A significant tenet of the U.S. Air Force’s pilot training philosophy is preparation for performing Emergency Procedures (EPs). Each student pilot is exposed to a simulated EP at least twice a day. Students must talk through emergencies with their instructors following every flight and nearly every morning, as a class, they perform a dreaded “stand up” EP. This is where a student, picked at random, must stand at attention in front of the whole class (simulating the pressure of an actual emergency) and solve an emergency situation to a logical conclusion (e.g. landing the jet safely or ejecting safely). Student pilots are also required to practice EPs in the simulator every few months. These flights are not-so-affectionately called “dial-a-death,” because the sim instructors make trainees handle just about every possible emergency situation in real-time. If you don’t handle things correctly in a timely manner, you can die…only simulated, of course. EPs are a much-hated part of training, but I never fully realized their value until I experienced an engine failure while flying solo in a T-38 on 19 April 1999. It was an important lesson learned – and my “million dollar” USAF training paid off!
At the time I was an Air Force student pilot at Columbus AFB, Mississippi, flying the Northrop T-38 Talon, the Air Force’s supersonic advanced jet trainer. I had about 220 hours of total time (both civil and military), with about 20 of those hours in the Talon. By USAF standards, I was still a kid learning to ride my bike without the training wheels attached!
The mission on this particular day was to practice formation flying – I was flying solo in a 2-ship formation with the callsign Phantom 91. We flew to the Military Operations Area about 50 miles from base and practiced flying fingertip, tactical, and fighting wing formations. We successfully completed the majority of the mission and were preparing to head back home when I lost sight of my flight lead as he flew through the sun. Fighter pilots fly in formation to provide mutual support and protection – maintaining sight of the other flight member is the most basic responsibility in formation, so it was important that we get back together quickly. I informed my flight lead that I had lost sight and he directed me to look for him over a prominent lake underneath the MOA at 300 KIAS and 15,000′. To avoid midair collision potential I stayed down at 14,000′ MSL and maintained 1000′ of vertical separation. I visually acquired my flight lead about 2 miles off my left wing and told him I had him in sight. He cleared me to rejoin into close formation, so I turned toward him and planned to join up on his right side after he passed me. As he passed off my left wing, I pushed the throttles up from 90% to military power (full throttle). Suddenly I felt the jet yaw abnormally to the right and I heard the engine whine decreasing. I looked down at the instrument panel to see the right engine RPM winding down and the EGT decreasing. As the engine RPM wound down past the generator cut-in speed the Master Caution light illuminated. At first my brain didn’t register that my right engine was no longer running. My reaction was, “Oh my God, this can’t be happening to me!”
Once I mentally processed that my engine had failed, I relied on the procedures I’d learned and practiced time and again – maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, take the proper action, and land as soon as conditions permit. Military and civilian instructors alike teach students that the first order of business in any emergency is to “fly the damn airplane,” and since the jet still had power and I had plenty of airspeed this wasn’t a problem. As a member of a formation, however, I also had to maintain mutual support with my flight lead, the most basic element of formation flying. I knew I had to fess up that I had a problem and keep visual on my flight lead.
“Phantom 92’s got a problem!” I spouted out over the radio, “I’ve got a right engine flameout…no fire.”
I continued my turn, keeping the other T-38 in sight and glancing at the instrument panel to analyze the engine indications. The EGT showed 200? (the lowest possible reading), and the Tach showed a windmilling RPM of 24%. With no other indications of malfunction, I determined the engine had simply flamed out. This was a situation I’d “handled” many times, both in the simulator and in my head, so I knew the procedures well. I verified that it was the right engine that had flamed out (it would be bad news to accidentally shut off the good engine!), then placed the right throttle in cut-off to prepare for a restart. I had not yet opened up my checklist (it was in the map case next to me), but I had the engine restart procedure memorized, so I quickly ran through the 8 steps.
“Okay 2,” my flight lead said, “I’ll rejoin on you.” Now I didn’t have to worry about flying formation, I could just handle the emergency.
