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A journey below sea level.


I was Dash 3 of a four-ship on an SFARP night flight in the Pine-castle range complex, south of Jacksonville, Fla. We had an early evening transit to the range, and as night settled in, a full moon rose in the east. The weather was variable, with thunderstorms in the area. We had an uneventful transit on what should have been a mundane flight.

We were two weeks into another work-up cycle, starting to hit a stride as a squadron and knocking out the required sorties. On my wing, as Dash 4, I had a new guy to the squadron (and Hornet), but a seasoned, fleet S-3 transition and fellow JO. We split up as coordinated sections and completed two bombing runs. As we headed east over Daytona Beach on our return to MCAS Beaufort, Dash 1 and 2 climbed through 18,000 feet, with Dash 4 and myself joining in a running rendezvous.

Around 19,000 to 20,000 feet in the climb, Dash 4 announced he had a "left bleed caution." As I completed the rendezvous, I reached back to grab my pocket checklist (PCL) and instructed him to loosen the formation to facilitate more attention to his emergency procedures. About 15 seconds later, he announced dual-bleed-warning lights and almost immediately said he was becoming hypoxic. I detached us as a section, passed him the lead, and told him to descend.

As I punched 7700 into my mode 3 and started squawking, I established comms with Jax Center and declared an emergency. As this occurred, Dash 4 aggressively maneuvered in a hard pull to put NAS Jacksonville on the nose and said his hypoxia symptoms were becoming severe. I asked him to double-check that he had pulled his emergency-oxygen green ring and that the oxygen flow knob was off, and to check the status of his bleed-air system. He was nonresponsive at first but continued to maneuver his jet. I asked again, and he verified all steps were complete, and he was receiving emergency oxygen. Again I asked him to check that the green ring was pulled and the flow knob was off, which he verified.

As we descended, I updated Jax Center on our emergency and asked for radar vectors direct to NAS Jacksonville. Dash 4 continued to accelerate and maneuver. I instructed him to slow down, calm down, level his wings, and bring up his nose a little. We rapidly passed through 10,000 feet at more than 400 knots, with him still weaving left and right chasing headings. My main concern was his rapid maneuvering and the possibility of gravity-induced loss of consciousness (GLOC) with his current condition. He reduced power and slowly leveled off, with his comms fairly coherent. From the time he initially announced his hypoxia to this point was less than a minute.

AS I COORDINATED WITH JAX CENTER, I kept my comm flow going with him to assess his condition. He said he was feeling worse and had pain in his chest. I asked him to verify once again that his mask was on and that his green ring was pulled; again he confirmed. While keeping a running dialog, I told him that he was demonstrating classic symptoms of hypoxia. My main focus was to keep comm going and to reassure him what he was experiencing was to be expected, and not to deviate from procedure by pulling off his mask. As we pressed on, info was passed to Jax Center with respect to fuel and souls on board.

I asked for the duty runway and for them to coordinate, as well as to have emergency crews standing by. At about 35 miles south of NAS Jax, I had Dash 4 start a slow decent. Twenty miles south of the field, he announced he was out of oxygen and had to take off his mask. Again, I asked him to double-check that his bleeds were secure. We had worked our way down to 3,500 feet. At 10 miles, I asked center for the tower frequency and permission to switch. Dash 4 had sight of the field and was setting up for a straight-in to runway 27. As he set up on final, he kept drifting low on glide slope, and I asked him once more to verify he felt OK to land; he responded with a double-click and an increase in power as he came up on glide slope. At 500 feet, I leveled off and maintained a position for him to join up if he went around. He got the jet stopped and cleared the runway.

After we were out of the jets, we filled out the required transient paperwork and put the jets to bed for the night. During the walk from the transient line to base ops, Dash 4 started to get a little queasy and really dizzy. His chest pain grew heavier, and he was breathing hard. During a phone call to base, the ODO recommended that he go to the hospital and get checked out.

As Dash 4 waited for the duty driver, his symptoms got worse and more pronounced. The dizziness, lightheadedness and headache increased, and he started to get the chills. He went to the ER and was diagnosed with type II decompression sickness. After CT and X-rays, he was briefed and put into the hyperbaric chamber for six hours. He emerged with no further symptoms.

With a lot of education and training, we had a successful outcome to what could have been a disaster. A new wingman to the squadron, knowing NATOPS and boldface, and being decisive was key.

As our jets continue to age, things will continue to break. The Hornet community has been plagued for years with OBOGS and hypoxia events, several of which have led to the loss of friends and squadronmates. In this case, having the education on the ground through Approach articles, hazreps, ROBD simulator training, and the experience of others, definitely contributed to a successful outcome.

The speed at which he immediately was hypoxic and how bad it got was frightening. Shouldn't he have started to feel better right away when on emergency O2? It seems counterintuitive that one actually would get worse before getting better. Not having that knowledge, through other's experiences and training, could have led to poor decisions and a different outcome.

Lt. McKelvey flies with VFA-86
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Author:McKelvey, P.L.
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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