Hollywood has it all wrong. No one in the fighter jet business, and I mean no one, gets a cool callsign such as "Maverick," "Iceman" or "Burner" for being the Holy Grail of aviation. Callsigns come about because a young pilot commits the cardinal sin of fighter aviation … looking ridiculous in front of peers. My callsign came about from just such a situation — and I'm lucky to be alive to tell the story.
It sounds cliché, but it really was a dark and stormy night - except that in Anchorage, Alaska, in the wintertime, night really means any time before 10 a.m. and stormy is just another day. I was a newly minted wingman in the mighty F-15C Eagle on my first operational deployment. The 19th Fighter Squadron, known as the "Gamecocks," were deploying eight Eagles that early morning from the far reaches of snowy Alaska to sunny Las Vegas, Nevada, to take part in Red Flag, the famed highly realistic air battle on the combat ranges north of Nellis Air Force Base.
I was in the eighth aircraft of the eight-ship formation. Our Eagles were known to air traffic control as Feud 01 through Feud 08. Incidentally, I was also the most junior of all the pilots in the squadron. In fighter pilot terms, that really means that my job was to follow the other seven guys around and stay quiet on the radio unless someone talked to me first or I saw that my flight lead was on fire. Above all else, I didn't want to screw up and make a name for myself. Simple enough - were it not for the atrocious Alaskan winter weather that day. Although called, at 500 feet, overcast with one-mile visibility, conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and our window of opportunity to make it to Nellis that day was closing rapidly along with them. Time to go.
The game plan was to line up all eight aircraft adjacent to the runway and launch one after the other, separated by 20 seconds. Once airborne, each pilot would use the on-board radar to lock the fighter in front of him and maintain two-mile spacing. The first aircraft set the pace for the other seven by smoothly flying correct airspeeds, headings, altitude and power settings until above the weather. Once above the clouds, the eight ships would visually rejoin each other and fly together the rest of the way to Nellis.
Known as a "radar assisted trail departure," this practice is routine in the fighter business, unless you're a brand new wingman on your first deployment through the worst weather you've ever seen. The trick is to radar-lock the right jet and to fly your aircraft as precisely as you can through the weather. Violate either one of those two rules and you could quickly find yourself in big trouble. I would learn this the hard way.
Feud 01 lit his powerful twin afterburners, roared off into the dark and vanished into the thick clouds just as his main gear retracted into the fuselage. When he rotated on the runway, his fiery afterburner plume flash-evaporated the deice fluid and water on the runway and created a massive cloud of mist and steam. Feud 02 through 07 followed suit as briefed. Unfortunately for me, the cloud deck and the visibility seemed to get lower with each takeoff and the monster cloud of steam over the runway grew larger. When it was my turn, I slid the throttles to maximum power and my 30-ton Eagle screamed down the runway into the milky blackness.
Thanks to the cloud of steam, I was already IFR even before getting airborne. As my fighter leaped into the sky, you'd think I would have devoted all my attention to safely transitioning to the aircraft instruments. Instead, with seven fighter jets directly in front of me somewhere in the "goo" and my desire not to look bad on my first deployment, all my focus was on my radar. I had to make sure that I radar-locked the right aircraft and quickly called "tied" on the radio in order to sound cool to my flight lead. I eased the jet into a climbing left turn to follow the path the other seven jets had flown, all the while with my eyes on the radar. That was one of the worst mistakes in my life.
Rather than looking at a clean scope with seven neat blips on my screen, my radar was filled with "birds," bright green blobs that smeared the scope with seemingly endless false targets. Every time I tried to lock what I thought was the correct blip, the radar would generate more false targets. I made several repeat attempts but with no luck. Now I was getting really annoyed. The radar had somehow fried itself. Now I'd have to fly the trail departure using numerous radio calls to the formation about my altitude and airspeed. So much for looking good and sounding cool: The other seven pilots would no doubt wonder why the "newbie" couldn't use his radar like everyone else and had to instead garbage up the radio. It was then that I began to get a certain "awareness" that something more than the radar wasn't right.
The sound of the wind rush over the aircraft was too quiet. When I looked at my airspeed gauge, it was reading 100 knots too slow and decreasing rapidly. The altimeter was 2,000 feet too high for this portion of the departure. The controls felt sluggish in my hands. When I looked at the heads-up display and the main attitude indicator, both showed that I was in 30 degrees of left bank and in a slight climb. Based on my power setting, my altitude and airspeed weren't correct for my displayed attitude. Now I was frustrated by the radar and confused by my instruments — but the worst was yet to come.
