A Routine Formation


by Roger Crewse June 1963

It was just a routine cross-country formation flight. Coolstone was carefully latched onto the wing of his fearless leader. He was demonstrating once and for all that as a formation pilot he could scarcely be equalled. He hummed a little monotone tune just to keep his R/O from becoming worried, as he waved his wing in the general vicinity of the leader.

They had just finished a weather penetration, and the flight had leveled at 4,000. Coolstone hadn’t found time to hook up his lanyard as yet. To his R/O he said,

“Let me know when we are in the clear, so I can move out and get my lanyard hooked.”

“Roger,” said the R/O. “I’ll let you know.”

His leader had called Approach Control and had been told to change frequencies and then check in with radar. Because several aircraft were being worked by the controller, the flight leader was unable to make contact.

“O.K., now,” said Coolstone’s R.O. “We’re between layers if you want to hook up.”

“Roger,” said the Rock, and moved out a bit. He reached for his lanyard, and as he did so he noticed that the attitude indicator was rolling gradually off to the right, while at the same time indicating a climbing turn.

Fumbling with the lanyard, Coolstone fed in the necessary control actions to level the aircraft. He found the lanyard and was about to hook it up, when he glanced at his leader and saw that he was in a diving turn away from him. He rolled back quickly, looked in the cockpit again, and now saw that every gyro instrument he owned was in motion.

They had just re-entered the cloud, and Coolstone lost his leader.

“We’ve had it,” he told the R/O. “My gyros are gone, and I’ve lost the leader.”

At this point the flight leader made contact with Approach Control radar. Coolstone really didn’t hear the conversation. His immediate problems demanded every bit of attention he was able to devote to them.

His initial panic subsided a bit, Coolstone tried to interrupt the conversation between the leader and the Controller, but was unable to work a word in. His leader was being given a clearance for a back course ILS, and he was arguing a bit with the Controller, trying to get a front course clearance, but was unable to do so. The Controller had explained that the traffic was such that it would require the flight to hold 20 minutes or so before they could be cleared for a different approach.

“Negative, negative,” said the leader. Then, in a startled voice, he asked, “Two, where are you? I don’t have you in sight.”

In a rush Coolstone transmitted, “I’ve lost my instruments; I don’t know where I am. All I have is the needle and ball. I’m in a shallow right turn away from you.”

“Roger,” said the leader. “Keep turning and climb away from me. And is your master warning light on?”

Before Coolstone could answer, radar broke in and advised them that the field had gone below circling minimums. Weather was now 300 foot broken, 2,000 overcast.

“It will be necessary,” the Controller added, “to hold 30 minutes or until it is possible to get you in for an ILS.”

A certain amount of darkness entered Coolstone’s cockpit, and it couldn’t all be attributed to the denseness of the clouds. He started to call Approach Control. However, the Controller was in the process of breaking several aircraft off from their penetrations. He was giving them various holding instructions, and as he did so, each pilot declared minimum fuel, regardless of what holding times they were advised would apply. The Controller was hard pressed to find sufficient holding points to keep all of the aircraft separated without climbing them back up on top.

“Hello, Approach Control,” once again Coolstone tried. “This is Coolstone One.”

“Roger, Coolstone One. This is Approach Control.”

“Approach Control from Coolstone One. I also have a little problem here. I’ve lost all my gyro instruments. I’m at 4,000 feet. This is an emergency. I need an immediate vector for an approach.”

“Coolstone One, this is Approach Control,” and it was obvious by the tone of his voice that the Controller was at the breaking point. “Go hold some place on the TACAN at 8500 feet and give us a call.”

“Roger,” said Coolstone weakly.

“This is to advise you, Coolstone,” said Approach Control, that you are number four or five in the emergency pattern. We haven’t got them all sorted out yet.”

The Rock started to climb and get to the TACAN at the same time. He couldn’t help following the horizon, which was now making a rather interesting pattern to the right, slowly rolling off and undulating up and down. Instinctively he would allow his eyes to bring that instrument in his crosscheck, then force himself to look away and get on the needle and ball again.

Indications on the needle and ball were enough to gag a buzzard. Coolstone’s digestive system was much more delicate than this. The needle flopped from side to side every time he made the slightest stick application.

“Average it out … average it out,” he told himself. He was trying to average it out, but it was pretty tough to do when the needles hit the peg on both sides and sweat was running off the end of his nose.

“Coolstone One from Approach Control Radar. I have a clearance for you.”

“Roger, roger, boy,” said Coolstone. “Ready to copy.”

“Coolstone One, hold on the 130 radial of the TACAN between 20 and 30 miles out. Right hand turn and call when established in the holding pattern. Maintain 8500 feet.”

“Roger,” said Coolstone, “but I need an approach pretty soon. Can’t you feed me in on the radar? I’m in trouble here.”

“Stand by one,” said the Controller.

“How is it going?” asked the R/O with a studied calmness to his voice. “I’ve got the charts out for the area and 8500 feet should clear everything. You want me to take care of the TACAN for you?”

“Roger,” said Coolstone. “You navigate us in there, for it’s all I can do to fly this thing. It’s a bit tight,” he went on, “but if we can make these turns without pranging or pitching up, we’ll probably make it. But run through your ejection procedures, just in case. Now remember, if something happens and I say go, go!” And then he remembered once again that he hadn’t hooked up his own lanyard. Too late now, he told himself.

