Category Archives: Grampaw Pettibone

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.

Grampa Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear: March-April 2001

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Wild Winds

Editor’s note: Lt. Cmdr. Howard M. Tillison, USNR (Ret.), was officer in charge of Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron (Light) (HSL) 30 Det A aboard USNS Harkness (T-AGS-32) in 1982 during the incident he describes here.

We were inbound in our HH-2D Seasprite to a promising landing zone (LZ) which was on a gently sloping coastal plane in the lee of a mountain range that rose from sea level to 3,000 feet within a couple of miles. Inbound to the LZ from the ship at 1,500 feet we had a 25-knot head wind, shown by comparing our airspeed and doppler ground speed indications. When I reached a good spot to begin a straight-in landing approach to the LZ, I started a normal descent and began reducing airspeed from 100 to 70 knots for a straight-in to final. We were attempting to land as closely as possible to a road which ran along the base of the mountains at the spot where they began their upward thrust from the coastal plain.

I suddenly noticed that things didn’t feel right. I looked down to see a 1,500-feet-per-minute rate of descent on the vertical speed indicator. My ground speed was also increasing and the mountains were getting bigger all the time. In the space of about a mile, the wind had shifted 180 degrees and was now dead on the tail. Instead of a straight-in to the LZ, I ended up button-hooking around. I landed uneventfully, facing back toward the ocean.

After analyzing the situation, my copilot and I realized that the easterly tradewinds were spilling over the ridge and forming a rotor in the lee of the mountains, which resulted in both a downdraft during our approach and a 180-degree wind shift at ground level. Luckily, we were lightly loaded, overpowered and had room to recover from a potentially hazardous situation by making a 180-degree turn prior to landing. If we had been heavy and failed to notice the wind shift prior to short final, we could just as easily have been in a settling-with-power, or power-settling (remember the tailwind) situation.

After that experience, we either had our ground party pop a smoke flare every time we approached an LZ in mountainous terrain, or we conducted a flyover at 1,500 feet and tossed out a roll of toilet paper to see what the winds were doing at ground level before commencing our approach.

Mountain flying is a different environment, even when the mountains are right there next to the friendly ocean and flat tropical beaches. Helo drivers should be aware of this potential problem before attempting to land on the lee side of a mountain and ending up with a tailwind instead of a head wind while trying to pull into a hover.

Gramps blamed the CH-53D Sea Stallion crew in “Lava Lament” (see Grampa Pettibone, Spring 2020) for failing to “determine the wind direction,” but it’s not always apparent when the wind has shifted 180 degrees as it did with me and probably did to the CH-53D pilots that day, in a relatively small space. If a Hornet is on final to a carrier and the winds go out of limits, the air boss or the landing signal officer can wave it off. It ain’t the same ball game when you’re in a helo trying to make it into an LZ without the benefit of having somebody on the ground to put up a windsock before you arrive.

Grampaw Pettibone says …

“Welcome advice for rotary wing pilots.”

Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

March-April 2000

A Canyon Catastrophe

A flight of two F/A-18 Hornets was on a two-fold training mission: one part dissimilar air combat training (DACT) and the second, low-altitude training. The day before, the squadron executive officer had briefed the fliers on the hazards of low-level flights and covered flight through canyon areas, emphasizing the danger of such flights close to the ground.

One pilot was the lead, under training, while the wingman was the mission commander. The DACT portion of the mission was completed without incident. Subsequently, the lead pilot determined the flight did not have sufficient fuel to return to base as briefed, which meant curtailing the low-level route. To conserve fuel the leader flew along the initial portion of the low-level route at 5,000 feet and 250 knots. When the low-level route intersected the canyon portion of the flight, lead descended into the low-level environment.

The mission commander lost sight of the leader as the flight commenced the route. Approximately one minute later, the mission commander observed a bright flash ahead and low on the canyon’s left wall. The flash then changed to what was perceived as a fireball followed by thick black smoke. The Hornet had crashed. The pilot was killed, the aircraft destroyed.

Investigators determined that the F/A-18 struck the canyon wall about 75 feet from the edge of a sloping ridge line in a high-G, high-angle-of attack, right banked turn. There was no evidence of engine or systems failure, nor any sign of an ejection attempt.

Grampaw Pettibone says…

Shouldn’ta happened, but it did, so learn from it. The lead pilot’s Hornet was in a hard right-hand turn within the confines of the canyon walls, and he either didn’t see the ridge line approaching or did not realize his flight path was below it. It’s also possible that he became aware of the ridge line too late to avoid it.

