Too close for comfort.
I had recently graduated from the B-1 initial qualification course at Dyess AFB as an aircraft commander and had just finished mission qualification training in my new squadron. Prior to transitioning to the B-1, I had spent 4 years flying B-52s at Fairchild AFB and 3 years as a 1-38 Instructor Pilot at Reese AFB, so I had seen and experienced a few things. Being new to the squadron and wanting to get as much flying as possible, I wormed (squeaky wheel gets the oil) my way into a Nellis deployment for Red Flag as a right-seat pilot. I was teamed up with an experienced aircraft commander who was getting ready to go to the B-1 Flight Instructor Course the following month. We flew two sorties the first week of Red Flag as a two-ship-B-1 flight lead and were scheduled to fly on Friday during the afternoon push. Everything with the crew had been going great and we were starting to anticipate actions and responses from each other, not always an easy thing with four crewmembers--each devoted to his or her own task.
On this sortie, we were once again the flight lead for the two-ship B-1 formation. The Red Flag mission commander did an excellent job coordinating and briefing his plan and embedded us in the middle of the package for a low altitude attack, right where we like to be. The weather was clear and as such we decided to fly visual contour so we didn't have to worry about terrain following maneuver limitations (45 degrees of bank). The push worked as planned and inbound to the target we were still unopposed. We dropped our ordnance on time and on target, and then turned east to beat feet back to the safe line. We had planned to fly just north of prohibited airspeed, about .95 Mach, and maintain a 500-foot visual contour flight. As we were approaching a ridgeline just north of the container, we received a threat call from AWACS at our 6 o'clock near. The Defensive System Office (DSO) called a break turn to the right as we crossed the ridge. The pilot used the bank angle in the break to allow the nose to slice down on the backside of the ridgeline to get us back in the dirt--too close to the dirt as we soon found out. We had about 3,000 feet to descend; as I noticed the bank increase to about 110 degrees of right bank I wasn't concerned--we had been performing rolling ridge crossings all week.
I had flown the bomb run and, as we had done all week, transferred aircraft control to the other pilot to fly the egress. As the pilot not flying, I turned to see if I could visually acquire the threat, hoping to pick him up against the sky as we started down the backside of the ridge. After a few seconds looking for the threat, I I initially reached for the ejection handles but decided we were out of our ejection envelope. Our only option was to recover the aircraft. This violated my first rule of instruction while I was a T-38 instructor. I constantly told my students that if they ever thought about getting out of the aircraft they should get out, NOW! Don't second-guess yourself, because you probably just put yourself out of your ejection envelope thinking about it. In the time-space distortion regime I found myself in, I remember looking at the position of the flight controls and seeing that they were deflected full left and aft. I came on the controls and assisted in keeping the control stick full left and aft while kicking in full left rudder, a fallback to my B-52 days and T-38 instructor days where the rudder is your most effective flight control during high angle of attack flight. The plane responded immediately and we went from 80 degrees of right bank to 20 degrees of left bank in a heartbeat, or it felt that way to me. The other pilot turned our stall inhibit system off and the jet responded with a 4 to 6 G pull (3.0 Gs is the maximum allowed by the B-1 tech order). We bottomed out at approximately 50' AGL. As all this was happening I remember seeing the three trees off our nose and thinking this is where we're going to impact. I also remember apologizing to my wife, my son, and my unborn daughter for screwing up, as I really didn't think we were going to get out of this situation. Fortunately, the aircraft did not impact the ground, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this and four crewmembers would be just another controlled flight into terrain statistic. Once the aircraft pulled away from the ground things were incredibly quiet in the cockpit. The DSO and Offensive System Office (OSO) were so busy keeping us out of the restricted area and monitoring the threat they hadn't noticed the aircraft parameters until the G onset for the pullout. By the time they recognized it we were safely away from the ground. I was trying to quell my initial reaction of "he just tried to kill me" and the pilot flying was trying to pull the seat cushion out of his posterior end.
Recovery proved uneventful, but during post flight we discovered that a 2-foot section of the left horizontal stab was missing. My first reaction was "I knew we were low but I didn't think we were that low!" I initially thought that the missing piece of the horizontal stab was due to the trees that I thought were our impact point, but it was most likely due to the asymmetric Gs applied during the recovery. Our crew flew again on Monday but we were grounded for the remainder of Red Flag while the accident investigation took place. Cost of repair was about $50,000--a small price to pay for four crewmembers and a 287 million dollar aircraft, but a substantial loss nonetheless.
What did I learn from this? First, an intense refresher on the B-1 flight controls system. The B-1 flight control software will always give priority to pitch as opposed to roll commands. With our split horizontal tail the engineers thought pitch should have priority. Usually true, but when you're in 80 degrees of bank all it's going to do is give you a controlled descent into the ground, especially with a 3.0 G jet. Second, always look out for the crew--even if you have an experienced pilot flying the jet. Don't let your attention waiver when you are low to the ground. Third, should I have second-guessed my ejection decision? In hindsight, "yes." We saved the jet, but when running through the ejection numbers later, we discovered that had I pulled the handles only the OSO would have gotten out of the aircraft in time due to the programmed delays designed to ensure crewmember separation during the ejection sequence. Fourth, using the rudder in the B-1 is not a bad thing. At the time, the B-1 community was under the impression that using the rudder low level was against tech order guidance, which has since changed.
All in all I'm now a little older and hopefully a little wiser, but I still hold on to my adage that it's best to learn from others' mistakes and that you should count on superior airmanship to save you from inferior judgment.
BY COL RANDY L. KAUFMAN
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|Title Annotation:||bomber pilot and flying a B-1|
|Author:||Kaufman, Randy L.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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