Solo Stages is my recently published account of my pilot training experiences in the U. S. Air Force at Webb Air Force Base, Big Spring, Texas, from 1962 to 1963 (Dorrance, 2017). Soon to be posted: additional information about Solo Stages. In Solo Stages I make one major error: I identify General Curtis LeMay as a 5-star general instead of a 4-star general; it just seemed to me that he was a 5-star general as a result of the significant impact of his decisions on me and my fellow classmates while we were in pilot training.
This is a preliminary version of one of the chapters in Solo Stages.
T-38 Solo Cross-Country Navigation Mission
The solo cross-country navigation flight was our last T-38 mission in the pilot training program at Webb Air Force Base. We were all pretty confident, competent, and comfortable flying the T-38. We had overcome all of the challenges that our instructor pilots and check pilots could throw at us. Mike Butchko, Dave Bockelman, and I had all survived our tutelage under our first T-38 IP, Captain Sammy Small, who always seemed to complicate rather than simplify our course of instruction. I breathed a real sigh of relief when Captain Small departed the squadron on a new assignment and I was assigned to Lieutenant Don Greenwade, an easy-going but demanding instructor who helped to make flying fun again, which it definitely was in the T-38. Other classmates were able to surmount their occasional screw-ups, like my roommate, Dave Lyon, who took off with the nose gear pin in. Dave also achieved another undesirable moment of infamy when he led a four-ship formation to 30,000 feet, arriving at the moment of level-off with a totally fogged canopy. Most of our German pilot trainees – Gehrke, Schoepke, Schunke, and Wobbe – were about to complete the program as well and become pilots in the German Air Force. By the time our last mission came, we were quite comfortable flying the T-38.
Several of us were scheduled to fly the cross country, all following the same route, about a half hour apart. Dave Holt, Jimmy Brinkman, Roger Meyers, and several others had completed their rides previously. I was scheduled for the early morning flying period, and for some unusual reason, when I taxied to the active runway, I was the first one to depart. Tower cleared me for takeoff and I made a climbing turn to the east as the morning sun filtered through the thin cloud layers to the east. My triangular route of flight took me from Webb Air Force Base, at Big Spring, on a line just north of due east to Wichita Falls (actually to the VORTAC at Sheppard Air Force Base), where I then would turn sharply to the left, and take up a northwest heading to Amarillo, where I was supposed to land at Amarillo Air Force Base and refuel. From Amarillo my route of flight was straight south to Webb. The flight time to Amarillo was about one hour and thirty minutes. Unlike in the old days, there was to be no landing at the base at my first turning point, because due to our rapid rate of travel, it was not necessary to refuel. Also, one less landing for solo students meant less coordination and concern on the part of the instructors who were responsible for tracking our progress around the nav route.
I climbed to my cruise altitude of 29,000 feet, soon flew past Abilene, where, on my right side I saw the B-52s parked on the ramp at Dyess Air Force Base. The early morning weather was clear under a high overcast, and in a relatively short time I could see the outlines of Fort Worth and Dallas on the distant horizon to the right of my line of flight. I knew that Sheppard would be directly ahead; my VORTAC needle told me so. It seemed like a waste of time and fuel to fly all the way to Sheppard and then make a hard turn to the left to fly almost in a reverse course heading. Why not turn towards Amarillo now, I thought, and save myself 15 minutes of boring a hole in the air?
While I was idly contemplating the merits of such a plan, I began studying the landscape off my left wing and observed a broad winding ribbon of red earth meandering towards my position from the general direction of Amarillo. What was that feature, I wondered? My map told me it was a branch of the Red River, famed in western song and legend. From 29,000 feet, in the early morning light, north Texas appeared absolutely flat with relatively few color contrasts to differentiate one section from another. The Red River valley, however, stood out against the surrounding landscape distinctly, the rich red colors contrasting with the beige sandy colors of the lands through which the river flowed. The relatively low angle of the morning sun threw shadows along the east edge and I was able to distinguish differences in elevation along the edges of the river valley. The instant I saw evidence of varying contours along the river, I made a quick decision. The hell with flying the route as planned. I wanted to see what this segment of a Red River tributary looked like up close!
