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The key players were two former Marine F-4 drivers who were Advanced Jet flight instructors flying the TA-4J Skyhawk. Both were within a month of voluntarily leaving the military to pursue their post-military airline careers. They were popular instructors, having served over two years in Kingsville without incident. As a reward for their service and in anticipation of their imminent departure to civilian life, their Commanding Officer approved their request for an Instructor-Only cross country training flight to somewhere on the West Coast. Their assignment was to fly multiple instrument approaches at various military airfields over the course of the weekend. These requests weren’t routinely granted. The benefit for the instructors was the hands-on stick time in the front seat and instrument approach practice they’d get as they alternated turns.
First, some background: During a standard by-the-book takeoff, the pilot pulls back on the stick (“rotates”) at the take-off airspeed, sets the nose 10-degrees above the horizon and when the Rate-of-Climb (ROC) indicator shows a positive climb and the altimeter is increasing, the pilot retracts the landing gear. Due to a slight lag in the indicators, the aircraft are usually 100-200 feet above the ground when the gear is retracted. That’s good because if the engine hiccups prior to that and the runway is long enough, you can theoretically put the plane back on the ground without having to wait for the landing gear to lower and lock again.
But when the Blue Angels do their air shows, they retract the landing gear when the jet is just barely off the ground and then level off and accelerate quickly to a speed that allows them to pull up suddenly into a spectacular vertical climb at the end of the runway. The Blue Angels practice this technique and have perfected it and that’s why their airshows are so fun to watch. Unfortunately for the heroes of this story, the Blues do NOT use the technique ascribed to them below to accomplish their “low transition”! The reasons will soon become obvious to you dear Reader, and they soon became obvious to our soon-to-be-former flight instructors when they tried it!
Doing a Blue Angel-style “low transition” was frowned upon – unless you were flying with the Blue Angels. In fact, they were forbidden during normal flight operations and especially at a Navy training base where students were watching and copying everything.
But flying into an Air Force base was different. It was accepted as Gospel that Air Force pilots were technically skilled by-the-book bureaucrats who couldn’t do anything if it wasn’t described somewhere in a book. (I apologize here to my youngest son, an Air Force pilot, for this unfortunate stereotype. My only excuse is that we were very young and didn’t know any better.) Thus, when a Navy or Marine pilot chanced to grace an Air Force base with their presence, it was thought important to show them some of the finer details of flying that they might be missing. This category would include a Blue-Angels-style takeoff and so that’s where our Marines decided to try this mythical “low transition” technique.
The technique was thought to be the following: After taking the runway and going to full throttle, raise the landing gear handle using the override switch. Then release the brakes and take-off normally but level off just after take-off, low over the runway.
Wait – won’t the landing gear retract, embarrassing one and all? Theoretically no. There is a little switch on the main landing gear that detects when the landing gear struts are fully compressed (due to the weight of the airplane resting firmly on them). The switch prevents the landing gear from retracting when the aircraft is on the ground – which seems like a good idea.
So what does our hero think he’s gaining by raising the landing gear handle? He believes that the weight-on-gear switch will keep the landing gear extended until he rotates the nose and lifts off into the air. At that time, the main landing gear struts decompress as the wing lifts the jet off the ground and the switch indicates that the jet is not “on the ground” so the landing gear can safely retract. Immediately and automatically.
What’s the Override switch and why does he need it? It’s possible that the “weight-on-gear” switch might fail and mistakenly indicate that the aircraft is on the ground when it is actually airborne. If this happens when flying off the carrier, you might wish to retract the landing gear to reduce drag and allow you time to troubleshoot the problem, fly to an airfield ashore, or go get some fuel at the nearest airborne tanker. So the engineers provide an override switch that allows the pilot to raise the landing gear handle (select Retract) even if the weight-on-gear switch says you’re still on the ground. The assumption is that no pilot in their right mind would try to retract the landing gear on the ground and if they are trying to do so while the switch still indicates “on-the-ground”, the switch must be wrong. (If you’re having trouble following this, don’t worry. I’ve skipped a couple of technical details that would explain it all. I’m just trying not to get sidetracked. The story is about What more than How.)
