Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear: November-December 2001

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Nighttime Nightmare

A strike package comprised of 12 aircraft launched from the carrier, in sections, on a night strike familiarization flight. The aircraft were to conduct in-flight refueling, also in sections, before proceeding on the mission. Due to excessive traffic overhead the carrier, the rendezvous point for one section of F/A-18 Hornets was altered by the section leader after becoming airborne. The two aircraft joined at a point 10 miles northwest of the ship and proceeded toward the tanker which was flying at 22,000 feet. Both pilots were wearing night vision goggles (NVG).

Established in spread formation with the wingman on the leader’s left side, the flight maneuvered to a 3-mile trail position behind a flight of three F-14 Tomcats also proceeding to the tanker. At this time a flight of three Hornets was also approaching the tanker at the section’s 11 o’clock position about 12 miles away.

The section leader’s wingman was spending 60 percent of his time monitoring traffic on radar and visually trying to assist the leader in joining up on the tanker. The flight closed to 2 miles in trail of the F-14s while the 3-plane flight of F/A-18s was six miles ahead. The wingman continued to devote most of his time to duties other than formation flying. The leader entered a descending 60-degree left angle of bank turn for 15 seconds. The wingman responded with a 35-degree angle of bank left descending turn. During this turn, a 24-degree heading difference developed between the two aircraft. The wingman was about 700 feet above the leader’s altitude.

The wingman did not recognize the heading differential or the resulting closure rate. Both Hornets rolled wings level with a 21-degree heading difference and the wingman 300 feet above the leader. The wingman did not recognize the rapidly increasing size of the leader’s aircraft due to scan breakdown and self-induced task saturation. The leader started an easy right turn, while the wingman continued a slight descent until the aircraft collided at a closure rate of approximately 180 knots with a 17-degree heading difference. The wingman immediately initiated successful ejection, but the leader was killed on impact.  

It’s a heckuva workload speedin’ through the sky at night, wearin’ NVGs and makin’ your way to the tanker with a bunch of fast movin’ birds in close company. The wingman lost situational awareness in this case because he was tryin’ to do too much beyond his primary duty of flying as wingman. He violated a basic, fundamental task of formation flying: avoid flyin’ into your lead.

Also, the flight did not brief for and subsequently did not use the air-to-air function of the tactical aid to navigation system, which mighta helped the fliers track their distance from each other. ‘Nuff said.