Formation flying in tactical fighters is not a laid-back affair. Flying single ship isn’t either, but at least you don’t have to follow a leader or lead a wingman, either of which complicates the process from planning to briefing to flying to debriefing. Single ship is like being cast loose to do your own thing. If you believe that, I’ve got this condo….
Okay, so you have a mission to perform, objectives to fulfill, and you do it because that’s your job. But sometimes, there’s a real treat in store, and it’s called the “test hop.”
An F-4 Phantom has undergone maintenance that requires a flight to check out the repaired system. Often the flight profile includes a maximum afterburner climb from takeoff to 10,000 feet. Usually the aircraft would be stripped of its wing tanks, a configuration referred to as “clean.” With only internal fuel you couldn’t remain airborne very long, but the good news is that you could cram a lot of adrenaline thrill into a short period of time. Try to picture this.
It’s winter, the air cold and dense, which increases the power of the engines, so you know what’s in store. The feeling of freedom begins as you taxi out of parking. Heavily laden F-4′s feel unwieldy under you. (Think of a three-year-old kid on a tricycle made to fit a 350-pound NFL lineman.) But today, you’re astride the fastest tricycle in the West. Light and agile, the bird is raring to go.
You taxi onto the active runway, line up with the centerline for takeoff and stop, press the brake pedals down hard and advance the throttles to 85% power. After a scan of the cockpit to make sure all is well with the world within arm’s reach, you pull the control stick full aft so the grip is in your lap, release the brakes, push the throttles up until they stop, shift them outboard and continue forward until they stop again. At this point, aviation fans, you have just told the engines to give you maximum afterburner power. Now push the pause button in your brain so I can describe what this means.
All jet engines (especially at that time) leave residual fuel in the exhaust gases. Afterburners take advantage of that by doing something which on the surface seems absolutely insane. Why don’t we pour some atomized fuel in the tailpipe and light a match? Sound good?
It does to fighter pilots, believe me. You have just begun to accelerate down the runway when something kicks you in the back, hard. Things begin happening very fast, so get ready. Remember I said the control stick is hauled back into your lap? You can’t leave there and live through this.
About the time your eyelids are being figuratively peeled back, the nosewheel of your trusty Phantom suddenly breaks free of the runway. You shove the stick forward to just the right point and freeze the nose at the proper takeoff attitude. When the main tires lift off, and it doesn’t take long, remove your left hand from the throttles, raise the landing gear handle, and immediately retract the flaps.
And oh, yeah, begin pulling back on the stick. Why? Because the flight profile calls for a 250 knot (about 290 mph) climb. Light weight, with full afterburner power on a cold day, the Phantom can exceed that in a heartbeat if you don’t get that stick back and point her toward the heavens.
The nose is so high you can’t see a thing but sky in front of you. The needle in the altimeter is rotating so fast you can barely see it. The vertical speed indicator is pegged at 6000 feet per minute because that’s the highest value on the instrument. You’re probably climbing at 10,000 feet per minute plus. Have you done the math yet?
This test-hop climb is one type of extra-special fighter pilot freedom . . . assuming you remembered to get takeoff clearance from the tower. I don’t mention that from personal experience, of course.
And the point finally is? Sometimes words need the same kind of “letting it all hang out” liberty to address random topics without constraint.
It should be fun.