by Gary “Waldo” Peppers
“Weather recall” is one of the most hated transmissions a fighter pilot ever hears, second maybe only to “Guns kill at thirteen thousand over Quartzite!” My flight heard the dreaded weather recall from the 325th Tactical Fighter Wing SOF (Supervisor of Flying) in the middle of our final air-to-air engagement.
It was a 2-versus-1 ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) training mission in which my star F-15 student, Ken Wilsbach, led by our squadron Weapons Officer, “Bambi” Kiefer, got to beat up on me as the lone bandit. Wilsbach’s objective was to execute the briefed tactics and support his flight lead IP in dispatching the bandit with ruthlessness and celerity. My job was to die like a man.
In the first two “canned” set-ups, the bandit was only allowed to maneuver predictably. In the final two set-ups, though, I was allowed free maneuver to fend off the attacking element and even kill them if I could. That was my favorite flying – a high-G, sweat-soaked adrenalin rush with make-believe missiles and imaginary bullets! Usually, the bandit gets beat down on energy and eventually gets shot – on film, anyway. Hence the maxim, “When you’re in a 2v1 fight, try not to be the 1.”
On hearing the SOF’s call, Bambi called, “Dusty One flight, knock it off” to terminate our maneuvering. He then called the flight to join up and fence out (safe switches, reset squawks) for the return to base. I switched over to the SOF frequency automatically to acknowledge the recall – Bambi and Wilsbach would hear it in their aux receivers – and then joined them on the recovery frequency. Our F-15As had only one UHF transmitter and two UHF receivers. No VHF.
Once we joined up close on lead, Wilsbach on the left wing and me on the right, Bambi signaled for a visual fuel check – thumb to his mouth in a drinking gesture. Wilsbach held up two fingers vertical and then one horizontal to signal 2,600 pounds remaining, a thousand pounds less than I had. Wingmen (and students) always use up JP-4 faster than flight leads from jockeying the throttles to maintain position, along with somewhat less judicious use of afterburner while fighting. Still, Bambi had briefed “bingo” as 3,200 pounds, the minimum fuel state for continuing the engagement. Had Wilsbach flown through bingo on that last set-up? Maybe he hadn’t set his bingo bug correctly. As his flight commander, I made a mental note to query him about it in the debrief.
The bingo state was established to allow the flight enough fuel to rejoin in the area and recover to the Tyndall AFB traffic pattern with 2,000 pounds on a VFR day. Normal landing fuel was 1,200 pounds; “minimum fuel” was declared at 1,000; and “emergency fuel” was 800. Eglin AFB, 60 miles up the coast, was our closest divert. An F-15 required 1,000 pounds from overhead Tyndall to touchdown at Eglin with tanks dry. I added a hundred pounds to that for each of my dependents.
Although this was supposed to have been a VFR day, the sight 50 miles to the northwest starkly revealed the cause of the recall. A huge “cumulonympho gluteofractus” had sprung up in the vicinity of Panama City, where Tyndall lay just to the south. I estimate its cap rose to three times my own altitude of 15,000 feet, still bubbling upward with no sign yet of an anvil top forming. As far as I could see in every direction the sky was clear and placid, except for that one thunder boomer threatening to ruin our day.
Approaching the high fix, the start of the long downhill slide into Tyndall, Arrival instructed us to make one left-hand orbit to get spacing on another flight just ahead. The arrival frequency was a continuous jabber of instructions, reports, requests, sequences, and conflict calls. I’ve been on busier frequencies since then – maybe approaching O’Hare on any Sunday evening – but this was close. I marveled that the voices I heard on frequency, with one or two exceptions, were calm and concise in that clipped staccato of urgency maintained by professionals.
Burning 100 pounds of jet fuel a minute, we made a 200-pound turn to the left. As we rolled out inbound to the high fix, Bambi made a thumb jerk motion to signal me to take my own spacing. I did another spin to the right, switched on my discreet squawk, and became my own separate flight, Biker One. I rolled out four miles in trail of Dusty One just as they began the penetration.
I reported the initial approach fix and Arrival cleared me for the high dive. Throttles retarded to just above idle, I could hold 300 KIAS for the 30-mile descent to Tyndall’s overhead pattern. The storm ahead appeared to be just north of the runways but I couldn’t perceive any movement from that distance.
