Above & Beyond: Launch the Fleet!

Above & Beyond: Launch the Fleet!

Rain showers were the only sign we’d had of tropical storm Earl, brewing in the Gulf of Mexico in early September 1998. Now the weathermen were telling us the storm had grown stronger and was heading for the Florida panhandle.

The radio was saying the storm would pass very close to Tyndall Air Force Base, where the 80-plus F-15s of the 325th Fighter Wing were parked. But we’d just been through a storm watch two weeks ago with Hurricane Bonnie, which had veered northeast at the last minute, and our sense of panic over an impending storm had been considerably dulled. However, in the squadron operations building, on the grease board that ordinarily listed the day’s flying schedule, there was now a terse notice: “Hurricane meeting 1000.” Our squadron operations officer came scurrying down the hall telling all pilots to go home and take care of their houses and families. When we returned for the 1000 meeting, we were to have our bags packed and be ready to “hurevac.”

Hurricane evacuations became a high priority after Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead Air Force Base—and much of Dade County—in 1992. The purpose of a hurevac is to fly all of the base’s aircraft out of harm’s way. Most bases do not have enough hangar space to protect all the air wing’s aircraft. The only option is to take them where the storm isn’t.

Pilots are torn between the excitement of deploying at a moment’s notice and concern for the family they’ll leave behind. Most families have hurevac plans of their own. When the jets leave, the family members load up the car and drive inland a hundred miles or so. These plans usually suffer the same fate as the Air Force plans to evacuate. Disbelief is rampant until the storm’s effects begin to be felt. By then it’s a toss-up as to whether it would be safer to stay put or risk driving through the heart of the storm.

This was the case with Hurricane Earl, which was originally slated to make landfall near New Orleans. At the 1000 meeting, the operations officer told us tropical storm Earl was indeed heading our way. The wing commander would watch its movement for another hour and then decide if we would hurevac.

The operations officer began briefing us on our hurevac plan. All three squadrons of 22 aircraft each would deploy to various Air Force bases. One squadron would go to Wright-Patterson in Ohio. Another would head for Randolph in San Antonio, Texas. Our squadron was to go to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. A squadron of F-15s from Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, in town to practice shooting live missiles, would evacuate to Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, the first stop on their long trek home.

The plan was to take off in four-ship elements with 15-minute spacing to prevent clogging up the air traffic control system. As each aircraft got airborne, it would lock its radar on the aircraft ahead of it. By separating the takeoffs by 20 seconds, we would end up with two miles between aircraft. We could then simply follow the jet ahead of us until we broke out on top of the hurricane—somewhere around 30,000 feet, we hoped. While this is something that we do whenever there is bad weather on departure, as the flight lead of one of the four-ship cells, I spent a lot of time covering contingencies—no doubt the hurricane would make even routine tasks much more challenging. I wanted everyone to be flexible and keep thinking ahead, making sure we didn’t do anything dumb, dangerous, or different.

As we arrived back at the operations desk, Earl had just been upgraded to a hurricane and was now projected to make landfall right over Tyndall. At 1100, the word came down: “Launch the fleet.”

Maintenance had somehow gotten the word that we were probably going to put most of the aircraft into hangars and ride out the storm. Now they had to prepare the jets to fly, hang external fuel tanks, and gas them, all in 30-mph winds and driving rain.

We anxiously awaited a go from maintenance while we watched the weather deteriorate. Eventually, one four-ship element was ready. A half-hour later, another four-ship was ready. After an hour and a half, our four jets were ready. We got a last-minute weather update from the operations desk and went out to the van taking us to the jets. This would be our last few minutes of calm.

When the van arrived at the flightline, we saw that things weren’t going quite as planned. Pilots cowered under the wings of their jets, trying to stay dry as the crew chiefs did final maintenance. For safety reasons, an aircraft cannot be refueled while another is running next door, so the crew had to ground-check the running jets, then move them out of the way while the rest of their flight got ready.

