I had just joined my first operational F-16 Squadron as a brand new wingman. The Son of a career Fighter Pilot I had spent years thinking non-stop about what it was going to be like to be a wingman in a front-line Fighter Squadron – and I had finally “arrived.”
Becoming a front-line Air Force fighter pilot is a somewhat long process. The American tax payer has a lot invested in you… and the airplane you are flying. Its a year of pilot training, then a short 3 month fighter lead-in course where you learn how to be a fighter pilot and fight an airplane, and then a long course, known as the “B-Course” which lasts between 8-12 months where you learn how to fly “your” jet. In my case it was the F-16 – the world’s greatest single seat, single engine fighter.
For my first assignment as a fighter pilot I was assigned to a Fighter Squadron in the Northeastern United States. The Squadron was filled with Desert Storm Veterans.
The afternoon after my “mission ready” checkride my Squadron Operations Officer told me that I’d be going cross country the next day with one of the Senior Flight Leads in a 2-seat F-16D to pickup another 2-seat F-16D that was broken at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. I could not believe my luck! Mission check one day, cross country to Vegas the next… EPIC!
The “D-Model” of the F-16 is a fully capable fighter, only with less fuel and the second seat. My flight lead this trip was a highly experienced F-16 fighter pilot and Combat Veteran. He was a Graduate of the USAF Fighter Weapons School (the Air Force’s TOPGUN only longer, tougher, and no volleyball) and had flown both F-16s and A-10s. He was also an airline pilot for a major airline.
The next day I came in to work, we briefed up the trip and quickly departed for Vegas with me in the front seat and him in the back. We stopped for gas in Oklahoma and in the mid-afternoon landed at Nellis. We had arrived… for a short period of time. (I was like… “wait, aren’t we going to the strip??)
My flight lead had me quickly jump into the now fixed jet and we were off to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I was too young and inexperienced to have any “spidey senses” at that point in my flying career, but if I had had them they would have been going off as we rushed to Kelly AFB. It had been a long day already with a cross country transit from the Northeast US to NV and now we were heading another couple hour sortie from Nellis to Kelly AFB in San Antonio, TX. So much for my Vegas “mission ready” celebration.
The real drama started the next day. From San Antonio to our base in the Northeast was 1359 nautical miles. This was an easy two flights for an F-16D and that was the plan walking out the door… or so I thought.
The start, taxi, and takeoff were all normal – just quick. We had two 370 gallon external fuel tanks on the jets so an afterburner takeoff was required which used a bit more fuel.
We immediately climbed to our planned cruise altitude 35000 ft, but then shortly thereafter my flight lead started asking for higher and began to slow down to our maximum range airspeed.
Shortly after we leveled off and as I looked out the canopy at my flight lead in the contrails, my arms on the side rails, all I could think about was how lucky I was and how cool this was. I was on my first cross country as a “real, mission ready” fighter pilot… high in the contrails with an amazing view. What I should have been doing is thinking about contingencies, or things that could go wrong.
The original plan had been to do a “gas and go” through an Air Force base in Ohio. About an hour into our flight I started to think about checking the weather at the base in Ohio but as a newly minted wingman I knew I was supposed to be disciplined and wait to be directed to go get the weather or change my radio frequencies. My job was to be in position, not say anything, and employ my weapons as directed… kill bad guys etc.
As we continued our flight path north east we kept getting closer and closer to the base in Ohio my flight lead continued to ask for higher and higher which confused me… we should be descending to land… right?
I finally worked up enough courage to ask if he wanted me to check the weather in Ohio. It was then that he told me that he had an airline trip this afternoon and that we were not going to stop.
My inner child began to panic a bit and I immediately brought up our version of a flight management system and checked what my gas would be at our “new” destination.
The system estimated that I would have ~800 pounds of fuel overhead at our destination in New York given the current flight conditions and winds. I’d never seen such a low number before… never… and historically the weather at our destination was not good. 800 pounds of gas would not be enough to divert if the weather went bad.
We continued on our Northeast heading and were WAY back on the power on the maximum range airspeed. We were trying to get every ounce of distance out of every ounce of fuel. The winds aloft situation was actually getting worse. What was forecasted to be a moderate quartering tailwind was now turning into a quartering headwind.
We were about an hour and a half out of our destination and ironically overhead our original destination that my flight lead FINALLY asked me to check the weather at our destination.
It was bad… like really bad for me. The weather was 500 feet overcast and 2 miles of visibility with lake effect snow. This was right at my legal minimums to be able to shoot the approach, much less land or divert to another airport if I could not land. It is worth noting here that ALL of my fighter flying training had been in Tucson Arizona. I’d really never flown in a cloud before.
Needless to say my anxiety level was starting to rise. Here I am, on my first “mission ready” flight and I’m going to be very low on gas and shooting an approach right down to my minimums with no gas to divert.
As we approached our destination things were starting to get super dicey. The winds had now caused us to burn more fuel than anticipated so my aircraft computer was now showing that I would land with ~600 pounds of fuel which for the F-16 is “emergency fuel”. I did not declare an emergency.
At 50 miles out we were still flying at 45,000 ft. I’d never even been this high before, much less for this long, much less this close to a point of intended landing.
As we approached 30 miles out I had 500 pounds of fuel, well inside of the fuel gauge tolerance for the F-16. Still at 45,000 ft it was then that I started to seriously (like really seriously) think that I would run out of gas and that the engine would quit and I would have to eject.. with my jet crashing into who knows where. I was trying to keep my cool but my heart was racing. I pulled the engine failure checklist out of my Anti-G suit pocket and looked it over. I flipped the page to the controlled ejection checklist knowing that if the engine quit I would not have time to look this over. I was sure that the engine would quit and that I’d be jumping out in the snow or in the water over the Great Lakes – or at least I hoped that is where the jet might crash versus on someone innocent.
This may have been the best instrument approach I’ve ever flown. As I broke out of the weather and landed the fuel gauge was displaying 252 pounds. 252 pounds… that is 38.7 gallons of gas… in an F-16 which burns 85,000 pounds per hour in afterburner.
As I rolled out on the snow covered runway I could not get the nose wheel steering to work. Literally my legs were shaking. I never should have taxied back. I should have cleared the runway and shut down right on the taxiway.
My flight lead landed safely behind me. I had more gas than he did.
I could not believe I was alive and that the jet did not flame out. At shutdown apparently I had less than 200 pounds of gas. Maybe a few minutes of fuel at best.
In the days that followed and to his credit my flight lead completely owned his role in the whole event. He took complete responsibility for the events of the day. He temporarily lost his Instructor and Flight Lead certification.
There are many lessons from this flight that still live with me today. They have impacted the way I lead and fly.
Never again would I forget how important leadership and judgment are in life and in aviation.
Never again would I forget the threat of “get home itis” and the potentially catastrophic impact that this self-induced pressure can have on even incredibly experienced sound aviators or teams. Don’t rush to errors.
Never again would I forget that no matter how inexperience you are, you have a duty and responsibility to do your part to prevent someone from making a critical judgment error which could cost the taxpayer a valuable resource.
Never again would I not have the courage to speak up.
In the end we came very close, very close, to losing two perfectly good jets for no good reason… and we just should have stayed in Vegas.
The Author is currently serving as an active-duty military officer. Any comments or recommendations on this post or on this site are solely and expressly my personal views and do not represent the position of any branch of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Air Force.