I really enjoyed instructing in the T-38 jet fighter trainer. Students’ learning curves normally ramped up during the program, and it was nice to see the light bulbs go on. Plus we got to go fast and do some cool maneuvering. On an early formation ride for my student, we were in the lead in the military operations area with clear skies and had reached bingo fuel, but we were still getting our wingman joined up at 350 knots at 20,000 feet. The additional problem was we were pointing straight toward the field at 22 DME and the area boundary was at 18 DME. Normally a descending 360-degree turn would make the arrival more manageable. But I didn’t want to use the extra gas so decided to try something different and unconventional.
From the rear cockpit I took control of the jet, then tapped the top of my helmet with my left hand to show my wingman that I was now flying, which gave that instructor a clue that he should probably start flying his jet as well. As I called approach for a clearance for the ILS my power came back not quite to idle and my speed brakes came out. Approach then asked if I needed a 360-degree turn and I said, “Negative. We can make it.” Not quite sure I could, approach control hesitatingly said, “OK. Fly heading 100. Descend and maintain 3,000. Cleared ILS 17 center approach.” The 100-degree heading turned us away from the field slightly giving us a little more room to make the descent.
For a few miles I descended only a little to help us slow down a little faster, and to ultimately slow my progress toward the field. As we decelerated below gear extension speed I lowered the landing gear and extended partial flaps. We then slowed to 175 knots (20 knots above approach speed), with gear and flaps extended, almost idle power, and speed brakes. Then the nose came down and we started mushing our way down toward earth. And the vertical velocity indicator increased. And the altimeter started winding down quickly. My wingman stayed with me the whole way as we intercepted the localizer and stabilized on altitude 3 miles outside the final approach fix, which was plenty of time to give the jet back to the student to fly the approach and landing.
Aside from drag devices, fighters also have the option of performing a low-power but high-G descending spiral to keep the airspeed under control while making a rapid descent. But, alas, not all of these options are available in our general aviation airplanes. From cruise at 8,000 feet to 12,000 feet msl, would you consider ripping your throttle to idle to expedite your descent? Not a good idea since shock cooling a piston engine is not a healthy choice. Most GA airplanes don’t have speed brakes, and most already have the gear extended. We do have an added trick that doesn’t work as well in fighters--the forward slip. Overall, though, what is your best option? Follow the guidance of “proper prior planning prevents pretty poor performance” and you will pre-plan your descent point in your aircraft for your particular flight that day. If you do get behind, then go ahead and make a 360-degree turn (or two) to allow you to descend comfortably and not rush your arrival.
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 in the Fly like a fighter archive .