“Can you fly this morning? We’ve had fallout,” my Director of Operations asked. I had been sitting in the base hotel room, getting ready to go to the gym since I wasn’t scheduled to fly my last flight in the F-16 for a couple of hours. I had moved from Homestead, FL to New Orleans a month prior and was back in town for my last week of F-16 flying before transferring to the Naval Reserve.
“No problem–be there in 10 minutes,” I responded.
Hell yeah. Two flights to finish off my last day of F-16 flying. Great way to close it out!
That morning’s flight was run-of-the-mill Close Air Support (CAS). Established comm with the Forward Air Controller (FAC), got a CAS 9-Line briefing for targeting, dropped 6 BDU-33s, and then shot 110 rounds of 20MM. After that, we moved on to work with the JTACs in the other part of the airspace (dry attacks, no bombs), then we returned home. Two more hours in the Viper.
After a quick debriefing, I was ready to brief my wingman for my final flight in the F-16. The afternoon mission would be quite similar to the first with one addition – a tanker. The plan was to take off after the other two flights, hit the tanker, proceed direct to the range after everyone had cleared off, and do more CAS with the JTACs in training at Avon Park.
We would both be loaded out with 6 BDU-33 training bombs a piece, my wingman would have 110 rds of 20MM, and I would have all 510 rds as part of my fini flight. After expending all the ordnance we’d come home, I’d beat up the pattern for the last time, and then land.
After a briefing consisting of nothing more than, “Standard. Questions?”, we were ready to step. Both flights before us took off with no issues, so I was sure they would be done by the time we got to the range. I didn’t want to have to hold in a CAS fighter stack on my last flight. No one likes that.
With the public affairs guy following us to our jets for pictures, we stepped. As we were walking out, the realization that this would be the last time I’d ever walk out to an F-16 on this ramp hit me. It would be one of many sobering realizations for the next three hours.
I always hate finality and absolutes, but it’s a fact of life. As they say, the two worst times in a fighter pilot’s career are the day he steps to an aircraft knowing it’s his last flight in the jet, and the day he walks out with no idea that it will be his last.
With a fist bump and a “let’s do this,” my wingman and I parted ways to our separate jets and the PA guy following behind me.
I met my crew chief with a handshake. Generally it’s pretty random which crew chief launches which jet, but in this case I had specifically requested that this particular crew chief come out for my last flight. He and I had hung out together at an airshow static display and had become friends.
During the walk around, I confirmed the one thing that I was looking forward to the most about the sortie. The rounds limiter, which generally stops the gun from firing after a certain number of rounds was set to 510 – a full combat load. For the first time in training, I was flying with a full gun loadout. Not bad.
The start up was uneventful as I went through the normal checks and built-in tests. Ten minutes after flipping the JFS Start switch to START 2 for the final time, we were ready to taxi.
With my wingman ready, we checked in on the radios and taxied to end or runway area for arming.
After arming, and with no words from the Supervisor of Flying, we were ready for takeoff holding short of the runway.
“Shark 21, check!”
“Two!” my wingman replied sharply
“Tower, Shark 21 is number one, quick climb on request,” I was asking to forgo the usual turn to the south up to 4000 in favor of an unrestricted climb profile straight up to 10,000.
“Shark 21, line up and wait Runway 5–awaiting IFR release,” replied the tower.
I read back the clearance and taxied onto the runway while my wingman held just short of the runway.
“Shark 21, on departure turn right heading one eight zero, climb and maintain one-zero thousand. Cleared for takeoff–change to departure, have a good flight.”
“Right 180 up to 10, cleared for takeoff–push 4,” was my abbreviated response.
As I checked my wingman in on the departure frequency, I pushed the throttle up to 90% RPM and checked the engine instruments and cycled the flight controls. This was it: never again would I be sitting here on the runway in an 482 FW F-16C.
As I released the brakes and selected MAX Afterburner, the five stages of ‘burner began to light, pressing me back in the seat. Within seconds I was blasting through 60 kts…100 kts…120 kts…140 kts…150 kts…aaannnnd I began to rotate. As I passed the 3000 ft remaining marker, I waved to one of my buds taking pictures from one of the intersecting taxiways and continued watching the airspeed build. By the end of the runway at just over 100 ft off the ground, my jet was screaming through 400kts. With a 5G pull to 50 degrees nose high, I began a climbing right-hand turn to south as the fully-loaded Viper climbed at more than 10,000 feet per minute.
