Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chapter 29: Practice Makes Perfect

Perfection in the air. The six-ship formation of the Blue Angels at El Toro MCAS. The two-seater F/A-18 flown by the author the previous month is in the slot position.

As the orange ball of the sun heaved itself over the mountains to the east of the Imperial Valley in southern California, the first rays of the sun sparkled from canopies and polished metal skin. On the flight line six blue and gold Hornet jets were lined up precisely in a row. I had arrived here early at NAS El Centro, the winter training quarters for the Blue Angels jet demonstration team of the US Navy, but the day had started hours previously for the team, with the crew chiefs beginning with a 4.30am inspection of their jets. By six o’clock the Blue Angel leader, Commander Gil Rud was already briefing the six-man team in their unpretentious wooden building.

Dawn had arrived this crisp March morning in 1988 with a cloudless sky and unlimited visibility. All was going according to plan. The good winter weather and clear airspace was the raison d’ĂȘtre for the Blue Angels moving here from their base at Pensacola in Florida every year for their winter training.
As briefing finished, on the ramp three Navy crewmen stationed themselves at parade-ground readiness with each plane, two at the wingtips and the crew-chief at the nose. In front of Hornet #1, the leader’s plane, the pilots lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in their blue flight suits. Lock-stepped together they marched off to their aircraft. On reaching his own jet each pilot saluted his crew chief, turned out of line, briskly climbed the ladder and swung into his cockpit. With the clock ticking, and all pilots now aboard, in a burst of rising sound the engines were started and in an intricately choreographed and synchronized ballet, each crew chief semaphored the control surface movements of his ship. It was impressive. Every Blue Angel practice was like this, treated as if a crowd of thousands was watching. This day the audience was smaller, consisting of the rest of the detachment, maybe thirty people, but their critical gaze promised no respite for any minor shortcomings.

On an unseen signal the chocks were pulled simultaneously and with a burst of engine power Commander Rud’s Hornet, identified by the stylized #1 on the verticals, pulled away, turning right onto the taxiway. Immediately #2 started rolling and then #3 and #4,the remaining pair of the diamond four, and lastly the two solo aircraft, #5 and #6, followed in pairs to the head of the runway.

Team leader Commander Rud starts to taxi with the next Hornet close behind. The Blue Angel aircraft, despite their glossy blue and gold paint, retain their operational capability, but have a smoke tank in place of the internal cannon.

At 0800 hours the diamond four were airborne, sending waves of sound crackling across the field and the surrounding agricultural countryside. A moment later the two solo aircraft lifted off the runway. This was a practice session for the whole team; pilots, groundcrew and the team narrator. While the narrator went into his patter over the public address system, the diamond formation thundered in from our left, changed formation into trail during a roll, then exited to our right.

The lone two-seater, Hornet #7 is tucked into the center of the formation during a six-ship pass in front of the crowd. On a cloudy day such as this the Blue Angels have to adapt their display to ensure that they stay clear of the clouds during the vertical maneuvers.

"And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, look to your right to see the 4-ship diamond of the Blue Angels running in."

For the next forty minutes the Blue Angels practiced their display over the field, sometimes with the six-ship formation, or alternating their passes between the diamond of four, then the solo aircraft. Maybe twenty individual maneuvers. Then they went through it again. The pressure was on with a vengeance as it was only a matter of days before the display season started. The performance looked good to me. But here in the blue skies over El Centro the team was honing their performance to perfection, practicing over and over again.

The Diamond Four pass in front of the crowd. The two wingman are concentrating on maintaining their position relative to Lead, while the slot pilot also keeps an eye out for the well-being of the other aircraft.

But I was not at El Centro just to watch the Blue Angels fly. On this occasion I had been invited to fly in one of the Hornets. It was a rare privilege. This was the first time a British aviation writer had flown with the Blue Angels.

Before the team practice had finished I was kitted out with a blue flight suit and gold helmet, then briefed on ejection seat operation. The building shook as the final bomb-burst maneuver sent one Hornet blasting straight overhead our roof.

