Manypilots dream of strapping on a $45 million F-15E Screaming Eagle fighter, but few get todo it. I had the honor of doing so November 12, 1999, and learned a lot about what ittakes 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 oneof 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 goright 100% of the time, but it’s not the way it’s actually done. What happens in realityis 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 theflight to be briefed on “egress” from the aircraft by Major Scott”Gunny” Perdue. Scott is an EAAer who also flies a Bonanza from the GoldsboroWayne County Airport (where he sits on the airport board). He is an accomplished F-15Einstructor who has been in the military for 24 years, and is headed for the airlines afterhis retirement from the USAF next year. Scott has seen it all and done it all, and isdefinitely 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 weaponssystem officer (WSO or “wizzo”) in the rear. I was scheduled for the rear seatsince I have never been checked out for solos!
Ejection seats are the focus of egress. They are lifesavers, but improperly used can bekillers. Getting into, strapping in, and getting out of the seat is no small task, and theoperational aspects are complicated.
Three rockets power the ACES II ejection seat. The canopy blows first and is gone priorto the ejection seat leaving the aircraft. Then the main rocket is fired to “lift andseparate” the crewmember from the aircraft. The second rocket is a small one thatdirects the front seat pilot to go to the left and the rear WSO seat to angle to theright. (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 fullof rocket blast from the front seat. The seat also has an third rocket in the base — onewhich is mechanically steered by a flywheel for gyroscopic stability to dampen pitchoscillations. This does not guarantee, however, that when the ejection occurs, the seatwill remain upright.
Scott had me practice getting into the simulator, offering hints that only someoneexquisitely familiar with this aircraft would know. “Make sure the seat is safe bychecking that the ejection seat safety latch is forward.” Apparently it is consideredpoor form to kick one of the ejection seat handles getting in and have it go off withonly your foot on board.
“Step into the seat with your right foot. You will have to crouch down even lowerin the actual aircraft, since the sim canopy is actually slightly higher than the aircraftcanopy. Before you get in, be sure that they have pulled the pin in the canopy releasemechanism and check to see if the ejection battery pin is not out, which means it is stillfunctional.” (It was not until I started writing this article that I remember Iforgot to do those last two things!)
Harder than it looks
The sequence after getting into the cockpit is “1-2-1-2.” This memory aidmeans 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, butlet me tell you … this sequence is no easy feat. Hooking in the G-suit to the femaleconnector located behind your left hip would normally be easy, but in the harness bringingyour right arm around to reach it with the strap holding your shoulder back makes it harderthan switching fuel tanks in a Vari-EZE. Once that is done, each hip D-ring is clipped into the seat by feel. The seat belt and parachute harness are clipped in with a “Kochfitting” using the politically incorrect memory aid “lift the skirt, dropthe drawers.” It is a double safety mechanism that is bomb proof. The final sequenceis putting on the flight helmet and hooking up the oxygen and intercom which was the onlyeasy thing about connecting oneself to this aircraft.
Now that we were strapped in, it was time to practice a ground egress. That meansgetting out in a hurry when the aircraft is on the ground and flames are licking up thesides. It all goes in reverse — “1-2-1-2-1” — remembering to make sure theseat is safe by deactivating the ejection system. Lifting the skirt and pulling down thedrawers is a lot easier in the politically incorrect fashion than in the aircraft. Ittakes 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 theright 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 bothhands at the same time. Gunny points out that since the fuselage is round, if you drop facingthe aircraft, you will land on your back and head. The proper technique is to let go withthe hand closest to the front and hold on with the rear-most hand, let your body swingback so you are facing forward, then drop. I fortunately did not have to demonstrateproficiency in this egress maneuver.
After we covered egress on the ground, we moved to egress in the air. Although itsounds pretty exciting, I knew it would be very bad day if I had to do it. The ejectionseat 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 thethird “bailout,” you (as the back-seater) are history with a 14-G accelerationout of the aircraft. The rear seat position can eject independently but other than thepilot 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 gettinghurt. The handles also keep the knees in, and it is the pilot’s responsibility tokeep 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 yourneck, 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, thenremove the oxygen mask. Scott thinks drowning after an ejection is a bad way to go sogetting off the mask is a priority over water and also to keep from hanging up on a treeduring a forest landing.
