|The A-4F as a Glider @ 1984
Disclaimer; the names of the guilty participants are changed for obvious reasons.
IT is mid-winter of 1984 as a Marine Reserve pilot flying an oldie but goodie, the A-4F Superfox Skyhawk. With the turtle back humps empty and stripped down, the Superfox was a hotrod. VMA-142 (Gators) (NZC) were on a ACM Det over to Eglin AFB to work with the F-15 school to allow the Eagle Instructors to practice DACM (Dissimilar Air Combat) on the air combat maneuvering range, (ACMR) out over the Gulf of Mexico. The deal was the USAF would provide the gas for free if the Marine would bring their A-4’s. It was a wonderful det; the jets were mostly up, the wx, North Florida; winter, cool, clear with two ACM flights a day against the F-15 instructors, challenging flying: it was sweet!
My “Glider” event started off innocently enough: since I was a PMCF pilot, post Maintience Check Flight, I was stuck with running a broken A-4F back to Cecil Field FL and swapping it for another. OK - can do easy, at least I had an afternoon ACM flight if I got back on time with the replacement aircraft. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been much of a problem; it isn’t far from Eglin AFB to Cecil in Jacksonville FL. But as of late the Florida ‘Gators’ were getting beat up in the air by the F-15s. The Air Force had finally started to use the F-15 to it’s full advantage although at this time they still liked to slow down and fur ball knife fight. Don’t get me wrong, the A-4F Superfox was a hot rod and the “Gators” were all high time reservists but we were not used to hearing the ACMR range controller say; ‘Red Two you’re dead” (the F15’s were Blue)….we were used to winning. So one of our nameless flight leads came up with a ‘PLAN to WIN.”
The strategy worked like this; We would brief with the Air Force a 2V2; and show up with 3 A-4s. (or, brief a 2V1 and bring 4), we did this more than once. Dave and Bill briefed an early 2V2 with the F15 Instructors, while I took off with the ‘broken’ A4 to Cecil on a DD-175 with a delay enroute. I took off and hung around off the end of the runway and watched as the two F-15 climbed out into the range. Next came the A-4s and I joined up with Dave and Bill as they climbed out. The Air Force didn’t know it yet but we now had a 2V3 going. Hey, anything goes as long as you win - right?
The A4 flight splits to combat spread and I stayed tucked in close on lead so the Eagles couldn’t break us out on radar: their radar would ‘see’ only two A4s. The ‘Plan’ worked like a charm. On the engaging pass, the Eagles went over us about 6k high and saw that there were 3 of us instead of the briefed two A4s.. As the red flight A4’s flight pitched back into the engagement, I, rolled on my back and split S’ed out of the fight reaching mach 1. + (clean ship) in the dive as I bugged out on the water to the northeast and Cecil field. The F15’s in the nose high pitch back didn’t see me leave. Later Dave told me it was pretty funny, the F15s never would commit, since they had SEEN the third A4 and just Knew the trailer A-4 was on their six. So the A-4s chased the F-15s all over the range - never quite able to corner the Eagles, until the F-15s ran out of gas and ‘bingoed’. During the Debrief the Blue flight was crushed to hear the 3rd A4 had left in the engaging turn. This was a new twist, the bonus A4 leaving. We had been briefing 2V2 and showing up with 3 or 4 and the Eagle guys had gotten wise to that program. The extra A4 leaving was a new twist.
Once clear of the ACMR range I activated my DD175 and was cruising east at FL 250 on a glorious Sunday morning. Early February, Cold and Clear, the air was absolutely dead still: it was right after a cold front had swept through north Florida. It was like skating on clear ice. Smoooooth. At FL cruise about 80 miles out; JAX Center says: “MikeBravo 12, you are cleared to descend and switch to Cecil Tower. Wow, I thought, must not be any traffic, as I pulled power to about 76-78% and pointed the nose at Cecil with about 1800# remaining, just enough to land with +1100#. In a decent like this, I was in the habit of pulling power back, not all the way to idle, just so far so as the air density increased in the decent, the engine would wind back up to about 95% and with a good bit of speed, and I wouldn’t have to touch the throttle until the break. It is Sunday morning, early, before 8 am. Cecil Tower hadn’t talked to anyone since late Friday afternoon when the cross country flock had left. A single A4 inbound asking for a carrier break wasn’t too exciting, the Sunday Paper sports section not yet finished. I was smoking; (680 + comes to mind) (the numbers get crowded up that end of the dial) a clean, empty A4 right at Mach, as I approached the break, a little low, but who’s checking?
As the outboard runway number 36R came into sight, I was just thinking about pulling the throttle to idle when the engine started to unwind: It unwound All the way to Zero:
1. It is amazing how quiet it is in the cockpit when the engine isn’t running.
Except for the crying and screaming.
2. With those big intakes just behind you’re shoulders it is amazing how fast the A4 decelerates with the engine not running.
“Cripes” I thought hanging in the straps , as MB 12 decelerated, “what’s wrong with this XZDXW thing?” as I flew, with a low G pull, up and out to the left traffic landing pattern. “Damn”, as I watched the rpm run down to about 10%. I can’t believe what I’m seeing; “Flame out”. As the engine ran down below 42% the electrical generator drops off the main bus. I extend the RAT (ram air turbine) and up comes the emergency power. I gingerly pull the throttle back to idle and to cutoff. Shift the Fuel control from auto to manual and hit the igniters and come around the horn to idle. It is so quiet I hear the igniters popping and the low whumph as the engine lights off and starts to spin up. I breathe a sigh of relief as the engine spins up through 42% and the main generator comes on line automatically as the RAT drops off line.
