A loud thud. A shower of purple-white sparks. This can’t be good.

An Air Force T-38A trainer over Texas. USAF

It was my first T-38A night solo out of Laughlin Air Force Base in the remote west Texas desert. Since night flying as a pilot training student is already an emergency procedure by default, the instructors make the flight as basic as possible. The weather has to be almost crystal clear and the winds nearly at a dead calm. Students receive a tremendous amount of preparation training for the flight and are drilled on the game plan so thoroughly that I still remember it to this day: An instructor would take off with the solo students following him at regular intervals. Another instructor would play the role of "Tail End Charlie" making sure all the students in front of him didn't inadvertently fly into Mexico. We were to follow the instructor on a course that traced a wide arc along the edges of Laughlin's training airspace, report passing pre-arranged turn points over the radio, maintain a set speed so we didn't overrun each other in the darkness, return to the pattern for several approaches, and then make a full-stop landing. The night T-38 solo flight was more about building confidence than it was about developing stick and rudder skills.

Night flying over west Texas is spectacular.  Because of the area’s sparse population, there are almost no lights from cities, towns, or highways. Other than the distance-measuring equipment on the instrument panel clicking off at a rate of 8 miles a minute, you have almost no sensation of speed. Radio chatter was almost non-existent except for the occasional brief position reports from my classmates. The low hum of the engines and distant whoosh of the air flowing over the airframe was mesmerizing.  The peacefulness of the night flight at altitude was the perfect contrast to the chaos that was about to erupt.

The setup for my first touch-and-go landing went like clockwork. There were no air-traffic snarls that sent me into holding, no confusing or garbled radio communications, and no aircraft malfunctions. I was on speed at the landing and made a smooth touchdown about 1,200 feet down the runway, right on the centerline. Let's see if I can make them all look like that. I added power to go around and once clear of the ground with a positive rate of climb, I retracted the gear and flaps.

Just as I was running my after-takeoff checks, I felt a sickening thud on the left side of the aircraft, like someone had just whacked the airplane with a large mallet.  An enormous shower of purple-white sparks erupted from the back end of the airplane. As quickly as it appeared, the fireball outside faded to be quickly replaced by a light show inside the airplane. The Master Caution light was blaring along with warning lights and gauge indications that all pointed to a catastrophic failure of the left engine. The jet groaned ominously and issued metallic grinding noises as it chugged and lurched through the sky.

They say that in sudden emergencies, a pilot’s natural tendency is to pull back the throttles in a subconscious effort to buy time to deal with the problem. This is exactly what I did, and it was exactly the wrong thing to do. Climbing at slow speed, low altitude, and with low engine thrust is dangerous in any airplane, but especially in the T-38. Its thin stubby wings, bullet nose, and sleek coke-bottle fuselage were built for blistering speed, not slow-speed handling. T-38 aircrews have been doomed by the flight characteristics on the backside of the thrust curve, a region of slow-speed flight where it takes more thrust to fly slower due to the tremendous rise in drag. Get too slow in this region and the aircraft may not have enough thrust to recover without losing altitude. And I was just a few hundred feet off the ground.

The T-38 protested my power reduction by starting to buffet and shake—the sign of an impending stall. My brain quickly caught up: I slammed both throttles forward to maximum afterburner thrust. The right engine roared back to full power, while the left engine sputtered as it overheated and tore itself apart and the airplane vibrated wildly. I didn't care: Engine failure or not, I needed what little thrust it could produce to save the aircraft, or else there would soon be a large smoking hole in the ground about the size and shape of a pancaking T-38.

I was fully engaged with the aircraft now: I could almost hear my instructor coaxing me to use both throttles to climb to my minimum controlled-ejection altitude and airspeed first before dealing with any takeoff emergency.   We were taught that you must never sacrifice aircraft control while analyzing the situation and taking the proper corrective action.

Slowly, my airspeed began to rise, as well as my altitude. When safely away, I brought the left throttle back until it stabilized within correct operational limits. The throttle position where this occurred was in idle power—but at least the vibrations had ceased and the motor could provide redundant electrical and hydraulic power.

By now I was several miles from the field. I figured many people would be wondering what that dumb solo student had done to his T-38 to create such a spectacular light show. Later I would find out that the huge fireball of sparks I made was visible for miles. Several people thought I had crashed.

The next most important thing our instructors had taught us after how to deal with an emergency was how to sound cool on the radio. This was extremely difficult: my heart was pounding and I had a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball. I keyed the microphone and used the word that up to that point in my life I had only said in training sessions: "Emergency!"  This alerted everyone in the control tower and the instructors watching us students fly around to the seriousness of the situation.  Everyone immediately offered their help to step me through the appropriate checklist and develop a recovery game plan. Slowly I started to realize that this was exactly the type of T-38 single-engine emergency I had practiced in the flight simulators. I knew exactly what to do, my training kicked in exactly when I needed it, and the aircraft behaved exactly as I had practiced. I went from the initial shock of the emergency to behaving like the US Air Force fighter pilot I was training to become, methodically handling the aircraft problem with his team of professionals. I was so focused on handling the emergency properly that the stress of making a good landing completely disappeared.

On my post-flight walkaround, it was so dark and the motor was so recessed in the fuselage that it was difficult to tell what had happened to the left engine. No obvious fuselage structural damage had occurred and the only clue that something unusual had happened was an intense acrid smoke smell. It wasn't until the next day, when maintenance had removed the left engine, that the damage was revealed. The entire front compressor section of the engine had numerous blades missing. Almost all of the remaining blades had large sections missing or huge nicks. The engine combustor section had over-temped, resulting in significant heat damage. The entire engine was totaled. Everyone who looked at it just whistled, shook their heads, and walked away.

Maintenance and airfield operations later recovered the remains of the culprit responsible for such a catastrophic failure: a bat, about the size your fist, that just happened to be at the exact wrong place at exactly the wrong time and was sucked down my left engine intake.  It was bad luck for both of us, although more so for him.  I’ve known many who have survived a birdstrike, but only a few who can say they’ve had a batstrike!

Major Randy J. Gordon is an experimental test pilot for the “Red Devils” of the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He has flown combat missions over Iraq during Operation NORTHERN WATCH and over Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

The author in his desert flight suit. Courtesy Randy Gordon

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