“Dude, we’re going flying,” my flight lead said with a chuckle as I showed him the satellite image on my phone while he worked on a lineup card for the day’s mission in the Ready Room. It showed an orange and pink blob covering the edges of the airspace over the Gulf of Mexico and advancing thunderstorms from the west. “You’re like a sea gull. Are we going to have to throw rocks at you to get you to go flying?”
“Roger that,” I replied as I shoved the phone back in my flight suit pocket. “What do you need from me?”
“Nothing, man, pick a briefing room and we’ll brief in five minutes,” my flight lead replied with a smile. For the sake of this article, we’ll henceforth call him “Flash.”
We were scheduled to fly a Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics Offensive Basic Fighter Maneuvers flight. In it, I would be the offender as I attempted to maintain my position of advantage to end up with a guns tracking solution on Flash’s aircraft. It was my fourth attempt at flying the sortie – the first three times had failed due to either issues with my aircraft or issues with my instructor’s aircraft. I was looking forward to finally putting that flight behind us.
“Fourth time’s a charm, right?” I asked as we walked into the small briefing room. I took my seat at the front as Flash set up at the podium near a large whiteboard. He handed me a copy of the kneeboard card as we settled in for the brief.
“Yeah man, you’re stuck in the SFWT vortex,” he replied with a grin.
“Not sure today will be much better,” I said. We were the second event of the day. The first event had shifted to an alternate mission due to severe thunderstorms rolling in from the west. Instead of their scheduled Close Air Support missions, the three aircraft decided to fly to the WHODAT airspace over the Gulf of Mexico south of Gulfport to do independent advanced handling practice.
“We’ll find out when the first event guys get back,” he said as he started the brief. He covered all of the standard items and then briefed me on each maneuver we were planning to do. We discussed in detail the weather and our options if it were to get worse. We were well within the legal limits to go flying. With the bad weather, we raised the required fuel to terminate maneuvering so that we could each come back and fly multiple approaches if necessary before having to divert. Every decision we were making was being driven by the nasty weather.
My “go flying meter” was pegged pretty low and getting lower. I’ve never been a fan of flying in heavy rain and thunderstorms since my early days as an F-16 pilot. That aircraft was notorious for rain pooling at the front of the canopy, making it hard to see for landing. And I had even been struck by lightning once while coming home from Fort Worth after a Hurricane Evacuation. It was Friday and, to be honest, I was just hoping we’d cancel and call it a weekend.
After the brief, we both walked back into the Ready Room where the Operations Duty Officer reported that one of the aircraft already out there had just radioed back. Although it was raining at the field, the airspace was mostly clear and workable. There was no reason to flex to the alternate mission of just staying near the field and doing practice approaches just yet.
I tried to push my doubts aside. That’s why we get paid the big bucks, I told myself. Time to go to work and get this flight over with.
As the first of the three airborne F/A-18A+ Hornets landed, Flash grabbed his tapes and headed downstairs to suit up. The plan was for each jet to stagger its landing and then proceed to the hot pits for refueling. Once refueled, the pilot would taxi into the line and shut down an engine and swap out with the other pilot. The process was mostly beneficial to maintenance, allowing multiple pilots to fly the same jet without the need for post flight and turn around inspections between each flight.
Twenty minutes after Flash walked, my jet was in the pits and I headed downstairs to suit up.
“Going flying, sir?” an Aircrew Survival Equipmentman asked me as I pulled my G-suit out of my locker.
“I hope so,” I replied sheepishly.
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“It looks kind of nasty out there, sir,” he replied, looking at the radar on his computer.
“Yeah, I know, but the other guys went flying and said the airspace is workable, so we should be fine.”
“Are y’all dropping bombs?” he asked. I made it a habit to try to talk about the missions we were flying with the troops just to keep them in the loop and motivated on how important their jobs were to keeping us flying and trained.
“Not today,” I replied as I stepped into my harness. “Flash and I are going to fight each other. It’s an upgrade flight for me.”
“Well good luck, sir,” he said as I pulled on my survival vest and grabbed my helmet.
I walked down the narrow hallways toward maintenance control as my jet was finishing up refueling in the hot pits.
As I looked out onto the flight line, I could see that a heavy rain shower had just rolled through. For the time being, the rain had stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief. There’s nothing worse than getting soaked on the way to the jet and then having to spend the entire mission in soggy flight gear.