We checked in first with Miami departure and then Miami center, and with my wingman in a fluid formation roughly a half-mile to mile behind me, we turned toward the tanker at FL 260–or 26,000 feet’. Once I locked him up with my radar and picked him up visually, we rejoined on him and changed to tanker freq and began refueling. I sent my wingman to the boom first, with the idea that I’d get a little more gas coming off the tanker so after the tactical portion, I would have more gas to beat up the pattern.
Of course, in nearly 1000 hours and hundreds of refuelings, I never had any issues getting gas, but on my last flight of all days, I took an inordinate amount of time to get fuel as the tanker kept climbing and descending as the guys in front were hand-flying. I had hoped to nail it, but wasn’t smooth enough. Kind of a let-down for my last time getting plugged.
After taking 3000 lbs of gas apiece, we cleared off north from the tanker track to the range. Now we had finally hit the meat of the mission. Everything up to this point had been admin also known as motherhood – queep, if you will. The meat of the mission would be working with the dudes on the ground and shooting the gun in a tactical environment, and also dropping our 6 BDU-33s.
As we cruised to the airspace, I sent my wingman off to the range frequency to check in with the ranger for clearance into the airspace.
“Two’s back up with words and clearance,” he came back.
“Go with clearance,” I replied.
“Cleared on, airspace up to 30,000, ranger says the JTACs have packed up and are going home due to lightning on the range and a thunderstorm overhead,” he said. I could hear the concern in his voice.
“Well that’s no good,” I replied. Dammit. The reality was beginning to creep in. We each had full tanks of gas, but the possibility of bringing the bombs and bullets home was now staring me right in the face. This was not the way I wanted to end my F-16 career – holding for weather then coming home.
As we checked in on range and completed our G-Awareness exercise (two 90 degree turns, 4-5 Gs each to test the aircraft systems and our bodies), I told my wingman to take a radar lock while we navigated the weather.
I could already see the other flights on the data link clearing away from the range and heading toward the other parts of the airspace, so I called them hoping they had already dropped and were just getting out of my way. No such luck.
“Shark, go ahead for Mako,” he replied.
“Yeah what’s the weather like on North Tac?” The range complex was split into two ranges, a northern and southern tactical range. The south range, however, was unworkable due to ordnance removal on range.
“It’s completely unworkable, we’re going home,” he replied, obviously frustrated.
As we got closer to the range, all hope I had for finding a workable area on the range was gone. The thunderstorms were everywhere, and there was a solid undercast starting down at 8,000’ and going down to an unknown altitude.
I called the ranger and asked him to take a look at the weather radar for me. The storms were moving slowly and while he thought the bases were at 5,000’, there were plenty of rain showers in the area. Not good.
“Well, this sucks,” I said on our VHF auxiliary radio to my wingman.
“Yeah, it’s not good–sorry, broski,” he replied.
“Stay up here and hold in the clear air space, I’m going to find a hole and get down below the weather to see if I can find any workable targets.”
So with that, I left my wingman in the clear air to maneuver my way through the rainshowers. I found an opening in the clouds where the ground was clearly visible and dove threw it, opening my speed brakes and leaving the throttle at idle to keep my speed down to avoid de-laminating the paint in the event I flew through light rain.
Breaking through the weather, I found that the bottoms of the clouds were really at around 4500’ or so, with rain showers scattered all over the range. The south tactical range, of course, was easily workable, but not legally with the range restrictions.
I climbed back up to meet my wingman, and with the visual he rejoined on me. I reported the news – no bueno. I asked the ranger to keep me updated, but the clock was ticking on our range time and it wasn’t looking good.
Time to come up with a plan. It was killing me knowing that I’d never get another chance to empty the gun. Looking at the clock and our gas, we had about 30 minutes of hold time before I absolutely had to either get my attacks in or go home.
So we flew around the clear parts of the airspace. I could see it clear to the west, but the ranger reported that the storm tracks showed south east to northwest. Exactly the opposite of what I needed.
After a few aileron rolls of boredom and twenty minutes of holding, I decided to make one more attempt at making it happen. As we were approaching the target area, the ranger told me that it looked like if there were ever a time, this was it – behind the current cells appeared to be much worse.