Looking around to make sure no other aircraft were in the immediate vicinity, I made a quick call to Fort Worth Center that I was turning at Wichita Falls (this was in the days just before “positive control,” made possible by those new technological devices known as transponders, so Center was willing to take my word for it, since I was flying under a VFR flight plan). I pulled the throttles back to idle and made a wingover diving roll to the north, aiming for the east edge of the broad reach of the reddish valley below me. I popped-out my speed brakes to help me lose altitude in a hurry. Descending now below 5,000 feet, I saw that the east edge of the river was a bluff rising maybe 100 feet above the river basin. A bluff of equal height rose along the west side. Soon, I was skimming just above the irregular edge of the bluff on the east side. Range land and fence lines zipped by just underneath. I looked left to the opposite side and saw that, in this area at least, the river basin was partitioned by fenced pastures and farms, richly green against the barrenness of the bluffs that marked the river’s channel. Although the river channel was wide, more than half a mile across at this point, the river itself was a relatively thin trickle of water meandering slowly through the farmlands and pastures which benefitted from its moisture. I edged over into the center of the basin, dropping lower until I was flying perhaps 50 feet above the ground. I had throttled back to reduce my airspeed, but even at 250 knots, fences and structures were streaking past beneath me. Now I passed over a herd of horses, surprised into panic by the sudden appearance and passing of my sleek jet. Another group of 20 horses, peacefully grazing, exploded apart in a starburst pattern, scattering in all directions of the compass as I passed over their heads. I watched those on the left side of my aircraft as I sped past, hoping that I hadn’t caused them to do injury to themselves but maliciously delighted at the effect I was creating.
I looked left and right, taking in the varied contours of the river which wound casually beneath my flight path. I observed the shadow of my aircraft, outlined by the sun, racing along the western bluff of the valley. When I looked ahead, I was startled to see a string of power lines crossing the valley immediately in front and slightly above me. I momentarily hesitated – should I go over or under the power lines? I was low enough to go under, and, I judged, I had enough room to do so. But even as the thought formed in my head, I popped the stick back, and I passed just over them in a sudden 4-G climb, hoping that my UHF antenna, which extended a few inches below the otherwise flat surface of the bottom of the aircraft, hadn’t snagged a wire. That would not be good, I thought. It was one thing to buzz the ranchers’ farms, but it would be poor judgment to bring back evidence of having done so. I leveled off 100 feet above the ground and scanned the route ahead carefully. I could see, ahead on the left bank of the river, a small community of houses with a water tower rising above them, a small road crossing the valley from east to west into the town, and I decided that perhaps it would be a good idea to climb out of the river basin before anyone in that west Texas town had the opportunity to observe my rapid passage past and perhaps note the tail number of my aircraft. So, with some reluctance, I ended my low altitude sight-seeing tour of the Red River valley.
Realizing it would be a bad idea to arrive in the Amarillo area at 100 feet of altitude, which might give the wrong impression to the tower operators, I climbed to 10,000 feet, confirmed that that was in fact the Amarillo airport I could see on the horizon, and called Amarillo Tower for landing instructions.
“Cleared to enter the traffic pattern,” the tower voice said. “Report entering initial for runway 20.”
The Amarillo airport was a joint-use airport, the east half used by the Air Force, and the west half used by commercial and civil aviation. It was relatively early in the morning, and mine appeared to be the only airplane moving in the sky or on the ground. I called the tower to tell them I was on initial.
“Roger,” the tower voice said. “Continue approach. No other traffic reported.”
When I came over the edge of the runway, I pitched out to the left, banking smartly into a 180-degree turn. I rolled out, retarded the throttle, dropped the flaps and gear, and began another descending 180-degree turn to short final. The early morning winds were relatively cooperative, so my approach worked out well. I rolled out in good shape on short final and called the tower.
“Jaguar 35, short final.”
“Roger,” the tower voice said. And then, after just a slight pause, “Cleared for closed pattern.”
