouds in Phoenix, there was probably more to the story.
Sure enough, the radar picture indicated two small areas of precipitation: one to the northwest of the airport and one to the southeast. The radar loop was current within five minutes and did not give us too much cause for concern as the cells weren’t moving too quickly and weren’t forecasted to build until later in the day.
We started the fifty-plus years old J-85 engines, which hummed like they rolled off the line yesterday. We dropped our canopies rolling onto Runway 25, and off we went.
Because the trip was so short (just under 300 NM) we decided to stay low to help us burn down some fuel weight. We would still arrive at Willie about 1,500 lbs above normal recovery fuel. We even joked on our flight discrete frequency that if the thunderstorms rolled in, we could just turn around and divert right back to Holloman.
After some relaxing enroute flying in glorious sunny skies, we joined the SUNSS Seven arrival into Phoenix over the San Simon Tacan. That’s when we noticed the low-lying line of dark gray clouds on the horizon off our noses. As we neared Phoenix, my flight lead cleared me off the ATC frequency to pick up ATIS.
I still remember Gateway Information Foxtrot like I had just listened to it: “Winds 125 at 7, scattered 5,000, broken 10,000, overcast 15,000…” Exactly as indicated on the TAF. I returned to the ATC frequency and read the ATIS to my flight lead on the discrete frequency. Game plan: get below the weather, cancel, and fly up initial to Runway 12R like heroes.
As we continued the arrival, it became more apparent that the clouds we were about to fly into went much lower than advertised on ATIS and were going to be much thicker than we anticipated. I wondered out loud if I would have to fly an ILS through actual weather in the mighty T-38A. Something – call it experience, call it instinct – told me that would be the case and to prepare appropriately. But something else, I’m not sure what it was – laziness? – caused me to ignore the other voice completely and to just play dumb wingman. Surely, I thought, ATIS was correct and we would break out of the weather and I would feel dumb for dialing up the ILS.
A quick word about instrument approaches in the T-38A: they can be somewhat terrifying. The old steam gauges and analog instruments have been known to stick or freeze at times and are somewhat difficult to interpret if you are at all out of practice for instrument approaches (which I certainly was.)
So, instead of doing what I knew I should do, I just tightened up my formation position and got into fingertip as we dove into the clouds.
The approach controllers were having a rough day. They had several thunderstorm cells to deal with and we weren’t helping out the flow by having to maintain 300 KCAS as we entered the radar pattern. The controllers let us know that due to the weather at Willie our request for initial was not going to be an option and that they would be vectoring us for the ILS Runway 30C. That was the first time I pealed my eyes off the other jet to take a quick glance at my HSI. We were south of the field almost to a 10-mile final. We were still high, and still fast. ATC reported the runway to be wet. I looked back up through limited visibility at the other jet to update my formation position.
My flight lead’s voice crackled over the discrete frequency, “sounds like we’re going to have to split up. You’re cleared to drag to one-mile trail and pick up a separate clearance.”
Great. I set 30 degrees of bank away, pulled the throttles back, dropped the speed brake, and started coordinating with approach for my clearance. I felt my heart rate pick up as I realized that I was now on an 8-mile final and blind on my flight lead with low awareness based on the fact that I had been concentrating on flying fingertip for most of the arrival.
I didn’t have the localizer course dialed up, and I didn’t have the ILS frequency tuned in – I didn’t even have the correct approach open! I felt like a freight train was about to hit me, yet some weird little voice inside me was saying, “you’ve shot hundreds of instrument approaches, you can still make this happen.” I envisioned following my present course, and breaking out of the clouds only to hit a tower, or a mountain, or something that didn’t remotely resemble a runway. My mind started running away with all the ways this could go badly.
Finally, experience and reason took over. I leveled off, maintained 250 KCAS, keyed the radio, and confessed that I would need vectors back around for another approach.
I got my stuff together on radar downwind. Almost out of fear, I found myself running through all the standard checks drilled into my nugget at pilot training. Localizer frequency: set. Inbound course: selected. DME of FAF: noted and situational awareness finally regained. Final approach speed: calculated and bugged.
This approach was much more comfortable. I broke out at 400/2 in driving rain to see my flight lead (who had also gone around for one more shot) rolling out on the far end of the runway. I surprisingly had one of my best touchdowns in the T-38 (which in that jet and that type of weather is saying something) and remembering all of my friends who had experienced blown tires on wet runways, I gingerly applied brakes. As I slowed, a veritable wall of water washed over the canopy.
I pulled off the runway and heard my flight lead’s voice again on the discrete freq: “…dude.” It sounded like someone had an experience similar to mine!
We sat in the restaurant at the FBO waiting for a line of strong storms to pass and for the lightning to get far enough away from the field so the ramp rats could fuel us up. I was grateful to know that even though I was out of practice for the ILS, it had come back quickly.
After the storms passed and the white jet was handed over to the paint strippers, my flight lead jumped in the backseat of my jet for a quiet ride back to clear blue skies.
I learned some things that beautiful September morning. I could have been a smoking hole in the ground due to my complacency. A pilot can’t always count on experience to make things happen and one must develop and maintain good habit patterns. This means fighting to stay ahead of the aircraft and being ready for any contingency (especially when that contingency is staring you in the face!)
I was also reminded that it’s ok to take another swing at the bat when you can. Don’t just stick with a bad situation in order to “make it happen.” Go around.
Lucky for us, we had the fuel for a missed approach. I even had enough fuel for one or two if I needed them. That won’t always be the case. Stick to the procedures, trust your airmanship, and do not EVER be complacent.