Fly like a fighter: Backup to the backup

November 2, 2012

fly like a fighter

While instructing in the T-38 at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla., I was able to fly in a variety of weather conditions. One particular mission was an intermediate phase two-ship formation student sortie. The weather at our home base wasn’t great—400-foot ceiling with tops around 8,000 feet. The forecast called for clear skies near takeoff time, so all of the intermediate and advanced students who didn’t need traffic pattern work launched. Our IFR alternate was McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., which raised our bingo fuel for leaving the area.

larry brown

We took off in formation and broke out on top as advertised, and as we continued west into the military operations area found the clearing line for all the clouds about 30 miles west of the field.

On a normal VFR day we would be rejoined slightly above bingo fuel, obtain ATIS, and talk to approach as we left the area right at bingo fuel. Since the weather was poor and the clearing line hadn’t moved since we entered the MOA, I elected to rejoin us a little early to listen to ATIS. I was hopeful that the ceiling had lifted enough for us to drop our alternate—so we could have more fun—but was realistic enough to know we might need to start home soon. The ceiling hadn’t changed, which was really bad news, because the minimum ceiling for us to fly a formation approach was 500 feet. That meant that all of the formations that had launched—T-37s and T-38s—were now trying to come home to the single instrument runway and had to be split up and handled as singles.

I told my student to switch to approach control and start heading home. To my dismay, the radios were so busy that we held for five minutes and never could get in the flow to check in with approach. A full fuel load in a T-38 on a local formation mission is only a little over an hour, so five minutes of holding seems like an eternity. Bypassing the crowd going into Vance and heading straight for McConnell wasn’t an option since it would be an IFR trip and we still hadn’t been able to contact approach.

In the clear and able to see the ground, I had noticed Clinton-Sherman airport was in the clear 40 miles to the south throughout our time in the MOA. I hadn’t been there in a while, and with only one radio I had my wingman call them to make sure they had fuel and a start cart. A few minutes later I heard a resounding, “Yes!,” from my wingman, which was perfect timing for me to finally tell approach that we were canceling IFR and proceeding VFR to Clinton-Sherman. We even got in a few touch-and-goes before landing and ensured that we got a second sortie for the day to make the trip back home.

In the debrief I learned that the other instructor had also been eyeing Clinton-Sherman throughout the sortie, which was nice to hear. The students said they had heard of Clinton-Sherman during ground training but really didn’t know where it was. I took that as a failure on my part to make sure knowledge transfer had actually occurred during our previous ground training. Ultimately, whether flying a local sortie or cross country, it is always good to have a backup to your backup—just in case.

Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,600 hours total time during his 32 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”