The jets landed individually. Back on the ramp their arrival was treated as a display by all concerned. Once again the ground crew actions were synchronized with no visible signs of communication. In a synchronized sequence the pilots removed their helmets, donned their uniform caps, swung out of their cockpits and climbed down their respective ladders as one man.
I was waiting in the maintenance office, crammed into the tiny room with the six crew chiefs, when the pilots entered. There was tension in the air. If all went well, I would fly in the spare aircraft, #7, the lone two-seater, before the next full team performance scheduled for 1100 hours. A major snag in any of the team’s aircraft at this stage would require #7 to be substituted and my ride would be postponed.

To my relief, there were no major snags, although #4 –Donnie Cochran- complained of a failing radio to his female crew chief. This provoked a flurry of activity, with radio boxes scheduled to be rapidly replaced.
Meanwhile team leader Gil Rud was discussing with his #2 the effect of a low level wind shear during the display just completed. Apparently on one of the tricky cross-over maneuvers , with each aircraft assigned to a precise altitude, the wind difference between 200 feet and 600 feet altitude had been enough to affect the split-second timing, although not enough for the result to be apparent to an outsider.

I met the pilots in the four-ship diamond. Commander Gil Rud joined the Blue Angels in November 1985 and took the team through the transition from the A-4 to the vastly more sophisticated Hornet. His wingman in Hornet#2 was Captain Kevin Lauver, a Marine Pilot and a former Harrier (AV-8) driver, in his first year with the team. Left Wing was flown by Lieutenant commander Mark Ziegler, who previously flew Hornets with the East coast Hornet training squadron VFA-106. Slot man, in the #4 ship, was Donnie Cochran, a former F-14 pilot and veteran Blue Angel, who flew left wing in the last A-4 season before transitioning to the Hornet in 1987.

For this season Lieutenant Wayne Molnar was lead solo. Lieutenant Cliff Skelton was opposing solo. The team’s narrator, and my pilot in #7 for this sortie, would be Lieutenant Doug McClain.

Assignment to the Blue Angels was extremely competitive, although selection did not require previous Hornet experience. Pilots were normally assigned to the Blue Angels for two years, but when the team transitioned to the Hornet, after thirteen years with the A-4, some pilots stayed on to ease the transition. These pilots were now entering their third season.

Since joining the team in October and November, the new pilots had qualified on the Hornet and at this point in time now had about 200 hours each in the aircraft. Their training started simply enough, using two airplanes in formation at altitude. Progressively, altitudes were decreased and more aircraft brought into the formation. It was now March and two weeks before the first display of the season. By now about 150 flights had been completed. The display program was daunting, with a total of seventy-five displays scheduled between April and October. It was a grueling existence, with the team on the road for 300 days during the year.

The Blue Angels proudly boasted that they had never had to cancel a display through a mechanical failure. On the road they were largely self-sufficient and traveled with ”Fat Albert” a C-130 transport which carried the ground crew and support equipment. Six Hornets normally were assigned to the team, with one aircraft kept as a spare and plugged into a ground power Unit, Inertial Navigation Unit aligned and ready to go.
A runway alert van carried a back-up crew of specialist technicians, in the event of anything going wrong between the ramp and the runway. Nothing was left to chance. On the road, many individuals had multiple jobs. It was a professional and motivated atmosphere, one which combined professionalism with showmanship to form the high-visibility point of the Navy’s recruiting effort.

I met Doug McClain, a former A-6 pilot who flew the two-seat F/A-18B Hornet #7 in addition to his task of team narrator. We walked out to our Hornet for an 0930 engine start. Our Hornet #7 stood at the end of the flightline. This aircraft, painted in glossy dark blue and gold, looked considerably slicker than the regular matt-gray Hornet which I had flown at NAS Lemoore.
Despite the fancy paintwork, the Blue Angel aircraft retained their normal fit of avionics and their radar. The only major modification was that a smoke-generating system was now mounted in the nose, replacing the standard 20mm cannon and ammunition tanks.

