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Welcome to the ‘Caterpillar Club’


The sound was as startling as the rapid deceleration accompanying it. My feet were knocked off the rudder pedals and the jet began shaking. I instinctively pulled back on the stick, aggressively maneuvering away from the ground in a 30-degree climb, simultaneously jettisoning the centerline fuel tank and turning towards the nearest emergency field. Wendover Airfield was 15 miles away but behind my wing line to the right; the turn would deplete precious energy and time. It would be close…

It was the fall of 1994. Although not new to the F-16, I was new to the unit—having recently returned to the States following a year-long assignment in South Korea. My new Wing was ramping up for an upcoming Operational Readiness Inspection, which is effectively a simulated deployment and employment to demonstrate combat readiness to higher headquarters. An ORI can make or break a unit’s reputation. Despite being a “new guy,” I had spent the previous year honing my operational F-16 skills during numerous Operational Readiness Exercises culminating in a successful ORI for my previous unit. I hoped to be a contributing member of this Wing’s inspection.

That morning’s mission was an opposed, low altitude, simulated strike to the Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City. I would be the number two in a four-ship flight. The plan was to launch, proceed at medium altitude until inside the limits of the range, then descend for a low-level ingress. Prior to the initial point, the flight was to react against opposing F-16s simulating adversaries. This would update our Low Altitude Awareness Training currency for the ORI. Our profile was to conclude with a fly-up to a medium altitude attack followed by alternating medium and low altitude attacks until reaching bingo fuel and returning to base.

Launch and transit to the range were uneventful; the low-level entry, threat reactions, and first attack all went according to plan. As we repositioned for the second attack, I experienced violent engine failure, which is never good in any airplane but especially the single-engine F-16. Zoom climbing, turning, and jettisoning my tank, I radioed to anyone who could hear, “Tartan 2, Knock-It-Off, I’ve lost my engine.” Tartan 4, the last plane in our flight, trailed me by approximately two miles. He saw and captured on his heads-up display recorder a large orange fireball and grayish-black smoke exit my engine.

I moved the throttle to off and attempted an air start per memorized emergency procedures. My efforts were rewarded with a grinding, growling, metal-on-metal friction sound throughout the airframe. Not ideal. While ensuring the Emergency Power Unit was operating normally and my glide speed was correct for the gross weight of the jet, which I calculated to be approximately 210 KCAS, I noticed the engine Fan Turbine Inlet Temperature above 1,100°C. Not Good.

I placed the throttle to off, selected Secondary Mode for engine start, and continued an engine-out glide toward the emergency field. I lined up on the longest runway and attempted an air start twice more. During the third and final air start attempt, I noticed the RPM gauge frozen at zero and felt an earlier-than-anticipated, and rather alarming, ground rush. I estimated my altitude at approximately 2,300 feet AGL and noticed the emergency runway threshold rising on my HUD. I was not going to make the emergency field.

I ensured my harness leads, belts, helmet chin strap and visor were secure, and double checked that my seat was armed for ejection—as is customary in flight. Figuring it was time to “give the jet back to the taxpayers,” as we sometimes say, I pulled back on the stick in an attempt to trade the remaining airspeed for altitude. I’d heard plenty of old salts advise slowing down the jet to reduce flailing injuries. I’d been trained on how to eject and what to expect, even watched videos and spoken with others who’d ejected, but there’s nothing quite like “going up the rails” yourself.

As the jet slowed and began rolling left, indicating early stall, I pulled the ejection handle between my legs, violently blasting my seat and me out of the stricken jet into the relatively calm wind stream.

I felt like a rag doll in another dimension, along for the ride, crushed under the unsustainably extreme forces of the seat rockets firing.

I was brought back to reality by the opening shock of the parachute and was delighted to see a big, round, beautiful canopy above my head. Although I had never done this before, my training took over and I quickly performed my post-ejection checklist, readying for my landing back on earth. I collapsed on the ground like a falling sack of potatoes but consider my Parachute Landing Fall technique perfect, in so much as I stood up, dusted myself off, and was able to walk away without injury.

The jet flew another mile and a half or so before impacting the ground short of the runway. A massive fireball totally destroyed it.