“Have a good flight, sir,” the maintenance chief said as I finished signing for my aircraft and walked out to aircraft shelter on the flight line where the jet would meet me.
The aircraft had just finished refueling as my boots crossed the red line. I waited patiently as the F/A-18 taxied into the shelter and the Plane Captain (PC) directed the linemen to chock the jet and hook up the tie down chains.
Once clear, the Plane Captain gave the signal and the pilot shut down the left engine and raised the canopy. The PC lowered the onboard ladder and I walked up to the jet as the other pilot descended down the ladder.
I handed him my tapes as we shook hands and I climbed up the ladder and into the cockpit. He followed up the ladder behind me and swapped out his tapes for mine in the compartment behind the seat.
“Radar is a little squirrely,” he said, giving me the changeover brief. “But otherwise it’s a good jet.”
“Thanks!” I yelled over the jet noise. The other pilot descended back down the ladder and the PC raised and secured the ladder.
I lowered the canopy and went through my after start checks. Since the jet was still running, most of the steps had already been completed, but procedure dictates that we go through the after start checks anyway.
Flash checked us in as a flight on the Operations Duty Officer “Base” frequency and then pushed us to our discrete frequency on our aux radio. This allowed us to talk to each other without jamming up ATC frequencies.
As my PC finished his checks and gave me the “Pull Chocks” signal, a heavy downpour drenched the field. Even though we were only a few hundred feet from the runway, I could barely make out the runway markings.
We taxied out as a section and turned right toward Runway 22 as the rain pummeled our jets. My desire to stay on the ground and call it a day grew stronger. Have I mentioned that I hate flying in the rain?
As we reached the hold short line of Runway 22, I pulled up next to Flash. He gave me a look as he pointed down the runway. The rain shower overhead had dropped visibility to less than a half mile. I could barely see the runway distance remaining marker a half mile away.
“Tower, River 31 cancel takeoff, we’ll just hold short here for a minute,” Flash told tower.
“River 31, roger, hold short Runway 22, will you need to back taxi onto the runway, sir?” the male controller asked.
“Negative, we’ll be fine right here,” Flash replied on the primary frequency.
“Let’s switch to Base,” Flash directed on our aux radio.
“River Base, 401,” Flash said on the aux radio, using his aircraft’s side number.
“Go ahead,” the ODO replied.
“Yeah, we’re holding short here. It looks like the visibilities have dropped, can you take a look at the radar for us?”
“I’ve got it up right here,” the ODO replied, “it looks like it’s a cell that should be passing over. There will be more cells for the next half hour over the field, but to the east is clear and the airspace is workable.”
“Roger, thanks,” Flash said and pushed us back to our aux frequency.
“You ready, dude?” he asked as I switched back to the aux frequency.
“Affirm,” I said reluctantly. I was really hoping the showers would end our day, but the visibility had lifted and it looked relatively clear to the south.
Flash called for takeoff clearance and we lined up on the runway. After looking over his jet, I gave him a thumbs up. He responded with his own thumbs up and saluted as he lit the afterburner and started his takeoff roll. Fifteen seconds later, I powered up, checked my engine instruments, and followed.
As we lifted off, I locked him with my radar and called “tied on,” indicating that I was in radar trail behind him. This allowed me to comfortably transit any weather without having to be “welded wing” just feet from him.
After takeoff, we turned left to the southeast. I could see the towering cumulonimbus clouds to my left and behind us. Although we were cleared up to 15,000 ft, Flash leveled off and asked if I was rejoining. I was a mile behind him in trail, and thought we were going to transit in a radar trail, but being a good wingman, I took the hint. I responded that I was rejoining and collapsed down to a close formation.
Once I was safely on board at just a few feet off his right wing, Flash resumed the climb. He wanted to climb quickly through the weather, which left me very little power as we climbed out. But my job as a wingman was to be in position, and I did my best as I went into and out of afterburner to keep up.
As we leveled off in our assigned block altitude of 21,000-23,000 ft, it looked like it was clearing. I could see clear air above his aircraft and it seemed milky and wispy in front. We had passed through a couple of rain showers, but nothing significant. Based on the weather reports from the previous pilots, I guessed that we would be out of the weather and into clear skies soon.
Moments later, I heard more rain beating down on the windscreen. We were passing through heavy turbulence and staying close to his aircraft had become a challenge. As the rain intensified, I looked forward momentarily. The sound of the rain had grown much more intense. I thought it was ice or hail, so I looked for accumulation on my canopy. Any signs of icing or hail would be bad news.