Climbing the ladder pivoted out of the portside LEX I lowered myself into the rear cockpit, strapping into the Martin-Baker ejection seat. The first thing I noticed was that the harness was modified to provide greater restraint during violent maneuvers. Donning the gold helmet, trademark of the Blue Angels, I tightened my harness straps while Doug McClain climbed straight into the front seat, strapped in and started the APU.

This was another departure from the norm. Blue Angel pilots did not preflight their aircraft in the display environment. The crew chief for each aircraft bore the total responsibility for his machine. This trust was reflected by McClain’s actions.

There was one more feature unique to Blue Angel operations. All my previous jet flying had been done wearing a g-suit to combat the effects of the high-g maneuvers. But not today. Despite the high performance of the Hornet, the Blue Angel pilots did not wear g-suits. Consequently the pilots kept themselves in superb physical condition to counter the effects of the repeated high-g maneuvers. They lifted weights, ran for miles, all were superb athletes. Flying twice every morning during winter training , the pilots kept their afternoons free for physical conditioning. This should have been a warning for this largely desk-bound writer, who only flew aerobatics at weekends…

The Star Wars cockpit of the Hornet came to life as the APU brought the electrics on line. At exactly 0930 a calm female voice started incongruously to recite the various audio warnings in my earphones: “Left engine fire…APU fire…”
The digital fuel counter down by my left knee confirmed that we had 9,800lbs of JP-5 jet fuel on board. We mutually checked in on the intercom. No oxygen masks would be needed during our low-level mission, so we would use the lighter boom microphones.

As the right engine lit and whined up to sixty-three percent the three Multi-Function Displays in my cockpit came alive. I noticed that one display showed that we had a 7g limit on the aircraft at our fuel weight. Then the Built-in Test sequence for the flight controls started. Progress through the automatic test was shown on both left and right screens in concert with much thumping from behind me as the computer drove the various control surfaces automatically through their full ranges in a predetermined sequence. The flight controls checked out OK.
My displays changed as McClain selected a pre-takeoff checklist on the left hand display. Navigational information was on the center display. Even our total weight of 34,300lb was displayed.

“Hands In?” asked McClain, and I tucked my elbows in as the big bubble canopy sighed down, then slid forward and locked. A burst of power got us moving, with nosewheel steering helping us to negotiate the sharp turns on the taxiway.

At the head of the runway we lined up. McClain received permission from the tower for a Maximum Performance takeoff. Hearing this, warning bells started to go off in my head. I watched the twin throttles go forward for a power check. As the digital rpm gauges spun up to eighty-five per cent the nose dipped under the thrust of the two F404 engines. My displays changed again as McClain switched displays so that his HUD information was now repeated on my left screen.
I could hear my own breathing loud in my earphones. One last look around the cockpit. No warning lights and everything seemed in order. McClain released the brakes and pushed the throttles forward into the afterburner range. Our gauges showed both nozzles opening and then both burners lit.
“Blowers look OK,” said McClain laconically.
There was a rumble behind me and an inexorable acceleration pushed me hard against the seatback. My eyes were fixed on the rapidly changing and green glowing numbers of the HUD repeater as thirty-two thousand pounds of thrust made the Hornet accelerate down the runway like a drag racer.

We were barely a thousand feet down the runway when 130 knots appeared on the HUD and a slight backward movement on the stick got us airborne. As the gear retracted and the gear doors snapped shut, McClain held the Hornet down and the speed really started to wind up. As the end of the runway flashed beneath we were accelerating through three hundred and fifty knots.
“Here we go,” said McClain and pulled back on the stick. Braced in anticipation against the g-force, I nevertheless felt my cheeks sag, my helmet dramatically get heavier and my peripheral vision started to fade. As the grayness progressively reduced my vision I strained against the g-force, concentrating on the HUD to see 5g as we continued pulling to the vertical.