Would it have helped if the flight had practiced low-level maneuvers over less hazardous terrain before descending into the canyon environment? Maybe. The investigators did conclude that the lead pilot had insufficient low-level flight experience for operating in a canyon area. Plus, he hadn’t had enough rest before the mission. He was an extremely motivated aviator but considered by some to be overconfident. Not a good combination for pilots flying high-performance aircraft fast and close to Mother Earth.

Seniors in the chain of command, including the mission commander, could have exercised better judgment in handling the preparation for this flight.

Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

May-June 1999

Illustration by Ted Wilbur 

Divert Debacle

A student naval aviator awoke at 0325 for a 0500 course rules brief before a carrier qualification flight in a T-45 Goshawk aboard a carrier off the coast. The primary divert field assigned was the naval air station (NAS) from which the flight would depart. The secondary was a Navy field on the coast.

After a flight briefing at 0600, the aircraft departed for the carrier. Due to marginal weather, however, it had to return to the NAS, arriving at 1015. The student later attended an impromptu all officers meeting to discuss safety issues relating to a T-45 mishap that occurred in another squadron. After the meeting and lunch, the student briefed for a second launch to the boat, and at 1500 took off once again for the carrier.

The student received a “Charlie” signal on arrival at the carrier and let down into the pattern where he made two touch and goes. Subsequently, he made two hook-down passes, waving off both times. At this point he was at bingo fuel and was directed by the tower to divert to shore and proceed with an emergency bingo divert profile. A lead/safe instructor was assigned to join the student and escort him to a land base.

Because of bad weather and radio and tactical aid to navigation problems, the join-up was delayed. When they had rendezvoused, the instructor assumed the “communications lead” but not the actual flight lead as required by a Chief of Naval Air Training instruction. The instructor told the student to land at the Navy facility on the coast, even though the student had sufficient fuel to safely execute a divert to the NAS launch point with which he was more familiar.

The flight descended and broke out of the weather and into the clear at 2,600 feet, over water, with the runway visible 10 miles in the distance. The instructor reminded the student to drop his gear and flaps at 7 miles. The student had failed to perform his feet-dry checks prior to the approach, however, and didn’t complete his landing checklist on final. Although he verified that his gear and flaps were down and speed brakes extended, he had omitted the aircraft anti-skid from the checklist and the system was not actuated. Also, the student was surprised to note the field did not have a Fresnel lens for landing. He touched down nearly 2,000 feet from the approach end and hit the brakes while rolling out at 115 knots. Because anti-skid was deselected, the starboard main landing tire blew. The student was unable to counter the T-45’s swerve to the right. The Goshawk departed the runway and flipped over. The student struck the instrument panel but suffered only minor lacerations and abrasions from the impact and from the shattered canopy. A physical exam revealed the student was fatigued dehydrated and poorly nourished at the time of the accident.

Grampaw Pettibone says…

Light a blow torch and singe my whiskers one more time! What can ole Gramps say about checklists but USE THEM! Blowin’ a tire on a fast rollout is absolutely no fun. And it can be disastrous when you’re exhausted, hungry and badly need a drink of water. The lead/safe pilot wasn‘t a lot of help here. “Task saturated” is the term used nowadays to describe a situation where a flier has too much to do and not enough time to do It. Add the stress factor, lack of sleep, food and water and the recipe produces trouble with a capital “T.” 

Grampaw Pettibone

Grampaw from Yesteryear

May-June 1999

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Vikings Away

An S-3 Viking with four in the crew was on a familiarization flight for a copilot/tactical coordinator (COTAC). Although the COTAC had more than 1,100 hours in the model, this was his first flight after being out of the cockpit for over three years. During the preflight briefing, the pilot did not discuss specific aircraft coordination and communication requirements as was dictated by air wing standard operating procedures.

In the training area, the pilot initiated entry into a cruise configuration full-stall demo 13,000 feet. The Viking progressed normally into the stall with buffet and wing rollout occurring at the appropriate angle of attack (AOA). This rollout tendency is a normal S-3 stall characteristic and is one of several indicators used to determine that an aircraft has entered a fully stalled condition.

However, the pilot did not ensure that the AOA was adequately reduced prior to power application. As a result, AOA increased and a deeper stall occurred. The S-3 entered a post-stall gyration (PSG), completing nearly two gyrations before the pilot applied out-of-control flight recovery procedures based on the delayed recognition of the PSG.

At this time, the attention of the pilot and COTAC was focused on illuminated trim/speedbrake and master caution lights. Mistakenly believing that these cautions were associated with the departure, the pilot removed his hand from the stick to reconnect the trim/speedbrake channels on the flight control test panel. The aircraft was now 45 degrees nose low, 50 degrees left wing down, and passing 10,000 feet with increasing airspeed as the pilot placed his hand back on the slick.

