The Screaming Eagle and the Doc
Many pilots dream of strapping on a $45 million F-15E Screaming Eagle fighter, but few get to do it. I had the honor of doing so November 12, 1999, and learned a lot about what it takes to support these jet jockeys -- both their aircraft and their lives.
Most non-military pilots like myself may have the preconception that to take off in one of these aircraft, you throw on the G-suit and survival vest, walk out to the aircraft, kick the tires and light the fires. That might be true if everything was guaranteed to go right 100% of the time, but it's not the way it's actually done. What happens in reality is complex and detailed preparation that starts with the scheduling days in advance.
I arrived on the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., the day before the flight to be briefed on "egress" from the aircraft by Major Scott "Gunny" Perdue. Scott is an EAAer who also flies a Bonanza from the Goldsboro Wayne County Airport (where he sits on the airport board). He is an accomplished F-15E instructor who has been in the military for 24 years, and is headed for the airlines after his retirement from the USAF next year. Scott has seen it all and done it all, and is definitely the kind of guy I'd want defending me (or in the front office of my Boeing) every flight.
The F-15E is a two-crewmember jet with the pilot in the front seat and the weapons system officer (WSO or "wizzo") in the rear. I was scheduled for the rear seat since I have never been checked out for solos!
Ejection seats are the focus of egress. They are lifesavers, but improperly used can be killers. Getting into, strapping in, and getting out of the seat is no small task, and the operational aspects are complicated.
Three rockets power the ACES II ejection seat. The canopy blows first and is gone prior to the ejection seat leaving the aircraft. Then the main rocket is fired to "lift and separate" the crewmember from the aircraft. The second rocket is a small one that directs the front seat pilot to go to the left and the rear WSO seat to angle to the right. (If fired on the ground at zero airspeed and no wind, the separation is 150 feet.) The rear seat (if occupied) always goes off first so the WSO does not receive a face full of rocket blast from the front seat. The seat also has an third rocket in the base -- one which is mechanically steered by a flywheel for gyroscopic stability to dampen pitch oscillations. This does not guarantee, however, that when the ejection occurs, the seat will remain upright.
Scott had me practice getting into the simulator, offering hints that only someone exquisitely familiar with this aircraft would know. "Make sure the seat is safe by checking that the ejection seat safety latch is forward." Apparently it is considered poor form to kick one of the ejection seat handles getting in and have it go off with only your foot on board.
"Step into the seat with your right foot. You will have to crouch down even lower in the actual aircraft, since the sim canopy is actually slightly higher than the aircraft canopy. Before you get in, be sure that they have pulled the pin in the canopy release mechanism and check to see if the ejection battery pin is not out, which means it is still functional." (It was not until I started writing this article that I remember I forgot to do those last two things!)
Harder than it looks
The sequence after getting into the cockpit is "1-2-1-2." This memory aid means hook up the G-suit, clip in seat survival gear on each D-ring located on the hips, clip the seat belt, and hook in the parachute. Now that sounds fairly straightforward, but let me tell you ... this sequence is no easy feat. Hooking in the G-suit to the female connector located behind your left hip would normally be easy, but in the harness bringing your right arm around to reach it with the strap holding your shoulder back makes it harder than switching fuel tanks in a Vari-EZE. Once that is done, each hip D-ring is clipped in to the seat by feel. The seat belt and parachute harness are clipped in with a "Koch fitting" using the politically incorrect memory aid "lift the skirt, drop the drawers." It is a double safety mechanism that is bomb proof. The final sequence is putting on the flight helmet and hooking up the oxygen and intercom which was the only easy thing about connecting oneself to this aircraft.
Now that we were strapped in, it was time to practice a ground egress. That means getting out in a hurry when the aircraft is on the ground and flames are licking up the sides. It all goes in reverse -- "1-2-1-2-1" -- remembering to make sure the seat is safe by deactivating the ejection system. Lifting the skirt and pulling down the drawers is a lot easier in the politically incorrect fashion than in the aircraft. It takes some getting used to, especially since it is done by feel. Once freed from the seat, the rear-seater gets out standing on the left engine and moves to the left, sliding the right foot down a black line till the spring-loaded foot hold door is met with the toe. That drops a ladder and the egress is completed.