If the landing zone is water, the personal floatation device is inflated just prior tolanding. There is a life raft hanging from your butt that automatically inflates after thechute opens. If the landing is in trees, you drop the water survival raft so it does nothang up, pull down the eye shield, and cover your neck with your hands to prevent beingstabbed by branches. Landing on power lines is similar except you make sure to turn yourhead so you do not hang up on your chin! Scott also explained the use of the repellinggear 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 inthe past, and this one did not work either.
Being a fellow GA pilot and computer techy, Scott also introduced me to the working ofthe four multi-functional displays (MFDs) which make up the F-15E’s glass cockpit. Thereare two color and two monochrome MFDs, all of which are functionally interchangeable. Theyare 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 hasmore acronyms than Bayer has aspirins, and I must confess that I was lost more than onceduring the explanation of the screens.)
Although the egress sim did not have active screens, I sort of got the gist ofScott’s instruction. Fortunately, I spotted the ON-OFF switch (which Scott forgot toshow 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 oneelse 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 schedulingconflict I flew instead with a different squadron. Scott was not going to be around, so hegave me the pre-flight briefing the night before about eating something like a bagelbefore going to the base to prevent motion sickness. I then proudly displayed my twoReliefBands,saying I was covered for motion sickness. In fact, I carried two to protectmyself 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 setfor 0945 and take off at 12 noon. I listened to Scott’s advice and went searching fora bagel at about 0615. Since Scott had not told me where to find the bagel, I drove aroundGoldsboro finally seeing a Krispy Kreme donut shop. Now for those of you who have neverhad a KK glazed donut, especially hot, you may never know how someone like myself who grewup in the south and now lives a lengthy distance from the closest KK cannot pass up one ofthese icons when the “hot donut” sign is lit. As a compromise, I ate a bagelplus two glazed KK wonders with my coffee … realizing full well that I risked seeingthose 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 fromthe 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 liaisonperson (known behind the scenes as the “unfortunate lieutenant” for drawing theduty) and helped shuttle me around. The 336 dates its origin back to the RAF in Englandduring WWII, when the squadron was a RAF squadron staffed by Americans. It has fought eversince 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 mypre-flight medical. Captain Egerstrom had only been a Flight Surgeon for three months andhad never flown in one of the F-15Es. (It seemed to be a recurrent theme throughout theday 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 wasabbreviated. Certain physical parameters had to be met. Standing height had to be lessthan 77 inches and greater than 64 inches. Weight had to be greater than 132.5 pounds (noproblemo!), with no upper limit (thank goodness). Sitting height also had to be between 34and 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 tubefunction by examining my ears while I performed a Valsalva maneuver. The Valsalva is whereyou pinch you nose and gentle blow out against a closed mouth to clear the ears. It issimilar 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 withlater helps prevent GLOC but the risk is lessened by tightening the legs followed by theback and then performing the Valsalva. If the bearing down is done prior to tighten thelegs and back, it could actually prevent blood from returning up to the heart which wouldinduce GLOC sooner. The purpose of the G-pants, isometric exercise, and Valsalva is tokeep the blood from being forced out of the head and to the lower extremitiesdue to high G-forces. The technique keeps the circulatory system capacity in the lowerextremities low preventing the shift of the blood south.
Dr. Egerstrom also had a series of informational items to cover with me. He discussedthat some people get claustrophobic with the oxygen mask. He also mentioned motionsickness for which he suggested asking to take control of the aircraft or asking the pilotto fly straight and level. He also mentioned that hyperventilation could be a problem and tocontrol 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 oneplace where after Capt. Egerstrom gets his ride in a F-15E, he will know that bending thehead 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 isnot constant, which decreases the risk of explosive decompression. He also mentioneddecompression sickness but stated it was pretty rare. Ear block from the absorption ofnitrogen is more common. Ear block is related to the vacuum which cannot be cleared in themiddle 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 ofpreparation about which I had been totally blas. There is a phenomenal amount oftechnical 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 (notincluding maintenance or weapons support personnel).
