by Nate "Buster" Jaros
So there I was… It was a night mission over Iraq in the F-16. It was the summer of 2008 and I was with my unit the 34th Fighter Squadron “Rude Rams” conducting two-ship flight operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Little did I know it on this night, I was about to have another lesson on how to aviate, navigate, and communicate to increase flying safety.
On this particular night we were busy, and the weather was bad. I was leading a two ship over Baghdad and we were tasked with searching some specific city roads with our Sniper Pods. We were looking for “hot spots” and anything that could have been an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), and anything that was simply out of place along US occupied roads.
The weather was all around us as we orbited above the well-lit city below. I remember being in and out of some clouds, and having to constantly coordinate with our airspace controllers to get to a higher block of airspace, or a lower block to be able to see the roads below. We were staying busy just avoiding the weather in effort to see the ground below with our Pods.
During one of these coordination efforts, we were suddenly given a new piece of airspace to proceed to, as well as a new altitude to maintain. At that moment my wingman called “Joker,” and the weather at the tanker track had just been reported worse and the tankers were moving over 100nm farther away to improve their situation. They too wanted better airspace. As I was scribbling most of this stuff down, in the dark cockpit, with little aid from my finger lights and the semi-adequate green “indexer lights” the Viper cockpit provides…I dropped my pencil. “Are you friggin kidding me?! Sonofa!” No one else was in the jet to hear my exclamations.
To summarize what just occurred nearly instantly in my cockpit, I received new airspace and altitude to go to and maintain. That required finding the new airspace and programming its points and borders into the navigation system. I had to climb my two-ship to the newly assigned altitude and level off or risk hitting other airborne assets in the vicinity. My wingman declared Joker fuel meaning he had to depart to the tankers NOW or he’d potentially be too low on fuel to continue the mission.
Additionally, the tankers had decided to move farther away from us, necessitating a new fuel calculation for when we needed to depart and head toward them, and that also made my wingman’s fuel state even more critical. And to top it all off, fumbling in the dark cockpit with my checklists and trusty kneeboard of knowledge, I had dropped my pencil. This furthered my increasing problems with obvious implications for note-taking, as well as some minor safety concerns for the ejection seat.
It was a classic SNAFU situation, and I had a mess on my hands.
Solving the Problem
As pilots, we’ve all been in situations where we’ve been overloaded and task saturated. It’s uncomfortable, and it can be dangerous. How do we deal with these situations when they arise? How do we continue to fly and operate safely, and clean up the proverbial mess?
The main coping method we were taught in the USAF when dealing with these task overloaded situations was a tool called prioritization. If you’ve got a few hours under your belt in any aircraft, you’ve probably had a CFI or another pilot talk to you at least once about task prioritization. Task prioritization is the weapon (or tactic) in your belt for dealing with an overload.
But what exactly is cockpit and task prioritization and how exactly do you do that, step-by-step in your cockpit?
Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
Maybe you’ve heard this mantra before, maybe not. It’s simple! Aviate, navigate, communicate, in that order. That’s it.
In it’s essence, it is the simplest and most broken down way to use your prioritization tactic. Here’s how it works.
First… Aviate. Seems obvious right? But you have to fly the plane first and foremost. You have to. There is no way to get around this. I’m sure you’ve heard of the stories where competent pilots got distracted, or went heads down in the cockpit to do some kind of task and flew right into a mountain or the ground. Typically this is called CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) and annually it’s reported that about 34% of all aviation accidents are CFIT. Globally, for larger jet and transport aircraft “CFIT was the second most frequent category of fatal accident representing 31 fatal accidents or 36 percent of total fatal accidents with sufficient information for classification” from 2010 through 2014.
Pretty sad actually, but proof that you have to fly the plane first, and keep flying it all the way through your difficult cockpit event. If you are spatially disoriented and upside down in clouds, you need to fly first and get on the round dials and recover FIRST before any attempt is made to navigate or talk on the radios. It seems simple, but sometime pilots forget this.
Second…Navigate. Once you are flying and are continuing to keep the plane safely flying, now you can move on to the next tier of items, of which I lump under the “navigate” category. For me, “navigate” means anything from re-orienting myself spatially or getting un-lost, to adjusting anything in the cockpit like maps, dials, GPS pages, and even radios. Anything that is one step past basic “stick and rudder” flying that now assists me in the art of flying better, for me, is lumped into the navigate step. The “navigate” step doesn’t have to be a hard and fast traditional navigation, or map reading. It is all things that make your job in the cockpit easier, and allow you to effectively transit through the airspace, safely.