Two minutes and 41 seconds after the engine failed, I stood in the middle of the Utah desert dusty, confused, and worried about my future as an Air Force pilot—not to mention my new Wing’s ORI (hey guys, how do you like me so far?!). It was not long before I was comfortably aboard a rescue helicopter being transported back to base for evaluation. During the transit I kept recounting the sequence of events from the initial deceleration to rescue. I wondered if I could have done something different, or better. I decided I had done my best and would let the investigation boards determine the answers to those questions.

Weeks later, the Safety Investigation Board and the Aircraft Accident Board concluded their investigations and publicized their verdicts. As expected, there were learning points and areas to focus on for improvement.

First, I learned the engine suffered a catastrophic failure due to the liberation of the #19 stage-one fan blade. This blade suffered a high-cycle fatigue crack causing it to separate and strike other first stage fan blades, causing them to “liberate.” All this metal flew back into stage-two/three fan blades, which in turn started a titanium fire, which consumed or liberated all High Pressure Compressor blades and consumed sections of the Variable Stator Vanes activation rings. In the end, the engine seized and was incapable of wind milling or restarting after it failed. There was no way I, or any other pilot could have gotten the engine working again.

Second, I learned that at 210 KCAS—flameout glide speed for the gross weight at the time—the attempted zoom climb prior to ejection did nothing. Instead, the jet kept descending at an imperceptible rate of approximately 120 feet per minute and simply increased angle of attack instead. I thought I had initiated ejection around 2,000 feet AGL but I was wrong—I actually left the jet at approximately 1,380 feet AGL, well below the flight manual minimum recommended 2,000 feet AGL. Although I still had plenty of time to perform the post-ejection checklist and ready myself for landing, that extra altitude lost could have been crucial in the event of a parachute malfunction.

Third, I learned when the engine seized it significantly increased drag and decreased my flameout gliding capability—essentially the intake that usually allows airflow to pass through closed like a barn door. Although I had “cleaned” the jet by emergency jettisoning my external stores, this seized engine caused the drag equivalent of a fully combat-loaded Viper. The F-16 flight manual recommends a straight-in flameout landing be started at a minimum of eight miles (no wind) and 7,000 feet AGL at maximum range airspeed. At the top of the zoom, my jet was approximately 7,100 feet AGL, 196 KCAS, and 13 nm from the emergency airfield. Results based on simulator and flight manual performance data showed that after the engine failed and seized, I was never in a position to execute a successful flameout landing at Wendover airfield.

Finally, I learned that once a critical emergency occurs, you have to rely on your training and that training along with good common sense (airmanship) will see you through. The investigations declared the cause of the accident was an engine processing material failure and that the pilot—yours truly—had performed all procedures and checklists per the flight manual. Investigators determined this specific failure would occur between 700-800 hours of engine life. The USAF inspected the whole F-16 fleet, replacing or grounding those engines that qualified within those parameters, and five days later my new Wing and I flew the ORI with 14 out of 24 airplanes, performing well.

Then two things happened following the incident: first, I was awarded the Air Combat Command Safety Award of Distinction for my performance and second, I was inducted into a unique organization whose inception heralds back to the early days of aviation—the Caterpillar Club.

In the dawn of aviation up to World War I, parachutes were actually discouraged due to the accepted notion at the time that if pilots had parachutes, they would elect to jump from their aircraft when situations became difficult. Hence, parachutes were generally scoffed at by early aviators. So the parachute manufacturers started an elite club to encourage their use and they quickly became accepted after the horrendous death statistics of aviators in WWI. By WWII, practically no pilots flew without a parachute.

Today, the Caterpillar Club is one of the most famous flying clubs in the world and has awarded thousands of men and women a gold pin of a caterpillar—symbolizing the silk from which early parachutes were made. Any person whose life is saved by the use of a parachute in an emergency jump from an airplane is eligible for membership in the Caterpillar Club. Some of its more famous members include Charles Lindbergh, General James Doolittle, Senator John Glenn, and President George H. W. Bush.

Since its creation in 1922, Leslie Irvin has given a gold caterpillar pin to each member, a tradition still observed by Airborne Systems today.1 And that “emergency jump” part? That’s right—no one receives entry into this club by merely parachuting from an aircraft; instead, the individual has to parachute to safety from a stricken aircraft that is normally destroyed or suffers extreme damage.

Needless-to-say, being a member of the Club was not something I ever aspired to, but since it not only saved my life but allowed me to continue flying my favorite aircraft, it’s one membership I certainly don’t mind.

Check 6.

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