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Never Again Online: F-16 cross-country to Korea

It was a beautiful day in northern Japan as our four-ship mission of F-16s climbed out, headed for Korea, where the weather was forecast to be good also. My boss, the wing commander, was leading the flight mission.

It was a beautiful day in northern Japan as our four-ship mission of F-16s climbed out, headed for Korea, where the weather was forecast to be good also.

My boss, the wing commander, was leading the flight mission. I worked directly for him, and commanded the flying and flight line maintenance operations. Though the boss was a highly experienced pilot — and a former United States Air Force Thunderbird pilot — he had only recently returned to flying status and taken command of the wing. So, he had not formally re-qualified as a flight lead. I flew as number two though I was technically in charge of the flight. Our number-three pilot was young but experienced, and an excellent aviator. On his wing was a "new guy," a lieutenant going on his very first cross-country in the Pacific. The boss and I were headed to meetings in Korea; the other two were going to spend the weekend crisscrossing Japan and Korea collecting some instrument training.

As we flew southwestbound over Japan, I kept a careful watch on the headwinds and our fuel. With headwinds of 120 knots not uncommon, I was relieved to see that the forecast of an 80-knot headwind was true as we carried just enough fuel to shoot an approach at the destination and then divert to our alternate 50 miles away. The Air Force fuel minima rules are different than the FAA's; if an alternate is required we only need enough fuel to divert to the alternate and have an additional 20 minutes in reserve. That 20-minute reserve assumes perfect fuel gauges and no unusable fuel, so there's not much of a comfort zone.

Our wingman picked up the ATIS 150 nautical miles out: light winds, Runway 18 was active, but the visibility was just below two miles. As we got closer, the ATIS still insisted that visibility was just below two miles and the ceiling was at around 800 feet. So we scrapped the plans for the VFR overhead arrival and began to coordinate for separate instrument approaches, which put each aircraft on different UHF frequencies with ATC.

Shortly before I captured the glideslope for the ILS approach to Runway 18, approach control advised that the winds were out of 320 degrees at 20 knots gusting to 30 knots. I did the math and figured we'd have about a 20-knot crosswind — challenging but doable. It was the 25-knot tailwind that got my attention. I considered asking for a runway change but I figured it would take 10 to 15 minutes to change the arresting barriers (typically F-16 runways have an arresting cable connected at the departure end but have the approach end cable removed to avoid aircraft damage). We didn't have enough fuel to wait that long — we'd have to divert to our alternate and might not be able to get back in time for the meetings.

This entire thought process took just a few seconds. By now the boss was on short final and I couldn't be sure that everyone had received the wind update since we were all on different frequencies. I opted to make a call to the other flight members on the intra-flight VHF radio to alert them of the huge tailwind and to be ready to go around if a landing didn't work. Pretty weak flight leadership at best.

The 9,000-foot long runway normally would be more than adequate for an F-16 since we consider 8,000 feet to be a conservative minimum. But I knew with that tailwind that 9,000 feet was going to seem very short. The F-16 is not a hard airplane to land, but it's a hard airplane to land well. My landing technique is to aim about 500 feet short of the threshold, and then shift the aim point and chop the power to idle well before the airplane crosses the threshold. Done correctly, this yields an on-speed touchdown 500 to 1,000 feet down the runway. That's exactly what I would need on this day!

I emerged from the clouds at around 800 feet, but with the murky visibility and the even murkier waters of the Yellow Sea below me, it was not until I saw the runway lights ahead that I realized I was out of the clouds. I shifted the aim point just short of the runway and refined the runway lineup. In the process I went a few knots above my 160-knot approach speed — definitely not what I wanted today. I chopped the power before crossing the threshold but I instantly knew it hadn't been soon enough to compensate for the tailwind. I was whizzing down the runway in a flare much faster than normal.

I touched down about 2,000 feet down the runway still indicating 150 knots. The normal technique would be to use aerodynamic braking by bringing the nose up to 13 degrees angle of attack until the airspeed dropped to 100 knots, and then lower the aircraft's nose. It takes a lot of braking to stop an F-16.

As I zipped down the runway I surveyed my options. I was confident I could still stop within the remaining runway if I transitioned to the short-field technique, which is to stomp on the brakes while the nose is still up in the air. But I feared that could yield hot brakes, which could translate into a ground emergency, possible deflated tires if the fusible plugs had to release the pressure, and a definite loss of cool. I thought I could stop the airplane using normal braking, with the tailhook and barrier in reserve if I was proven wrong. But if I had to use the cable, aircraft number three and four landing behind me would have to divert — an even bigger loss of cool.

Then there was the option we don't talk about in the Air Force — doing a touch and go. We practice touch-and-go landings in two-seat trainers under certain circumstances, but it's actually against the rules to do them in the single-seat aircraft. We brief going around with brake failures or other landing emergencies, but we don't take off again if we make a bad landing. We just don't botch normal landings. In my then-21 years of Air Force flying, I'd never heard of a fighter pilot doing a touch and go after a bad landing. But I had the fuel to shoot another approach. So I swallowed my pride, pushed the power back up, transmitted on VHF that was going around because of the strong tailwind.

As I lifted off, I saw the boss taxi back to parking. To add insult to injury, the other flight crewmembers successfully completed their landings. They later admitted that they all had really stomped the brakes, but no one blew any tires.

While I was vectored for another approach, ATC asked me if I'd like to land on the opposite runway. I queried them as to whether there would be a delay for a runway change, but they said there would not be. I gladly took the other runway. As you can imagine, the landing rollout was short.

What did I learn that day? Well, swallowing your pride in front of your fellow pilots and a wider audience (the host wing commander and my counterpart were at the parking spots to greet us) is always tough, but I knew I had made the right decision. Second, I got lucky as a flight leader. I was in an awkward situation with the boss leading, though I was actually the one responsible for the mission. I should have directed everyone to discontinue the approach and either divert or wait for a runway change. And finally, sometimes you know less than you think. I thought we didn't have the fuel to wait out a runway change. I'm not sure how they did it, but the base reconfigured the barriers and changed the runway in less than 5 minutes.

About a year later two other pilots in my unit did touch and goes after botched landings. I can't help but wonder how many others have but never have said a word about it.

Jeffrey Stambaugh, AOPA 1206329, is a retired Air Force pilot. He holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine instrument ratings and a glider category rating. In 32 years of flying he has accumulated more than 3,400 hours of flight time.

You can find additional information about aeronautical decision making at the following links:

Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the June issue of AOPA Pilot. Read why poor decision making led to an interesting takeoff.

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Posted Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:33:01 AM

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