Just then, the SOF-in-the-box announced that arrivals would be on hold beginning in two minutes while the active runway was switched from 31 to 13. Great, I thought, that probably means the storm is passing to the east.
Tyndall Arrival began issuing vectors to the west to the flights ahead of me. A 270 heading would put them on a wide right downwind for landing 13. One by one we were handed off to Tyndall Approach for sequencing into the overhead pattern.
“Tyndall is now IFR,” announced Approach on the common frequency. “All aircraft expect PAR approaches to full stop.” The only ILS Tyndall had was 31R. I began slowing to 250 knots, radar pattern airspeed. Ahead of me, Dusty One told Dusty Two (Wilsbach) to fly his own radar pattern while he (Bambi) followed in two-mile trail. Approach gave Dusty Two his own discreet squawk and vectored him 240. The flight ahead of Dusty Two was turned to 030 for the radar base leg.
I leveled off at 2,000 feet, about four miles offshore abeam the airfield. From my angle, it didn’t appear that the storm had moved to the east at all. It looked like it was just spreading out, growing wider at its base. In fact, I couldn’t see anything of Tyndall except a faint outline of the hangars. Tyndall Approach told Dusty Two to turn right to 030, base leg. I watched him make the turn six miles ahead of me on the radar display and then picked him up visually in the turn. I crossed my fingers.
Half a minute later, Dusty One was given a vector to 030. Simultaneously, the SOF announced that Tyndall was now closed due to winds and visibility, and all aircraft should expect to hold for fifteen minutes or proceed to alternates. By alternates he meant our divert bases. None of our flight plans that day required alternates. Approach repeated his words verbatim a moment later.
“Dusty Two, go cheap suit.” Bambi was sending Wilsbach to their pre-briefed discreet frequency, one he hadn’t told me about! “Shotgun” I knew – thirty-ought-six, or 300.60. What the hell is a cheap suit? Had to start with a 2 or a 3…$29.95! I spun my frequency to 299.50 just in time to hear the end of Bambi’s query,” – state?” “About a thousand,” Wilsbach answered.
About a thousand pounds of fuel, I thought. What does that mean? If he had eleven hundred wouldn’t he say that? I looked at my own fuel gauge: 2,100. Wilsbach had a thousand less than me when we left the area. Maybe he does have 1,100 pounds remaining. No, he’s been flying on Bambi’s wing since we left the area. If he had 950 or 920 he might answer “about a thousand,” not if he had more than a thousand.
I switched back to Approach in time to hear Bambi transmit, “Dusty Two, come left to 300. Approach, Dusty One and Two are proceeding direct Eglin, emergency fuel, cancel IFR.” Caught by surprise, Approach hesitated a second and I jumped in. “Bambi, Waldo. He doesn’t have the gas to get there! Take him into Panama City. It’s right there in the clear. Tower is two fifty-seven nothing.” Fanin Field’s longest runway was over 6,000 feet, plenty for the F-15. “’Kay, thanks.” Bambi didn’t sound too grateful for the advice, though.
Well, they made the local news that night. Not for heroically saving the taxpayers $54 million dollars’ worth of combat flying equipment, but for causing some $15,000 damage to the Panama City airport. Wilsbach made it down just fine with at least enough gas to taxi to the ramp. Bambi, concerned about landing on Brick One, dragged it in and took out some approach lights with his wheels. Hero to goat in five seconds flat!
Nobody ever claimed that great fighter pilots have to be naturally great pilots. The fighter pilot’s job, ultimately, is killing people we don’t like and breaking their stuff. The flying part, that’s just the commute to the job site. But maybe we should work on that.
Gary Peppers is a 15,000-hour ATP who holds CFI, CFII, helicopter, and B-737 type ratings. He served 29 years on active duty from 1971, flying Army UH-1 and OH-58 helicopters and Air Force F-15s and OV-10s. Recalled to active duty in 2009, he flew MQ-1B Predators in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Retired in 2013 to Cape Coral, Florida, he owns a Piper PA-31 Navajo and a PA-24 Comanche.