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OCF: over Spanish skies.

We were enjoying a typical December day in northern Spain: cool, clear skies and light winds. The day promised to be a great opportunity for dissimilar air-combat training (DACT) for my Spanish Air Force student and myself. The flight, however, developed into a very different sort of training that neither of us could ever have expected.

We were scheduled to launch in a Spanish FA-18B Hornet on a 1 v 2 mission versus the CASA C-101 Aviojet. The Aviojet is a tandem seat, single-engine jet used to train Spanish Air Force pilots in the advanced jet syllabus. Today, however, our adversaries were well-experienced instructor pilots providing the red-air presentation for our scheduled mission.

The brief, preflight, launch, and check in went as expected, resulting in a "fights on" call and game on. The VID intercept was executed as briefed, leading to a low-to-high merge with the C-101s in a spread formation. My student engaged the south bandit, climbed to 18,000 feet while in a maximum performance, left hand turn. I passed through 360 degrees of turn, and shortly after a neutral pass with the southern bandit, it happened.

I distinctly remember the metal-on-metal sound produced from the left inboard tank as the pylon and tank turned and crashed against the outboard pylon and aft fuselage of the Hornet. The airplane abruptly entered out-of-control flight (OCF) by entering an uncontrolled left snap-roll. I felt an obvious sensation of left yaw, as the aircraft decelerated. The simultaneous sensation of left yaw and deceleration was eye-opening.

My student immediately shouted "El tuyo! El tuyo!" ("Your flight controls, your flight controls!"), and passed the flight controls to me. As I took control, the sensation of left yaw cued my eyes to look outside to the wing, and there it was: the left inboard tank and pylon were turned outboard at about 45 degrees. The tip of the fuel tank was touching the outboard pylon and pointing toward the LAU-7. We continued rolling out of control, with our nose pointed about 30 degrees down, and our airspeed bleeding off. Struggling to regain control, and doubting whether this was even possible, I immediately attempted an emergency jettison. This action jettisoned the remaining right inboard fuel tank, but the damaged, left inboard fuel tank remained in place.

The red-air C-101, "Fox-2" call triggered me to make the "Knock it off" call, as I was recovering the aircraft. In those few brief seconds, we lost about 6,000 feet and 100 knots. We recovered at 12,000 feet and 280 knots.

A quick look inside the cockpit showed that we had plenty of gas, with about 9,000 pounds remaining. Because of the lack of a "fuel tank pointed outboard" emergency procedure, I followed the "Leading Edge Flap Failed Up/Flaps Off" caution, not knowing whether the aircraft could fly at lower airspeeds. The procedure calls for the pilot to maintain airspeed above 300 knots and wings level. The aircraft was difficult to fly, requiring a large right rudder input and minimum afterburner to maintain speed.

My student declared the emergency and we flew back toward Zaragoza Air Base en route to the jettison-controlled ejection point for a controllability check. Another Hornet was vectored toward us to provide wingman support. While awaiting the join-up, we tried a selective jettison, auxiliary-selective jettison and another emergency jettison in an attempt to rid ourselves of this problematic fuel tank. With no success, it was obvious that we were bringing this fuel tank home.

After our wingman-of-opportunity joined, I ordered a thorough battle-damage check to determine what had happened. Our wingman said the left inboard tank was not only in contact with the outboard pylon, but also the left main-gear door. We went ahead with the controllability check, selecting flaps half and gear down below 250 knots. The flaps, nose gear, and right main came down as advertised. As we all feared, the left main remained up because of the contact between the fuel tank and left gear door. My wingman confirmed the configuration, and the aircraft demonstrated adequate flying qualities at on-speed AOA, with a noticeable amount of right rudder and aileron input required to maintain balanced, level flight.

The aircraft was configured for landing, and we used our comfortable 4,500 pound fuel state to buy us time to talk with base. We discussed everything that had happened and our recovery plan of action. Our plan was simple: Make a minimum sink rate of landing and touch down just feet before the cable, minimize contact with the left damaged fuel tank, and engage the cable with our tail hook. If we didn't trap, plan B was to go-around and continue with plan A until we were successful or low on fuel.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

With 3,000 pounds of fuel and the firetrucks ready to receive us, we turned toward final approach. Unfortunately, the combination of no LSOs and a rusty rearseat "deck-spotting" technique resulted in floating over the arresting cable. Because of our lack of obvious deceleration, I immediately selected full afterburner and rotated to on-speed AOA. The nose quickly popped back airborne, but the left tank, dragging on the runway, caused the aircraft to swerve left. Then it seemed like we immediately got airborne. However, after reviewing a video tape from the AV-8 Harriers FLIR pod standing-by in the hold short, the left tank and right main-landing gear remained in contact with the runway for about three seconds. This yawing motion caused us to get airborne 10-to-15 degrees left of the runway course.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Trying to assess the situation in the climb, I looked back over my left shoulder and saw a large amount of fuel that was trapped inside the damaged fuel tank spewing out. This fuel trail appeared to be a smoke trail to the bystanders below and my wingman. To calm the situation, I explained to them that it was fuel, not smoke, and continued to climb. Looking inside at my instruments, I was surprised by what I saw.

In my poor attempt at a fly-in arrestment, the damaged fuel tank was moved out of the way of the landing-gear door. We now had landing-gear indications of three down and locked, as the left main-landing gear had lowered during the go-around. My wingman confirmed the indications, and we returned to trap on our second attempt. When stopped, we immediately shut down the engines and made an emergency egress. The emergency finally was over, with only minimal damage to the aircraft.

The principal damage to the aircraft was to the left outboard-inboard pylons, the aft fuselage (where the fuel tank hit it), and a small knick on the leading edge of the left stabilator (the hockey stick) when it contacted the runway during the go-around. The investigation found the aft pylon-pin locking mechanism that maintains the pin in its correct position (to maintain the pylon aligned with fuselage) had a failure of the spring-loaded, ball locking mechanism located at the end of the pin.

What remains unclear is whether the backup, hinged-pin locking device was correctly installed. The airplane had flown once without incident before this pylon-pin was removed and reinstalled. Neither sets of pilots, instructors, or mechanics verified that the pin and backup device was properly installed. From the pilot's side of the house, even though NATOPS does not specify to verify the status of this pin and the backup, hinge-pin locking device, it has proven to be a critical item that every pilot must add to their preflight walk-around.

Pilots should be aware, depending on their height and the flap position, that it may be difficult to visually verify that the backup, hinged-pin locking device is up and in the locked position. I know that checking this was not taught at the FRS and is not in the typical habit pattern of most legacy Hornet pilots. Pilots need to be taught how to check this by feel alone, by placing their hand on the pin and verifying the status of the pin and the backup device. '

LCDR. STROOT WAS WITH FIGHTER SQUADRON 153, AIRWING 15, ZARAGOZA AIR BASE, SPAIN, WHEN HE WROTE THIS ARTICLE. HE CURRENTLY FLIES WITH VFA-147.
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Author:Stroot, Abram
Publication:Approach
Date:Mar 1, 2011
Words:1368
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