After waiting 30 seconds (the length of the in-flight engine start cycle) there were no signs of the engine restarting. I placed the throttle back in cut-off, waited the required 10 seconds before trying again, then tried the alternate airstart method. The alternate airstart is designed to be used in emergency situations when you don’t have time to run through 8 individual steps. All you have to do is push the throttle up into MAX afterburner and this starts fuel and arms the igniters. I tried this with the right throttle and waited the required 30 seconds, but there were still no indications of a restart.
Now, after two failed restart attempts, I was starting to get nervous. It was looking like I was going to have to fly home and land single engine. I was confident I could bring the jet home and land safely – the T-38 has very benign single-engine flight characteristics and we practice single engine landings frequently. The nervousness lay in the fact that this was an actual single engine situation – if I screwed it up, I wasn’t going to have that “simulated” dead engine to magically come back and save me.
“Phantom 92, turn left 090 and get pointed toward home,” the flight lead directed, “you have the lead on the left and I’m gonna flow back to a chase position. I’ve got your radios.”
As I turned, I could see the other jet pull up into a loose formation position about 500′ off my left wing. As per procedure, I was now leading the formation, which freed me to maneuver however I needed to get home safe – the other jet was now a “chase” aircraft and was there only to support me. He was also going to handle the emergency on the radios.
“Memphis Center, Phantom 91, EMERGENCY,” my flight lead announced.
“Go ahead with your emergency Phantom 91,” the ATC controller replied.
“Phantom 91 is a 2-ship in Area 7, number two has lost an engine and we’re headed direct Columbus at this time.”
“Roger 91, we copy your emergency, you’re cleared direct Columbus. Descend at your discretion to one-zero thousand, I’ll have lower for you with Columbus Approach. Let us know if we can be of any other assistance.”
Once pointed toward home, I hauled the checklist out of the map case and tried to strap it to my leg. Nervously, I dropped it and had to retrieve it from the floorboard under the ejection seat. Once I had it on my right thigh, I carefully read through all the applicable checklists. Had I missed some critical step that was causing the engine to not restart? Finding nothing, I decided to perform the engine restart procedure again, this time methodically following the checklist line-by-line.
The engine still didn’t light!
My flight lead performed a battle damage check, crossing under and behind me to assess the condition of my jet. I watched him reappear on the other side and give me a thumbs-up, indicating that there were no external signs of damage, fire, or fluid leakage.
I was now about 20 miles from home descending through 5,000′ MSL and I was accepting the fact that my right engine was not coming back. I decided to try one more “last ditch” alternate airstart. I again shoved the throttle into the front left quadrant. This time, the engine immediately lit-off – I could hear the whine increase as I watched the EGT and RPM increase normally. As the RPM approached 100%, I felt a sudden airframe vibration and heard an audible buzz. The right RPM was now winding back down slowly and right EGT was increasing. Recognizing the indications of a compressor stall (disrupted airflow through the engine which usually leads to a flameout), I followed the procedures I’d practiced in the simulator many times. I quickly pulled the right throttle to idle and pressed the start button to energize the igniters in an attempt to keep the engine from flaming out. The engine recovered from the stall and soon stabilized at flight idle with normal instrument indications.
It was a beautiful clear day and I now had the airfield in sight 16 miles off my nose. My flight lead was still on the radios coordinating our recovery, requesting a Single Frequency Approach. A SFA puts RAPCON, tower, and the Columbus Supervisor of Flying (SOF) on the same radio frequency, allowing emergency aircraft to fly without messing with radio frequency changes. The SOF is a senior-level officer (Major or Lt Col) with a lot of flying experience whose job is to monitor all flying activities on the base.
In the case of an emergency, the SOF coordinates the response by base emergency services, including the fire department. With the SOF now on my frequency, he asked the exact nature of my emergency and what my intentions were after landing. I relayed to him the situation with my right engine and my plan to land on the center runway and taxi clear. Satisfied with my plan, he said “okay, sounds good – see you on the deck.”