If the ladder is inoperative, you grab a handhold and hang but do not let go with both hands at the same time. Gunny points out that since the fuselage is round, if you drop facing the aircraft, you will land on your back and head. The proper technique is to let go with the hand closest to the front and hold on with the rear-most hand, let your body swing back so you are facing forward, then drop. I fortunately did not have to demonstrate proficiency in this egress maneuver.
After we covered egress on the ground, we moved to egress in the air. Although it sounds pretty exciting, I knew it would be very bad day if I had to do it. The ejection seat is activated just before takeoff by pulling down a safety bar near the left thigh. The pilot can initiate an ejection by saying "bailout, bailout, bailout." On the third "bailout," you (as the back-seater) are history with a 14-G acceleration out of the aircraft. The rear seat position can eject independently but other than the pilot taking a bird in the face, it is unlikely the rear-seater would eject on his own.
There are two ejection handles by each knee which are grabbed and pulled up and back. The handles are held throughout the ejection to keep arms from flailing around and getting hurt. The handles also keep the knees in, and it is the pilot's responsibility to keep the head against the headrest and chin down to keep the neck straighter (known as "making some chins"). Sounds cute but it keeps you from breaking your neck, which sort of takes the humor out of the instruction.
Time to be ejected out of the aircraft and the chute deployment is 1.8 seconds. Instructions are to check the chute and clear any panels which are not inflated, then remove the oxygen mask. Scott thinks drowning after an ejection is a bad way to go so getting off the mask is a priority over water and also to keep from hanging up on a tree during a forest landing.
If the landing zone is water, the personal floatation device is inflated just prior to landing. There is a life raft hanging from your butt that automatically inflates after the chute opens. If the landing is in trees, you drop the water survival raft so it does not hang up, pull down the eye shield, and cover your neck with your hands to prevent being stabbed by branches. Landing on power lines is similar except you make sure to turn your head so you do not hang up on your chin! Scott also explained the use of the repelling gear which is built into the harness system.
Finishing the egress training was sobering, and caused me to do a quick sanity check ... do I really want to go through with this? I have always failed such sanity checks in the past, and this one did not work either.
Being a fellow GA pilot and computer techy, Scott also introduced me to the working of the four multi-functional displays (MFDs) which make up the F-15E's glass cockpit. There are two color and two monochrome MFDs, all of which are functionally interchangeable. They are capable of displaying a reproduction of the pilot's heads up display (HUD), attitude indicator and flight director (ADI), horizontal situation indicator (HSI), air-to-ground radar, air-to-air radar, and a variety of other screens. (The military has more acronyms than Bayer has aspirins, and I must confess that I was lost more than once during the explanation of the screens.)
Although the egress sim did not have active screens, I sort of got the gist of Scott's instruction. Fortunately, I spotted the ON-OFF switch (which Scott forgot to show me) so at least I knew how to turn the MFDs on in the real aircraft.
Scott has also counseled me to bring an 8-mm videotape to record the screens. No one else mentioned this, so I was lucky to be prompted. More on this later.
Although I was originally scheduled to fly with Major Perdue, due to a scheduling conflict I flew instead with a different squadron. Scott was not going to be around, so he gave me the pre-flight briefing the night before about eating something like a bagel before going to the base to prevent motion sickness. I then proudly displayed my two ReliefBands, saying I was covered for motion sickness. In fact, I carried two to protect myself against the rare chance that one of them might fail or run out of battery power!
I had a "show time" of 0700 and medical screening at 0730. Briefing was set for 0945 and take off at 12 noon. I listened to Scott's advice and went searching for a bagel at about 0615. Since Scott had not told me where to find the bagel, I drove around Goldsboro finally seeing a Krispy Kreme donut shop. Now for those of you who have never had a KK glazed donut, especially hot, you may never know how someone like myself who grew up in the south and now lives a lengthy distance from the closest KK cannot pass up one of these icons when the "hot donut" sign is lit. As a compromise, I ate a bagel plus two glazed KK wonders with my coffee ... realizing full well that I risked seeing those donuts again later in the day!
I arrived at the base in Scott's car, which had his officer sticker on it. Although it was an older Honda, it got me the first and only salute in my lifetime from the guard at the main gate. That is quite a car!
