Well today’s Friday 13th, but fortunately as a fully trained Project Manager, I don’t believe such superstitious nonsense will affect my projects – touch wood. Anyway, to misquote the golfer Arnold Palmer “It’s a funny thing, the more I plan (practice) the luckier I get”. Though in fairness, there is another school of PM thought, which is that the nice thing of not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a long period of worry and stress.
Part of the planning process is sorting out the potential risks and what you’re going to do about them if they happen.
We used to do a lot of this sort of planning when I was in the flying game. Some were major, most were minor, but we considered and practiced them all regularly in the Flight Simulator. We used to carry a set of Emergency Flight Reference Cards (EFRCs), which covered all sorts of things like engines catching fire, hydraulics failing, etc. (If you’re flying off on holiday today, I’m sure it’ll be fine – crossed fingers obviously). But before that we’d have a bunch of immediate actions, which we’d memorise to deal with the immediate danger.
So here’s a tale. There we were, based in Nellis, Las Vegas, flying out over the Nevada Desert on Exercise Red Flag. For those of you that have seen Top Gun, well think much, much more bigger (and the aircrew much, much more handsome). You’d regularly have more than 50+ multi-national aircraft in the training area, (which is about half the size of Switzerland), with bomber packages carrying live-munitions, fighters, slow flyers, tankers, AWACs, all up against Red Air, which included a dedicated aggressor squadron flying enemy tactics, plus SAMs & AAA on the deck. All this was instrumented, so that at the debrief you could see how successful your missile shots were, if the bombers got through and if you’d have been shot down by the bad guys. Aerial 3-d chess at just about the speed of sound – yehaa.
Anyway, even in the training environment, the real-life things that could kill you, were hitting the ground – not recommended, (but has claimed lives and jets with the crew ejecting), mid-air collisions and one of the key ones when the excitement built, was….
So sat in the back of a Luftwaffe F4f, fully engaged at 7g with a couple or more of the Migs, the cockpit alarm shrieked into my helmet earpieces and the Master Caution started to flash vivid red. A quick glance at the warning panel, “Low Fuel”.
Low fuel this early in the sortie was normally due to the external tanks not feeding properly. My pilot called out the immediate actions, he was recycling the fuel switches, I acknowledged, whilst I got a radar lock on a bad guy – called the shot and dumped out a batch of chaff & flares to defeat any incoming missiles. Next fight – interrupted by more flashing lights, same cause – strange, the drill normally cured the issue. “OK, head 120 and climb” – we needed to sort this – convert speed to height – might not solve anything, but it made ejecting a bit less risky. I got out the EFRCs and thumbed to Fuel. I called out the actions, pilot moved the switches, I checked the circuit breakers in the back, all looking good, then waited a couple of seconds for the fuel to start flowing and back into the melee. Nothing – the caption stayed persistently & annoyingly on.
Ooops. This meant we really, really were really, really low on fuel and a long way from base. “What height should I level off?” “Don’t just keep climbing – 40,000+ would be good”. Also if you can get up into the thinner air you use less gas. It’s a bit like trying to save fuel in a car, set constant revs and don’t play about with the throttle, though the consequences weren’t roll onto the hard-shoulder, but flame-out and eject. We were now into the section of the EFRCs, which you knew about, but hoped you’d never need. An example was “What to do if the outer wing falls off” – we were well and truely into “Save Your A**e” territory.
Now normally, you’d get to height, just point at Nellis and not deviate. Unfortunately between us and Vegas was Area 51 – which many of you will know is where they keep the aliens – allegedly.
We kept on climbing at constant revs, levelling out really quite high, which meant we didn’t have too much of that lovely fuel sloshing about. Another run through the fuel drills, just in case, then let all the fuel settle down and make a decision. If you even clipped the corner of Area 51 – we’d been told you’d be having a nice long chat with the Men in Black – then Zapp with a Sonic Screwdriver and deported back to Germany. It did have a nice long runway though, why I’ve no idea – wink, wink, so diverting into there and accepting the chat with Will Smith was an option, but not a very good one.
But it looked OK, maybe just outside of normal tolerances, but OK, we could make it home if we cautiously edged our way around the Prohibited Zone. We breathed a sigh of relief, thanked our lucky stars for our decision last night in down-town Vegas, to buy Lucky Elvis Amulets. All was looking good, then transmitted – “Nellis, Nellis, this is Iron Eagle 05 – RTB” “Roger Iron Eagle, we’re on Runway 03, descend to 10,000’, call level”.
Now this wasn’t ideal for a few reasons, one – we didn’t want to give up our precious height and descend into the thicker fuel draining atmosphere, also if we ran out of fuel and the engines flamed out, the Phantom glided like a brick, so we were unlikely to get anywhere useful. Second, Runway 03 meant we had to fly all the way to the south, over the Vegas Strip, which would not really be the best place to jump out and dump a jet.
Our final throw of the dice. “Nellis – request stay at height and land Runway 21?” – in effect landing against the flow. I think they’d seen this all before and guessed our predicament or just responded to the pleading, begging and sobbing coming over the airwaves, but either way, “No problem, wind light and variable, clear descent when ready”. We began our cruise descent, dropping the gear at the last minute and rolled to a standstill, closing down an engine on the runway just to make sure we could taxy back to dispersal – we shut down with vapour in the pipes.
Just as we were about to climb out of the jet, a blacked-out SUV started to come menacingly down the line of Phantoms towards our jet (we broke out into a cold sweat), then it cruised slowly by, as we clutched our 4-leaf clover. The groundcrew came to see us later and told us that the fuel valve had been stuck due to a combination of sand and grease and that they’d never put so much fuel in a jet in all their lives.
So what have I learnt: –
If things go awry
Remember the Continuous Improvement Cycle – Plan Do Check Act
Plan an effective response
Do the plan
Check the response solves the problem
Act again if required
You never know – it just might be your lucky day.