That last comment caught me by surprise; I hadn’t expected an invitation to practice landings here in Amarillo. And, it was clearly that – an invitation. I wasn’t sure why it was being offered; maybe the tower operators were bored and wanted a little more work on a quiet morning? I was arriving a little ahead of schedule, had time and fuel to spare, so I accepted the offer:
“Roger, Jaguar 35 will be shooting a closed landing.”
I flew my closed pattern. This time, when I rolled out on short final, there was no additional invitation to shoot another closed pattern, but that was fine with me, because I was pretty sure that the second pattern would not have been as good as the first. I was also ready to take a break.
I turned off the end of the runway and taxied behind the follow-me truck to a parking spot in front of base operations, where I shut down the engines, unstrapped, and climbed out of the cockpit. After stowing my gear and giving the aircraft a quick postflight check, I walked into Base Ops to prepare the paperwork for my flight back to Webb.
The airman behind the Base Ops counter had a big smile on his face. “How do you like it?”
“How do I like what?” I asked.
“I love it. It’s great! Like learning to drive in a Corvette.”
“We haven’t seen any up here before. Yours is the first one I’ve seen. It’s really an impressive looking airplane.”
I had forgotten that the T-38 was a relatively rare sight at many of the operational Air Force bases in the area. Although all the training bases would eventually receive them, only Williams in Arizona and Webb currently had them and they had been active in the flying training programs for only a year or so. That explained the gratuitous offer of a closed pattern when I landed: my climbing turn and close-in downwind would have given many of the base personnel (those who were outside or who had windows to look out of) the opportunity to see one in flight at low altitude. I walked over to the flight planning table and was just starting to fill out my paperwork for the return flight to Webb when I heard my name called.
“Lieutenant Vaughan?” I looked up. The airman behind the counter was holding a telephone in the air. “Someone in the tower wants to talk to you.”
Oh crap. This could not be good. I must have done something wrong. Migod! Don’t tell me that someone had seen my tail number on my Red River valley run and had called the base. My heart sank. I took the telephone.
“Is that you, Vaughan?”
“Yes sir.” I had no idea who the other voice was, but I felt that it was not appropriate to ask. I was sure I would find out soon. I was also pretty sure whoever was on the other end of the line outranked me. But then, who didn’t?
“This is Captain Brazeel in the tower. What did you think you were doing?” he demanded.
Oh crap. A cold hand grasped my heart. Captain Brazeel was one of the Webb IPs, sent to Amarillo to monitor the progress of the students as we passed through on our solo cross-country flights. He sounded both out of breath and angry. He definitely was not calling to congratulate me on my crisp airmanship in the traffic pattern. He must have been in the tower when I landed, possibly even received the call about my Red River valley low pass.
“Well, sir, . . .” I began, trying desperately to think of some valid reason to account for my low-level tour of north Texas.
But he didn’t wait for me to finish. “Didn’t you hear what was said at the briefing this morning about not shooting touch-and-gos at your cross-country base?”
His question caught me so much by surprise that I was literally speechless. This offense—so it seemed—was not the offense I was expecting to get called out for. I replayed the morning’s briefing quickly in my mind, trying to recall if one of the Instructor Pilots had said something about that, but I couldn’t. I honestly could not recall any IP laying down that specific injunction.
“No, sir,” I said, after a pause. “I really don’t remember hearing that. Besides, I didn’t request a closed pattern. The tower asked if I wanted to do a closed pattern, and I figured if they approved it, it must be all right with you, so I said yes.”
“Well, I wasn’t in the tower when you landed, goddammit. You arrived sooner than you were supposed to. I was still climbing the steps when you were on short final.” That explained why he sounded out of breath. And I preferred not to comment on why I had arrived ahead of schedule. But I could tell his anger was subsiding.
“Sorry, sir,” I said. “It really wasn’t intentional on my part.”
“Well, next time listen up at the briefing.”
By the time I walked back to the aircraft, the transient aircraft ground crew had finished refueling.
“Nice airplane, huh sir?”
“The best. It’s a dream to fly.”