Lastly…Communicate. Communicate is the last step, and least important. This is smart for many reasons. Technically, talking on the radios is the least important thing we can do as aviators when faced with serious task prioritization problems in-cockpit. Never forget that plenty of aircraft fly around the US every day without ANY radios on board, and guess what…they survive. It may be tempting to talk on the radio or answer that call from ATC, but if you are seriously struggling in the cockpit, just let them sit at their zero knot, one-G station a little longer while you get your feces consolidated. They may get a little angry at you for not replying, but I’d rather have an angry controller (that I can call later and chat with) than be spatially disoriented, or lost and trying to recover my airplane.
Besides, who hasn’t heard the center controller desperately trying to reach some random airplane on his frequency without avail? The controller usually gets some heavies in on the action and has someone relay voice communications to the mute pilot. Eventually the sleepy pilot pipes up and answers on the radio, and nothing big typically ever comes of it.
Communications are important, but in the massively huge act of flying an airplane, they’re the least important, for sure.
That’s pretty much it. If you Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate…in that order, always, you should forever have a solid tool to help you get out of a jam and safely prioritize the cockpit tasks you are dealing with. Learning to aviate, navigate, and communicate will increase your flying safety.
So how did I get out of that situation in Iraq with my task overloaded two-ship? Well I thought you’d never ask!
First, I decided to forget the pencil, it was gone into the bowels of the dark cockpit. I could accept the risk of it jamming up the ejection seat for now, and statistically that was a rarity anyway. So it was gone, and I had a pen I could use instead.
Second. I aviated. I immediately started climbing my two-ship, knowing altitude in the Viper means more fuel efficiency. I also told my wingman to “out climb” me to the top of our newly assigned block of airspace. I think we were told to “Elevator block 25 to 29” (FL 250 – FL 290) and I coordinated with him to go straight to Angels 29, and I would go to Angels 28 thus ensuring deconfliction in the dark night and a fuel saving strategy was immediately happening.
If you’re wondering why I ‘communicated” with my wingman right here, because communication comes after navigation…right? Well in the Viper we always had a dedicated second radio frequency, called interflight that we would only use to communicate to the flight members. Part of maneuvering (aviating) and navigating the 2-ship was communications. So I made a two second call on interflight to clue my wingman in on what was happening. “Ninja Two, set Angels 29.” That’s it. And besides, we always fly with contracts so when he saw me climbing, he knew that staying above me and deconflicting with me was his primary duty anyway. I could have maintained radio silence had I chosen to. Making the two second radio transmission certainly helped our overall effectiveness and navigational well being. It was an administrative call that aided his situational awareness.
Moving on. Third (thirdly?), after the new heading and our climbs begun, I started programming my new airspace assignment into the navigation system so I could see the outlines of my fragged area in my poor excuse for a moving map in the Viper. This also ensured that we were safely deconflicted from all other friendly air traffic nearby as we sorted out the situation. Frequent glances at the fire control radar screen also proved that nothing was off the nose anywhere near us anyway. Good.
Fourth and lastly, and only after I had both of us safely aviating (deconflicted) and navigating the right direction, I began to communicate with ATC. What must have seemed like hours to the poor ATC controller, I eventually piped up on the ATC radio and confirmed with him that we were moving to the new altitude and airspace. In addition I also begun coordination for a climb even higher (the fuel saving plan again) and a tanker plan I was concocting.
What I ended up telling the controller was a new strategy for getting gas faster. Due to our assigned tankers moving farther away because of the weather, we were going to request for them to fly toward us while we flew toward them at the same time. This would allow for us to all meet roughly halfway from the normal transit distance, where we could link up, get gas, and have them “drag us” to wherever they needed to go as we refueled. It was a pretty common technique and the trusty tanker guys were always willing to accommodate thirsty fighter guys who were down on their luck a little by “meeting us halfway.”
Off the boom, the rest of the sortie was smooth and easy as we patrolled our assigned areas looking for trouble. As we flew and slipped through the night sky peacefully, I unknowingly learned another lesson in how to aviate, navigate, communicate to increase flying safety.
Nate "Buster" Jaros
What is Engine Out? Relevant aviation topics, key safety techniques, war stories, and pilot tips from Fightersweep writer and the author of Engine Out Survival Tactics, Fighter Pilot Tactics for GA Engine Loss Emergencies.
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