There I was...flamed out in my F-16 with 23 miles still to glide to make it back to the airfield. The photo you see is a hero picture of me with the notorious aircraft (tail 297) that tried to take my life twice in the course of a 3 week stretch in the Fall of ’94.
The first incident took place 65 miles North of Nellis AFB in a training area called Elgin outside of Las Vegas. I was the flight lead of a two-ship basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) training mission with my longtime comrade Billy “Blaze” Binger. The objective of a BFM flight was to work on max performing the jet in order to gain an offensive position on the other aircraft-otherwise known as dogfighting. The pilot that got the most gun film on the other had the bragging rights in the bar until the next opportunity came around to prove yourself.
Well, this particular flight wasn’t going too well for me and Blaze let me know over the radio that he was eating my lunch this fine Fall afternoon. My frustration level was at its peak when Blaze once again showed up at my six o’clock with the gun a-blazin’. He called “Knock It Off” to end the fight and he immediately told me “Hey Mumbles, something’s streaming from your aircraft.” I looked first at the oil gauge and saw a normal reading. I glanced at the next most important indicator and I could feel my pulse rapidly increase from the adrenaline of seeing my fuel gauge moving toward ZERO!
My aircraft was 5,000 feet above the ground at 200 knots and 65 miles from the nearest runway. I told Blaze I had a fuel leak and to hang on because I was going to accelerate and climb as high as I could before the jet flamed out. This would give me the only chance to use the remaining fuel to get high enough to glide the rest of the way when the motor quit.
The F-16’s gliding ability approached that of a rock. Basically, I would glide a mile for every 1000 feet of altitude I had at flameout. The other issue was the fuel for the emergency power unit (EPU). The EPU turned on to operate the flight controls when the motor quit and the fuel only lasted about 10 minutes which made my max glide distance about 30 miles before I would go out of control. If I didn’t make it to 30,000 feet at 30 miles, I would probably have to eject and use the nylon elevator to parachute me to safety. Needless to say, my attention was fully on the gas gauge, altitude, and distance from the runway.
My cool, calm and collected sidekick was right on my wing reading off the numerous checklists for this dire emergency. I was flipping switches I never touched before trying to stop the leak but nothing helped. When I made 36,000 feet at 36 miles my outlook on the situation got a little more positive but I still needed to get to 30 miles from the field before the flameout. I started a descent to maintain the 1:1 glide ratio and at 23 miles and 23,000 feet the cockpit got very quiet. I now had to rely on the hundreds of simulated flameout landings I had practiced over my 9 years of flying the F-16. This one had to be perfect!
But the excitement was just beginning...I had forgotten that 72 aircraft had taken off prior to our departure and now ALL of them were coming back to land at the same time as Blaze and me. To make matters worse, I was going to be forced to land opposite direction to all the jets in the pattern. When the Air Traffic Controller looked at the impending chaos on his radar scope he said, “Bat 1, go around and reenter at Flex.” Blaze and I chuckled at this command over our flight radio since I had no motor to fly anywhere. I told the controller in no uncertain terms that I was unable to go around and I was landing immediately engine-out on 21R. For the next 10 miles, Blaze and I did more BFM with dozens of Navy, Marine and AF aircraft trying to get out of our way. We got so close to some of them, I could see them wave as we flew by.
Luckily, I had enough hydraulic pressure to get the gear down normally. Blaze’s parting words as he dropped me off at the runway was “lookin’ sweet.” I landed uneventfully on speed, 500’ down the runway. Another grin came to me when the controller told me to taxi my aircraft off the runway. At this point, I still didn’t think the guy understood that I had only one motor on my jet and it wasn’t working. I closed one of the two runways down with 72 aircraft low on fuel in the pattern. I jumped down from the jet to watch utter chaos as the aircraft scrambled to land on the single runway. Everybody made it down okay that day.
Anyone that’s been through an incident like this knows, the next couple hours and days are psychologically brutal. I had to do a urinalysis and get checked out by a flight surgeon and then sit and think about everything that happened to determine if I did everything right or more importantly-anything WRONG. It didn’t help that it was a Friday and I would have to sit at home wondering if the Air Force would take my wings on Monday morning. As it turns out, Blaze and I had done a pretty good job and the culprit for all the excitement was a 1/4-inch plug that popped out of the fuel line and dumped all my gas overboard in a matter of minutes. What was even sweeter was when the maintainer explained that the fuel leak was preventing my engine from generating maximum thrust thus reducing my aircraft’s performance. I now had a plausible alibi for why Blaze was kicking my butt that day!
I give all the credit for successfully handling this situation with the excellent training the AF had provided me and an outstanding wingman to keep me out of trouble.
If you think the story of tail 297 is over, standby for my next “There I was...”
To read the second part of Maj. Gen. Rob Polumbo's heroic story, click here.