BREAKING EVEN - 27 June 2013
Partial Lunar Eclipse - Alamogordo, New Mexico
There are a couple of things we do in the aviation business that are necessary but don't produce much reward. They also have lots of opportunity for failure. In the USAF, we say you can only "break even" in such situations. One thing that comes to mind is doing fly-bys. We've all seen them. They're common at the start of sporting events when, at the high note of the Star Spangled Banner, a flight of fighters miraculously appears overhead. It's great drama. There are cheers. People are yelling, screaming, clapping. It's awesome. Yet, hardly anyone I know who's never seen a fly-by quite understands the complexity of such a seemingly simple thing. After all, isn't it the military's bread and butter to be over a point at a certain time? You bet.
Next time you are traveling 600 feet per second, try to be over the given point at precisely the time when the singer wants to be dramatic with their version of the song. Oh - and add in the fish bowl of national TV. A few seconds early, you drown out the ending of the song. A few seconds late, the singer is done, packed up, and gone--you look like an afterthought. You can only be there on time. You can't be any more on time than on time. The best you can do is break even.
More often than not, fly-bys are not done at sporting events. Many times we fly at memorial services. In some ways the stress level is so much higher. You may know the grieving family and all you want to do is do your best job, playing your part in ensuring the memorial service serves the family as best as it can. Nothing may be more important.
A few days after the Columbia accident in 2003 when I was the Operations Officer of the Test Pilot School, I was asked to organize a memorial Missing Man formation at the Edwards AFB service. The local NASA Dryden Flight Research Station folks couldn't put a four-ship together for many reasons, one of which was that they wanted as many of their folks as possible on the ground attending the service. We developed a plan to have three of our T-38's with a single NASA F-18 in the #3 position do the Missing Man fly-up when overhead at the outdoor service.
I assigned the project to one of my great captains, who didn't have much experience doing such events but certainly was capable enough. I decided to fly as #4 to be out there "just in case.”
One of the challenges of fly-by's is you can't make up time. As fast as fighter-type aircraft are, there's only so much speed you can add or take off while still meeting all the rules and not breaking the laws of physics. Add on the unknown qualities of speakers and singers and these fly-bys become a lot like performing a play with no rehearsal. What helps is we cheat. First, we have a guy on the ground with the script. He keeps us updated as to how the service is progressing. Next, we plan a route that allows us to add or cut off distance at strategic points. When flying at six miles a minute, if you're late and need to cutoff a minute, you cutoff a mile. If you're early and need to add a minute, you add a mile to your route. With your spy on the ground, you note little milestones on the route to verify you're on the right point based on how the service is going. Instead of speeding up or slowing down, you have more options if you use geometry to add or subtract distance.
A perfect fly-by is when you sail overhead at the right moment, very nonchalant like. Just like a duck that looks calm on the surface of the water but is paddling like crazy underneath, we only want the crowd to see us calmly execute. Inevitably, nothing goes according to plan with these things, meaning we're paddling like crazy. This fly-by was no different.
My lead did a great job planning and briefing the mission. The NASA F-18 pilot, the guy doing the fly-up, was well known to us. We had flown together many times before. We were very comfortable with the plan, which included many contingencies we hoped would never happen--i.e., not having four aircraft, weather being a factor, the timing being completely off, yadayada.
The absolute last “what-if” situation we briefed was when to do the fly-up: when precisely was the F-18 going to pull-up as the Missing Man into the sky, to pay tribute to the lost astronauts? You see, timing for the fly-up was important. Having it too early meant the crowd couldn't see it or was too far away. Having it too late meant it was straight over-head, or worse, behind the crowd. No matter what, we needed to have the F-18 pull-up into the sky at the right point on the ground. To make this harder, as a wingman in formation you have very little awareness of where you are on the ground. That means you need a radio call from the lead with a backup call from the others just at the right moment to tell the Missing Man to pull-up. When you’re moving at 600 ft/sec, timing is really important.
The takeoff was about the only thing that went according to plan. Just after airborne, it all went out the window. We held, waiting for the service to start. Then, the service didn't go on plan. In the middle of the route, we had to hold again. My flight lead sounded a little frustrated. I couldn't blame him. I began to worry whether we had enough gas for more holding and still do the fly-by.
Eventually, we rush in on the final leg. "You're late!" Damn, we have to push it up. The three wingmen are holding on. Afterburner is selected to get up to speed. All that pre-mission planning isn’t useful. All we have is speed to arrive on time. "On time,” the throttles come back to idle. The speed brakes come out. The formation is a mess, the wingmen bouncing all over the place due to all the sudden changes in our speed. Fortunately, we're too far to be seen. The duck is paddling as hard as it can.
Amazingly, we're just arriving at the service when the formation calms down--we’re in position. Friends in the crowd tell us later we look perfect--the duck is calm. I get a quick thought: "I can't believe this is all going to work out!" Arriving at the pull-up point, the lead calls "Pull-up!" Nothing. The F-18 does nothing. It's stuck there on the wing. One or two seconds later, #2 and I mash our mics, "PULL-UP!" I'm desperate, willing it to fly away. Another second, he's gone. The F-18 flies out of view into the sky. Darn!!
After all that, after all the changes and everything, we arrived on time at the right point only to miss the fly-up. I'm dejected. I'm thinking we snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. We had it, then lost it.
Back at ops, we're all quiet. I'm thinking about how to guide my guys through this so there's a positive learning point. Eventually, people begin to trickle in from the service. I ask one of my folks who attended the service, "How did it look?" "You guys looked great. Umm..." she tapers off and thinks, "how did you do that with the moon?" "The moon?" I ask, a bit confused. "Ya, the moon. You flew right overhead, which I thought was a little late for the pull up. Then, we're looking straight up with the moon in the background when the F-18 pulls right towards it. How did you figure out when to pull right into the moon? It looked great and especially appropriate since this was a NASA memorial." I had no answer.
To this day I’m still amazed how that worked out. In flight, I went in seconds from full elation making the pull up point on time and in formation, to complete dejection from having screwed up. Then, out of the blue comes this fortunate set of circumstances where it all worked out. I could not have planned that.
I am absolutely a firm believer in saving luck for those times when needed. (See last week's article.) I am also sure that if we hadn't done the other mission planning we would have missed something else and never would have had an opportunity to "fly into the moon." Still, I will not look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say. I just feel fortunate to break even.