Replicating the real-world threat that American fighter pilots can encounter in an air-to-air engagement is the primary task of US Navy adversary pilots, hence to realistically carry out their duty, they need the best aircraft to simulate the bandits during Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) sorties.
The F/A-18 is ideally suited to replicate the bandits. The Hornet and the Super Hornet are ideal to simulate modern fighters such as the MiG-29, the Su-27 and the Mirage 2000 as well as less capable aircraft such as the MiG-21 or the MiG-23 when the pilot limits the use of the radar or maneuverability. Nevertheless, thanks to its tactic’s capability the F/A-18 gives the instructors a great deal of flexibility being able to cover the full range of potential threat aircraft.
LCDR Greg “Stubby” Stubbs describes the mid-air collision that took place on Apr. 22, 1996 during his participation in Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program. Flying VFC-12’s F/A-18 Hornets that day were Stubbs himself (Flight Lead) and his wingmen, LCDR Greg “G.I.” Anderson and LCDR Cal Worthington. This story appears in Chuck Lloyd and Rick Llinares book Adversary: America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons.
LCDR Stubbs recounts –
“VFC-12 was conducting elements of its Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program (SFARP) with F-14 squadron VF-41. It started out to be a beautiful spring day at the office— the Virginia skies were clear and it looked like it was going to be a great day for some flying and fighting. VFC-12’s mission that day was to simulate MiG-29’s intent on striking against F-14’s protecting EA-6B Prowlers. The area of operation was over the range approximately fifty miles southeast of NAS Oceana.
The training exercise was going well. The Prowler was providing masking for the strike package which consisted of F-14’s carrying thousand-pound AIM-54’s. We flew the sortie objectives twice and set-up for the third and final element of this sortie. We got in position for a 2 v 3 scenario, three VFC-12 Hornets versus two VF-41 F-14’s. As we headed toward the F-14 fighters, the F-14’s took simulated missile shots at eight miles out on LCDR Greg Anderson and myself, scoring two kills. The three F/A-18’s stayed together as I led the formation to the merge point (the point where opposing fighters meet, turn and commence the fight). I called a tally on the two opposing fighters. The rules-of-engagement during these sorties specify that as the fighters approach the merge, the MiGs killed by the simulated missile shots would execute aileron rolls to give the students a visual indication on which of the Bandits were killed and which ones they should attack.
Approaching the merge, LCDR Anderson and I were the two bandits killed, leaving LCDR Worthington’s jet for the F-14’s tangle with. At the merge, I was on the left, LCDR Anderson was in the middle and LCDR Worthington was on the right — I saw the two F-14s. They were coming up-hill and we started going down hill towards them. I did one aileron roll and was in the middle of the second roll, merging with the F-14’s when LCDR Greg Anderson and I collided. I felt a sharp shudder in the airplane and next thing I felt was the plane rolling left with the nose pointing down about eight degrees. Somebody else was saying “Knock it off, Knock it off”. I found out later that the nose of his airplane ripped through my left wing and clipped off half of the vertical tail. His nose cone was sheered off along with his canopy, drop tank and he had damage to one of his motors. Everybody on the radio was saying “Knock it off, knock it off’. Then somebody said, “I think we had a mid-air”. It was quiet for a few moments until LCDR Worthington called me and said, “have you got it—have you got it?” I said, “yeah, I have it”, as I regained control of the airplane. I applied right stick, right rudder and started pulling the power back a little bit and the nose came up. I got it flying straight and level with full right stick deflection and a little bit of right rudder. On the radio, LCDR Anderson called me and asked if I had control. I checked with him and he said he was fine, but you could hear a lot of background noise on the radio from the wind. We were both all right physically. We were at twenty thousand feet altitude with airspeed at 350-400 knots.
At that point we are all glad to be alive and making sure that physically we were fine. Then we started sorting out exactly what was wrong with our airplanes. After the impact the dee-tle dee-tle tones, warning and caution tones related to all the systems were going off as a result of the wing being sheared off and the hydraulic lines being cut. I looked out at the wing and saw that it was chopped off. I began focusing my attention on how I was going to get back home. I looked down to the ocean and thought if I had to go down into the ocean it was going to be cold so I turned immediately and headed toward the coastline. If the plane didn’t stay together I wanted to be close to the coastline if I had to jump out of the airplane. This event all took place in April, and even though the air outside was warm the water temperature was still very cold.
