Tonight’s mission was the long-awaited NVG re-hack. It was the first time I’ve flown at night since June. June of 2006, that is.
The briefing and step were all routine, with the exception that both FNG F and I were out of NVG currency, so I got to be the lucky guy to take an IP along in the back of the family model. Quattro was the IP of record for this flight. He and I jumped out of the crew van after step to find a D-model (about 2,000# less gas) with two CATM-88 missiles (800# each), an ECM pod, and a LANTIRN targeting pod. . . a LANTIRN targeting pod?! That’s the first time I’ve ever flown that configuration. Most of the time when we carry HARM missiles we also carry a HARM Targeting System Pod (HTSP). Maybe we’re getting ready for MMC 4.2 upgrade and the R7 HTS pod. The new system is supposed to be able to work together with a targeting pod. Our current software tape isn’t double-pod friendly. We closeted our surprise, slapped away the mosquitos that suddenly appeared in a swarm, finished the preflight inspection, hopped in, cranked the motor, aligned the INS, turned everything on, checked the flight controls and brakes and a myriad of other widgets and gizmos, and taxiied to the arming area and then to Runway 10 for takeoff.
Night takeoffs in afterburner are always a great sight. After the cleared-for-takeoff call from tower and the radio frequency change to departure control, the next thing that happens is the jet in front of you selects MAX on the throttle (which you don’t see), followed shortly by a 20′ long cone of orderly orange fire complete with five or six supersonic shock waves that appear streaking out of the nozzle as the Viper seeks liberation from the tyranny of the tarmac. Within 15 seconds, the previous aircraft lifts off, you repeat the previous motions of the other pilot in your own cockpit; in two seconds you find yourself pressed back in your seat with the digital airspeed readout increasing faster than you can count. At the point the readout passes through something resembling 155, about 10 pounds of back-pressure with the right hand on the side-stick controller and your own nose rotates into the inky blackness over the Pacific Ocean just two miles away. Seconds after that, your ship breaks its tie with the ground and with one last check of that single engine’s ‘steam gauge’ instruments for certainty of operation, you throw the gear handle up and start making sure your vector takes you into the sky. Night takeoffs just rock, no matter where you are when you see them, but I certainly get some of the best sights available to human eyes.
Hoser, the DO had told us earlier in the mass brief that tonight would be "High Illumination," meaning there would be plenty of light for the NVGs and we would be able to see everything pretty well. It turned out that we launched so close to sunset that although it’d been dark on the ground, the sky was so bright that the NVGs were nearly useless, everything was just washed-out-green. All we could really see for the first five minutes of the departure was the anti-collision light on the other jet.
The 1v1 intercepts worked out much like any others. We were going to try to get in a simulated JDAM attack at the end, but with all the extra drag from my CATMs and pods, I hit BINGO and we started our RTB. Everything went fairly normally with the first half of the return. We checked out of the airspace with SABRE, who pushed us over to Sapporo Control for IFR. We finished our battle damage checks, then I called back to squadron ops to relay our aircraft maintenance status. We then switched over to ATIS to find out what the weather was like back at the field. It sounded pretty good, with no ceiling, scattered clouds here and there, and light winds. After 10 minutes listening to Sapporo Control sequencing us around and below the airline routes that criss-cross the sky above our return route, they handed us off to Misawa approach, and that’s when the fun started.
Upon contacting Misawa approach, they informed us a runway change was in progress, and they started vectoring us to the HI-TACAN initial approach fix and told us to plan to hold for about 10 minutes. I did some quick mental math, and with 2600# of gas remaining, determined I could do just that, but no more. So far, so good. We flew to the IAF and entered holding, but just in case, I started looking up the approaches to Hachinohe Airport, our primary divert field. It turned out to be a good thing. During our first turn in holding, we’d talked to the SOF and told him what our situation was. He figured we’d have no problem making it back, and he promised to get us priority getting back to the field. Normally we’re supposed to get to the final approach fix with 1,500#, and it was going to take 600# to shoot most of the approach (500# if we got vectors direct to the FAF). I expected to hit the IAF and be cleared to start the approach.
What happened next, of course, was approach told us to execute one more turn in holding, and that we’d be cleared the HI-TACAN for Runway 28, and if the runway change wasn’t complete they were going to have us hold at the FAF. No dice. I was just below 2,200#, the next turn in holding would be another 300-400#, then 500# best case for the approch to Misawa, and the runway change that was supposed to have been completed by now was going to take an extra 12 minutes. FNG F, Quattro, and I all decided we were going to Hachinohe, which was just 12 miles off our nose.
We were quickly cleared over to Hachinohe Tower’s frequency. Tower informed us we’d be cleared for a visual approach to Runway 07, winds were light, and the field was VMC. The approach turned out to be no problem, although the Hachinohe Airport sits in a little bit of a valley and we felt a little dragged in due to the elevated terrain under long final. We landed, taxiied over to the Japanese Navy P-3 squadron, shut down, hopped out, and walked over to their base ops to arrange a trip home.
We waited for about four hours on the ground before a team of maintainers and security forces finally showed up. The maintainers picked us up, and after a 25-minute drive back to the squadron ops, we all hopped out, threw our gear in our lockers, and finally called it a night.
In sum, the day had been three hours of preparation; one hour of step, start, taxi, and takeoff; 1.5 hours of flight; and 4.5 hours of hurry up and wait before arrival at the squadron. Luckily I’d only been in the office for 2.5 hours before I started the day. Otherwise it’d’ve been a really long one!
We always say the first time something unusual happens (like a divert) will be at the least convenient time. Never mind the fact that it’d been 15 months since my last night/NVG flight, and never mind the fact that I’d never ever seen Hachinohe Airport from anything but the simulator’s Runway 25; it was also my wife’s and my first anniversary. That, and I didn’t have any Yen in my G-suit pocket.
At least now I have Yen with me!
Update 20071004: It turns out the OG/CC was as surprised as I was about the 2xAGM-88 w/ LANTIRN pod configuration. (For those of you not in the military, the OG/CC is the commander of the operations group, almost always a O-6/colonel type. Surprise is the least favorite emotion of the O-6 and above). He got the configurations changed the next day, from what I heard.