Each pilot and WSO is personally fitted for their equipment, and the equipment isinspected on a regular schedule. G-suits are inspected at least every 120 days, whilehelmets and harnesses are inspected every 30 days. The life support personnel take theirjob 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 inflateautomatically during high G maneuvers by means of an umbilical cord hooked to theaircraft. The pants are zipped closed at the waistband. Then the pant legs are zipped onthe inside seam. The pants are tight enough without inflation that there are stress-reliefzippers 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 plandid not predict more than six Gs, I did not don the vest portion of “CombatEdge.” The vest is similar to a G-suit for the chest and head, and helps (along withthe Valsalva) to prevent lung damage. In addition, the air bladder in the back of thehelmet 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 survivalgear items in case all else is lost. Equipment includes a comm radio with a beacon,
After the survival vest, I was fitted with a harness. The life support technicianspointed out that most non-military folks mistake this for a parachute, but the harness issimply what connects the crewmember to the parachute and survival gear. It also containsthe repelling device should a parachute get hung up in trees — a real possibility in theheavily forested southeast U.S. The two D-rings located at the hips of the harness connectto the survival pack and one-person life raft. When the parachute deploys, the raft dropsdown on a tether and hangs below during descent. The survival gear hangs above the raftand contains two survival packs — one so-called “hit-and-run” pack when evadingthe enemy is an urgent problem, and the standard pack which has more extensive equipment. Thekits include a Camel Back — water in 16 four-ounce packs (which LS personnel say tastes awhole lot better than the water previously packed in metal canteens) — plus flares,foliage penetration flares, poncho, knife, raft repair plugs, goggles for wind/sand, sunblock, 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 gearstaying with the pilot.
The helmet and oxygen mask were my last fitting. In addition to head fit, the oxygenmask requires pressure testing on the face. At the tightest setting, no air should leakout. With this step, the fitting was completed but had taken almost an hour! Thetechnicians who performed all these functions are true behind-the-scenes heroes for thepilots 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 — anadditional hood/mask/jump suit which goes over everything to protect the crews duringchemical attacks. The thought of wearing all the gear plus the AERPS for the short walk tothe aircraft during a North Carolina summer is frightening.
At 0945, I met my pilot, Captain Lee “Pickle” Fueling. Our wingman wasCaptain Dave “Monster” Berg. Monster’s “incentivepassenger” was Sargent Panzer, an enlisted man who was receiving the ride for hiswork with the squadron. (The Air Force gives “incentive” rides to non-pilots whohelp behind the scenes. Usually the rides are given by seniority, and usually only once ina career.)
Pickle and Monster then briefed Panza and me on the flight. It was the best possiblesetup. We would start by heading over to the coast and being “bandits” for ageneral and his wingman. Then, after we were “killed,” we would proceed via alow-level corridor at 1,000 feet to the Echo MOA for aerobatics maneuvers. My mouth waswatering, 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 dothese 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 withearlier in the morning. It still fit, and after 15 minutes of wiggling and zipping, wewere 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 itimpossible to pull Gs for the mission. We then went to another aircraft and did thepreflight.
Fighter squadrons have crew chiefs that are in charge of the aircraft and responsiblefor the ground maintenance crew. The crew chief essentially runs the show and presents theaircraft to the pilot ready for flight. Without these ground support personnel, no fighterwould every get off the ground. The pilot still performs a walk-around and consults withthe crew chief about any special issues.
After the preflight, we got into the aircraft. I climbed the ladder, stepped onto theleft engine nacelle and get into the back seat, forgetting to check the streamer on thecanopy or the battery charged button that Major Perdue implored me to do. Heck, I waspretty excited.