Just as I started to look back at Flash, I noticed a brilliant flash of white light and heard a loud crack and static. I had been wearing my mask, and it felt like the entire right side of my face had just been hit with a really bad static shock. My heart raced. I recognized it almost immediately as a lightning strike.
I tried to overcome the static of my radios to talk to my flight lead. Initially, nothing happened and it was just static. Seconds later, I was able to talk.
“Dude I think we just got hit by lightning,” I said, disregarding wingman radio discipline. “Dude” is not standard brevity.
I wondered if he heard me or was just ignoring me. I thought I might have been overreacting.
As I started to key the mic again, Flash came over the radio and said, “Dude, get away from me! Take a thirty degree cut away.”
Lost wingman? I thought to myself. Regardless, I did as instructed and transitioned to instruments as I established a thirty degree banked turn away from him.
“Two’s lost wingman,” I replied, reaching back to my pilot training days. I wasn’t even sure if that were a Navy thing, but it seemed appropriate. I could no longer see his aircraft.
We cleared the clouds and I picked up visual of Flash’s aircraft. He was still not saying anything.
“Two’s visual,” I said, letting him know that I could see him again.
More silence. At that point I reached up and flipped the Video Tape Recording switch to RECORD. I knew that something was wrong and that it would be best to have a record of whatever else went on. I started the rejoin as I waited for a response.
“Alright, talk to me,” I said as I formed up on his right wing. I was now close enough to see that he was moving around in the cockpit, slightly hunched.
“I got shocked real bad,” he said.
“Yeah, me too,” I replied, not knowing the extent of his injuries and thinking it was just a mild shock like mine.
We had finally made it to the working area. The north part looked fairly cloudy and nasty, but the south was clear, so I said, “If you come right, stay in this clear airspace, I’ll look your jet over.”
He continued mostly straight and level and gave me the hand signal for a Battle Damage Check. I crossed underneath his aircraft at close range, looking for any missing panels or signs of damage.
“How’s the jet look?” he asked as I pulled up to his left wing. His speech seemed a little slurred.
“You’re good. I don’t see any panels popped. No exits or anything like that so it looks good.”
“Alright I’m gonna try to look you over, dude,” he said as he visually passed me the lead.
“I’m gonna start a descent here and get us some clear airspace,” I replied as I took the lead. I started an easy right turn and shallow descent. We had still been at 23,000 and flying straight ahead toward more bad weather.
Flash completed the Battle Damage check and gave me a thumbs up. I passed him the lead and collapsed back to a cruise position.
Another aircraft checked in the airspace. Flash told him that we were working in the south part of the airspace. At first I thought he was thinking about continuing the mission. I was confused, and about to speak up, but he followed up saying we were going to burn down gas and return to base.
“Yeah, Mover,” Flash said, talking to me on the aux radio as we droned along straight and level.
“Yep?” I replied quickly.
“Dude, I felt that through my whole entire body dude, I’m still shaking,” he said. I was close enough to see him trying to shake it off in the cockpit.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Just take a deep breath, you’re on the LOX, we’ll stay in this clear airspace and when you’re ready we’ll go home.” I didn’t know what else to say, but I wanted to be calming and as helpful as I could.
“Did you feel it anywhere?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “Right near my face.”
“No, but did you feel it?”
“You mean like in my body?”
“Uhh, no, just in the face,” I replied. I could tell it had really shaken him up.
“Dude I felt it throughout my whole body. Like I woke up right after,” he said.
Immediately, my adrenaline surged. Like I woke up right after. This was more than just shaken. I knew we had to get home and get him medical attention.
“Let me switch up to base, and I’ll tell them what’s going on,” I replied. “I’ll be off one minute.”
I reached up and switched the auxiliary radio to the ODO/Base frequency as I watched Flash still trying to shake off the feeling in his cockpit.
“River Base, 404,” I said, using my side number.
“Go ahead,” the ODO replied.
“Yeah, on the way out we both got hit by lightning. We’re going to come back. Flash is probably close to a phys-y right now, we probably want to see about getting some medical for him,” I said. I didn’t want to announce to the world what Flash had just told me, but I wanted it to be clear that there was some form of physiological incident at hand.
“Ok, what’s wrong with Flash? What does he need?”