Then the engine audibly winds down and flames out again. “XWZSX, what’s wrong with this thing.?” The tower asks: “MB12 are you in the break?”. I reply: “mayday mayday, MB12 Flame out.” Later, I can imagined the tower folks with the Sunday paper flying, coffee cups upset as they hit the crash alarm. Talk about a Sunday morning wake up call.
Again, as the engine wound down below 42% the generator dropped off and the rat takes over electrical power. I pull the throttle to cut off and think. “Below 5000’ and below 250 kts eject”. Well, looking at the sea of pine trees around Cecil - bugger that idea. Besides I was well over 250, I was now about 380+ kts or so, right around optimum engine relight numbers at 1,200 feet. I try again. Idle cutoff, FC is manual, Hit igniters and around the horn. I watch the fuel flow, jumps up to 800 # which is about right for the PW J52-P408 at start, so I know I don’t have an engine driven fuel pump failure. Whummph, she fires up again, winds up and the rat drops off as the main generator comes online. “Thank God,” I think, just as it flames out yet again.
“What the XWZWX Hell is wrong with this thing?”; “It wants to run”.
As the electrical power cycles through yet another flame out. Now I’m at the 180 position, a little high, still doing over 250 kts. Cripes, looking at those trees; I chicken out, I do NOT want to eject into those trees. So I start making excuses. I can make the runway. The airplane won’t get torn up too bad. They can salvage parts off the airframe. Visions of the green tablecloth and court-martial fill my mind. I’m still above 250 so I can try a third or is it the fourth? relight. Anything to avoid stepping out, I was afraid to eject.
Try again; throttle cutoff, throttle up around the horn hitting the igniters, whumph as the engine fires up, fuel flow up about 800# as the power cycles as the main generator comes on line. Then; Wheeeee, as the engine flames out for the last time.
“WXZX Shit” I’m rolling out in the grove for 36L as the speed drops thru 200 kts. Gear down, (engine wind milling at 8+% gives enough hyd power), as the mains lock down, I’m pulling the nose up; running out of airspeed and altitude and ideas as I cross the threshold. The mains touch down, the nose gear locks in place as the nose wheel hits the runway. As I approach the wire, I slap the hook handle down engage the wire and stop.
It is dead silent with the engine not running. Phew.
I pop the hood, unstrap, and safe the seat, swinging down from the refueling probe. I walk over to the yellow runway gear arrow sign and sit down. My legs getting weak on me as I watch the fire trunk roar up. Glider training over, I ride the fire truck back to Maintience control. I write up a/c 12, engine flamed out on landing. I then signed out a/c MB 08 and hustled back to Eglin to get back to the ACM flight.
Post Script; What happened?
Complacency. When I nosed over to Cecil I had just gotten, or had, a stuck “fuselage tank float valve”. I just didn’t know it. Within the A-4 wet wing, a pneumatic driven fuel pump constantly transfers fuel to the smaller fuselage tank which feeds the engine. Through a Fuselage tank float valve……which on a rare occasion, sticks closed with sand or grit. To unstick this fuselage tank float valve you shake the plane about a bit. The still air and smooth maneuvers I used approaching the runway would not unstick the valve. With 1800# pounds of fuel aboard, I had enough fuel plus some to get home. But not with a stuck float valve. When I nosed over I probably already had the stuck float valve. I had 1,000 #pounds in the wing and 800# pounds in the fuselage tank.
In the A-4 it is normal with lower fuel states when in a nose low attitude to get the yellow caution “fuel Xfer” light on. This warning light comes on as the bleed air fuel transfer pump in the back of the wet wing is uncovered by wing fuel.
I never looked at the Fuel gage again during this approach. The single seat A-4 fuel gage system totalizes fuel, adding up wing and fuselage tank fuel. This fuel gage doesn’t shift to indicate “only” fuselage fuel until the fuselage fuel tank drops below 600 pounds. Had I looked at the fuel gage anytime during the flameout - the fuel gage would have indicated only fuselage fuel: in this case; Zero. I only looked at fuel flow: which with what was sloshing around in the bottom of the tank, it came out to the required 800 #pph. Sure I had 1000#+ in the wing. But the engine runs off the fuselage tank, which as I approached the runway, ran out of fuel. Had I once looked at the fuel gage, I would have been forced to eject. Of course the P&W J52 wanted to run; it just wouldn’t run with out fuel. The crash site would have burned as the A4 still had over 1000# in the wing.
Working the gripe; Maintience control put some fuel in the fuselage tank and she ran fine. The thump on the runway had dislodged the stuck float valve. “A/C ground checks ok”, returned to flight status….
Another Postscript; As I was going through my relight procedures and glider training at Cecil, over at Pensacola, the Paint and Return facility (PAR) or SDLM folks were taking a A-4F out on an ‘acceptance flight’. The A/C didn’t make it back. The J52 P408 engine stopped for some reason, and the acceptance pilot tried to eject and the seat didn’t work and the results were fatal. The wrecked A4 was shallow enough that it was salvaged. They found the pilot still in the seat with the canopy gone. Seems the SS steel tube that runs from the seat initiator to the rocket motor wasn’t a hollow tube. The middle section was blocked, not drilled out. So for this test pilot, the canopy fired but the seat didn’t. Ouch.
NavAirSysCom checked the rest of the A-4 fleet and found 5 more A-4’s with the blocked seat rocket initiator tubes. Yep, you guessed it. MB 12 was one. Had I once looked at the fuel gage and saw zero, I would have ejected. The canopy would have come off and the seat would have stayed in the Aircraft. I wouldn’t have made the end of the runway and the wreckage would have burned.
MORAL; Complacency kills and I’d rather be lucky than good.
LESSON; Speed is Life, or you can’t have too much speed in the break.
One time A4 pilot
Boca Raton FL.