Editor's Note: This feature was forward to us anonymously from the frontlines of Afghanistan. We can not verify authorship or authenticity, but it sound's damn real some of the fun experienced by one U.S. Navy Hornet pilot....
0130 launch: Fifth and final planned tanker rendezvous. (25K MSL guessing 280-285 knots). Had 13.0 onboard but wanted to run my wingman back through because he only had 10.0 or so with an hour and a half to recovery. Sun was not up (0600) but it was bright enough. My goggles and goggle bracket were both stowed. Tanker had finished consolidating a half hour before and had four recievers (including myself) immediately afterwards. I was the fifth guy to tank. The boom operator recycled the hose between me and number four (dash two of the oncoming Marine section). The boom operator called "clear" before I tanked. Tanking appeared normal to me. Air was smooth. Hose cut loose and I pulled the power back and picked up the nose in order to try and "ride the wave."
Refueling probe did not feel too much stress based on vibrations I felt in the cockpit. Hose seperated about seven feet up from the basket. KC10 take-up reel on the refueling hose didn't do it's job. Didn't take up. After some wailing and flailing the KC10 and I disconnected but I still had part of it with me. The basket and seven feet of hose. The hose had a ten pound fitting on it that was quickly revealed when the wind stripped off the rubber sheath from the hose. Once revealed it proceeded to beating the living shit out of my airplane. "This is gonna be bad, this is gonna be real bad," I thought. I was right. After twenty sufficiently violent whacks the canopy gave up the ghost. I never thought about what a shattering canopy would sound like. Up until then, of course. I figured since it's made of plastic it shouldn't sound like glass. Wrong. Sounded just like when you go flying through a plate glass window. Of course, all the glass went out vice in. Cockpit went from eight grand to ambient in about a heart beat, which was a pretty small unit of time right then.
Don't know exactly where the KC10 went. Last I saw him he was turning for the sout west, spewing gas in the air and spewing words over the radio. "Bossman" had no time for little 'ole me. One of his Air Force brethren was experienced in discomfort. Had to yell at him to get his attention.
At first (before I put the top down) I thought I could make it home. "Okay, it's 650 away, I got 13.5....probably have to go pretty slow and kinda low. And that hunk o' shit on my nose can't be doing much for my gas mileage. This should warrant a ready deck. Yeah, one or two passes before they have to barricade me. And I ain't boltered yet so..."
Descended about three thousand feet and decelerated to about 260 by the time the canopy blew. Then the glass shattered.
"Okay, Jacobabad it is. My boarding rate at a 10,000 foot airstrip is even better."
Went down to about nineteen K and put out the speedbrake. Fitting was still beating up the jet while passing through 240 knots. At about 230 the beatings stopped and I started down, maintaining airspeed. Flight controls and engines appeared fine. Ball was a little out of center but that was it. Didn't have to turn to put JBAD on the nose. It was straight ahead.
Nav system told me it was 260 NM away. My body told me it was pretty damn cold up there. The KC10 remains were still trying to get at my head so I started descending and decelerating (opposing states so I'm not sure I did either one that efficiently). Leveled off at twelve thousand. I stopped getting beat up, the fitting just hung in the slipstream by my canopy bow, at 230 knots. So there I was...Eight thousand feet above Afghanistan at 230 knots. "You know, If a guy really wanted to get shot by a MANPAD he'd fly a profile alot like what I'm doing right now." Oh well. It's at times like this when you just make a decision and go with it. If you pull it off then it was, "...outstanding airmanship, and in keeping with the highest tradition of the United States Naval Service..." If you don't pull it off, if you get bagged, well...maybe they'll name a safety award or the new Base Gym after you.
Managed to grab the piss bag that was flying around the cockpit and stuff it in my helmet bag. While stuffing other things away the Inflight Pac was ripped out of my hands. It went over the side in a flash. "Scotty's gonna hate that." Inlet temp read 3. Buffeting while hunkered down behind the glareshield wasn't that bad.
My wingman was still with me through all this. Because of some late tankers and shuffling to get guys that were using our tanker to go further north he only had 10K in gas so he definitely wasn't gonna make it back.
This part of the world is not pretty, by the way.
Once everyone realised the seriousness of the situation they started to talk to me. The AWACS switched me over to the E2 in charge of the south. They started relaying stuff I needed to tell the boat. The parts the jet would need in order to make a flight back out again. The fact that my wingman was going to make the 0900 recovery vice the 0730, stuff like that. "The boat wants to know how badly the canopy is cracked." I couldn't believe that one. I thought he would have heard all the wind in the cockpit and known. "It's not cracked, it's gone. I'm flying a convertible." Apparently that line made it through all the nets loud and clear. The next day I was talking with the CSAR guys in Jbad and they said they got spun up when the read that on chat. (It's all real time chat nowadays.) What did not get through was the driver of the convertible. I know the E2 guy knew who I was (The conversation by the end had degenerated to call signs. Gretzky and Duck. Not professional but somewhat comforting.), but somehow the ship was waiting for me to return at 0900 vice my wingman. All this technology...
As far as the cockpit was concerned there were two different and distinct regions. From my knees down I was toasty and warm. "This little piggy" was getting sweaty in fact. Then the chilly zone above that. The wind was swirling around pretty good and I was trying to grab all the paper and shove it into my helmet bag. Only lost one bit of classified stuff. Not too bad all things considered. After twenty minutes I started getting the shakes; after thirty they were fully developed. I tried to stuff my whole body down by the rudder pedals with limited success. Kept my hands warm though. Thank God for auto pilot.