As the Hornet rocketed upwards, my normal vision returned as the g-force reduced.”Look over your shoulder,” said McClain. I twisted round and looked past the twin tails to see the plan view of the El Centro runways receding at a dizzying rate. Still climbing vertically, McClain rolled the Hornet ninety degrees to the right and pulled through to inverted. Passing through five thousand feet we came out of burner, rolled upright and then banked hard left to exit the pattern, heading for the desert range near Superstition Mountain where the practice aerobatic area was located.

Only then did I remember to breathe again.

Visibility was excellent from the rear seat. We were flying in a cloudless blue sky with mountains rimming the horizon. As the irrigated agricultural areas and the runways of El Centro receded behind the tails of the Hornet, I looked around. The blue expanse of the Salton Sea lay off to the north, while below was a lunar landscape of sandy desert and raw rock. Only moments later we were overhead our practice display area. There was little to set it apart from the miles of featureless and rugged desert surrounding us. Just an ersatz runway scraped out across the dirt while an orange-painted trailer acted as show center.

Just to warm up, Doug McClain did a couple of aileron rolls, then invited me to try the same maneuver. No sweat, I thought, I’d done this before in the Hornet. As my hand moved the stick a couple of inches to the right the horizon whirled. The Hornet slammed into the roll much faster than I had anticipated. Too late I remembered that this Hornet was not encumbered with a heavy centerline fuel tank to slow the roll rate. By the time I centralized the stick we had rotated through 360 degrees and were more or less upright again.
I licked my lips, gently held the stick between thumb and forefinger and tried a gentler approach. Aileron rolls through 360 degrees to left and right to start with. Then I progressed to four-point and eight-point rolls, rapidly becoming attuned to the sensitivity of the hydraulic flight control system. By now we were nearing the edge of our reserved airspace and I pulled into a 4g turn to reverse our course. Lack of a g-suit was bearable, now that I was flying the Hornet , rather than a passenger, although straining against the prolonged application of g-forces as we completed the course reversal was proving more fatiguing than I had anticipated.
“ I’ll show you how we normally fly a display,” said McClain.” We have a 35lb downspring that we hook into the pitch control system. This takes out any slop and gives more margin for trimming in inverted flight.”
As he connected the spring into the system, the stick tried to move forward and bury itself in the panel. So I had to pull back against that 35 lb force just to stay in level flight. It was not too bad at first as I tried more rolls and wingovers. But over the next few minutes, as I constantly maneuvered between 3 and 4 g just to keep within our proscribed airspace, the physical effort just to keep the Hornet turning was noticeably increased. McClain said drily, ”Blue Angel pilots develop strong right arms.”
As McClain had said, the inverted capability of the Hornet was now even better. When I rolled the Hornet upside down, if I released the back pressure the aircraft even tended to climb. All Blue Angel Hornets had been modified to have forty-five seconds of inverted capability. If fuel pressure dropped, a warning light would give a five-second warning of impending flameout. (This was small comfort to me. One solo pilot the previous year had been forced to eject when he cut the margin too close and both engines quit on him during practice over this exact spot.)
Not wishing to see if the light worked, I tried a couple of shorter inverted runs, just long enough to show me that the Hornet handled well while inverted

My modified harness included a lap belt, thigh restraints, shoulder straps and a chest strap. When all was snugged down correctly, even prolonged inverted flight was not uncomfortable.

This was fun.

Eventually I rolled back upright, then immediately had to bank into another steep turn as we approached the limits of our airspace, marked by another range of mountains. By this time it was becoming a chore to be constantly pulling back against the 35lb of nose-down trim in addition to the normal stick force of maybe twenty pounds required during each 4g course reversal. Despite my positioning the air vents to blow cold air on me, perspiration was running down into my eyes and my right arm was on fire. Finally McClain took pity on me, unhitched the spring and we reverted back to the standard pitch control system for some vertical maneuvers.