I dropped my wingman off again in the south part of the airspace and started looking for a hole to get me down to the range area. I could see off to the east that it was actually starting to clear, but the storms were moving so slowly that it wouldn’t matter. The clock was ticking and it wasn’t on my side.
Beneath the weather, I saw much of the same. Rain showers everywhere. With fifteen minutes left of range time, I had reached my decision point. If I couldn’t find a target on the tactical range, I had to go home.
Just as I was about to turn back south, I noticed that while the showers were covering the tactical targets, the conventional targets were clear. With a call to the ranger to confirm that I could legally strafe the targets and drop on the conventional target, I came up with a plan.
But my wingman was 10 miles to the south above the weather and we were running out of time. Since his jet was limited to 111 rds, he only needed one strafe pass to “empty the gun.” I, on the other hand, needed a few more.
So I had him start working his way down while I set up for my strafe passes. I would need every bit of time we had left to get all our munitions off the jet, so I went to work.
Setting up a makeshift conventional square pattern, I flipped the master arm switch to ARM and set up for strafe on the right most strafe “rag” (a target suspended in the air).
As I rolled in on the target, I set up the pipper directly on the strafe rag with the jet 10 degrees nose low and flying 400 kts. As the range counted down, I waited for the open fire range of 4500 feet and squeezed the trigger. The metallic rattle of the gun never gets old. But whereas we usually shoot until it stops (since we only get 110 rds), I had to remind myself to count a second before coming off at 250’ AGL. After following the track-shoot-track technique, I pulled 5 Gs to recover from the dive and return to the container pattern.
As I flew back around for another pass, I began coordinating an unconventional method for my wingman to join the pattern.
“Two, I want you to start working your way north to the target area, when I come off from this pass, you’re cleared through dry on a right roll-in to set up the container pattern.”
“Any questions?” I asked. It was a bit nonstandard, and I wanted to make sure we were on the same page.
The plan worked fine, and as I rolled in for my second pass, I could see my wingman entering the target area from the south behind me. I followed the same parameters as before, but this time squeezed the trigger for a second and a half, shooting 150 rounds.
Two called in dry and flew over the target behind me, turning left to follow my pattern.
We did this two more times, with me emptying the gun on the last pass and my wingman emptying his on the second to last pass.
On downwind, flying away from the target, I briefed our next attack on the aux radio.
“Next pass will be on the right conventional, steerpoint 72, we’re going to drop the BDU-33s out of a level delivery, CCRP release pulse 6, 75’ spacing, we’re going to turn RIGHT after release to avoid this rain shower on the east side of the target.”
The idea here is that in one pass, we’d get rid of all 6 bombs, allowing the computer to compute the release point as opposed to putting a pipper on the target in a diving delivery and potentially being off parameters and not dropping.
“Two.” The shower was now rapidly approaching from the east, threatening to occlude our only viable target.
The conventional target was a truck that sat just 100 meters south of the strafe rags, so the pattern was basically the same. At 2000’ AGL, I lined up the steering cue with the truck and hit the pickle button at the appropriate time, watching as all 6 BDUs were ejected off the TERs.
As I passed over the target and began my turn, I looked over my shoulder to see all six BDUs hit with a white puff of smoke. Each BDU-33 has a smoke charge in it for spotting purposes.
“Shark, this is the ranger”
“Go ahead,” I said as I turned south.
“I show your range time ending in 1 minute, the range will be cold.”
“Shark 2 is in hot,” my wingman said just as the ranger finished his warning.
“Shark 21 copies,” I replied.
And just as his last bomb hit, my GPS clock in the jet showed on the hour. Our scheduled range time was over. We had just made it. We had emptied the rails and our guns. Success.
My wingman rejoined on me, and we headed back home. Never again would I shoot the 20MM of the F-16. Sad, but at least I got to empty the gun on my last sortie. Not many people get to do that in training.
Once back at base, I cleared my wingman to rejoin close and we set up for the “Freedom Recovery.”
Generally, when we come back home, we usually fly 6000’ line abreast in what’s called “Tac(tical) Initial.” We fly runway heading and over the numbers, we both turn 180 degrees to enter the downwind and then turn another 180 to enter a base turn and land. The freedom recovery is basically flying 1000’ over the ramp perpendicular to the runway and then making a 90 degree right turn to enter the downwind. It’s a “morale pattern” for drill weekends for the maintainers on the ground.