As the pilot applied recovery control inputs, he noted 8,000 feet on the altimeter, considered ejecting but believed the aircraft was recoverable. He did not convey this to the crew nor did the crew recognize indications of recovery from out-of-control flight. An ejection call was made over the intercom and command ejection was initiated above 6,500 feet with 250 knots airspeed. All hands were rescued within 30 minutes with varying degrees of survivable injuries.

Singe my socks and pass the bicarb! What happened to professional briefings and knowing proper stall recovery procedures? This isn’t the old days when biplane drivers plowed into weeping willows with some regularity, walked away from the crashes and later chuckled about their brush with the Grim Reaper. When there’s more than one in the crew, coordination and communication have to be treated as absolute milestones in the briefing process. Knowledge of stall recovery procedures and out-of-control flight wouldn’t hurt, either. 

Grampaw Pettibone

In Memorium Ted Wilbur

Edward “Ted” Wilbur, who served 35 years in the Navy and became known to our readers as the longtime illustrator of Grampaw Pettibone, died Nov. 14. He was 89.

Wilbur joined the Navy as part of the Flying Midshipmen program and attended Villanova University for two years before reporting to flight training in Pensacola, Florida. He earned his wings in 1950 and went on to serve as an aviator, recording more than 5,000 flight hours and 600 landings aboard 36 aircraft carriers.

Among his accomplishments, Wilbur served as the carrier-onboard-delivery detachment officer supporting the nation’s first manned space flight May 5, 1961, flying astronaut Alan Shephard from USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39) to the Bahamas.

After his flying days were over, Wilbur left his mark as an artist, writer and editor. He was the founding staff artist for Approach, the Navy and Marine Corps’ aviation safety magazine. He later covered the Navy’s Vanguard and Polaris missile programs as a combat artist, and also painted nuclear submarines.

In 1967, Wilbur arrived in Washington, D.C., as the editor of Naval Aviation News. During construction of the National Air and Space Museum, he served as the Navy’s project officer for the museum’s Sea-Air Hall.

Wilbur retired from the Navy in 1981 as head of Naval Aviation News and the Naval Aviation Periodicals and History office. He returned to the magazine’s pages in 1994 as the illustrator for its safety sage, Grampaw Pettibone, inheriting the character from creator Robert Osborn.

Wilbur’s paintings have been exhibited internationally as well as at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola.

Wilbur’s military honors include the Navy Occupation Medal (Europe), National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Commendation Medal and the Legion of Merit.

Written by Jeff Newman, staff writer for Naval Aviation News.

Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

September-October 2008

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Tree Top Tangle

A two-seat F/A-18 Hornet was scheduled for an air-to-air radar evaluation hop. Prior to takeoff, the nose wheel steering failed but troubleshooters had supposedly corrected the problem. The Hornet got safely airborne but the gear handle would not move up. The white mechanical stop was visible in the landing gear control panel. The pilot reduced power and depressed the down lock override (contrary to NATOPS), removing the mechanical stop. He raised the gear handle and initiated a right turn.

The flaps were raised from half to auto and everything worked normally except the nose gear remained extended. The pilot reduced power to preclude exceeding airspeed limits for the hung gear. While the main gear were extending, the engines were at idle, the aircraft decelerating. The rear seater noticed ground closure and called, “Watch your rate of descent.” The pilot went to military power, then maximum afterburner.

Ahead was a line of trees, about 100 feet tall. The aircraft struck the tops of the trees in a nose-high, wings level attitude with little vertical velocity. The aircraft managed to land but the left stabilator sustained major damage. The left engine was severely fodded.

grampa_pettibone_says_leftSometimes a minor emergency can turn into a bucket of cobras a Ia Indiana Jones. I know the Hornet is one fine flyin’ machine and can do wonders. But it’s no better than the human bein’s in the cockpit. A 10- to 30-knot overspeed of the gear ain’t as bad as hittin’ the ground. The guy in the back could have been a little more help, too.

If you think you might have had the same kind of trouble in such a situation, better bone up on emergency procedures. Not too many of us like those squirmin’ cobras.





Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

May-June 2008

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Cobra Crunch!

All aircrew involved in a two-ship AH-1W Cobra mission had flown a similar event in the same working area at least once in the previous two days. On this day, the mission commander did not use a briefing guide for the brief. They did not discuss operational risk management during the brief nor did any of the aircrew sign an operational risk management (ORM) assessment. The mission commander did not brief instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) procedures, lost aircraft procedures, or how the aircraft were to rendezvous in flight if one aircraft was delayed. At the conclusion of the brief there were no questions regarding the brief from the aircrew in attendance.