I started with a half Cuban eight, a half loop followed by a descending roll. Maintaining my correct line on the way up was complicated in the Hornet because the wings were way behind the cockpit, so my normal cues of lining up the wing with the horizon were absent. On the other hand, with no propeller scything the air out front there was no torque to pull the nose off line. Momentarily weightless, I floated over the top, pointed the nose downhill and rolled out as the desert started to expand towards us.

Next came a loop. Attempting to hit the recommended ten AoA on the HUD and pulling up into the sun, I found the pitch control was sensitive and overshot to 5g during the pull-up. But the Hornet was forgiving and again we floated over the top, whistling down the far side of the loop without fuss.

Once we were straight and level, McClain said,” I’ll show you a minimum radius loop, It’s an eye-watering experience in this aircraft.” He accelerated to four hundred and fifty knots as we approached show center. Anticipating what was coming I braced for the onset of the g-force. As the orange trailer slid below the nose, the stick came right back in my lap. Concentrating my vision on the g-meter I read 7.3 before the lights went out. I could still hear my loud breathing and feel the aircraft buffeting, but it was only as g reduced fractionally as we slowed inverted at the top of the loop that my vision suddenly returned, with the instrument panel appearing in monochrome for an instant, then flashing back into full color, just as McClain asked solicitously, ”Still with me?” I grunted out an affirmative, but then my vision went completely at 7g again in the pull-out, not returning completely until we pulled out into level flight. Eye-watering, you bet. The pitch capability of the Hornet was awesome, with the diameter of the loop around 3,500 feet.

McClain then handed the Hornet back to me and we accelerated back to 450 knots to set up for a maximum rate climb. “ We might go supersonic on this one,” said McClain conversationally. The area was clear and I rolled over the vertical and headed down towards the desert and show center. McClain took the controls as we descended and we really started motoring as the throttles went all the way forward. The GE F404s were impressive, showing no signs of distress during all of our drastic maneuvers.

We arrived at show center, pulling up into the vertical in a 5g pullup in buffet and slight wing rock. As the nose reached the zenith, momentarily we both saw the rate of climb peak on the display at 51,200 ft/min. The desert dropped rapidly away below us. Still in this exhilarating vertical climb, McClain rolled the aircraft through 360 degrees, then pulled to inverted at 15,000 feet to complete our aerobatic session. As we rolled upright I took the controls again, glad of the respite and to have a breather as we cruised leisurely over the southern end of the Salton Sea.

The high technology used in these modern fighters was a mixed blessing. One problem was that the Hornet, with its quiet cockpit and auto-trim capability of the computerized flight control system, lacked the speed cues taken for granted by previous generations of pilots. So the pilot had to rely on his instruments, particularly the HUD. I started letting down using the HUD, leveled at 7,500 feet, then reversed course towards El Centro while McClain demonstrated the radar by picking up targets of aircraft in the pattern. We stepped down to 3,500 feet and Lieutenant McClain took us back into the pattern for a 7.3g break from over 500 knots. That was another eye-watering experience.

We landed, taxied back and shut down. As soon as we had climbed out of the cockpit, Hornet #7 was refueled. An hour later, with the radios on #4 still sick, Hornet #7 became the slot aircraft for the second team display of the day. The four-ship diamond this time did a spectacular formation “burner loop” on takeoff before vanishing over the desert to the practice area.

With the high thrust-to-weight ratio of the Hornet, and the exceptional low-speed handling characteristics, new maneuvers were constantly being introduced into the display. Opposing solo Cliff Skelton was at this time perfecting a low-speed and heart-stopping ”tail walk” across the field…

The spectacular "Tail Walk" by the Opposing Solo has the Hornet passing in front of the crowd at a mere 120 knots and lots of noise from the F 404 engines.

I next saw the team in action a month later, when the Blue Angels gave a display at El Toro MCAS. The performance in front of the crowd was slick and precise. The Hornets looked lethal. It looked tremendously impressive. Unseen, but equally impressive from my point of view, was the insight into the many hours of practice that had preceded it.

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