On the Line 4.2

by Steve on February 28, 2008

Back to 4.1

Ed: Be sure you catch the end of 4.1 – I went back and added a bit.

Cheryl put the jet into a steady climb. They had about an hour before they were due overhead the ship as the recovery tanker. Plenty of time to update the surface plot. Higher altitude gave them greater detection ranges with the radar. Ted was busy checking his radar contacts against the surface plot established on the data link. All surface radar contacts had corresponding data link tracks assigned so it appeared that there were no new contacts to identify. Both Ted and Cheryl were lost in their own thoughts, dealing with the stress of losing the Hawkeye in the professional manner of aviators: concentrating on their mission. Once established at twenty thousand feet, Cheryl engaged the auto-pilot, cracked her knuckles and stretched. She looked out at the tops of the puffy cumulus clouds that were scattered as far as she could see. The deep blue of the water below was speckled with tiny ribbons of white. From her altitude the twenty foot swells and their white-caps looked like the rippled privacy glass in her father’s medical practice. She smiled at the thought of home on the other side of the world. What time was it there? Was he just getting up or headed to bed? Was it today, yesterday, or tomorrow? The clouds scurrying along over the sea with the sun beaming in the cockpit – what a view, what an office! She felt lucky to be in the air at the controls of a Navy jet. No, it wasn’t a sleek sexy fighter but it was still a tactical aircraft designed to drop torpedoes or bombs and fire missiles in defense of her nation and the people she had sworn to protect. It was the honor of serving her country that had first attracted her to this chosen profession but the flying wasn’t bad either.

Ted brought her back.  “Hey, I’ve got a new contact, let’s drop down and take a look.”

“You got it,” she replied as she toggled the disconnect on her stick to disengage the auto-pilot. As soon as she hit the switch, both control sticks slammed to the right. Ted’s knee took a direct hit.

“What the hell?” he howled.

“I didn’t do it. Controls are jammed!”

“Hard-over! Double check Automatic Flight Control System off,” he commanded, his training automatically pulling from memory the immediate action items for a lateral hard-over emergency.

“Off,” she responded, checking the switch yet again. She reached for both spoiler servo switches and flipped them off before he called for them.

Seeing she had already taken care of that step he coached her to the next, “Use your trim to counteract the stick pressure.” The clouds and sea were now above their heads as the jet rolled inverted, nose low and losing precious altitude in a hurry. The roll rate started to decrease as the opposite trim started to take effect. Cheryl fought the jet to regain control.

“Passing through ten thousand feet,  do you have control?” he demanded.

She knew that the next item in the emergency checklist stipulated ejecting from the aircraft if control could not be regained passing ten thousand feet and Ted already had his hand on the yellow handle between his legs. “I’ve got it,” she grunted as she worked against the pressure of the stick. She leveled off and started climbing to regain altitude in case any other control problems occurred.

“Okay, take it back up to twenty and we’ll check out how she handles in the landing configuration. We don’t want any surprises behind the boat. I’ll let Departure know our status,” he said.

“Departure, 703. Tanker is down. We just had a control hard-over. Checking flight characteristics in landing configuration now.”

“703 roger. Deck will be ready in fifteen minutes. Expect a straight-in approach.”

The Viking had been plagued with mysterious uncommanded control inputs since Lockheed first introduced the jet to the fleet. It didn’t happen often enough to ground all the S-3’s until the cause was isolated and corrected but it was part of flying the Viking. All crews briefed situations that called for an immediate ejection and the dreaded lateral hard-over was on the top of the list. Most mishaps involving a hard-over happened right off the cat shot: as soon as the plane was airborne the stick would slam against the stop either full right or full left and at ninety feet above the water there was not enough time to try and trim against the hard-over condition. Night shots were less of an issue because standard operating procedures dictated that pilots climb straight ahead without the typical clearing turn that was SOP during daylight launches. Any turn off a night cat shot in the Viking was likely to result in four ejection seats blasting free into the darkness, no questions asked. Daytime shots were a little trickier because there was a clearing turn off the cat shot to aide in separating aircraft launched in quick succession. The pilots would make a quick turn away from the path of the aircraft next to them and then straighten out in a climb. The trick was in determining if it was a controlled bank initiated by the pilot or the beginning of an irreversible and uncommanded control input on the part of some gremlin deep in the guts of the aircraft. A few seconds of hesitation could mean the difference between all four seats successfully escaping the aircraft or the two unlucky ones on the downhill side being shot into the sea.