“Uh he actually felt the lightning strike through his body. He is pretty shaken up and we’re currently trying to shake it off in the airspace,” I replied.
“Base copies,” he said quickly.
The pilot of the other aircraft that had checked in to the airspace came up on the base frequency and recommended we go to an alternate that was not experiencing bad weather. After a brief discussion, the ODO suggested that we come back to New Orleans since the alternates were all getting the same weather and it looked like it was clearing back home.
I switched back to talk to Flash. “How are you doing, man?” I asked.
“Good dude. I’m still shaken up though man. It went through my whole body.” I could see him slouched in the cockpit of his jet. He looked like he was still trying to shake it off.
“Ok, I was talking to Base,” I replied. “It looks like Gulfport’s just going to be as bad as home. So it’s up to you what you feel like doing. We can divert or try to go back home.”
“Home looked better. We can try to get a vector to the south so we don’t fly through that shit again.”
“I recommend a section approach, that way I can stay with ya,” I replied. I wanted to monitor him until touchdown, so flying together as a section seemed like the right call.
“Ok,” he replied.
“Base is aware of the situation, so we’ll make sure you’re looked at when you get back.”
“Do you want me to fly off you and work the radios or do you think you have it?” I asked, trying to ease the work load from him as much as possible.
“Uhh… hold on,” he replied.
As I waited for his reply, I informed the ODO of our plan to return and fly the section approach.
“I’ll let you take the lead dude…and uh… I’ll fly off you, if that’s cool.”
“Copy that, I’ve got the lead on the right,” I replied, pushing to the front of the formation.
“I’m just thinking a little slow, man,” Flash said as I started coordinating with Houston Center to get a clearance home with a deviation to the south for weather.
I started turning toward the south to what looked to be clear airspace. Houston advised that I’d have to almost go to Leeville, several miles south, before finding a break in the weather, but with plenty of fuel in both jets, I thought that would be the best option. Better to remain in visual flight conditions than try to transit weather again.
Watching Flash in my canopy mirrors, I monitored his progress. He was holding a relatively stable position a few hundred feet aft off my left wing.
“Alright man, I’m holding three hundred knots, heading 260 and we’re at 12,000 feet,” I said, reading off my parameters for him to make it easier to stay in position.
“Can we go down to 10?” he asked meekly. I could hear it in his voice. He was fighting the fog and barely hanging on.
“I just feel hypoxic,” he added. Hypoxic. He had said the trigger word. We’ve all gone through training in the effects of lack of oxygen to the blood cells. Each person has different symptoms, and if left untreated, the results could be deadly. We were no longer in the realm of “feeling less than outstanding.”
The stakes had gone much higher.
“Center, River 31, request down to 10,000 and we’ll go ahead and declare an emergency now. It’ll be no assistance required, but we’ll need priority at Navy,” I said as calmly as I could to Center over the radio. It was a façade. I may have sounded calm, but inside my cockpit my mind was racing a million miles per minute. We needed to get Flash and his jet safely on the ground – soon.
“What’s the nature of the Emergency?” the Houston Center controller asked with a slight Texas accent.
“We’re going to call it physiological. Can you coordinate with Callendar to change to Runway 4? We’re going to need the PAR,” I said, trying to think ahead as much as possible. We had taken off on Runway 22, away from the line of storms. I didn’t want to risk flight north east of the city and having to fly an approach into the weather with Flash on my wing.
“Roger that, let us know if you need any further assistance,” the controller responded. He was professional, cool, calm, and collected. He more than likely knew that there was more going on in our cockpits, and that the best way to help was to interfere as little as possible.
I checked my mirrors again as I turned more toward the south. I could see the rain clouds up ahead, but there seemed to be a definite clearing line to the north of where we were going. I was determined to stay out of the weather, even if it meant flying farther south.
“I’m not getting better dude,” Flash said over the aux radio as he bobbled slightly in position.
“Let me know what you need. Make sure you have your mask on and 100%. You can try taking that mask off, we’re down below 10,000 ft.” It was counter to the stated “Hypoxia” boldface we studied and trained for, but at the time I wasn’t thinking hypoxia. We had been below 10,000 ft cabin altitude for most of the flight, and he had been on his mask the whole time. By now I thought he might be having a mild panic attack from his injuries and thought maybe removing the constriction of his mask might help.
I pushed our flight to the base frequency on the aux radio. I wanted all of us talking on the same frequency, in case I was missing something.
