by Nate "Buster" Jaros
I was airborne over Southwest Texas. Today’s sortie put me as the instructor of record in the back seat of a T-38C. In the front seat, was one of my students. He was doing well and had advanced through most of the grueling T-38 syllabus just fine. Today, he was “leading” a two-ship of T-38s, and on our wing was one of his classmates, and that kid was solo. Unbeknownst yet, one of us was about to get an advanced lesson in the aviation emergency frequency.
It was part of the normal syllabus in the T-38 to send student pilots solo, as well as formation solo or “form solo” as we’d often call it. Form solos were tough training sorties for us old and crusty IPs (Instructor Pilots) because not only did we have one dangerous student at the controls in the front of one aircraft, but another dangerous solo student at the controls of another aircraft…with the sole purpose of flying extremely close to the lead jet. Three feet wingtip separation was the required position through barrel rolls, turns, and Lazy-8s with up to (but not to exceed) 90 degrees of bank. Amongst other formation maneuvers too.
By this point in the syllabus the students were pretty solid in the ole T-38, but it was still a sortie on which to not let your guard down. More than one solo T-38 student has come dangerously close to their lead jet and been told to “break out.” We had our hands full as IPs managing this sortie. Sometime called the “2 v 1”…meaning two students versus one IP, that moniker stemming from the classic 2 v 1 Air Combat Training profile common in fighter aircraft training. In the T-38, flying a form solo ride, it often felt like they were both out to get you and sometimes it felt like a real combat sortie. Your head was definitely on a swivel.
The Guard Call
We were midway through the profile when a loud and clear radio call came in through our helmets.
“This is Laughlin SOF on GUARD, Laughlin AFB is now executing a weather recall for rapidly deteriorating weather. All local aircraft conserve fuel and begin immediate recovery. SOF out.”
The SOF was the Supervisor of Flying. This was an experienced pilot who's job it was for six to eight hours to basically oversee all local flying operations. He or she would help with emergencies, assist solo pilots on the radios if needed, and generally coordinate all flight operations for the base with an eye for safety overall. Today the SOF was watching massive thunderstorms approaching Laughlin AFB, which were about an hour away (or so the weather guessers predicted), and he smartly decided it was time to get everybody home.
We immediately called a “knock it off” within our two-ship. “Talon 31 knock it off, Talon 1 knock it off.” Then the acknowledgement from our solo wingman, per the standards “Talon 2 knock it off” was textbook.
I instructed the student pilot up front to set up for the recovery per the standards. This had him beginning a recovery profile, descent checks, having both aircraft fence out, sweeping ATIS, and performing a fighter standard post-fight battle damage check. It was aviating, navigating, and communicating at it’s finest. It was a lot to do going 300 kts just 40-50 nm from the base, but by this time in the program, these guys could usually handle it.
The rest of the recovery was uneventful, though I could tell my solo wingman was a little “off.” He was flying intensely to say the least, and I could tell he was trying to be on his “A game.” He was nervous however, and I could sense it, as well as hear the tone of his voice through the radio as we checked in on different frequencies during the ride home. Maybe he was really concerned about the approaching storms?
We brought the two-ship up initial after passing through the normal VFR recovery points that funneled all traffic into the pattern for the designated T-38 runway. Overhead the numbers, the signal for a typical five second break and a salute were issued and we each split off for downwind and configured for landing. Landing and taxi back were also uneventful, the solo student did everything correctly and was on frequency and positioned correctly for our two-ship taxi in. We could see the gray storms approaching pretty clearly now, a bolt of lightning was spotted in the distance, and winds were picking up a little. We were glad to be back home and safely on the deck.
We parked side by side on the ramp as was common and shut down our sleek jets. I happened to notice that my solo wingman seemed pretty distraught over at his jet. His head was hanging low and he just seemed “off.” He reluctantly did his post-flight walk around and he just wasn't his usual happy self after executing a fine solo in the Mach-capable T-38 jet. Hmmm. He was also very quiet and wouldn’t make eye contact on the van ride back to the squadron. Something was wrong with this kid.
After dropping off our helmets, parachutes, and limited survival gear we eventually got to the debrief room where my two students sat upright and attentive. I stood in the usual fashion, and began to go over all the items in a typical debrief that we needed to discuss. I couldn’t help but notice again that the solo student was upset. He seemed disgusted and maybe even angry. At one point in the discussion and re-creation of the sortie’s events I mentioned the weather recall and the nicely flown recovery, pattern entry, landings, and taxi in ground ops.
The solo student’s eyes widened. He looked at me with an air of hope, and confusion. I could tell he was really lost at this point. It was almost time for them to be able to ask questions anyway, so I went ahead and opened up the floor to questions. I could see he had a lot to ask me.
“Sir” he said, “what do you mean weather recall?”
“The weather recall, you know! The call from the SOF about the recovery due to bad weather approaching.”
“What call from the SOF sir?’ he questioned. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
“Did you have Guard selected on your radios today?”
I already knew the answer, it was a classic blunder for a young trainee.
“Not sure sir, I guess maybe not. I never heard anything from the SOF.”
And that right there explained it. But I was still wondering a few things about his shift in attitude…right about the time we started the recovery.
“What did you think was happening then when we called the knock it off, and then proceeded to RTB?”
His reply. “Well sir, we were executing that last leaf of fingertip at 90 degrees of bank, and I fell out of position. It took me awhile to get back into formation.”
“Yes, I saw that, but you made a good recovery, and you did it safely” I informed him.
“Well sir, I thought that I had just busted the ride…as you called for the knock it off, and the immediate recovery.”
It made total sense then. This poor kid never heard the guard call, but obviously heard our decision to knock it off and start home, just after he had made a significant mistake (and a good correction). He thought he busted the ride and would be receiving the equivalent of an “F” on the mission for the day, which can have lasting implications on later choice of aircraft assignments after graduation.
The Moral of the Story: Guard Frequency
Radios in our USAF jets have a built in capability to monitor the Guard frequency, whereas our GA radios typically do not. But if you have a spare radio, a COMM 2, consider keeping it set to 121.5, as you never know what kind of information you might receive on that frequency. Besides, Section 3 of the FAR/AIM suggests all pilots may monitor emergency frequencies. If you were to get lost on the radios or fly near restricted airspace, a helpful ATC controller will most likely use Guard to notify you of impending trouble…and possibly save your license.
Always try to have Guard selected and monitored on your radios. I admit that I don’t always do this in my GA aircraft, it’s an old school technique, but monitoring it can save you a lot of headache.
Having Guard selected would have prevented my solo student from thinking he busted his training ride for nearly two hours on that stormy day. Having all available information in the cockpit can help your Situational Awareness immensely.
Some Cool T-38 gear
Some old, but good T-38 Videos, and a great T-38 Book for those interested.
Courtesy Vance Class 07-11
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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