Cheryl began to relax as the aircraft gained altitude and she became more comfortable with the unusual forces pushing against the stick. She leveled off at twenty thousand feet and looked over at Ted. “That was fun. I was rather hoping that I would be one of the many S-3 pilots that could retire after a career of briefing the lateral hard-over without ever actually encountering it.”

“No such luck for you, Sis. But you handled it beautifully. Now let’s see if this bitch is going to let us land. Gradually, and I do mean gradually, slow to gear speed and we’ll dirty up. See what she handles like with flaps and gear down. Be ready for increased roll pressure. If you feel like you’re going to lose it, add power and get back to an airspeed that lets you keep control.”

Ten knots at a time Cheryl eased the airspeed down. She still had control when she dropped the landing gear. Next came the flaps. Designed to create more lift at slower airspeed they also added considerable drag to the airframe. The first two flap settings were controllable but when she put them all the way down in the normal landing configuration she almost lost control again and quickly moved the flap lever back to the takeoff position.

Ted consulted his checklist. “On speed with only takeoff flaps at thirty eight thousand pounds gross weight should be 121 knots so let’s try it. Settle in at landing angle-of-attack and back the power down to hit 121 knots.”

She had the jet set up just like she would have to do later behind the boat, “Controllable but it won’t be pretty,” was all she said.

“Okay. When we do it for real keep your speed a few knots fast, say 130, to give yourself a little extra margin. You feel comfortable with it?”

“I’m good.”

“Good enough to bring it aboard?”

“I’m not going to lose an airplane while I can still fly it. Let’s do it.”

Ted called Approach and advised the ship of their status while Cheryl brought the gear and flaps in and headed for the Reagan. They were early for their scheduled recovery but the Boss needed a tanker in the air so another S-3 was being fueled in preparation for launch. It would take over the duties of tanker for the upcoming recovery and 703 would be called down to land as soon as the replacement tanker was airborne. As Cheryl flew over the ship at five thousand feet on vectors that would loop her back on an extended straight-in approach, Ted looked down and saw their replacement being taxied onto the cat. Cheryl followed the directions being radioed from the ship, gradually descending and configuring the aircraft just as she had rehearsed at altitude. As she muscled the jet down the glide-slope Ted was a talking auto-pilot giving her constant readouts on altitude and airspeed. The angle-of-attack indicator on top of the glare shield that she normally relied on was actually a hindrance on this approach. It sat just on the edge of her vision as she concentrated on flying the ball but since Ted was intentionally keeping her a little fast, the red indicator on the glare shield was distracting. She reached over and dialed the brightness of the AOA indicator all the way down. Without the red glow in her peripheral vision instinctively demanding a power reduction she was able to concentrate on Ted’s running commentary to maintain the desired 130 knots. Despite the snakes in the cockpit, she flew a near perfect pass to a 3-wire. Ted reached over and playfully punched her shoulder.

“Just another day at the office,”  she said with a grin a mile wide.



Pinch February 29, 2008 at 20:56


Got this highlighted over on the Instapinch along with my own experience of a S-3 going hard over after a cat shot on Kennedy.


Steve February 29, 2008 at 23:03

I went and read your post, Pinch. I remember that one well – we lost 3 out of 4 that day. Clearing turn off cat 1, Tracy happened to be on the high side and survived. The other three never had a chance. The way the seats fire out of the S3 in a command ejection the rear 2 go first followed less than half a second later by the front 2. Each seat is designed to arc slightly away from its twin. Tracy, being on the left of the first pair as the aircraft was rolling right, was shot clear and his chute opened. The others weren’t so lucky.

Lateral hard-over off the cat was the single most terrifying aspect of the S-3. We briefed it every time we manned up. Anything over a 30 degree angle-of-bank clearing turn during day launches and any turn at all after dark it was no questions asked – PIC time for everyone. It didn’t happen often and, to my knowledge, Lockheed has never been able to pinpoint the cause.

I had it happen one time but thankfully it was on touchdown. Night recovery tanker with empty back seats. Rather uneventful, had a few customers but nobody had any trouble plugging. When it came our turn for the deck, he put her down just like he was trained to do but as soon as the jet hit the deck both sticks slammed hard over. We just sat there in the wires looking at each other with the engines at full power and the sticks pinned against our right knees. To this day I thank God that we didn’t bolter. That jet was torn down and inspected several times. Never found anything wrong.

Endspeed and control – the rest was gravy.

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