“Base, 404, we’re coming back, trying to get Runway 4. Thinking about symptoms of hypoxia, we’re gonna get the trucks rolling and we’ve declared an emergency,” I said, relaying the latest developments.
“Base copies, We’ll get medical care there right away and then we’ll get the jet towed back,” the duty officer responded.
“I’ll have him come back with me as a section and then I’ll drop him off in the flare and beat up the GCA pattern.”
Since it was early in the mission, I still had plenty of fuel to allow the runway situation to play out. I wasn’t worried about having to hold or fly multiple approaches. Even with the weather, I expected to have plenty of time to work out my own game plan later. My priority was to get my flight lead on the ground safely.
I looked over again at Flash. I could see he was hanging out lower than my altitude. Although we had declared an emergency already, I decided to work with Houston Center to get us a block altitude for more flexibility to maneuver.
“Houston, River 31, request the block 8-10,” I requested on the primary radio.
“Cleared as requested,” the controlled replied immediately. “Let us know if you need anything else.”
Moments later, another voice came up on the aux frequency, “404, base, confirm the green ring has been pulled?”
The green ring! I had completely disregarded the hypoxia boldface, thinking that he wasn’t hypoxic and the bottle would be empty before we got home. Regardless, I had still ignored a mandatory procedure. I felt foolish.
“We’re down below 10,000 feet, Flash did you pull it or take off the mask?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if he had done it on his own earlier or not.
“I’m off the mask,” Flash replied. His voice sounded strained and weak.
As I coordinated more with Houston Center on the plan and my intentions of maneuvering around the area, Base chimed in to work the issue further.
“Flash, it’s the Ops O on Base are you still feeling hypoxic?” our Operations Officer asked.
“It’s just hard to concentrate dude,” Flash replied. I looked out to see him still off my left wing. I couldn’t see his face, but his voice said everything.
“Put your mask on and pull the green ring,” Ops O replied.
As our Ops O told Flash to pull the green ring for the emergency oxygen bottle, Center switched us to New Orleans approach. I briefed them of the plan for me to lead Flash on the Precision Approach Radar approach with Flash landing and me going around after he was safely on the ground.
“Flash, can you confirm you have your mask on?” Ops O repeated on the aux radio.
“Yeah it’s on and the ring is pulled,” Flash replied. There was no doubt he had pulled it. The oxygen bottle provided positive pressure and continuous flow, making it hard for him to get the words out. I would later learn that pulling that small green ring in the seat was one of many near ejections from the flight. He had grabbed and nearly pulled the ejection seat handle on his first attempt. The other attempts were as he considered the possibility that he might not be able to continue flying the aircraft in his mental state. It’s scary now to think how close he came to jettisoning the aircraft.
“Do you want to lead it?” I asked as we turned back toward the field. We were just over 25 miles southeast of the field, and I was confident we had gotten around most of the weather. I thought it might be easier for him to fly his own jet instead of worrying about staying in position off me.
“Nah dude I’ll just fly off you,” he replied. He sounded defeated and tired. I could tell he was flying on pure adrenaline and muscle memory. He was just barely hanging on through sheer willpower.
“River 31, approach, which aircraft has the emergency? Is it River 31 or 32?” the New Orleans approach controller asked.
“River 31 is actually on my wing and I’d like to keep him out of the weather as much as possible,” I replied. I could see fuel streaming out of the top of Flash’s aircraft as he dumped fuel. He was at least thinking about reducing gross weight. He wasn’t completely gone.
“River 31, roger, advise when you’re turning back toward the field. You’re cleared pilot’s discretion down to 2000,” the controller responded.
“My discretion down to 2000, River,” I replied.
“Coming easy right and in a descent,” I announced on the aux radio as we started a shallow right hand turn to fly around a pair of clouds as we left 8000 feet.
“If Flash needs to we can have him put the hook down and take an arrestment to avoid braking,” the ODO offered on the aux radio.
“411, I recommend taking the trap,” the other pilot who had been flying in the airspace chimed in.
As I made the right hand turn, I looked over to see Flash cross under to my right side. He hadn’t acknowledged the radio calls, but his hook was down. He intended to take the trap.
Approach handed us off to the Navy GCA controllers for the PAR as we turned toward the field.
“Navy GCA, River 31 is now direct field down to 2000, request PAR, River 31 will landing, River 32 will go around and River 31 will take a trap,” I said, reiterating our plan in case they had not been briefed.
