Grampaw Pettibone: A Crosswind Battle

Illustrations by Ted Wilbur.

An F/A-18 Hornet crew launched as part of a multi-aircraft flight from a strategic expeditionary landing facility to take part in a combined-arms exercise. Prior to launch, the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) included a wind warning for wind gusts of up to 25 knots at 50 degrees from runway heading. During takeoff both the pilot and weapon systems officer noted a significant crosswind.

The mission went as planned and the flight set up to return to the landing facility. A few minutes prior to landing, the flight lead checked ATIS. Winds were still reported in a crosswind, this time with gusts up to 40 knots. The mishap pilot did not recall hearing the flight lead pass the ATIS information to the rest of the flight.

The flight had pre-briefed a battle break of 450 knots at 1,000 feet. The actual speed at the break was 30 knots faster and the break was executed just past the approach end numbers. The mishap pilot had to wait until the 45 degree position to lower the gear and flaps because of the aircraft’s excessive speed. Fighting an overshooting crosswind, the aircraft touched down more than 40 knots fast and 2,000 feet past the intended landing point.

The mishap pilot felt that the aircraft was not slowing normally and added power with the intent of executing a go-around, but did not feel the amount of acceleration he expected and decided to attempt a long field arrestment. The hook missed the long field gear and the aircraft left the end of the runway. After jumping the first of a series of berms at the end of the runway, the pilot called for ejection.

The pilot ejected successfully. The weapon systems officer died as a result of injuries sustained during the ejection.

The mishap investigation showed the crosswind was very slightly over the F/A-18 NATOPS crosswind landing limit. In addition, at the time of the mishap all aircraft in the flight had sufficient fuel either to hold or Bingo to one of two suitable airfields.

GramPaw Pettibone saysGrampaw Pettibone said:

Kids, I’m gonna say this right up front. I know that pilot will carry a heavy load for the rest of his life. I’m not trying to pick on a fellow aviator, but I am going to ask you to take a look-see with me and find out how we could have averted this tragedy. If we ain’t gonna collectively learn from our mistakes, then shoot, I’ll hang up my spurs and, as that punch drunk fighter once said, “Fade off into Bolivian.”!

These aviators came rippin’ into the break and must have put on a good show—but durnit, this wasn’t showtime. The conditions were challenging and these fellas were behind their jet. There is really only one thing to do in that situation—WAVE OFF! Trying to salvage an unsalvageable situation is like selling your mule to buy a plow; it just don’t make sense!

Look kids, Gramps knows how it goes. We think a waveoff is a sign of weakness, a minor failure in a profession that doesn’t suffer any amount of failure well. What’s the first thing a naval aviator does after he trips and falls? He looks around to see who saw it happen. We don’t like to look bad, it ain’t in our nature. I understand not wanting to admit you ain’t gonna make it this time. Shoot, why do you think we have LSOs on the ship? (It ain’t just for the comedy!)

My poncho is a little puffed at the flight lead too—why didn’t he convey the seriousness of the situation he was about to lead his wingies into? Was there even a discussion about how much crosswind there was? Did these intrepid aviators have any idea what they were getting into? They had the gas to hold or Bingo and come back, so why the rush? I’ve said it before: flight leads need to LEAD!!

So look here kids. We all make mistakes, and every once in a while we even get a do-over on our mistakes. Make a school circle kids, and learn a lesson. Waveoffs are free. Don’t be afraid to use one every once in a while! Whether it is a “can do” attitude or just pride that is motivating you, don’t give in and try to make a bad approach into a good one. Add the juice, wave off, assess what you did wrong last time, and fix it.

Now you kids go on back outside and play, Gramps is gonna go sharpen his knife.