How I helped ATC win an award.
As I reached the missed-approach point, anxiety began to build as nothing but clouds filled the windscreen. I accepted that the approach was a lost cause and selected military power on the throttles to execute the missed approach. Glancing down at the fuel display, I developed a sudden case of cotton-mouth as I caught sight of the fuel remaining: 1,700 pounds. I was out of options, and nearly out of fuel.
How did I get to this point? I had been tasked with ferrying an F/A-18C from NAS Oceana to NAS North Island for depot-level maintenance. The jet had Enhanced Performance (EPE) engines and was completely slick with no tanks or pylons (total fuel load about 10,700 pounds). Depot personnel requested that the aircraft arrive at North Island by 1400 local. I determined that a three-leg trip across the country would enable me to make the desired 1400 landing time. With a three-hour time change from EST to PST, I would need to leave Oceana no later than 0900 EST in order to make it to North Island on time.
Given the constraint of not having an external fuel tank, the options for places to stop during a three-leg trip from Virginia Beach to San Diego were limited. Based on my experience flying from the East to West Coasts, I planned to use St. Louis and Colorado Springs as fuel stops. In order to get as far west as possible on my first leg, I would use Spirit of St. Louis airfield as my initial destination, as it would allow me to have a slightly shorter second leg to Colorado Springs. Spirit of St. Louis doesn't have a TACAN approach, so the weather would have to be VFR in order for me to land there. If I ran into bad weather, I could always stop short at Scott AFB and use the TACAN approach (weather minimums are 500-1).
As I completed flight planning the night prior, the weather forecast for my route of flight looked good. I left the squadron spaces with the intention of launching by 0800 the next day.
I arrived at the squadron the next morning and checked the weather prior to filing my flight plan. While there wasn't much green or yellow on the radar, the St. Louis area was currently observing low ceilings with haze, mist, and some degraded visibility. Spirit of St. Louis was calling 000000KT 9SM OVC007 with no precipitation. The ceilings were forecasted to rapidly improve throughout the area, and the TAF plus/minus one hour of my land time was 03006KT 7SM BKN050.
Regardless of the forecast, I was apprehensive about filing a flight plan to a destination without a TACAN approach that was currently observing IFR conditions. My inclination at this point was to forget about St. Louis and my three-leg plan. I could simply file a four-leg route farther south that would allow me to make it safely around any weather. That way, I wouldn't have to worry about fuel.
However, I talked myself into pressing the weather for four reasons:
Time constraints would not allow for me to rework the plan and still arrive at North Island on time.
The weather forecast was VMC for my time of arrival at Spirit of St. Louis.
If for some reason Spirit was IMC, I could use the TACAN approach at Scott AFB.
If the weather at Scott was below TACAN mins, I could execute a bingo profile to Terre Haute (which was forecast to be VMC) and still land above SOP min fuel (2,000 pounds).
The departure from Oceana was uneventful, and once established at FL430, I was cleared direct to Spirit of St. Louis. I tried to retrieve a weather update from the Elkins Flight Service Station (FSS) near Charleston, West Virginia, but had no luck establishing communications. Instead of breaking out the next sectional and finding another FSS to contact, I decided to wait and rely on ATIS at Spirit for an update. I made that decision based on the VFR forecast. Once within range, Spirit ATIS reported the field was still IFR with a ceiling of 900 feet and 5 miles of visibility. I immediately requested a change of destination to Scott AFB and I was given an immediate descent.
I rolled up ATIS for Scott AFB while in the descent and found out that the weather there was also IFR with a ceiling of 500 feet with 4 miles of visibility with mist. With the ceilings right at weather minimums for the TACAN approach, there was a decent chance that I would not break out. If I could go back in time to that moment, I would have requested vectors to Terre Haute and not taken the chance, but hindsight is 20/20.