Local authorities familiar with the area briefed the crew concerning hazards, noise sensitive areas and airfield operations. Just over an hour later, the lead Cobra launched to conduct night reconnaissance operations in its assigned area. The second aircraft had maintenance issues during start up and launched 20 minutes later after corrective maintenance.

Upon checking in, local control transferred the division lead to a second facility. When Dash 2 checked in, the division lead asked the second aircraft to state their position. Dash 2 replied, “we are 14 miles northeast.” Local control attempted to contact Dash 1 but received no response. Dash 2 offered to relay. The ground controller passed to Dash 2 where he wanted the second section to conduct flight reconnaissance. Dash 2 relayed this information incorrectly. Dash 1’s response was “roger, we are looking at something, standby.”

Dash 2 then entered the working area and descended to approximately 300 feet. Eager to begin the reconnaissance mission and knowing that possible targets had been located, Dash 2 did so without determining the position of Dash 1.

Less than two minutes later, the flight paths of Dash 1and Dash 2 merged in a co-altitude, right-to-right pass, at a separation of approximately 41 feet. Neither aircraft made an evasive maneuver prior to the collision. The two Cobras’ blades struck approximately 3 feet from the blade tip, tearing the rotor head and transmission assemblies from both aircraft. Both aircraft crashed and burned with all four aviators killed.

The subsequent investigation revealed that two of the mishap aviators had flown as a crew a few nights before the fatal flight. During that flight, the crew made numerous procedural errors and examples of poor airmanship, including airspace encroachment without permission. But following that flight, the section did not conduct a debrief.

grampa_pettibone_says_leftMishaps like this one get Gramps to wondering if anybody out there listens to him at all. If “brief the flight, fly the brief” ain’t the oldest saw known to them what sport shoes o’ brown then I don’t know what is. I don’t care how many times you done flown in an op area or how repetitive hops seem.

BRIEF THE FLIGHT. FLY THE BRIEF. Oh, and another thing: debrief the flight.

We may not have had a fancy ORM set up when I was flyin’ missions, but we knew better than to ignore obvious risks. Not only did these folks ignore briefing procedures, but then they ignored another tool ’ol Gramps thinks is pretty good. ORM is that new fangled tool to find all the risks you might not’a seen before they become trouble. Just one more step that might have saved some lives.

Oh, you can—as Nipper Pettibone says—“blow me off” if you want. But before you do, think of these four dead aviators and this midair that was oh-so-preventable.

’Nuff said… again.

Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

March-April 2008

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Goshawk Goat Rope

A student Naval Aviator was piloting a T-45 on a night solo field carrier landing practice flight. The pilot had completed five touch-and-go landings and was directed by the landing signal officer at the field to full stop on his next pass.

The pilot touched down on runway centerline and tracked relatively straight down the runway, but after approximately 1,700 feet of landing rollout, the aircraft began a pronounced drift right of centerline. The pilot applied corrective controls, bringing the aircraft parallel to runway heading just right of centerline. The aircraft continued to track nearly parallel to runway centerline for approximately three seconds, whereupon the aircraft began a hard left swerve, bringing the nose of the aircraft about 20 degrees left of runway heading. Immediately following the hard left swerve, the pilot advanced the throttle to military in an attempt to execute a go-around.

The aircraft crossed runway centerline at military power and exited the left side of the runway. A couple of seconds after runway departure, the pilot retarded power to idle and shut down the engine.

Immediately following engine shutdown, the aircraft hit the first of three natural earthen berms and began a counterclockwise tumbling roll about its longitudinal axis. The aircraft rolled one and a half times before coming to rest inverted approximately 1,000 feet from the point of runway departure. Crash and salvage personnel witnessed the mishap and were first on the scene, shattering the front canopy and pulling the uninjured student from the aircraft wreckage. Luckily no fire occurred during the mishap.

Grampaw Pettibone says…

What’s that ol’ saying? “This runway ain’t long but it sure is wide …” Pointing 20 degrees in the wrong direction is going to severely limit how much prepared surface a pilot has available to get airborne again. In this case, the decision to firewall this unruly Goshawk only made things worse.

As soon as he knew he was going ‘’baja,” this here student (do we still call ‘em “coneheads”?) should have shut the motors down-not a couple of seconds after the fact. And then when he saw he was headed for rough sailing with those berms (assuming he could see at night) he should have ejected.

In this case, the student was lucky he survived the tumble and that the jet didn’t burn. I’m thinking this cat is down to seven lives as he hits the fleet. Don’t waste ‘em, shipmate.

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.