Today's flight started out with a brief from a student who'd just
gotten back from his initial carrier landing qualification in the jet.
He still had that wide-eyed cheater-of-death look about him that you
get after successfully guiding the large, fat S-3B Viking into multiple
collisions/landings on the ship's ridiculously tiny landing area for
the first time at night. During our preflight brief, he stated, many
times, that his primary goal during today's inflight refueling lesson
would be "self preservation". Now, I found this a little odd-- isn't
that always a given? I mean, it's like going to the grocery store with
a list like:
3. Don't die
I pushed aside my suspicions about why he felt the need to specifically
address "self preservation" issues in the brief and we strapped on the
jet and launched.
Now, conventional wisdom has it that a student's first look at inflight
refueling training is one of the more sporty flights. Aerial tanking
requires that the tanker aircraft reel out a large basket at the end of
a short hose. The receiver aircraft extends a probe (commence phallic
references) and maneuvers it into the fitting on the basket while both
aircraft are flying at 250 KTS. Once the probe latches into the basket
fitting, gas is pumped from the tanker aircraft's refueling pod,
through the hose, and into the receiver aircraft. When done in a
standardized and non-exciting manner, it looks like this:
Some complications that can result from this operation include
overrunning the basket and having it break the windscreen, knocking the
probe off with an off-center engagement, sucking the basket down your
own engine intake, or colliding with the tanker (which happens to be
carrying about 12,000 lbs. of fuel today).
Part of my feeble pre-flight attempts to avoid these possibilities and
"teach" the student involved a safety brief. In this, I told the
student that if I saw an unsafe situation developing (e.g. about to ram
the tanker like Grond hitting the gates of Minas Tirith) I'd call out
"abort", which meant it was time to drag the throttles to idle,
smoothly back away from the tanker, avoid the basket, and reset for
another run. What could be more reasonable?
Once airborne we waited in line behind another student and got to watch
her have a go at tanking. This is pretty common; several students are
usually assigned to one tanker for training. It can be an uncomfortable
situation, watching another student flail around behind the tanker, and
it often causes the waiting student to fail his morale check. Today was
no different. It went sort of like this:
"So, as you can see from your friend's progress, it's all about making very small, smooth corrections in close".
(Other student bangs probe into side of basket, infuriating basket.
Basket begins wild, lateral oscillations attempting to bash out
student's windscreen. Student's control surfaces deflect full elevator,
aileron as jet flees impending scything motions of basket and hose.).
"Uh, that looks a little hard."
"Oh no, you'll pick it up quickly. It's like riding a bike."
(Other student begins another approach. Overcorrects in close, receiver
jet pitches wildly, greatly disturbing basket. Basket, quick like
cobra, strikes several vital areas of jet using Five Point Palm
Exploding Heart Technique. Basket's finishing move involves striking
side of other student's fuselage and then dipping briefly into
student's engine intake. Miraculously, basket does not actually contact
student's fan section, which is rotating at thousands of RPM).
"Did I mention that my primary goal is self preservation?"
(Getting suspicious) "Yeah, I think we covered that".
Soon the other student's jet departed, returning home for a thorough
maintenance inspection. In the meantime, it was our turn.
The first few attempts were about par for the course. They involved a
few successful plugs, and no small amount of me saying "ABORT" in
urging, soothing tones. There's an "Oh Jesus" handle in the cockpit
that I really wanted to grab, but since gesturing, flinching, or
reaching for emergency items in the cockpit tends to frighten and
dishearten students, I folded my hands in my lap, accepted my fate, and
Fear is the mind killer.
Our fateful, final encounter began as a low-to-high engagement where
the probe rammed the lower edge of the basket and set it into a series
of wild gyrations that can probably only be described by higher order
chaos theory equations.
My student, faced with a whipping basket in front, a fuel-filled tanker
above, and placid blue sky below, chose the greater of three evils and
pitched up in an evasive maneuver... directly at the tanker.
As we closed into melee range directly behind the tanker's tailcone,
the basket launched a fierce+jab combo attack against our radome,
resulting in a series of loud THUMPs.
As we fled for our life, the basket took an attack of opportunity and
struck the underside of the aircraft, somewhere near the landing gear
door. It scored a crit threat, but couldn't confirm the crit, because
my student was in Full Defense at this point.
Eventually, we cleared to the right side of the tanker (standard "clear
to the right" position is about 25' off the tanker's wingtip. My
student, whose eyes were the size of dinner plates with all blood
drained from his face and skin the color of #ffffff decided to take a
position about 25 astronomical units away from the tanker. I didn't
complain). The tanker crew, noticing that we'd suddenly veered away
from them so quickly that we'd taken on a red doppler shift, asked,
"Hey, are you guys complete?" I took a look at our windscreen (which
appeared undamaged), and then I looked at the refueling basket.
The refueling basket is made out of a semi-rigid webbing of metal
linkages and nylon. When it takes bludgeoning damage, the nice, round,
aerodynamically stable frame gets bent out of shape. Typically you see
one side get caved in, presenting a "kidney bean" shape that's harder
to work with, but usable. Our encounter had completely blown the
basket's webbing apart and collapsed its framework. It was completely
flat, veering back and forth in the slipstream, and parts of it were
flapping so quickly that the entire assembly was blurred. Mentally, I
moused-over the basket and saw its health bar was a thin yellow sliver
with text that read, "Critically wounded". On the radio I replied to
the tanker guys, "Uh, negative, and we're going home. And you might
want to get your basket looked at. It's just a little damaged."
Upon an uneventful return to base we found out that the plane's natural
damage reduction had absorbed the worst of the basket strikes,
resulting in just a few nicks and scratches. There was no entry on the
student's grade sheet for "self preservation", but if there was, I
would've marked it "below average".