With my wingman in perfect position, we flew right down the taxiway near the ramp.
“It’s been a pleasure flying with you,” I said on the radio, as I gave him the hand signal to pitch out in a five-second interval.
“My pleasure, man–glad I could be here,” he replied on the radio with a nod to acknowledge my visual signal.
I gave him a salute, and pulled into the downwind for the runway while he delayed 5 seconds and followed to give us the correct spacing.
I low-approached the runway and then requested to re-enter the pattern, while my wingman chose to ful- stop to allow me my last time in the pattern alone so he could meet me at the jet when I landed.
I decided to make one more lap around the outside pattern, flying over Biscayne Bay and past the nuke plant one last time. Even with the overcast, the water was still gorgeous.
After another low approach, I requested high key to do a practice simulated flameout pattern (SFO). Generally we do this to practice engine out scenarios – at the end of the runway it’s a climbing right hand turn to 7k.
On the go around, I accelerated to 400 knots and at the end of the runway, pulled 60 degrees nose high at 6Gs while turning, ending up rolling out directly over the mid point of the runway at 5000’ while still climbing.
At the high key point, I brought the throttle back to idle and basically glided to another low approach over the runway.
On the go-around, I requested closed traffic and was cleared present-position closed. So with a another pull-up to 45 degrees and sharp turn, I was almost instantly back in the downwind to land. I figured the pattern stuff was fun, but one more and it was time to shut it down and land. I had been in the air nearly two and a half hours already.
As I entered the final turn, I called for one more low approach, indicating that I would not be touching down. Once over the runway at 50 ft, I raised the gear and selected military power. “Shark 21, closed full stop”
“Shark 21, present position closed approved.”
And with that, I selected full afterburner and pulled full aft-limiter stick and started a climbing 6-G turn, reaching 1500’ in seconds and then cancelling the AB.
“Shark 21, base…gear…stop.”
“Shark 21, cleared to land, thanks for your service, best of luck to you,” the tower controller responded.
“Shark 21, thanks for all the hard work, guys,” I replied.
Something about that just kind of choked me up a bit. My F-16 flying career was one landing away from being over. Everything I had known for the last 5 years…done.
The landing was completely uneventful, and I ended it with a pretty good landing by my own standards. No bouncing as the Viper is prone to do. Just a nice easy grease on landing. Thank God. I’d hate to end on a less than perfect note.
My heart was actually racing a bit as I rolled out. I’m not sure what caused the adrenaline spike, but I felt like I had just been in a fight. The sortie was over, and so was my time with the mighty Viper.
After de-arming, the EOR crew gave me a sharp salute and I called for taxi back. Of course, the ground controller was new, and didn’t understand my call of “Taxi bravo, papa, park, N’Awlins.”
I had so much hope for that joke too.
As I pulled into the chocks after taxiing through the bird bath (essentially a drive through car wash for the jet to get the salt water collected from flying over the ocean off it), all of my squadron mates were standing around the jet.
My attention, however, was particularly caught by the lone lieutenant holding the fire hose from the fire truck in the parking spot next to where I was going. His intent was clear. Hose me down. It’s tradition.
After shutting down, my operations officer met me at the ladder and told me to takeoff my harness and g-suit. Best not to get those wet.
And then it hit me. Literally. I don’t know what kind of PSI those fire hoses are capable of, but it’s cold and it’s a lot of water. My flight instinct kicked in, only to run me right into two other captains spraying champagne on me. Right in my eye. Ouch.
After the abuse ended, all the bros came over to shake my hand and congratulate me. All I could do was thank everyone for coming out, and for letting me fly as long as I have.
And just like that, it was over. After filling out my times in the jet’s forms, I found myself alone walking back to the squadron. Never again would I set foot on this ramp as a Mako Viper Driver.
This chapter in my life was over. It was time to move on to the Hornet. It was bittersweet. I was so comfortable flying the F-16. The jet was awesome and getting better. Although I was never a fan of the surrounding area of Homestead, the flying was the best.
We were pretty much the only show in town, so the controllers were great to us. The airspace and bombing ranges were outstanding. I was excited to be moving on to a new chapter in my life, but sad to leave behind a great squadron, some good friends, and a great airplane.