The wingman, however, was experiencing difficulty. He had flown into an 80-degree, nose-up attitude, 120 knots airspeed. Shortly thereafter, his Hornet stagnated at 25 degrees nose up, 70-degree left angle of bank, 60 knots airspeed. The pilot increased left rudder, left aileron, and backstick, and the F/A-18 departed controlled flight.
The leader thought his wingman appeared to be in a flat attitude relative to the horizon but did not realize the pilot was out of control. The pilot in trouble retarded throttles to idle and held flight control neutral. At 16,000 feet, descending airspeed indicated 48 knots.
"Do you have a visual on me?" transmitted the leader.
"Knock it off, I'm ballistic," responded the wingman, alerting the leader he was, indeed, out of control.
The leader rogered.
The wingman then selected "normal" on the heads up display symbology to obtain boxes around altitude and airspeed. He did not, at any time, recall the angle of attack (AOA) reading but heard the AOA tone intermittently.
The leader maintained continuing relative position on the falling Hornet. At 14,000 feet, he called, "10,000 feet" to advise the wingman of the approaching altitude. The wingman rogered. Passing 11,000 feet, he momentarily selected military power while maintaining neutral flight controls, then reselected idle.
The Hornet was not oscillating slightly in roll and pitch. "Get the AOA down," transmitted the leader. As the motion became more violent, the wingman had to work harder to maintain neutral stick by bracing his feet against the rudder pedals and his body against the seat with both hands on the stick. He could not understand why the Hornet was not accelerating or beginning to recover. He actuated the spin recovery switch but that didn't help.
The leader radioed, "9,000 feet," and at 7,500 feet the wingman decided to eject. He took his left hand off the stick and placed it on the throttle to transmit his intentions. He took his right hand off the stick and located the ejection handle.
When the leader noticed the Hornet pitch nose down, he reported, "You're gaining airspeed. That's good," just as the wingman transmitted, "Ejecting." Neither heard the other's call.
The wingman ejected safely and was rescued, uninjured. The time from the "knock it off. I'm ballistic" call to ejection was 39 seconds, and in this period the Hornet swung 350 degrees counterclockwise, losing 7,000 feet.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Holy Howlin' Hornets! This flier put himself into his own vise by viola tin' one of the hard rules of the aviatin' business: maintain flyin' speed! He couldn't complete the vertical maneuver, then induced the departure with increasin' left rudder, left aileron, and backstick at too low a speed.
It took him too long to analyze his out-of-control situation. He didn't use the AOA, visually or aurally, to figure out where his nose really was. He thought the nose was down when it was flat, and couldn't figure why he wasn't gainin speed. The indicator kept tellin' him 48 or so knots. Confusion got the best of him.
He probably had high AOA hang-up or was in a low-yaw-rate spin. Whatever, at the first sign of trouble, neutral controls mighta got him out of it. Could be he was unknowingly holdin' aft stick in and overridin the feedback mechanism, too.
Key points: call on your indicators (i.e., AOA) and other instruments for help if things don't "feel" right--just like when you get vertigo off the bow. And know what to do before you have to do it--meanin' practice for emergencies.
Old Gramps is all for bein optimistic, as most naval aviators are. But the best pros are the wary optimists who know how to handle trouble immediately, especially when it comes unannounced.
(Originally published in May-June 1992)