Twelve miles out, ATC cleared me to fly a visual straight-in to runway 13 Center, the base’s 12,000′ instrument runway. I configured for a normal single engine approach (using 60% flaps instead of full flaps) and computed my final approach airspeed – in the T-38 the final approach airspeed varies with on-board fuel weight and flap setting. One of the pitfalls of flying single engine approaches in the T-38 is becoming slow because the Talon is very thrust-deficient when single engine. Often afterburner is required on the good engine to maintain approach airspeed and it’s possible to develop a severe and unrecoverable sink rate. This time, I decided, I would carry 10 knots of extra airspeed the whole way. I definitely wanted to avoid becoming slow in an actual single engine situation.
On 5 mile final, I confirmed that I had the proper configuration and reported gear down to the tower. Cleared to land, I maintained 10 extra knots all the way down final. As I passed over the runway overrun, I looked at the fire trucks waiting to follow me down the runway. “Wow,” I thought, “those guys are waiting for ME!” As I began to flare the jet ballooned – I’d forgotten to bleed off my extra airspeed before flaring! Holding the landing attitude, I nursed the jet down to a slightly firm touchdown about 2,500′ down the runway. I pulled the nose up into an aerobrake, waited for the airspeed to decrease, then gently applied the brakes. Since I had landed on a 12,000′ runway, I still had several thousand feet remaining, even with a fast and long touchdown! Soon I was at taxi speed, pulling off the runway into the hammerhead.
I was met in the hammerhead by crash rescue trucks and the Fire Chief, who directed me to shut down. Once I indicated that there was no more danger, he terminated the emergency. I took a deep breath, happy that I was safely on the ground. Interestingly, I wasn’t out of breath, shaking like a leaf, or any of those other nervous signs I’d have expected out of myself given the situation.
“Everything okay, sir?” one of the firemen asked. “Yeah, I suppose so,” I replied, “because both the jet and I are safely here on the ground!”
I gathered my personal gear as maintenance came to impound the jet for investigation. The Wing Safety officer met me and drove me back to my squadron to fill out paperwork and tell my story to the operations supervisor.
As I walked to the Sup’s desk, I halfway expected him to congratulate me on doing a good job recovering a broken jet as a solo student. Instead, he gave me a lengthy critique on what I had done wrong during my emergency! He was mostly unhappy that I had landed 2000′ – 2500′ down the runway, versus the normal touchdown of 500′ – 1000′. His assertion was that I should have made the best possible landing, especially given that it was an actual emergency.
I walked away from the desk with mixed feelings. I believed I’d done a good job handling the actual emergency; I analyzed the problem, applied the proper procedures, and safely recovered the aircraft. On the down side was what I’d done incorrectly. I realized that I became channelized on solving the engine failure and neglected to follow some important formation administrative procedures. I had also failed to fly a good final approach and landing. In retrospect, I didn’t need to fly fast – I should have done it the way I was taught! I was irritated with myself for messing up something that I’d practiced many times before. It drove home to me that you have to fly the best jet you can when it’s an emergency, otherwise you may compound your problem.
A few weeks later I received the incident report back from the Wing safety office. Maintenance found that two fan blades from the engine’s 4th stage compressor had broken off and caused the initial engine failure. Apparently the blades had pre-existing cracks on the trailing edges which grew over time until the blades broke off in flight. My flight lead told me afterward that as we passed each other and my engine failed, he could see a big plume of white smoke come out the back of my jet! They tell me that smoke was a result of the blades being chewed up by the successive compressor stages and combustion section. The damage to the other compressor blades caused the failure of the engine to restart, as well as the violent compressor stall I experienced when the engine did restart. Bottom line? It could have been disastrous, but I was lucky; in my case it only cost taxpayers $61,000 for a new J85-GE-5 jet engine!
I’m glad this emergency occurred early on in my flying career and while I was in a training environment. The best thing any pilot can take from an emergency is knowledge and experience. I know a lot of pilots who’ve yet to experience their first IFE, but I’ve already been there. Hopefully the experience will benefit me next time something like this goes wrong.