I met first with Lt. Paul Heitmeyer of the 336 Fighter Squadron. He was my liaison person (known behind the scenes as the "unfortunate lieutenant" for drawing the duty) and helped shuttle me around. The 336 dates its origin back to the RAF in England during WWII, when the squadron was a RAF squadron staffed by Americans. It has fought ever since then, with its last deployment in Turkey just a few months ago.
Next, I was taken to Ken Egerstrom, M.D., an Air Force Flight Surgeon, for my pre-flight medical. Captain Egerstrom had only been a Flight Surgeon for three months and had never flown in one of the F-15Es. (It seemed to be a recurrent theme throughout the day that anyone who had not been in the Eagle let the fellow who was going know about it!)
I had brought a copy of my last FAA physical with me so my pre-flight exam was abbreviated. Certain physical parameters had to be met. Standing height had to be less than 77 inches and greater than 64 inches. Weight had to be greater than 132.5 pounds (no problemo!), with no upper limit (thank goodness). Sitting height also had to be between 34 and 40 inches for ejection seat function. Captain Egerstrom measured me at 30 inches, exclaimed "no way!" and then measured again and got 36.5 inches.
The physical exam was routine, except the Flight Surgeon did check Eustachian tube function by examining my ears while I performed a Valsalva maneuver. The Valsalva is where you pinch you nose and gentle blow out against a closed mouth to clear the ears. It is similar to the Valsalva performed to fight GLOC (gravity induced loss of consciousness). The only difference is for GLOC prevention, you bear down against a closed glottis (airway) like forcing a bowel movement. The anti-G pants which I was to be fitted with later helps prevent GLOC but the risk is lessened by tightening the legs followed by the back and then performing the Valsalva. If the bearing down is done prior to tighten the legs and back, it could actually prevent blood from returning up to the heart which would induce GLOC sooner. The purpose of the G-pants, isometric exercise, and Valsalva is to keep the blood from being forced out of the head and to the lower extremities due to high G-forces. The technique keeps the circulatory system capacity in the lower extremities low preventing the shift of the blood south.
Dr. Egerstrom also had a series of informational items to cover with me. He discussed that some people get claustrophobic with the oxygen mask. He also mentioned motion sickness for which he suggested asking to take control of the aircraft or asking the pilot to fly straight and level. He also mentioned that hyperventilation could be a problem and to control the breathing rate. If this occurs, he suggested looking at the "blink" valve on the side console to count respirations and slow them. (Wrong bucko! This is one place where after Capt. Egerstrom gets his ride in a F-15E, he will know that bending the head down to look in the cockpit to control hyperventilation is a sure way to hurl!)
Egerstrom also mentioned the F-15E cabin is only partially pressurized and the level is not constant, which decreases the risk of explosive decompression. He also mentioned decompression sickness but stated it was pretty rare. Ear block from the absorption of nitrogen is more common. Ear block is related to the vacuum which cannot be cleared in the middle ear. He suggested switching to 100% oxygen prior to take off for a few minutes to "wash" out the nitrogen in the ear to prevent ear block.
Life support preparations
I went straight from the medical exam to life support. This is an intriguing area of preparation about which I had been totally blasť. There is a phenomenal amount of technical equipment and manpower required to keep fighter jockeys safe in their mounts. According to the LS personnel, there are 9.4 people required to keep each pilot safe (not including maintenance or weapons support personnel).
Each pilot and WSO is personally fitted for their equipment, and the equipment is inspected on a regular schedule. G-suits are inspected at least every 120 days, while helmets and harnesses are inspected every 30 days. The life support personnel take their job in stride, saying that the nature of the aircrew's work is tough on the gear.
First I was fitted with G-pants. These pants contain air bladders which inflate automatically during high G maneuvers by means of an umbilical cord hooked to the aircraft. The pants are zipped closed at the waistband. Then the pant legs are zipped on the inside seam. The pants are tight enough without inflation that there are stress-relief zippers on the outside so walking in the pants is possible.
Under normal circumstances, I would have then been fitted for "Combat Edge" which is a inflatable vest and helmet bladder for high G maneuvers. Since our flight plan did not predict more than six Gs, I did not don the vest portion of "Combat Edge." The vest is similar to a G-suit for the chest and head, and helps (along with the Valsalva) to prevent lung damage. In addition, the air bladder in the back of the helmet presses on the vascular structures of the lower, posterior part of the skull.