Suddenly, the airspeed stopped slowing and began to increase rapidly; the altimeter stopped its steady climb upward and began to unwind quickly like a broken grandfather clock. The wind rush noise outside the aircraft began to increase to a deafening roar. I couldn't make any sense out of it. I checked the main attitude indicator and the heads-up display again. Oddly, both still showed a lefthand turn with a slight climb. In fact, it showed exactly the same attitude as when I last checked. This was impossible given the large changes in altitude and airspeed I was seeing and hearing. I quickly wiggled the stick slightly to the left and right to see if there was any response out of the attitude indicators. Both remained frozen. It was then I realized what had happened. My jet had experienced a major avionics failure, at the worst possible time, which had frozen the main attitude indicators and cooked the radar. I had been flying with erroneous attitude information at night in bad weather for the past 40-plus seconds, and now I had no idea of the aircraft's true attitude.
Several days later I figured out that even though I thought I was in a 1-G climbing turn to the left, I had inadvertently performed a 1-G half barrel roll in the weather and was completely inverted, steeply nose low, and less than 4,000 feet above the ground. All I knew at the moment, however, was that my airspeed was racing past 300 knots, my altitude was in a chaotic free fall, and time was running out. I was in deep trouble.
This was the first moment in my flying career when I experienced time dilation. A curious revelation began to dawn in my mind. Contrary to popular belief, my life didn't flash in front of my eyes. Instead I felt calm. I felt resigned to the fact that this was how I was going to meet my end. I couldn't believe that I had made it this far in my career to be a combat-ready fighter pilot only to die about a minute after takeoff on a routine radar departure. I was in this eerie mental fog awaiting my fate for what seemed like an eternity when all of a sudden a voice came from the back of my mind somewhere that cried out, "You can still save this. Wake up, stupid!!" I had time for one attempt to recover, or I was going to have to eject or end up in a smoking hole in the ground. Either way, I had the rest of my life to find out.
There was a standby attitude gauge in the cockpit. Unfortunately, it was located in quite possibly the worst place in the cockpit, far below the main instrument cluster and directly behind the flight stick. At night, the difficulty in reading it was compounded by the fact that it was not well-lit. When I glanced at this gauge, it showed that I was indeed upside down and nose low. That, coupled with my increasing airspeed and decreasing altitude, made sense. At that point, my F-15 zipped through a gap of clear airspace between the clouds. I could see the lights of Anchorage out of the top of my canopy glowing in the distance beneath the cloud deck. An inverted standby attitude gauge and city lights "above" me were all the confirmation I needed!
I rolled the aircraft upright to put the lights of Anchorage beneath me, confirmed with the standby gauge, selected full afterburner, placed both hands on the flight stick, and pulled for everything I was worth. The jet strained under the sudden increase in G-force. I wondered if these would be the last moments of my life, whether or not I had enough energy and altitude to recover, or whether I would belly-flop into the earth waiting menacingly below and cartwheel across the ground in a spectacular fireball fueled by 12 tons of JP-8.
Luckily, the gods of physics were on my side. I was going to live with just fractions of a second to spare! I had recovered a few hundred feet off the ground, afterburners raging and tearing through the night, out of ideas, and completely terrified by the experience I had just survived. By that point, I didn't care about looking dumb. I just wanted to live.
I called for help on the radio from my flight mates, and Feud 07 expertly peeled away from the formation and quickly rejoined me. He very calmly helped me to diagnose which avionics worked and which ones didn't, all the while keeping me apprised of our attitude, altitude and airspeed. He then led me back in a formation ILS to Elmendorf Air Force Base.
When it was all over, I shut down the F-15 engines and opened the canopy. The sun had finally risen. The air was crisp, and a fresh blanket of snow was falling. I was struck by the cool feeling of snowflakes on my face and the abject silence of the flight line. After all the chaos of the last hour, this was a beautifully serene winter paradise. At that moment, the rest of my squadron was on its way to try its luck in Vegas, but I knew I had just won the biggest gamble of them all. I was alive when the odds were definitely with the house.
I learned a couple of things that day. First, in any situation, emergency or otherwise, a pilot's primary responsibility is to fly the aircraft — period. This is especially true in instrument conditions. This is hammered home to every student pilot during training. I ignored this rule for just a few moments after takeoff and I nearly paid for it with my life. I was distracted by a faulty radar, but it just as easily could have been a busy radio or a dropped checklist. If I had been paying attention, I would have recognized the avionics problems much earlier and actively fought against spatial disorientation as opposed to finding myself completely terrified by it with almost no options left. Second, I learned the value of practicing unusual attitude recoveries. When I had to do it for real, there was no time to think and only time to react with habit patterns ingrained from countless practices in simulators and instrument training flights. Third, I learned the value of getting help from a calm and collected buddy. In my case, it was Feud 07, but it could just as easily be a copilot or radar controller who is able to render aid in your time of need. Keeping cool and methodically dealing with an emergency situation is paramount. Panic would only make it worse.
Incidentally, I received the dubious callsign of "Laz," which is short for "Lazarus." If anyone knows the biblical story of Lazarus, then you know why the name makes complete sense given my situation. Truth be told, I'd much rather be called "Laz" than some other silly callsign like "Maverick" anyway.