“Are you going to escort him down sir?” the controller queried.
“Affirm,” I responded. The controller acknowledged as he turned us onto final to intercept the runway approach course. I looked over at Flash as I started to slow to below gear speed. Once we were safely well below 250 kts, I called, “Vipers, Gear, Now.” I waited a second and then dropped the gear and flaps.
Looking over at Flash’s aircraft, I could see he was properly configured. His flaps were full, his gear was down, landing light on, and his hook was down. I gave him a thumbs up to let him know that his configuration was correct, but he did not respond. He seemed to be just concentrating on flying the jet.
“Let me know when you get the field in sight,” I said on the aux radio as I picked up the “rabbit lights” of the runway. We were just over 8 miles away, and despite the bad weather, visibility was relatively decent. It was much better than the “2 miles” the controllers had called earlier.
“Field in sight,” Flash replied a few seconds later.
“You got the lead on the right,” I said as I slowed down to let him pass me on the right. I picked up a “chase” position off his left wing so I could monitor his airspeed, altitude, and angle of attack until touchdown. I had done all I could do for him. For the rest of the flight, I would be little more than a witness. It was up to Flash to safely get his jet on deck.
“River 31 taking over visually,” I said to the controller as he continued giving us the PAR instructions. Even when visual, we usually allowed them to continue giving control until decision height, but their training could wait. I didn’t want any more radio chatter than was necessary.
“Contact tower at this time,” the controller responded.
“Button Three Pri,” I replied, pushing the flight to the tower frequency on the primary radio.
I checked in with tower and let him know that we were on a five-mile final, with three down and locked for both aircraft.
“Cleared to land, say fuel state, sir,” the controller replied. I was confused a bit by this query. I wasn’t sure what the point of it was, but I figured it was to ask for the weight of the arrested landing.
“Flash what’s your fuel state?” I asked over the aux radio.
“5.7,” he mumbled.
Since he had been dumping fuel, he was a few thousand pounds lighter than my aircraft. I pulled up the checklist page that showed my jet’s weight and did some quick math.
“River 31 5700 lbs, and right at 34,000 lbs,” I replied to tower.
“River 31, roger,” the controller said.
I stayed in a good position off Flash’s left wing as we continued down the last five hundred feet toward the runway. Cross checking my own instruments, we were pretty much on speed or slightly fast. There was a slight cross wind from right to left. The approach angle looked good. I said as little as possible to let him just concentrate on landing the jet.
As he approached the overrun, I leveled off at just above 100 feet above ground level and kept pace with him. He seemed to have picked up a little speed and was floating the landing. I winced as I watched his jet cross the cable, fearing an airborne arrestment, but the hook sparked as it landed just past the gear as Flash’s jet touched down.
I watched his aircraft roll down the runway, thinking he would just stop normally. My stomach turned as I watched him accelerate and take back off. He had missed the gear and was going flying again. I hated that idea. It seemed like it had taken everything he had just to get on the runway, and now he was back airborne to try it again. The runway might have been wet and the conditions not ideal, but I felt like we had put too much emphasis on the arrested landing when he really just needed to get on the ground and get to a hospital.
As Flash climbed up, I accelerated and rejoined on him. He looked over at me and started a right hand turn. The standard downwind was left, but I figured he was doing it because he didn’t want to turn into me.
“River 31 say intentions,” the tower controller asked.
“Coming right,” Flash said on aux. He left his gear and flaps down and accelerated. I picked up my flaps to half to try to catch up. He was speeding away from me as I struggled to close the distance between our aircraft.
“River 31, we’ll stay VFR. We’re coming right, we’ll pick up the straight in again,” I announced on the tower frequency.
We picked up a wide downwind as we turned toward the south.
“Do you want to go back to GCA or do you want runway 14?” Tower asked. Their impatience annoyed me slightly. My adrenaline was racing as I tried to catch up with Flash and get him back on the ground. Their questions were not helpful or useful with no one else in the pattern at the time.
“Negative, we’ll pick up runway 4, we’re visual the field,” I snapped back.
“No sir, we’re asking about dash two,” the controller replied. They were trying to figure out my plan after Flash landed. Really? I guess they missed that the emergency aircraft had just gone flying again and there were more important things to worry about.
“Dash two will stay with GCA until the runway’s clear,” I replied as calmly as I could.
“Base 404,” I said on the back radio. I wanted to let base know of the situation.