The carefully laid plans of matching experienced pilots with inexperienced ones quickly gave way to elements being flown by whoever had an aircraft ready. Soon the roar of departing aircraft overcame the battering of the rain on the canopies, and the flightline began thinning out.

As soon as my jet was ready, I hopped up into the cockpit and cranked the engines. The cockpit was a pool of water, and I briefly wondered if any pilot had ever been electrocuted in a rainstorm when electrical power for the aircraft had come on line.

After condensing 15 minutes of ground checks into five, I began checking the status of my flight members. One was having a problem with one of his engines and had called for maintenance to try to fix it. Another wingman reported that maintenance had forgotten to fuel his external tank, leaving him short of the gas needed to make Tinker.

Operations told us to taxi out and plan to depart with the two jets that were ready. They were worried that the weather would go below takeoff limits, trapping aircraft on the ground directly in the path of the storm. It had just about become every man for himself.

As we were getting our last-chance maintenance checks done at the end of the runway, operations reported that two more jets were ready to go. Though they weren’t part of our original four-ship, operations wanted them to go with us to get as many aircraft airborne as possible.

After figuring out who was who over the radio, we were ready for departure. The tower cleared us for takeoff as we moved into position on the southeast-bound runway. I was the first of our element to start down the runway and was amazed at how unstable the jet felt in the rapidly changing winds. The combination of the strong crosswinds hammering the F-15’s towering twin tails and the reduced stability from hydroplaning on inches of standing water made the airplane want to weathervane into the wind.

As we passed 100 knots, it was taking nearly full stick deflection to keep the airplane pointed down the runway. Forty knots more to takeoff. As the nose gear lifted off the runway, the weathervaning effect intensified. I cut the normal climb angle of 10 degrees in half in a feeble attempt to reduce this effect and build up airspeed a little bit more rapidly.

As the jet finally lurched into the air, the flight controls went all sloppy as they fought against the gusts. Wind shear kept dropping the airplane back down. Should I raise the landing gear for an increased climb rate or leave it down in case the winds forced me back on the runway?

The rain sounded like a machine gun as I informed departure control that we were airborne. Already, I could hear signs of trouble. One of the jets that had taken off just before us had developed an attitude indicator and heading problem. The pilot was currently flying off the small standby attitude indicator at the bottom of his instrument panel and receiving his heading from his wingman’s radio calls.

As departure control handed that four-ship off to a different frequency to work on their problem, I heard the rest of my four-ship call that they were “tied” to the aircraft ahead of them with their radar. I began a sweeping left turn, dragging my daisy chain of fighters toward clearer skies, when number four’s radar suddenly broke lock and stopped sweeping. Within seconds, number three’s radio stopped receiving. Just before three’s radio died, he had heard just enough from four to learn that four was having radar problems. In between three’s calls that he was not receiving any air traffic control radio transmissions, he passed his position, altitude, and airspeed to four so that four could maintain an approximate heading and hold an altitude that would not conflict with the rest of the flight.

As my jet buffeted its way up through 30,000 feet, it began to pick up some intermittent icing. I called for our flight to turn on our anti-icing equipment and continued to hear three broadcast his parameters to number four. It was clear from four’s voice that everything was under control. As I broke out into clear skies at 39,000 feet, I felt grateful to have highly experienced wingmen.

With my flight rejoining above the hurricane, the mysterious problems began to disappear. Number three’s radio began receiving. Number four’s radar began sweeping again. It was clear that the problems we had on departure were a result of the torrential rain.

Settling down for the remaining hour of what would finally be an uneventful flight, the conversation turned to lighter topics. Did anyone know a good Mexican restaurant? Anyone hear any reports of a whiskey front blowing toward Tinker Air Force Base?

An hour and a half later, 22 F-15s landed safely at Tinker, and soon we were all settled in a hotel in Oklahoma City. Hurricane Earl ended up clipping the edge of Tyndall, doing no more than minor damage to the base and the surrounding communities—but for some $2 billion worth of F-15s cooling their heels halfway across the country, it was better safe than sorry.

—Russell Gregory

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