After buckling in and having Lt. Heitmeyer double-check my position, I donned myhelmet, hooked up the oxygen, and the canopy was closed. It was just Pickle and me fromthen on. Pickle started the engines and cleared the various systems with the crew chiefvia the intercom. Once cleared, we idled for about 15 minutes. I asked if this was forwarm up but Pickle confirmed this was sort of a traditional start which allowed allaircraft 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 andstart playing. Gunny had also advised me to bring an 8 mm tape with me so I could use theon 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 checklists, speaking with the tower asking for an unlimited climb to 10,000 feet, and so on, Ikept trying to turn the tape player on. Finally, I found a separate master switch and gotit on with the tape loaded and running.
The MFDs came on and I fiddled with the various screens and finally selected the twocolor 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 itemsaround. (Unfortunately, it was not until I got back home two days later that I found thatthe tape I recorded contained the cockpit audio but not the MFD video. I must have misseda switch somewhere!)
We taxied out when cleared with Monster 300 feet behind. When we arrived at the end ofthe runway, there was a group of men around the flight in front of us. I naively askedCaptain Fueling what the problem was and he said this was the last group of ground crewwho pulled the pins on the ordnance on the wings and landing gear pins. The theory isthat should the gear collapse or weapons fall off, it will not happen near the otheraircraft in the parking area.
While we were waiting, the HSI and moving map decided to start spinning. Pickle hadnever seen this happen before, but I had when a gyro fails. He was able to get it to stopby recycling the system with a cold boot to the master. Then we got a master flightcontrol warning light for no apparent reason, but that also cleared after some technicalmaneuvers by Pickle I could not see from the back seat. Finally all was working and weannounced we were ready for take off. Just prior to taxiing the last few feet to therunway, Captain Fueling called for the ejection seats to be activated. I moved the leverdown and seat went “hot.”
Cleared for a unrestricted climb, we started our roll down the runway. It was amazinglyquiet 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 endof the runway at about 350 knots, he pulled up vertical. I really did not notice the Gsuntil I felt the G pants swell on my legs. By the time I could think about it, I wasfeeling almost weightless. Pickle said our airspeed had fallen off just short of 10,000feet, but I could not believe it until I looked down at the altimeter and it read 9,500feet. The climb took about 15 seconds with the afterburners lit. That calculates out tosomething like 40,000 feet per minute!
Then trouble hit. The gear unsafe light was on. Captain Fueling slowed the aircraft andwent through the checklist, lowering and raising the gear through two cycles. The lightwas still on, so the flight was pronounced over. Since the problem could be caused by afailing hydraulic system, getting the aircraft on the ground as soon as possible wasimperative. I took the stick at that point for two reasons — a chance to give me somestick time and give Pickle time to review procedures.
Pickle announced we were going to dump fuel to lower our landing weight. As I flewaround the Echo MOA following its outline on the moving map, Pickle hit the fuel dumpswitch which began a 10,000-pound intentional fuel leak that took about five minutes. Fuelthat is dumped above 5,000 feet fully vaporizes prior to hitting the ground and we werewell 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 sothey could pin our gear prior to turning in case it was not secure. We landeduneventfully, and were greeted by the “crash recovery” equipment at the end ofthe runway. Pickle shut down one engine so the crew could safely pin the gear, and calledfor the ejection seats to go safe. I moved the handle forward and the flight wasofficially over.
We taxied off the runway a short distance and the crew on the ground made the ordnancesafe by putting in the appropriate pins. We then taxied back to the ramp. As we passed thetower, as is traditional, we gave a wave and cycled the airbrake, which is easy to seefrom 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. Hewas apologetic about the truncated flight, but I knew it was not his fault. Once we wereon the ground speaking with the crew chief, it appeared the problem was a circuit breakerwhich was not reset prior to takeoff. In spite of the probably minor cause, the F-15Ewould 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 mostimpressive was the degree of support for each pilot and aircraft — especially the lifesupport personnel and equipment.
Was it worth flying to North Carolina from Wyoming and taking three days out of mymedical practice for such a short flight? You bet!