Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

January-February 2008

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

How Low Can you Go?

After doing ceremonial flyovers over the weekend, a section of Hornets took off from a civilian airfield for the short flight home. The flight lead elected to launch visual flight rules (VFR) and proceeded to a visual route (VR) for some section low-level work.

Weather and notices to airmen were checked during the brief, but no flight plan was filed, and the route was not scheduled with fleet area control and the local surveillance facility. The flight lead conducted a standard low-level briefing, including discussion of operational risk management and hazards along the route using his low-level chart. The wingman did not have a chart.

Prior to entering the VR route, the flight lead contacted flight service and stated their intention to fly the low-level route at 200 feet and 500 knots. At some point the flight lead noticed the section was two miles south of route centerline, so he called for a “check right” to redress the formation. During the turn, the flight lead descended below the route structure. Although he had his radar altimeter bug set at 180 feet, he didn’t hear the radar altimeter warning tone as he lost altitude. He caught sight of a group of high tension lines running across a reservoir, but he was too low and going too fast to avoid them.

The lead Hornet struck the power lines 90 feet above the surface of the reservoir. The impact severed three of the four lines and sheared off all of the jet’s antennas on the bottom of the fuselage and tore off the front half of the centerline drop tank. Both of the engines were fodded, and the starboard engine seized immediately.

The pilot started a climb while securing the starboard engine and assessing damage to the aircraft. He referenced his low-level chart and then started a left-hand turn for the nearest emergency divert field, which was 12 miles south. At the same time he attempted a crossbleed start on the starboard engine, with no luck.

The jet was rapidly decelerating, and the pilot selected full afterburner on the port engine in an attempt to maintain level flight. Meanwhile, the wingman, who had noticed the power lines sparking on the ground during the climb over the reservoir, attempted to join his damaged flight lead. The wingman could not communicate over the radio because of the damage to the lead’s antennas.

As his air speed continued to decay, the flight lead knew he was left with one option. He elected to hold ejection until 200 feet above the ground to ensure the aircraft wouldn’t hit any homes or vehicles. Just over a minute after he had hit the wires, the flight lead ejected.

The pilot tumbled several times in the seat and hit the ground shortly after parachute opening. He didn’t perform a parachute landing maneuver because he was distracted watching his stricken Hornet turn into a fireball after it crashed in front of him. He suffered a severely fractured right ankle and sprained left ankle. A civilian ambulance arrived within seven minutes, and the pilot was taken to a local hospital for treatment.

Grampaw Pettibone says …

First off, even with newfangled moving maps and such, Gramps ain’t terribly comfortable with everybody in the flight not having his own low-level chart. Second, a low-level brief ain’t much good if aviators don’t stay within the route boundaries during the route. ‘Nuff said.