Both LCDR Anderson and I headed for the coastline. The nearest airfield to us at that point was the Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City. The F-14s were trying to get a visual in order to join up on LCDR Anderson. LCDR Worthington was in the process of joining up on me. The Range Training Officer (RTO) who sits at a console and monitors the fight acts as our controller and as soon as the collision occurred he called over to the tower at NAS Oceana and told them to be prepared to launch Search and Rescue (SAR) in case we needed them.
The F-14s joining up on LCDR Anderson were on a different frequency. They were in the process of getting to our frequency but hey were concerned about clobbering up our frequency and they wanted to provide any assistance they could. As LCDR Worthington was joining up on me I was telling him what was wrong with the airplane and that I was flying to Elizabeth City. He was still about a half a mile away from me and I had fuel streaming from my left wing so he asked me for a fuel status report. I was concerned that the gauge wasn’t reading the correct amount of fuel. This was the last run of the day so we were getting close to our Bingo point prior to the mid-air. My concern at this point was if I was I even going to have enough fuel to get home. We discussed that for a few moments and during that process the F- 14s were still having a difficult time locating LCDR Anderson and getting on to his frequency because of a radio problem they had in their airplane (which they didn’t realize until later). They were trying to get him on the radio but he was not able to talk to them. LCDR Anderson was saying that he needed help, so I told LCDR Worthington that I basically had things under control for now. LCDR Worthington peeled off and went back to try to join up with LCDR Anderson to help him because at that point he wasn’t in communication with the F-14s.
LCDR Anderson later found out that his airspeed and altitude indicators were not working because the probes had been ripped off the front of the airplane. He didn’t know how fast or how high he was and he wanted to make sure he was going fast enough to keep the airplane flying. He had enough visual to know where he was going but he wasn’t sure about his speed. At that point he needed the assistance of LCDR Worthington more than I did. As we headed to Elizabeth City which was some forty miles closer than NAS Oceana, we began to question whether or not Elizabeth City had arresting gear. We determined that they did not have arresting cables but in the heat of everything we had forgotten this. I knew that with my aircraft’s configuration, the left wing being cut in half and the flap being ripped off, that I was not going to be able to fly a normal approach as far as speed was concerned and with the hydraulic problem I wanted to get a trap and just stop right there. At that point I said going to Elizabeth City was not going to work and that I was now going to Oceana.
I wanted to get somewhere that had a long runway plus a cable so I turned to Oceana and LCDR Anderson came to the same conclusion. I began talking to Oceana Approach and I told them I had an emergency and that I needed an arrested landing. At this point I’m at 15,000 feet and I began a slow gradual descent to about 10,000 feet and started slowing the airplane down. This is part of the checklist for any kind of damaged plane, a controllability check. I wanted to see how I was going to control the airplane at landing speed. As I got down to about 195 knots the airplane began to roll to the left. Two hundred knots was as slow as I could get and still control it.
I got the VFC-12 Ready Room on the radio and asked them to get the McDonnell Douglas representative on the radio. I told the guy on the duty desk that I had a mid-air and started reading him the cautions on my display screen. I was reading off; high failure, flap cautions, etcetera. He was sitting at the duty desk writing on one of those yellow sticky pads. He quickly filled up three sticky pads with warnings and cautions as I continued to read from the airplane. He was trying to write them all down and starts saying, “Hang on, Hang on, your going too fast” and I said to him “you think you have problems?”.
The McDonnell Douglas representative got on the radio and we discussed my options. It was quickly determined that these types of drastic problems are not discussed in the manuals. We were trying to figure out if I should put the flaps down even though I had only one flap left. I came to the conclusion that since the aircraft was flying and somewhat controllable, I did not want to reset any of the computers or flight controls except for lowering the landing gear. A decision was made not troubleshoot any of the systems cautions or warnings.
Getting closer to NAS Oceana, I tell them that my minimum speed is about two hundred knots, which is as slow as I can go and still control the airplane. This raises two major concerns; the arresting gear engagement speed limit is about one hundred seventy-five knots, any faster and the hook might be ripped off the back of the airplane and the tire speed rating for a landing is about one hundred eighty-two knots. So two hundred knots exceeds both of these parameters, but I don’t have much choice—if the tire blows that’s something I can deal with, but my major concern is ripping off the arresting hook which could twist the airplane sideways and wreck the airplane and put me in the position of having to eject on the ground. We really did not know what would happen and I did not want to be the first one to find out. As it turned out, God was smiling on me that day.
