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Fly like a fighter: Slightly lostFly like a fighter: Slightly lost

Fly like a fighter

As a young F-15 wingman it wasn’t always easy to keep up with the navigation while following my lead. Just flying formation often kept me busy to the exclusion of other tasks. I made sure to follow the new fighter pilot rules: Don’t hit lead; don’t hit the ground; and don’t run out of gas.

Larry BrownOn my first deployment to Korea, I was No. 4 in a four-ship for a training mission over the Yellow Sea on a VFR day – sunny skies but with typical Korean haze and visibilities of 3 to 4 miles near the ground. While cruising to the area, I tried to soak in some of the topography and noticed a main river flowing west into the sea. I figured that would be a good reference point for situational awareness.

In the middle of our first engagement, I split away from the others in full afterburner to avoid a missile shot. I checked six, then checked my gas, and was panicked to see my fuel was below our bingo fuel established for the return home. I either had a fuel leak or a gauge malfunction. I knew the drill – plan for the worst and hope for the best.

I was already 3 miles away from the group, doing about 550 knots, and was generally heading back toward land with them behind me. In case it was a leak, I didn’t want to eject over the water so elected not to turn back toward them for my flight lead to rejoin on me. I headed for home, making a radio call to let them know what was up.

My brain then went back and forth on the fuel situation. With a fuel leak, the procedure was to use military power to go fast and burn whatever fuel you could before it all leaked out. With a low fuel situation, the procedure was to fly a maximum range power setting to get as far as you could before you ran out of gas. Both situations called for a climb.

While managing the throttles, I also got my checklist out to double check my thinking, and it didn’t give me any more help.  Eventually I hit the coastline and saw a river heading inland, which is where I made a slight turn to follow it. I then contacted the supervisor of flying in the tower to let him know I was an early return and not sure of my fuel state. By then the fuel gauges had frozen. I was VFR and had tower frequency in my radio pending my call to them.

But when I figured I should be getting close to home, I wasn’t. I was following the wrong river.  I had been so busy analyzing the situation and talking to others that I hadn’t even used my onboard avionics to point me toward home or contacted approach control to ask for a vector.  Rookie mistake. The “aviate, navigate, communicate” mantra exists for a reason.

It turns out I had a gauge malfunction, which I was able to figure out when on final approach and noticed a higher approach speed for an on-speed angle of attack reading. Every mission after that, I worked hard to keep my navigation equipment updated with our route of flight no matter what position I was flying. To this day, I always write down the ATIS/CTAF/ATC frequencies for my departure and arrival airports on my lineup card for quick reference. I also keep my VOR tuned and active even while navigating via GPS and monitoring with my iPad. Most importantly, I learned to put my pride aside and ask for help when I need it.

Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colorado, 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 2,900 hours total time during his 35 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.”

Larry Brown

Larry Brown

Larry Brown of Denton, Texas, is a retired U.S. 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 more than 3,000 hours total time during his 35 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.
Topics: Emergency, Fuel Awareness, Safety and Education

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