This alleged technique could have produced a major mishap, i.e. “a crash”. It’s a miracle that it didn’t. I have since wondered whether the pilot who tried this might be related to the “Lucky” pilot from my earlier story about the Marine A-4 pilot who survived flying into the water at night. Regardless, his “luck” was well above average.
Everything went as planned up to the moment of liftoff. They hadn’t taken into account that it was a hot summer day in Texas. That meant that the engine wasn’t producing quite as much power as it would in cooler air. Instead of leaping into the air, they staggered, the landing gear retracted, and they settled back onto the runway with the gear up. (Oops…) Luckily, they had two external aluminum drop tanks hanging under the wing and those are what touched the runway.
There was a loud scraping sound as the bottoms of the twin fuel tanks were quickly sanded off and all 600 gallons of jet fuel deposited on the runway. The sudden loss of 4,000 lbs. of fuel (half the fuel load!) meant the jet was suddenly much lighter and miraculously it became airborne again. That shouldn’t have been possible for many reasons. The “how” remains a mystery to me even today! (Fortunately and by design, JP4 jet fuel is not as flammable as gasoline and the aluminum pieces and plumbing inside the drop tanks didn’t produce sufficient sparks to cause a fire or explosion.)
So now our Navy Training Command Skyhawk is airborne and climbing like a rocket. (It’s very light!) There’s no fire. No Emergency indicator lights. Just a loud and annoying noise from the ragged open bottoms of the two drop tanks! What should they do next? They would not be welcome guests at the Air Force base on whose runway they’d dumped 600 gallons of jet fuel. Thinking fast, they remembered a Marine airfield within range of their remaining fuel so they refiled their flight plan airborne for this new destination, keeping a cautious eye on the emergency fire lights and pondering their collective future.
It was a grim picture. They were lucky to be alive and were likely to be grounded and/or discharged from the service as soon as they returned. So they decided to make the best of it. They made lemonade. They did wish they’d seen the face on the Air Force Duty Officer in charge of the airfield when he was told that a Navy jet had just baptized his main runway with 600 gallons of jet fuel and then flown away.
They landed at Marine Air Field XYZ and quickly found the senior Master Gunnery Sargent in charge of Maintenance. They explained the situation – roughly – and asked whether he could have his crew tape up the damaged drop tanks with ordnance tape (a particularly robust and sticky kind of duct tape) so they’d be good enough to fly back to home plate. Marines have a “can-do” attitude and this “Gunny” was no different. It was done as requested and after refueling, the Skyhawk continued on its way – not back to Kingsville, but continuing to their original destination. (That there was a woman of interest at the original destination is just hearsay…)
The two Marines returned Sunday night to Kingsville and upon landing were informed by the Maintenance Officer that the Skipper requested their immediate presence. (The Maintenance Chief was not amused by the two destroyed drop tanks either.) The Skipper had received a phone call from his boss, the Air Wing commander, who in turn had been contacted by an Air Force General in charge of the airfield whose runways had been unexpectedly closed due to the need to clean up a major jet fuel spill, thanks to a Navy Skyhawk suffering an apparently major “fuel leak” on takeoff.
The details of their punishment have been lost from memory but I do recall that they were grounded and never flew again in the military, being discharged fairly quickly afterward. I never heard whether they did in fact go on to fly for the airlines or FedEx as many ex-military pilots do. It’s possible that having learned a major lesson from this incident, they became the safest pilots in the world but I must admit that if I’d ever run into them at an airport, I would have made a careful note of their employer and hesitated, unfairly or not, to book with that company in the future.
On the other hand, maybe you want to fly with a pilot who seems to have such unbelievable good luck!? Not that I’m superstitious….Published in