About this time my wingman came up and said, "Hey, can you reach out and grab that thing, pull it in?" I looked over at him (not that he could see me) with a look of shock. Stick my arm out into that wind, get my arm blasted back and thrashed on the glass shards sticking up everywhere? "Have you lost your mind?!" "Oh yeah, guess it's kinda windy. Sorry." Like I said, it's strange the thoughts you have sometime.
My wingman and I talked about the airfield. Frequencies, layout, the fact that the locals like to shoot at planes landing there. You know, just normal airport talk. We talked about landing on a runway, something neither of us had done for three months. And we dumped fuel to lighten the load. We both were carrying two thousand pounds of unexpended ordnance so the Air Force guys were gonna love us. Last, we dropped the landing gear in close formation and compared airspeed and AOA to make sure the KC10 hadn't damaged my AOA and airspeed probes as well. I had him land first because I thought the hose might drag on the ground and get rolled up on by the nose wheel. After that who knew what would happen.
Dumped down to 3.0 each. Airspeed and AOA check accomplished at 170 and 150 knots. Appeared fine. Approach was initated from 5k AGL when the threshold was ten degrees down. Started to slow the descent at about five hundred feet. Landed on speed at the nine board. Don't remember seeing a VASI or anything. Airfield diagram on approach plate doesn't show any landing aids.
The plane flew fine with all that junk on it. Just had to use the rudder pedals, which is kind of an emergency procedure for a Hornet pilot. When I slowed to on speed I got the "sunroof effect" pretty bad. You know when you're zorching down the road and you open the sunroof but leave all the other windows up? That vibration you get until you crack another window? Well, I got kind of an advanced case of that during my Space Shuttle descent to final. We both rolled out fine. Well, maybe not fine. We had to use all ten thousand feet and both had smoking brakes. (Our brakes hadn't been used like that in awhile. On the boat the wire brings you to a gentle stop without them, of course.) The emergency crews were waiting for us. And they were pointing and gawking as would be appropriate for a situation such as this. Couple natives looked on in a disinterested matter.
Of course I had to do a flight physical after all this. Had to make sure I wasn't on drugs before I launched on my six hour mission into Afghanistan. The facilities in Jacobabad ain't that bad. I'm here to tell you we are number one in tent technology. Our tents kick ass. They got AC and everything. Since it's an Air Force base they got all the best entertainment. Drew Carry and Joan Jett had been there already. Shania Twain was supposedly coming too (broke my heart, if only I'd had better timing...). And of course the Toga Party on Saturday. Can't forget that. Yeah, it's kinda like the boat. Except for the booze and the Toga Parties. Other than that it's just like the boat. Other random observations: Air Force got all the good buildings. Marines are on the outskirts, again. The boys from the 101st are spoiling for a fight. Hate coming in behind the Marines all the time. Dust over everything. Lots of people there that don't look like they are in the normal military. I don't care what any psychology major would say about it, it's just cool carrying a gun everywhere. MREs are not too bad. Could see how people would get sick of them though. Tent city was a little slice of American suburbia right in rural Pakistan.
Only Air Force base I've ever been on that didn't have any hot chicks. Of course I was only there for 24 hours. The place is a FOD nightmare. The maintainers showed up about four hours after I did. After the appropriate amount of gawking they got to work and fixed it well enough for the RTB in under four hours. Nice job all around. By the end the basket and hose were removed, the canopy had been replaced and the LEX repaired with 300 mile an hour tape. ("Americans. Can Do Easy.") Three of the guys showed up and then disappeared with two big boxes of geedunk. They were on a booze hunt. They succeeded. The Air Force settled all the maintainers into two spare tents and they had a grand 'ole time.
The next morning I took off low and fast at sunrise. Low and fast was due to the locals, and the guns, of course. Not because it was fun. I checked in and the E2 said, "It's good to hear your voice again." The RTB was uneventful right up until the end. A PTS shaft died and subsequently one of my hydraulic systems gave up the ghost when I dropped the gear. I got a couple of spurious flight control cautions but didn't really give it much thought as I was working the landing. As I started the approach turn the nose started to wander and I got another caution tone. I lost one aileron, one rudder and half a horizontal stab. I hit the reset button and I think everything cleared. Then I saw the Hydraulic Cautions come up. Hitting the reset button suddenly went from normal response on short final to a big mistake. When the aileron failed again I realized I sorta needed to get aboard the first time. "Man, first I miss Shania and now this. This is just not my week." I got it aboard because the Hornet is a fantastic jet. I got a Fair grade for the pass because I'm not very smooth when I'm rattled.
I pretty much assumed I was in trouble throughout all this. A canopy has got to cost 70 or 80 grand. Depending on how much repairing the windscreen and the airframe were...it could cost over 200 grand. Which would mean a Class B mishap. Which would mean I was screwed, again. Thinking all this and then seeing the CO waiting for me when I landed made my heart sink. But that was not the reason he was there. The decision was made somewhere to make a big deal about this in a good way. Just like that...dirtbag to hero. Funny.
Turned over bodily fluids to VFA-147 Safety Officer.
This isn't the first thing that's happened to me out here you know. We're flying the shit out of these jets and it's starting to show. I had to come back from the box with an engine shut down a week or two before. I'm starting to feel like that LT that keeps getting hosed in "The Bridges of Toko Ri." I got my letter in after all. I'm getting too short for this shit.
Oh well, statistically speaking, the rest of cruise should be smooth sailing. What are the odds something like this will happen again?
(I love planting the seeds of irony.)
By Captain Anonymous, United States Navy.