St. Louis approach acknowledged my request for the final portion of the TACAN 32L at Scott and turned me south of the field to continue a descent to 2,400 feet. Upon reaching 2,400 feet and traveling away from Scott, the communications quality with approach control degraded significantly. I was now heading away from the airfield at 2,400 feet and eagerly awaiting a clearance to the final approach fix. After reaching what I felt was a reasonable position to be vectored inbound and still unable to communicate with approach, I decided to turn inbound without clearance.
I established myself on the approach course and descended at the final approach fix while continuing to attempt radio contact with approach control. While nearing MDA, I heard an intermittent communication from approach that caused me to question my situational awareness (SA). I immediately executed a missed approach and during the climb realized that I was now 300 pounds below the bingo fuel state needed to reach Terre Haute. With no option to bingo, I had no other choice but to declare an emergency and reattempt the TACAN 32L at Scott.
I tried to conserve fuel and flew "my best approach" on the next attempt. The actual ceiling was lower than 500 feet and I failed to break out the landing environment on my second attempt. As I said at the beginning of this article, I was now out of options and nearly out of fuel.
AFTER THE SECOND MISSED APPROACH, I alerted the approach controller that I had about 15 minutes of fuel remaining, the weather was too poor for me to break out at Scott, and I was open to any suggestions as to where I might be able to land. Approach immediately put me on a vector to the northwest and let me know that St. Louis International (KSTL) was my best option, as they were reporting a ceiling of 700 feet. I leveled off at 15,000 feet and set maximum endurance airspeed in order to buy some time. The FUEL LO caution was illuminated and I had about 1,600 pounds of useable fuel remaining. Approach let me know that International was about 30NM away and that they were going to set me up for a modified ASR approach. I requested the coordinates for KSTL from the controller and followed vectors to the ILS corridor for 30L (the Hornet and Super Hornet do not have "civilian" ILS equipment). I initiated a 3 degree descent when told to do so by approach, broke out the runway at 700 feet, and landed on runway 30L at KSTL with 800 pounds of fuel remaining.
I've logged a hundred night carrier arrested landings in the F/A-18C, and not a single one of them even comes close in terms of the stress level I felt during the last 15 minutes of this flight. Once on deck, I spoke with the ATC supervisor and thanked him for the quick thinking and impeccable professionalism of his controllers. I would later have the opportunity to thank the two controllers who worked my emergency, Kevin Cook and Steve Clark, in person. They received a National Air Traffic Controllers Association safety award for their efforts that day, and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the ceremony. This flight would have had a much different outcome if it weren't for their ingenuity and calmness under pressure.
I replayed this incident in my mind countless times and generated the following lessons learned. First, I let the perceived pressure of having the jet on deck at a certain time in San Diego weigh in to my decision making. This was certainly not a legitimate reason for risking a bad situation en route.
Second, a DD-175-1 is nothing more than ink on a piece of paper. I placed way too much faith in the weather forecast, when the actual flight conditions were what really mattered. I developed a plan that was contingent on receiving weather updates, and then I got complacent about retrieving them. There is no excuse for not having a weather update en route. FSS locations and frequencies can be found on every sectional chart, as well as in the Flight Information Handbook. As a last resort, asking center for a destination weather update is an option.
Third, I was overconfident in my ability to break out on a TACAN approach with the weather at minimums. The weather turned out to be lower than what was called, and I should have taken that possibility into account before deciding to shoot the approach, especially with limited fuel. I also could have been more prepared by loading a waypoint for KSTL into the jet and putting a copy of the TACAN approach for runway 30L in my flight bag. With that onboard, I would have had the option to shoot a legal approach into KSTL. However, I believe that a modified ASR was exactly what I needed given the circumstances at that point in the flight; it was all or nothing on that approach.
LT BRANDON GASSER
WHEN HE WROTE THIS ARTICLE, LT GASSER FLEW WITH VFA-106. HE IS CURRENTLY THE CVW-7 LANDING SIGNALS OFFICER.