By Lt. Adam Kyle
Nearing the conclusion of a successful composite training unit exercise at NAS Fallon with my squadron, the VFA-87 Golden Warriors, my section of F/A-18 Super Hornets was scheduled to execute close air support (CAS) with the Marines at the Pinecastle Range Complex in Florida. At this point in the workup cycle, my section was comfortable with both the range and flying around USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). The weather was beautiful, and we were looking forward to supporting the joint terminal air controllers (JTAC). The mission began uneventfully with a solid brief covering both routine and tactical administration procedures. Training rules are briefed for every tactical flight, and for our CAS mission that day, air-to-surface training rules were thoroughly covered, including contingencies for free-fall ordnance release and air-to-surface gun employment.
We launched from the ship under clear skies and proceeded into the range to begin working with the JTACs on the ground. The load-out for each aircraft was 300 rounds of 20mm and two laser-guided training rounds (LGTR). Following initial CAS check-in, both pilots were given 9-lines (a standardized means for ground troops to communicate with air assets to designate and strike targets on the ground) and directed to employ LGTRs on separate targets. Visibility was fantastic and for the first two runs everything operated exactly as briefed. At this point, we were approaching the end of our cycle-time and requested strafe passes in order to expend our bullets. Again, we were each given a 9-line and talked onto a significant target on the range. I completed my air-to-surface checklist and descended to 6,000 feet above ground level to set up for my first roll-in.
As I pulled the trigger, the gun spooled up and the bullets began firing normally. Reaching the bottom of the employment window, I released the trigger, but the gun continued to fire. I had employed the gun dozens of times before and was shocked that something out of the ordinary was happening. I was in a 30 degree dive, pointed at the ground, and quickly running out of altitude before I had to recover the jet. I instinctively reduced my dive angle to approximately 20 degrees and reached for the “Master Arm” switch. Before I could move the switch to “Safe,” 300 bullets were expended. (Thankfully, all bullets impacted on the range.) I recovered the jet, placed the Master Arm to Safe, and boxed “SIM” to put the aircraft into a simulated weapons employment mode to ensure ordnance wasn’t released from the aircraft before heading back to the ship. This incident occurred within the span of about three seconds and highlighted just how quickly something unpredictable can happen on a flight.
The procedure for a “runaway gun” is covered by training rules that are briefed before every flight. My biggest learning point was discovering just how quickly the procedure needs to be executed, and how little time you have to do it in a dive delivery. In a runaway gun scenario, releasing the trigger will be the first point at which the aircrew will realize that something is wrong. Typically occurring at the end of our employment window, very little time remains for them to react.
Hopefully, a ready room discussion of these hypothetical situations will prevent aircrew from being as surprised as I was in a similar incident, and prepare them to execute the procedures quickly. The conditions were ideal and thankfully no one was injured, but had the circumstances been different, the outcome might have been much worse.