“Base,” the ODO responded.
“It just skipped,” I lied. The hook hadn’t skipped, but I didn’t know what Flash’s mental state was and I didn’t want him to think he had done anything wrong to further degrade his confidence. Hook skips just happen. No big deal.
“We’re coming back around,” I continued. “Flash, I recommend if it skips again just go easy on the brakes and land normally.” I decided to speak up on the trap issue. The pressure to take a trap was unnecessary. The runway was 10,000 feet long. Even wet, he could always just stop slowly, or worst case, take the departure end arresting gear if he missed.
“Roger,” he mumbled. He was sounding worse.
“No need for a fly-in engagement, just put it down well before the gear and let the hook work for us,” the ODO chimed in.
Flash started his turn early as I struggled to keep up. We were doing a little over 200 knots as he made the final turn at 1000 feet – way too fast when his approach speed would be nearly sixty knots slower.
“River 31 right base, gear down,” I called over the tower frequency.
“River 31 cleared to land,” the controller said quickly.
“River 31 flight cleared to land,” I responded.
“This is hard,” Flash mumbled over the radio as he continued the final turn to line up with the runway. I had been relatively quiet for the first approach, but I knew this time I needed to calm him down.
“Easy does it man,” I said reassuringly.
“Watch your AOA,” I said, trying to get him to slow down. We were still flying fast and slightly low.
“Plenty of runway,” I reiterated as he rolled out on final. “Nice and stable.”
As we neared the overrun, I tried reassuring him further, “Just put the thing on the thing, don’t worry about the trap. If you miss it, you miss it. Just land.”
He crossed the overrun slightly low and a bit “drug in.” I watched him make a correction to landing before the cable.
“There you go nice and easy,” I said as I descended alongside him and leveled off at 80 ft.
His jet touched down just before the cable. I watched his wheels cross the cable and then the hook engaged. “There you go, you got it!” I yelled over the radio.
“You got it! You made it! You’re slowing down,” I said as his jet rapidly decelerated on the runway.
“We’ll see you on deck bud,” I added as I retracted my landing gear and flaps and climbed away.
“Nice work!” the ODO said on the aux frequency. “The ambulance is on the way out. Go ahead and set the brake, safe the seat, and shut the motors down.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as I checked in with GCA and followed their climb out instructions. Despite his condition, he had managed to safely land his jet and get to rescue crews. They pulled him out of the jet and rushed him to the emergency room, where he ended up spending a night in the hospital.
I flew a few more practice approaches while they cleared the runway and then I landed normally. When I got back, I wrote up my safety report and then was directed to go get an EKG done due to my own shocking experience.
Of course, my day didn’t end there. The EKG showed a slight abnormality which caused the doc to be cautious and send me to the Emergency Room – by force. The paramedics that had taken Flash to the hospital showed up and strapped me onto the stretcher and took me to the ER. Three hours later, I was released. My diagnosis: Lightning Strike. My treatment: aspirin and saline.
Flash was released from the hospital the next day. The events of the flight slowly came back to him, but initially he couldn’t remember anything from the time he strapped in until being put in the back of the ambulance. It was a scary flight, and we were very lucky that he made it back safely.
It was a very valuable lesson in a lot of different ways, but primarily in Crew Resource Management. Although there were things we all could have done better, in the end, we all worked together to get the aircraft and most importantly, Flash, safely on deck. It was something none of us had seen before, and without the ability to work the problem out as a team, it might have turned out much differently.
It also created a unique case study in flight medicine. Decompression Sickness, Hypoxia, GLOC, etc. were all physiological episodes that aerospace physiologists were intimately familiar with, but incapacitation due to lightning strike was something that few had ever heard of before. Surprisingly, the hyperbaric chamber that worked so well for DCS also helped Flash with his symptoms in the days following.
We also learned that the Hornet has no protections against lightning strike for the pilot. What few designed protections it has are meant to protect the systems and avionics from overload. It was later learned that the strike probably happened just as he was keying up the radio, creating a circuit between him and the jet as the lightning entered through the top of the aircraft and exited through the bottom of the nose.
Finally, it’s a simple lesson in Operational Risk Management. As they say, “If there is a doubt, there is no doubt.” Although we were legal to go flying and we kept hearing winning comm. about an improving (or at least stable) weather picture, sometimes you just have to listen to your gut and call knock it off.
This article was originally published in April of 2015
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