Approach Control called him again. The Controller told him that his approach time was 58, and he would be cleared for an ILS approach.

Coolstone glanced at the clock and wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to see that it had also stopped. But it was going. However, he would have to hold for 33 minutes. On needle and ball in rough air? He was in real serious trouble, if not in an impossible position.

“Approach Control from Coolstone. Look, I don’t think I can hack it. I want down as soon as I can there. I need radar assistance with a no-gyro approach. I don’t think I can even find the localizer. I need help.”

“Look,” said the Controller. “We have four aircraft that are in the emergency pattern now. We just can’t work you in any quicker than that. Suggest that you go to your alternate. It’s 37 miles away from your present position. We’ll notify their radar.”

“Understand,” said Coolstone. “But what is the weather at the alternate?”

“Coolstone, from Approach Control, weather is 1500 broken, 2000 overcast, lower scattered conditions, visibility two miles in rain and fog. I have another clearance for you. Are you ready to copy?”

“Roger,” said Coolstone. “Ready to copy.”

“You are cleared to your alternate direct from your present position. Maintain 8500 feet and give radar a call on 279.4. Over.”

“Roger, Control. I have it.”

“Tune in alternate TACAN,” Coolstone told his R/O. He saw the course line needle come over again. He herded the aircraft around by using the needle and ball and swinging mag compass that he hadn’t looked at for at least five years.

Let’s see, he said to himself, when you turn east it lags, and when you turn west it sags. No, no, that isn’t it. I’ll never remember, he said to himself. He concentrated on the course line indicator and needle and ball.

He made contact with radar and the Controller was handling him well with gyro-out techniques. Coolstone, while still tense in the cockpit, had relaxed from that edge of panic that he had approached earlier. Without radar he knew an approach would have been impossible with the weather conditions with which he was faced. In an attempt to keep up some semblance of outward control and remembering his R/O in the rear seat, he hummed a faint little tune.

“l’ve got her hacked now,” he told the R/O.

They were on the base leg, and he got his gear and flaps out with a minimum amount of gyrations. In fact, as he used the needle and ball more, he found he was able to keep it rather well under control.

The GCA Controller, who was a fine one, turned him on final in three increments. Coolstone established himself on the glide path approximately ten feet low.

“You’re on centerline, but you’re ten feet low on the glide path, Coolstone. Do you read?”

“Roger, GCA, understand. Holding ten feet low on the glide path.” Mentally Coolstone was congratulating himself for being only ten feet low. He wasn’t about to change anything.

“You’re still ten feet low,” the Controller advised as he talked him on down.

The Field elevation was 540, and Coolstone noted he was approaching 1,000 feet on his altimeter. Where is that 1500 foot ceiling, he wondered.

“Do you see anything?” he asked the R/O.

“Not a thing,” said the R/O.

His stick action would have churned butter now. Once again the needle was pegging both sides of the instrument, and the rate of climb indicator just couldn’t keep up with the bird. They were down to 300 feet now, and he advised his R/0,

“We’re going to have to pull up and eject if we don’t break out soon.”

“Hold it,” said the R/O. “I can see straight down. Hold it. Don’t do anything rash.”

Coolstone gave the butter one more good stir and looked out. He could just barely see the ground beneath him.

“You are still ten feet low,” advised the Controller. “And, Tombstone One, if you don’t have the field in sight, take it around and execute a missed approach.”

“Negative, negative,” said Coolstone. “Keep talking.”

(The Rock didn’t have the vaguest idea what the missed approach procedures were.) In a guts play, he let the aircraft down a bit further and there in front of him was the field, wet, snow-covered, and barely visible, but the most beautiful runway he had ever seen in his life. He hummed a little tune for the R/0’s benefit.

At Base Operations he was greeted by a rather warmed-up Base Operations Officer.

“Where did you come from?” demanded the major. “We have no clearance on you. You can’t just go to an alternate without making some kind of arrangements,” he continued sarcastically.

“But, sir,” said Coolstone. “I was in an emergency, without instruments. It was terrible.”

“I’m sure it was,” said the Base Ops Officer. “Fill out a report.”

I’d better call my flight leader, Coolstone thought to himself. What a story he had to tell. There’d be no question in any one’s mind about the skillfulness of his instrument flying, that’s for sure.

He put in a call to the base where his leader had landed. It was a moment before he could get him on the phone, but finally he came on.

“Boy,” he told his flight leader. “I really had a rough one. Everything left … no gyros, no nothing.”

The leader interrupted him and said, “Did you make it O.K.?”

“Roger,” said Coolstone. “I made it O.K., but here’s what happened. It was terrible.”

The leader interrupted him again. “Don’t bother me with details. I’m in so much trouble here that I may never get out. I have about five violations against me. It seems that they advised me the field had gone below circling minimums right in the middle of your gyro problem. I missed the transmission and ran a back course ILS. About four of us ended up about head-on out there some place. It was terrible. I’ll tell you about it when I get back, if I get back. Right now the Base Operations Officer has got me collared here, and I’ve got to get everything on paper.”

“Roger,” said Coolstone. “Don’t worry about me. I made it all right. No sweat. And I have a little paper work to do also.”

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