In my last blog, I told you about my flameout landing in tail number 297. Not three weeks later, there I was again…on fire over the bayous of New Orleans in an F-16. It started out as many cross-country flights do with planning the route, checking the weather at the landing locations and calling the airfields to coordinate support. The plan was to take a flight of three F-16’s from Las Vegas to Miami with two stops for fuel at Abilene, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana. The AF called these flights instrument proficiency sorties. These cross-country flights, as they were referred to, allowed pilots to gain experience in instrument procedures while completing annual flying utilization on the aircraft.
We departed Nellis AFB in Las Vegas on schedule with five pilots in three aircraft-two of which were two-seat F-16D models. I occupied the single-seat F-16C aircraft. Our first flight to Dyess AFB, Texas was uneventful. We stopped to drop off one of the pilots and refueled for the flight to New Orleans NAS, Louisiana. This flight also went off without a hitch and we were still on time to make it to Miami before sunset. The jets were quickly refueled as I filed the flight plan with base operations. The plan was to takeoff and fly at 41,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico to make good use of the 100 knots of tailwind the weatherman forecasted in his briefing. The tailwind combined with our airspeed would give us a ground speed of 600 knots-about 10 miles per minute. With the plan set, we took off once again to slip the surly bonds of earth.
I had just put the gear in the well when tower sent us to the departure air traffic control frequency. I checked in with the controller and he immediately gave the flight a clearance to climb direct to flight level 410 (41,000 feet). I took advantage of this seldom given clearance by showing off the climb capabilities of the F-16. I selected full afterburner and pointed the nose to the heavens.
I was enjoying the rocket ship ride when I started to hear a lot of clamoring on our flight radio. I didn’t recognize most of the talk, due to the roar of my fully afterburning engine, until I heard something about a “fire” which sparked my attention. I looked over my shoulder to see the back end of my aircraft looking like a Roman candle. Yes, I was on FIRE! I immediately pulled the engine out of AB and I remember distinctly looking down to see if I was feet wet or still over the bayous. It was going to be a pretty bad day if I had to jump out over the bayous of the Mississippi Delta. All I could think about was parachuting down into a pit of crocogators.
To make matters worse, my wingmen were almost enjoying describing the fact they’d never seen a bigger fire and it wasn’t going out. The critical actions for an engine fire were: 1. CLIMB; 2. STORES-JETTISON; 3. if the FIRE persists-EJECT! I had no problem completing the first step because I was zooming at 20,000 feet a minute on my rocket ship ride.
I didn’t need to do the second step because I didn’t have any stores to drop from the aircraft. I turned back to the airfield, declared an emergency and hoped I would not have to do the third step! Since I didn’t get a FIRE light in the cockpit, the fire had to be in the tailpipe, away from the engine core. The emergency manual stated that this type of fire could take several minutes to extinguish. Every time I looked back, the fire seemed more intense and my comrades kept repeating, “you’re still on fire.” I started setting up for a flameout landing since I thought about turning the engine completely off to see if that would help put out the tailpipe fire. If this didn’t work, I would have to jump out of the flaming jet. I calmly relayed to the tower my intended landing runway and requested a crash, fire and rescue team meet me at the end of the runway.
I took one more look over my shoulder before the landing and saw only some black smoke streaming from the jet. My teammates informed me the fire looked to be out. I kept the throttle at idle, fanned out the base turn, put the gear down and touched down safely onto earth. My two wingmen flew by with a wing rock to acknowledge my safe return. I told them to continue on to Miami if they had enough fuel to make it. I rolled the jet to the end of the runway and stopped right by the fire truck. I shut down the engine, set the parking brake and jumped down from the cockpit to safety while the fire truck sprayed fire-retardant foam on the tailpipe. After it was assured the fire was out, I walked around the back of the jet and observed only half of an engine nozzle. The extreme heat had burned away most of the pure titanium panels on the afterburner section. For all you chemist’s out there, the melting point for titanium is 3034*F! At that moment, I looked up at the tail to see the numbers 2-9-7 starring back at me with an almost evil grin. I immediately remembered doing the same glance three weeks earlier on the runway in Las Vegas with the same aircraft, 2-9-7. I grit my teeth in discontent for this flying machine.
But this time, it would be different. I marched up to the front of the aircraft, with the fire crew as my witness, pointed at the jet that tried to kill me twice in three weeks and said, ‘I will never fly you again!’ Catch my next blog to read part 3 of There I was...
To read the first part of Maj. Gen. Rob Polumbo's heroic story, click here.
To read to third part, click here.