More than just a parts run.
The flight from the ship to Kandahar, aside from deteriorating weather, had been uneventful. The jet had given us no reason to suspect a potential issue. We landed, dropped off the spare pumps, refueled, and headed back out to the runway to continue our mission --a nice diversion from what would otherwise have been six hours in a left-hand orbit.
A nice diversion, that is, until I raised the gear handle. "Starboard main's barber-poled," called ECMO 1 as I was beginning to turn on course. "Let's hang out overhead the field to troubleshoot." After a thorough read of the PCL, we achieved three down and locked and executed a sixty-minute show-of-presence, burning gas over Kandahar waiting for the arresting gear to be rigged.
With very little maintenance equipment and expertise available at Kandahar, our detachment did everything they could to inspect for obvious damage or component failures on the landing gear, finding nothing. The initial estimate from the ship was that it could take one to two weeks to get the required ground support equipment to Kandahar so that mechs could drop-check and inspect every component of the landing gear.
Given that the aircraft for which we had brought the hydraulic pumps was fixed and ready to return to the ship, we decided to launch as a section the following day. We intended to have our wingman visually determine if the gear appeared up (which would mean that the indicator had failed) or if not fully retracted (signifying a larger problem).
Sure enough, our problem went beyond a bad indicator. After we launched, our wingman reported that we had two gear fully up, with the starboard main hanging like a stick in the wind. We'd planned to bring the both aircraft back to the ship if we appeared to be in a clean configuration, but not like this. We detached our wingman so they could resume their flight to the ship, and the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of Kandahar got another Grumman air power demo while the arresting gear was rigged for our precautionary trap in accordance with our PCL.
After landing, we began to coordinate a plan with the ship and the CAOC to bring back the aircraft stiff-legged the following day.
"Nilla, have you ever stiff-legged a Prowler?" asked ECMO 1.
"Nope," I replied.
"Well, I've done this before for short distances and it's generally not that big of a deal. We'll fly a little lower, keep it just under 250 KIAS, gear down, flaps up, and we'll need a tanker to help drag us back to the ship. The biggest challenge will probably be tanking at 250 KIAS and at altitude with the gear down," he explained.
I was confident that the tanking wouldn't be an issue, since we were in the fifth month of my second cruise. I felt comfortable and proficient with tanking. ECMO 1 worked out the details of our recovery with the ship and confirmed our scheduled tanking with the CAOC. We agreed to discuss the plan more the next morning during the brief, and I left to find some food as well as some toiletries for our second night in Kandahar.
THAT EVENING, SHORTLY BEFORE I turned in, ECMO 1 remarked, "I think I want to request that we only pin the starboard gear instead of pinning all three, as the boat had told us." With three gear down and locked, the Prowler's fuel flow is about 8000-9000 pounds per hour flying 250 KIAS, at just about all altitudes. He was concerned that if we had trouble taking gas or ended up overhead the ship lower on fuel than we intended, we could still raise the two operating landing gear to lower our drag count and fuel flow. Once past the halfway point to the ship, there would be no friendly divert fields within 300 miles. This idea seemed reasonable to me, although I had never heard of only pinning one landing gear. He said he would confirm with the boat the next day.
We spent the following morning ironing out admin details. Leadership at the boat had briefed and agreed to the one-gear-pinned plan; we intended to fly back without raising the gear. We were scheduled with a KC-10 that was set to drag us out of Afghanistan and toward the boat. I thought that the brief was thorough. The plan seemed simple. Don't raise the gear after takeoff. Stay below 250 KIAS. Tank as needed. I considered myself prepared and ready.
The weather was beautiful as we departed Kandahar in the early afternoon. I reminded myself, "Don't bring the gear up. Don't bring the gear up." It's such an ingrained action, I was afraid that I would slap the handle up without thinking. Before long we were at altitude, gear down and flaps up headed to join our tanker. Our plan was to do a package check (confirm that the refueling system was working on both ends) while we were still close to Kandahar and then proceed towards the boat.
This was the first of a few things that our crew could have briefed more effectively. We neglected to contact our tanker crew before launching to brief them of our unique circumstance, and instead simply requested that he fly 240 KIAS for the rendezvous. We also failed to convey our intent to get a package check while still in Afghanistan. Our join-up quickly turned into a running rendezvous as our tanker proceeded out of Afghanistan.
The only problem was that we were still three miles in trail and NATOPS limited to 250 KIAS. Realizing this would take almost 20 minutes, we requested that the tanker slow to 220 KIAS so we could catch up. We were afraid of getting out of range of Kandahar without knowing that our refueling system was functioning. The tanker crew was helpful, and after a few more minutes, we were aboard with a good package check.
For those of you who haven't tanked from a KC-10, it's a forgiving evolution. For Prowlers, however, there are certain regimes of flight and fuel weights where you don't have enough thrust to stay in the basket. Even with our tanker flying 230 KIAS, in our current configuration, we were only able to refuel up to about 15,000 pounds (we would normally fill to 18,000 pounds). This was something I had neglected to consider, although I had seen it occur. It typically happens at higher altitudes or while the tanker is turning.
I found myself maintaining the throttles at MIL as our fuel state reached 15,000 pounds and despite my best efforts, we fell out of the basket. Well, 15,000 lbs should be plenty of gas, right? Yes--if the boat recovered us early. Thanks to a significant tailwind, we were now running ahead of schedule and would be overhead the ship exactly one cycle prior to our recovery time. If they couldn't recover us, gas would again become a factor. We were relieved when the ship recovered us ahead of schedule, and we ultimately had to adjust gross weight before coming aboard. The landing was uneventful (day MOVLAS straight-in!) and our adventures were complete.
Why is an article about things going well being published in Approach? There is always something to be learned from the experiences of others. I had never considered only pinning one of the landing gear, and maybe you never would have either. I also failed to consider the aerodynamic effects of tanking dirty off of the KC-10 as well as how far ahead of schedule we were. If either of those factors had changed slightly (if we could have taken only 13,000 pounds of fuel, or if we had showed up 10 minutes after the recovery was complete and had been forced to wait until our planned recovery time), things could have gotten a lot more interesting.
BY LT ROY WALKER
LT WALKER FLIES WITH VAQ-133.