One of the great challenges of flying fighter aircraft is having responsibility for everyone in your flight. Much of my flying was in formations of two, three or four aircraft. If I was the flight leader and any of the aircraft had an emergency, I had the responsibility to assist. The following is an example.
Flying in an air-to-ground exercise over North Carolina, there were three F-100s in my flight. The weather was deteriorating rapidly and all the airbases on the East Coast would soon go below landing minimums (200-foot ceilings and half-mile visibility).
In bad weather, it was normal that each aircraft would come down final approach and land individually. It soon became clear that if all of the aircraft in the air that day were to land safely that this procedure would take too much time.
I called the control agency and stated that all three of us would land at the same time. This pleased the controllers and helped them get other aircraft down more quickly. However, it surprised my wingmen. Neither one of them had ever landed in a three-ship formation – nor had I.
I did not have to tell my wingmen to fly very close to me – if they had not done so they would have missed the runway and crash-landed in the turf on each side of the runway. Happily we touched down simultaneously and safely in close formation at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
One of my wingmen was our squadron commander. He tended to be hypercritical of any of his pilots who deviated from normal procedures. During the flight debriefing, I expected he would be harshly critical of my snap decision.
I anticipated the following: “Smith, you made a horrible decision. You didn’t check with me before you made your rash decision. None of us had ever made a three-ship landing. What we did was very risky. Capt. Smith, you are grounded.”
What he said instead was something like, “Smith, in my 20 years of flying fighters, I never thought of landing in three-ship formation – good job.”
I was flying over Germany in my F-100 – a single-seat and single-engine fighter aircraft. I was in a holding pattern waiting for my opportunity to descend and land. The weather at my home base (Hahn Flugplatz) was terrible. The ceiling was 200 feet and visibility was six-tenths of a mile (barely above minimums for landing).
Just before it was time to begin my descent, I realized that my throttle was frozen. I could not move it forward or backward. This was quite a problem. On my descent, I had planned to reduce the throttle setting to 80 percent of power – but I was stuck with 93 percent.
If the weather had been clear, this would not have been much of a problem. I could have put the speed brake down, put the aircraft into a tight turn and pulled back hard on the stick. This maneuver would have slowed the aircraft so I could have lowered the landing gear and flaps.
I still would have come down final approach awfully fast, but I could have shut down the engine with the fuel shutoff switch in the cockpit just before crossing the runway threshold.
But accomplishing that tight, high g-force maneuver in the heavy clouds would have been hard and dangerous. I declared an emergency and told the controlling agency of my problem.
I then put both of my flying boots up on the sides of the instrument panel. Using as much leverage as I could, I pulled very hard on the throttle with both hands. The throttle started to bend – I thought it was about to break off. My thoughts at the time: If I have to punch out, I will want to show to the accident investigation team the remainder of a throttle.
In the meantime I was running low on fuel. I started my descent while still pulling really hard on the throttle. Just as I entered the low-hanging clouds, the throttle broke loose. With a huge sigh of relief, I called off the emergency and made a normal landing.
During my 25 years of flying airplanes, as I climbed into the cockpit I told myself: Today I may get killed – by a mountain, a thunderstorm, a distracted or disorientated pilot or even my airplane.
Perhaps these flying stories may provide some useful lessons for us all. With so many drivers on our roads distracted by fatigue, texting or excessive alcohol consumption, the following rule may apply. When driving cars, motorcycles or bikes, be alert at all times and be prepared to deal quickly and aggressively with emergencies.
The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – will continue this series of flying stories May 14. His website is genpsmith.com.