Gramps from Yesteryear
Illustration by Ted Wilbur
Two Leads don’t Make a Wingman
Two F/A-18 Hornets from the same squadron launched off the carrier in the evening as part of a larger strike package. Their briefed plan was to rendezvous overhead and proceed to the tanker as a section. Air-to-air tactical air navigation (TACAN) was neither briefed nor used within the section. After tanking, they would join the rest of the strike package and proceed on the mission. The flight joined with goggles, and the wingman took goggle spread on the left side of the formation.
As they approached the tanker track, the flight established themselves in a 3-mile trail of another division of fighters also assigned to their tanker. Because of the number of tanker tracks in the area and a large number of aircraft trying to find their assigned tanker, the mishap section was spending an inordinate amount of time heads down on their radars. The wingman was spending more than half of his time monitoring traffic visually and with his radar.
The lead initiated a slow right turn to try to fix the intercept geometry with the tanker, but the turn brought another section of fighters to their nose at a range of four miles. The lead began a 60-degree angle of bank descending turn back to the left but, his wingman only used a 35-degree angle of bank. Both aircraft rolled wings level with a 21-degree heading differential and the wingman 300 feet above his lead. With 3,000 feet of lateral separation and a 200-knot closure rate, the wingman, who was by now task saturated, did not recognize the rapidly increasing size of the lead and lack of any bearing change.
The lead initiated an easy right turn and the wingman continued a shallow descent. The two aircraft collided. The wingman ejected and sustained minor injuries. The lead was killed by the collision.
Sometimes when ol’ Gramps hears a story he jumps up and down and raises a ruckus to make a point. But when I hear stories like this, I just have to sit down, rub my oId noggin and ponder the loss of yet another of our greatest treasures. It’s enough to make an old salt weep. Y’all know it torches my trousers when one of you bends some metal, but goldurnit, I hate these stories with a tragic ending!
From our first day in orange and whites, we are taught simple but oh-so-important rules. Rules to live by. Rules that may save your life. Our building block approach to teaching means that each flight brings something harder to the mix, but you can’t forget those blocks that make up the foundation of what the Instructor Pilots are learnin’ you. How to fly a good instrument approach; how to handle a problem with your air machine; how to be a good wingman and the like.
Problem with these fellas was that two people were doing the lead’s job, and no one was doing the wingman’s. You kids know the first and most important priority of any wingman is to keep lead insight and maintain safe aircraft separation, it mighta helped if these two had used their yardstick, but if we take it to the most basic level, the wingman has got to keep lead in sight and keep the two jets from tryin’ to get into the same piece of sky.
Gather round kids and let’s learn a lesson. Do the little things well, and the big things will fall into place. A good wingman always knows where lead is, no matter what else is going on. Now you kids need to pay attention to this stuff, I DON’T WANT THIS TO HAPPEN AGAIN!
Shoot, I raised my voice and don’t like to do that—but good grief, ol’ Gramps’ heart just can’t get ripped up like this much more! Now you kids quit skylarking and get back to work. Gramps has something in his eye he needs to take care of.