February 4, 2013
By Larry Brown
We had four fully armed F-15s sitting alert in Bitburg, Germany, and I was on the schedule for a 24-hour shift. The morning sorties were already airborne as I phoned the weather shop to get more details on the snow in the forecast. They said this was going to be a pretty strong system and could arrive within the next hour. We didn’t always fly on alert, but I suspected maintenance wanted to get the jets airborne so they could swap them out for scheduled maintenance that day. I figured I should call the commander to make sure he knew the details of the forecast so that he would not scramble us.
As the last couple of jets from the first launch were landing, the snow was falling, the wind was picking up, and the visibility had dropped rapidly. That was when the klaxon sounded. It had been only 15 minutes since I had talked to the commander and briefed the other three pilots that we wouldn’t be flying. We looked at each other in disbelief, and then ran for the fire poles and headed to the jets to get them started.
I checked everyone in, and then received my orders from the command post--practice scramble. I ran through authentications with them and told them to check with the commander to confirm that he wanted us to launch. After a short pause they confirmed the launch order. So off two of us went. About two minutes after takeoff we heard the call on Guard frequency: “Bitburg Air Base is closed due to weather.” Thanks for nothing!
We dumped fuel in holding while we coordinated a diversion to Ramstein Air Base, 60 miles to the south. Landing at Ramstein was fine, but when ground control found out that we had live missiles on board they didn’t know where to put us. The first taxi pad they cleared us to had 2 inches of solid ice on it, so I asked for the next option. The next option hadn’t been plowed. We ended up taxiing for 50 minutes before we finally got parked.
The command post in Bitburg told us to leave the jets at Ramstein and do what we could to find a way home. We called a taxi and began phase two of our journey. The hour-and-a-half drive turned into four hours as the snow became a verifiable blizzard. With more and more cars sliding off the road, our taxi driver finally gave up about 20 miles south of Bitburg and dumped us at a gas station. I don’t blame her.
After another call to the command post and an hour-and-a-half wait, our final ride showed up. They sent a 35,000-pound road grader, the kind with the 4-foot-tall tires and single driver’s seat. The snow was no match for us with that monster.
I was airborne for 90 minutes; I got back to the alert facility 10 hours after takeoff.
I could tell during my phone call with the commander that morning that he was preoccupied. He later told me that he thought my phone call was a hint at my eagerness to fly, not a suggestion to stand down. What we had was a failure to communicate.
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 2,700 hours total time during his 33 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.”
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With a closing speed of about 900 knots, Air Force pilots on a training mission have seconds to aim and shoot heat-seeking and radar guided missiles at a drone target. Their success came from repeated rehearsals. But as author Larry Brown writes, “there is nothing like the real thing to gain experience.”
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