As I taxied out to the runway, I saw two T-38s taxiing in, one behind the other. I thought I recognized two classmates underneath their helmet visors. They had probably flown in formation all the way from Webb. When I reached the departure end of the runway, I called the tower and announced I was ready to depart.
“Roger Three Five. Are you requesting a burner climb?”
I smiled underneath my oxygen mask. By now I had broken the code. The Amarillo tower operators wanted to see what the T-38 could do in afterburner. I would be happy to oblige.
“Roger. Jaguar 35 requesting a burner climb to 24,000 feet.”
Tower cleared me into position on the departure end of the runway. I wondered what Captain Brazeel would do—tell the tower operators that burner climbs were not allowed? I was quite sure that that subject had not been mentioned at the morning briefing. As I taxied onto the runway I waited for a voice from the tower to cancel the burner climb. But no call came. I held the brakes, pushed the throttles to full military power, paused to check the engine instruments, then released the brakes. The aircraft quickly accelerated. As it moved forward, I pushed the throttles into the afterburner range. Boom! Boom! as the afterburners kicked-in and the plane leapt ahead. God, what an exhilarating feeling! What a phenomenal flying machine!
I soon reached take-off speed. I raised the nose and the plane climbed rapidly. I raised the gear and decided to hold extra back pressure to increase the climb angle of the aircraft. My climb-out airspeed was lower than normal but the climb angle was much steeper. I peered over the left side of the cockpit at the Amarillo military ramp, quickly disappearing beneath the aircraft.
I imagined the airmen on the ramp looking up at my quickly climbing aircraft, saying, “Hot damn! Look at that! Lookit that sumbitch go! Straight up!”
I trimmed the plane to fly at the increased climb angle so that I did not have to maintain the extra back pressure I had been holding. After another half-minute or so, I looked back and down out the left side to see if I had departed the Amarillo airport area far enough to pull the throttles out of afterburner. I had to lean way over to the left, grabbing the edge of the cockpit to lift myself slightly out of my seat to see the ground. What I saw amazed me. I was still inside the field boundaries! (though 20,000 feet above the field). I had never done this at Webb. Of course, usually at Webb I held a much less steep angle of climb. But, the steeper climb angle itself would not account for such a steep ascent. There had to be another cause. I looked at the dials and gauges in the cockpit to see if I could find a clue as to why I was climbing so steeply.
Then I saw the flap indicator. Oh crap. My flaps were still at their takeoff setting of 60%. In my excitement to show off for the observers on the ground, I had forgotten to retract the flaps after I had retracted the gear. That was it—that was where the extra lift was coming from, from the flaps extending into the airstream. And as soon as I realized that, I had a panicky thought – by flying in afterburner I almost certainly must have exceeded the speed at which the aircraft should fly with the flaps extended, and I started to pull the throttles out of the burner range before serious damage was done to the flaps. We had been told that exceeding the flaps down speed could cause the flaps to be pushed up flush with the surface of the wing, damaging the flap actuation mechanism resulting possibly in asymmetrical flying characteristics which could result in uncontrollable aircraft, which…Anyway, nothing good could come from messing-up a flap.
As I started to move my hand to pull the throttles back, I decided I should look at the airspeed to see how badly I had violated the flaps down airspeed. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw. My airspeed was right at the never-exceed speed with takeoff flaps. Because I had pulled additional back pressure in the climb, the climb speed had never increased above that speed. The whole maneuver was going as perfectly as if I had planned it. I left the throttles and flaps where they were. I would ride this climb angle all the way to 24,000 feet which, I realized, I was just about to reach. Throttles out of burner, flaps up a few degrees at a time, nose down, throttles back in a little to compensate for the suddenly reduced lift, nose pointed due south towards Webb. In my headset, I heard Amarillo tower:
“Leaving Amarillo airspace, cleared to en route frequency. Thanks a lot for the demonstration, Three Five!”
After I landed at Webb and the other students returned, I learned that mine had been the only burner takeoff at Amarillo. Apparently Captain Brazeel had had a word with the tower operators.