Next, I was fitted with a survival vest. This vest contains the most important survival gear items in case all else is lost. Equipment includes a comm radio with a beacon, Leatherman type multi-tool, flare, mirror, compass and other gear.
After the survival vest, I was fitted with a harness. The life support technicians pointed out that most non-military folks mistake this for a parachute, but the harness is simply what connects the crewmember to the parachute and survival gear. It also contains the repelling device should a parachute get hung up in trees -- a real possibility in the heavily forested southeast U.S. The two D-rings located at the hips of the harness connect to the survival pack and one-person life raft. When the parachute deploys, the raft drops down on a tether and hangs below during descent. The survival gear hangs above the raft and contains two survival packs -- one so-called "hit-and-run" pack when evading the enemy is an urgent problem, and the standard pack which has more extensive equipment. The kits include a Camel Back -- water in 16 four-ounce packs (which LS personnel say tastes a whole lot better than the water previously packed in metal canteens) -- plus flares, foliage penetration flares, poncho, knife, raft repair plugs, goggles for wind/sand, sun block, orange/silver blanket, hood, dessert hat, sponge (to collect water), fishing kit, survival pamphlet (for anything forgotten from class), flashlight, extra radio batteries, snare wire, first aid kit, sea dye marker, personal rescue beacon radio, comm radio, matches and candle. (Whew!)
The upper part of the harness connects to the parachute via the Koch fitting connector. The actual ejection seat falls away from the pilot with parachute and survival gear staying with the pilot.
The helmet and oxygen mask were my last fitting. In addition to head fit, the oxygen mask requires pressure testing on the face. At the tightest setting, no air should leak out. With this step, the fitting was completed but had taken almost an hour! The technicians who performed all these functions are true behind-the-scenes heroes for the pilots of their squadrons. It would be impossible to keep the crews safe without them.
I was not fitted with the Aircrew Eye Respiratory Protection (AERPS) equipment -- an additional hood/mask/jump suit which goes over everything to protect the crews during chemical attacks. The thought of wearing all the gear plus the AERPS for the short walk to the aircraft during a North Carolina summer is frightening.
At 0945, I met my pilot, Captain Lee "Pickle" Fueling. Our wingman was Captain Dave "Monster" Berg. Monster's "incentive passenger" was Sargent Panzer, an enlisted man who was receiving the ride for his work with the squadron. (The Air Force gives "incentive" rides to non-pilots who help behind the scenes. Usually the rides are given by seniority, and usually only once in a career.)
Pickle and Monster then briefed Panza and me on the flight. It was the best possible setup. We would start by heading over to the coast and being "bandits" for a general and his wingman. Then, after we were "killed," we would proceed via a low-level corridor at 1,000 feet to the Echo MOA for aerobatics maneuvers. My mouth was watering, but I am not sure whether it was with anticipation or fear!
At one point during the briefing, I asked the fateful question, "How often do these aircraft have mechanical problems?" "Almost never," answered Pickle, knocking on the wood table. Apparently he didn't knock quite hard enough.
We rejoined at life support at 1045 to put on all the gear I had just been fitted with earlier in the morning. It still fit, and after 15 minutes of wiggling and zipping, we were off to the aircraft. When we arrived at the assigned aircraft, it was the wrong one. It was a Colonel's aircraft and was fitted with auxiliary tanks which would make it impossible to pull Gs for the mission. We then went to another aircraft and did the preflight.
Fighter squadrons have crew chiefs that are in charge of the aircraft and responsible for the ground maintenance crew. The crew chief essentially runs the show and presents the aircraft to the pilot ready for flight. Without these ground support personnel, no fighter would every get off the ground. The pilot still performs a walk-around and consults with the crew chief about any special issues.
After the preflight, we got into the aircraft. I climbed the ladder, stepped onto the left engine nacelle and get into the back seat, forgetting to check the streamer on the canopy or the battery charged button that Major Perdue implored me to do. Heck, I was pretty excited.
After buckling in and having Lt. Heitmeyer double-check my position, I donned my helmet, hooked up the oxygen, and the canopy was closed. It was just Pickle and me from then on. Pickle started the engines and cleared the various systems with the crew chief via the intercom. Once cleared, we idled for about 15 minutes. I asked if this was for warm up but Pickle confirmed this was sort of a traditional start which allowed all aircraft in the flight a chance to clear up any problems.
