There I was …. Falling out of the sky

March 19, 2019

On a sunny, cold Nevada morning, I found myself falling out of the sky at ten thousand feet a minute in a twenty million dollar, 20,000 pound F-16 fighter jet!  I had just tried to execute an aggressive maneuver to counter another jet’s notional gun attack when I made a simple but serious mistake, and my jet had gone from flying at over 300 miles per hour to having no airspeed at all at 12,000 feet above the ground.  When the F-16 departs controlled flight, it happens quickly and there are only a few ways to recover the aircraft to normal conditions before the pilot is forced to use a nylon letdown after ejecting from the out-of-control aircraft.  In this particular case, I had less than 30 seconds to make things right.

 

During this mission in the fall of 1983, I was a Lieutenant in the Air Force and wanted to learn how to maneuver the F-16 better than anybody else in the squadron.  I was also fortunate enough to have one of the absolute best instructor pilots as my flight leader that day and Jim “Nummy” Nemetz would soon become my hero for life.  His calm and concise words to me over the radio at the time kept me from panicking and led me to execute the correct recovery procedures that would right my aircraft, get some air flowing over the wings again and allow me to recover from the stalled condition before I was forced to pull the ejection handle.  Nummy had attended the USAF Fighter Weapons School a few years earlier and was now my Flight Commander in the squadron and was teaching me advanced tactics on this fateful morning.  All he said to me on the radio that day were 7 simple words - ‘you’re gonna have to rock it out’.  By rock it out, he meant I would have to override the digital flight control computer and manually rock the nose up and down a couple of times to get the aircraft flying again….and soon! 

 

I’d recited the ‘out of control’ critical action procedures - or CAPs - dozens of times before on the ground during knowledge sessions with other pilots and in simulators with evaluator pilots, but never really thought I’d ever have to use them in flight since I was ‘too good’ of a pilot to make that type of mistake.

 

The procedures worked that day and the jet started flying again.  Nummy joined his aircraft next to mine and looked me over only to find nothing outwardly wrong with the airplane.  But he decided it might be a good idea to head back to base early and let the maintenance technicians look things over.  After landing, in the squadron, Nummy and I put our videotapes in the monitor and watched the event together.  He carefully walked me through my mistake - which was simply being too tentative in the maneuver - thus ‘hanging up’ the jet in a nose high attitude, causing it to stall and run completely out of airspeed.  He then critiqued my execution of the CAPs and told me I should have started ‘rocking the jet out’ a little sooner.  He was truly a competent flight leader and instructor pilot and I appreciate his leadership to this day some 35 years later. 

 

Coincidentally, about three years later, after I graduated from the Fighter Weapons School myself, a young Lieutenant did the same thing during a training flight and put his own aircraft out-of-control.  My simple guidance to him that day on the radio as I watched his jet fall at more than 10,000’ a minute  was ‘you’re gonna have to rock it out…’   He did so and I watched with some apprehension as he rocked the jet a couple of times before finally recovering above the ground and flying again.  Definitely, something to see from the air - especially when it all works out for the best!

 

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