That Monday morning started out like many I’ve had before. I woke up to my alarm around midnight, ate a quick breakfast and stole a kiss goodbye from my sleeping wife and daughter.
My squadron commander started the brief at 12:30 a.m. for our flight in order to beat the setting sun on the other side of the Atlantic. It was my first time taking a jet across the ocean and my first deployment to the Middle East. I was No. 4 out of six F-22s from the 94th Fighter Squadron, deploying from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
We launched with an additional two air-spares and another two “catchers’ mitts” to assist in the event of emergency. All in all, it was a big movement and big morning for the squadron. The usual delays for tanker coordination and “redballs,” or any last minute maintenance on the jets before launch kept us on the ground for over an hour, but we all finally made it airborne around 5 a.m. local time. The six F-22s were divided between two tankers in a cell; jets No. 1-3 went to the first tanker, and 5 and 6 went to the trail tanker – leaving me the odd man out and last one to refuel from the trail tanker. The two air-spares remained in trail, and the catchers’ mitts remained near Langley as we flew up the coast eastbound. Most airfields were closed this early in the morning, but Atlantic City, New Jersey, was still usable as our divert field until we flew out of range. As I completed the final fuel system check and topped off my jet, the air-spares prepared to return to Langley.
All was normal.
As I cleared away from under the tanker, the first caution asserted on my left up-front display, or UFD, and a “deedle-deedle” blared in my headset, demanding my attention. The display indicated “L AMAD OIL P,” which meant there was a problem with the oil pressure in the left Airframe Mounted Accessory Drive tied to the function and power of the motor and generator. I remember glancing at my watch and making a mental note from memory of the checklist that I had 60seconds to resolve the issue before shutting down the left motor.
I took a deep breath and said, “Four for five,” calling to my flight lead over the radio. “Go ahead four,” he replied.
I plainly stated the caution and paused. My flight lead immediately called up the air-spares to prevent them from clearing off, and I moved farther away from the tanker so I could see the whole formation in front of me. The left motor was in idle now, and I used military power – the most power I could get out of the engine without afterburner, on the right to compensate for the increased fuel weight. No. 7 flew past me on his way to the tanker as my e-checklist on my left multifunction display, or MFD, now directed me to shut down the generator. I noted my position, approximately 200 nautical miles northeast of Atlantic City, flipped the switch back and shut down the generator.
Unexpectedly, the e-checklist I was referencing turned bright white and then black. The whole cockpit went dark and quiet. I lost my bearing for several moments as I struggled to comprehend what had happened. I tried to force myself to stare at the left UFD, but I couldn’t process the scrolling list of cautions and advisories being displayed as the jet was sorting out several systems failures. I took a sharp breath in and felt only rubber suctioning to my face, so I instinctively reached up and dropped the right bayonet on my mask to breathe cabin air. With another deep inhale, I remembered my watch and realized the 60 seconds were up. With my right hand, I felt down in the dark, and from the feel of the switch, I turned the radio to the backup, keyed the mic and told my flight lead that I was shutting down the left motor. I carefully differentiated between the left and right throttles and deliberately brought the left throttle over the hump. As thesound of the engine began to wind down, I could hear the flight leads coordinating a plan to get me home.
I finally processed a few key cautions and I cued in on “L GDC FAIL,” which indicated a failure of the left Generator Distribution Center -- a serious failure of the electrical bus. My exterior lights were inoperative, and No. 8 exclaimed that he was completely blind on me as he attempted to rejoin in the dark. We established different altitudes for deconfliction and both turned west until I caught sight of him and rejoined single engine. We pointed directly at Atlantic City, and the intensity of the moment slowly wore off as we switched to our own discrete frequency. The two catcher’s mitt aircraft near Langley joined in on our aux frequency to create a radio relay to assist the supervisor of flying in coordinating our emergency divert. Another consequence of the L GDC FAIL was apparent as the battery was now providing fill-in power for the radio, among other things. This meant the battery was bound to run out before we could make it back. With no navigation and a certainty of losing the battery, my only chance of recovering to Atlantic City was my wingman. We planned to minimize radio transmission in order to preserve the battery life, communicating only for flight and landing-critical considerations. In the meantime, I worked through several checklists.
In addition to the myriad checklists, there were several human factors now complicating the recovery. The only working MFD was the center display between my knees, so I had to read the checklists, looking down, while flying in formation at night. In addition, my on-board oxygen generation system had failed, so after several minutes of breathing cabin air, I manually turned on the backup system and put my mask back on. That was something I remember kicking myself for forgetting to do earlier. The cockpit cooling wasn’t great at this point, and my anti-exposure suit was stifling, but no adjustment of the air cooling system did any good, so I was forced to cope with beads of sweat running down my face for the next hour.
As we planned the recovery, the last major consideration was the two external tanks I was carrying. The tanks themselves were still half-full, and the weight and drag made it impossible to hold altitude and airspeed in less than mil power above 20,000 feet. My wingman and I were about 10,000 pounds different in fuel weight, which meant that he would barely make the field and I would be fat on gas. However, we were unsure if the jet could even jettison the tanks due to the electrical system failures. We resolved to burn down gas and to assess the controllability at lower weight and altitude. I decided to keep the tanks, which, in hindsight, I think was a mistake.The “LOW BATTERY” advisory illuminated after several minutes, and I was then forced to drop my landing gear. The left main gear did not extend as expected, so I used the emergency gear extension and verified three good gear for the last time before the battery ran out, at which point such an indication would be impossible. I also had to drop my emergency arresting hook for a planned cable engagement since I had also lost redundancy in my braking system. With the gear and hook down, I decided to start my Auxiliary Power Unit, knowing that I would likely lose the battery. We slowed down to 250 knots, as we could just now see the lights of the city off in the distance. Still in the dark, I flew in closer formation as we descended.
There was just enough twilight to pick out his jet without night vision goggles, so I flew without them, focusing my concerns on the controllability of the jet. It was quiet for a long time, and finally, we descended through the weather. The weather penetration was quick, and beneath the cloud deck was the coastline. As we approached Atlantic City, we finalized our fuel plan. I still needed to burn down gas in order to land slow enough to meet the maximum cable engagement speed of 150 knots. With our diverging fuel weights, I would use max afterburner single engine on the outside of a holding pattern over the field until either I reached a safe fuel weight, or my flight lead reached Bingo fuel . Either way, I would land and make it happen.
We overflew the airfield, picked up the holding pattern and definitely woke up the entire city just before sunrise. The battery failed as we overflew the field, along with my Auxiliary Generator, and I lost all radio communications. I manually calculated fuel burn over time with periodic verification in a roll out. I reached my desired fuel weight as my flight lead gave me a wing rock to rejoin to close formation. I gave him a “land immediately” signal, and he passed me the lead with the runway off the nose. We exchanged thumbs-up and a farewell salute as he peeled off on a minimum fuel divert profile to nearby Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. On final approach, I managed the airspeed while fighting a moderate crosswind to balance controllability and meeting the cable engagement speed. The touchdown and cable were uneventful, and a fleet of trucks and emergency vehicles met me on the runway. I was relieved to say the least!
Taking a single-seat fighter across the ocean can prove exceptionally challenging when faced with compounding emergency procedures. The mantra of aviate, navigate and communicate takes on a whole new meaning when faced with engine and electrical malfunctions at night, over the ocean, far from divert bases, and an impending radio failure. In this case, it was a combination of systems knowledge, checklist adherence and exceptional airmanship by my wingman, operating within the constraints and expectations from those checklists that contributed to a successful return home.