Lighting up the panel
During the 15 minutes, I had a chance to turn on all the flight management displays and start playing. Gunny had also advised me to bring an 8 mm tape with me so I could use the on board recorder to record voice conversation and two of the FMD screens. Unfortunately, Scott did not tell me how to turn it on. Since Pickle was busy going through various check lists, speaking with the tower asking for an unlimited climb to 10,000 feet, and so on, I kept trying to turn the tape player on. Finally, I found a separate master switch and got it on with the tape loaded and running.
The MFDs came on and I fiddled with the various screens and finally selected the two color screens for my ADI and moving map, leaving the HUD and HSI on the monochromes. Things seemed to look best in their respective positions after switching all the items around. (Unfortunately, it was not until I got back home two days later that I found that the tape I recorded contained the cockpit audio but not the MFD video. I must have missed a switch somewhere!)
We taxied out when cleared with Monster 300 feet behind. When we arrived at the end of the runway, there was a group of men around the flight in front of us. I naively asked Captain Fueling what the problem was and he said this was the last group of ground crew who pulled the pins on the ordnance on the wings and landing gear pins. The theory is that should the gear collapse or weapons fall off, it will not happen near the other aircraft in the parking area.
While we were waiting, the HSI and moving map decided to start spinning. Pickle had never seen this happen before, but I had when a gyro fails. He was able to get it to stop by recycling the system with a cold boot to the master. Then we got a master flight control warning light for no apparent reason, but that also cleared after some technical maneuvers by Pickle I could not see from the back seat. Finally all was working and we announced we were ready for take off. Just prior to taxiing the last few feet to the runway, Captain Fueling called for the ejection seats to be activated. I moved the lever down and seat went "hot."
Cleared for a unrestricted climb, we started our roll down the runway. It was amazingly quiet in the cockpit, given what the F-15E sounds like outside. After leaving the asphalt, Pickle raised the gear, kept the nose down, and increased the speed. When we hit the end of the runway at about 350 knots, he pulled up vertical. I really did not notice the Gs until I felt the G pants swell on my legs. By the time I could think about it, I was feeling almost weightless. Pickle said our airspeed had fallen off just short of 10,000 feet, but I could not believe it until I looked down at the altimeter and it read 9,500 feet. The climb took about 15 seconds with the afterburners lit. That calculates out to something like 40,000 feet per minute!
Then trouble hit. The gear unsafe light was on. Captain Fueling slowed the aircraft and went through the checklist, lowering and raising the gear through two cycles. The light was still on, so the flight was pronounced over. Since the problem could be caused by a failing hydraulic system, getting the aircraft on the ground as soon as possible was imperative. I took the stick at that point for two reasons -- a chance to give me some stick time and give Pickle time to review procedures.
Pickle announced we were going to dump fuel to lower our landing weight. As I flew around the Echo MOA following its outline on the moving map, Pickle hit the fuel dump switch which began a 10,000-pound intentional fuel leak that took about five minutes. Fuel that is dumped above 5,000 feet fully vaporizes prior to hitting the ground and we were well above that. Pickle also declared an IFE -- in flight emergency.
Approach notified us that the tower wanted us to stay on the runway after landing so they could pin our gear prior to turning in case it was not secure. We landed uneventfully, and were greeted by the "crash recovery" equipment at the end of the runway. Pickle shut down one engine so the crew could safely pin the gear, and called for the ejection seats to go safe. I moved the handle forward and the flight was officially over.
We taxied off the runway a short distance and the crew on the ground made the ordnance safe by putting in the appropriate pins. We then taxied back to the ramp. As we passed the tower, as is traditional, we gave a wave and cycled the airbrake, which is easy to see from the tower as it "waves" from the back of the fuselage.
After reaching our parking spot, Pickle shut down the engines and opened the canopy. He was apologetic about the truncated flight, but I knew it was not his fault. Once we were on the ground speaking with the crew chief, it appeared the problem was a circuit breaker which was not reset prior to takeoff. In spite of the probably minor cause, the F-15E would be put on jacks and have its gear swung prior to further flight.
Although the flight was short, it was a great learning experience. Probably most impressive was the degree of support for each pilot and aircraft -- especially the life support personnel and equipment.
Was it worth flying to North Carolina from Wyoming and taking three days out of my
medical practice for such a short flight? You bet!