The duty runway was 2-3 and the winds that day were at fifteen knots which gave me some head wind. I figured if I was coming in at two hundred knots indicated air speed, and there is fifteen knots of head wind, that brings me to about one hundred eighty-five knots ground speed—I figure and hope the tires will take this speed. The arresting gear is about 1,500 feet up the runway so if I touch down at the end of the runway and roll about 1,000 feet I thought I would decelerate about ten or fifteen knots. I hoped that the hook would take the gear at this speed and also that the manufacturer had some safety margin in these numbers. As I pressed on to Oceana, a Landing Signal Officer (LSO) was sent to the runway to assist me in the landing and to make sure that I did not fly too far down the runway or land too short.
Nearing Oceana, two pilots from our squadron, LCDR Bertrand and LCDR Bowman were returning from another mission and monitoring my radio transmissions. They called to see if I needed anything—initially I told them that I was all right and figured I was safer making the approach as a solo. I quickly rethought that decision and called LCDR Bertrand back and told him that I would not mind if he joined up on me. He could keep a visual on me to make sure that when I lowered the landing gear, it was in fact in position because I did not know if I would get a cockpit indicator due to the damage. LCDR Bertran and Bowman were about thirty miles away from me at this point and as LCDR Bowman describes it, “We were flying as a two ship and when LCDR Stubbs told LCDR Bertran that he wanted help, the next thing I saw from my cockpit was the tailpipe of LCDR Bertran’s F/A-18 with two burners going, moving at the speed of heat to LCDR Stubbs..all he could think about was joining on LCDR Stubbs.” When LCDR Bertran joined on me it reminded me of how we take care of each other.
LCDR Bowman joined on my right side as we were about ten miles out from Oceana at 3,000 feet. I lowered the landing gear and during the transition of the gear the aircraft became very difficult to control—I pushed the power up and was jockeying the right and left throttles to keep the aircraft back on a straight and level heading. Approaching the field, I was flying with full right stick. As I headed north up the coast, I had to make a left turn of one hundred-twenty degrees to line myself up with the runway—I eased out some of the right stick and let the plane bank and got lined up with the runway on a three mile final approach. I told the tower I was three wiles out and was coming in on 2-3 Left for an arrested landing-the LS0 came up on the radio and told me he had a visual on me and that my glide slope looked good. I flew straight into the runway at two-hundred knots, touched down, rolled into the gear and took a trap successfully.
The fire trucks were right on the spot, as soon as I stopped, I shut down the motors and safed-up the seat. The fuel that was streaming, out of the left wing was now gushing out onto the runway which the firefighters quickly dealt with. I quickly un-strapped and got out of the aircraft, jumped down onto the runway and looked at my jet and could not believe how much of the wing was actually gone.
My immediate attention turned to LCDR Anderson and how he was doing. The firecrew put me in the ambulance and we got in position for Anderson’s landing. We spotted him lining-up for a landing on 3-2 right. His radome, radar, centerline tank and entire canopy aft of the windscreen was gone with wires flapping out of the nose, beating against the side of the jet. Fortunately, he was strapped in tight and lost only his watch when the canopy came off. LCDR Anderson landed safely and we picked him up. We approached each other, shook hands and expressed our relief that both of us were all right. We got in the ambulance and were checked by the flight surgeons and debriefed.
The next day at the squadron we began our extensive debrief to determine how this happened and apply the lessons learned to our operations. It was a significant testament to the construction of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18—that we were able to fly both aircraft after the damage they sustained. The squadron and Navy completed the investigations and we were returned to flight status in about two months. We changed the level of detail in our briefings and our attention to situational awareness in-flight and operational risk management especially at the merge point.
When you come to the merge point in these types of training scenarios, the risks increase significantly. Typically you will have four fighters and four bogey’s at the merge and you don’t want to create a Battle-of-Britain scenario with all eight airplanes vying for the same piece of sky. After the accident, greater emphasis is now placed on how everyone is going to come out of the merge. One of the best things about being a fighter pilot is flying air combat maneuvers, that is, dogfighting. As an Adversary pilot that’s all you ever do…from a fighter pilots perspective, it’s the ultimate job in the Navy.”
The aircraft involved were 162454 (‘AF 03’ – this is the blue one) and 162475 (‘AF 12’ – the brown one). Both aircraft received such heavy damage that neither was restored to flying condition. 162454 did receive some repairs, only to appear on display as a gate guard at NAS Oceana and 162475 ended up on the dump at NAS Oceana.
Adversary: America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy via Aircraft Resource Center
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