Critter caused chaos for a fighter pilot [I Know a Story column] | Together
As a military airman who has served 20 years, I have had my share of close calls and brush with death.
I have completed three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, both in the air and on the ground, as well as several other deployments around the world. However, a memorable call occurred during a training mission right here in the United States.
I was an F/A-18 Hornet pilot based at Marine Corps Air Station, Beaufort, SC. I was leading a new wingman on a training night bombing mission at a range on the Georgian coast. The tactical part went well and the new pilot performed well during his dive bombing. The real excitement didn’t happen until we got back to base that evening. As flight leader, I landed first – a normal night landing on a 12,000 foot long runway in Beaufort. Or so it seemed.
Shortly after touchdown, within about 10 seconds, with a cockpit full of flashing warning lights, my hydraulics had failed and I had lost my brakes, steering and systems. emergency braking. I was along the ride, now pointed towards the edge of the track. Since I was not directed down the runway, I could no longer simply take off again to fix the problem in the air, as dictated by our emergency procedures, and I was unable to stop the aircraft. A perfect puzzle.
The ground on the edges of the paved portion of the track slopes down to concrete drainage ditches to shed rainwater and prevent puddles from forming on the track. This successfully prevents dangerous hydroplaning, but creates a dangerous obstacle course for a fighter jet hurtling down the dirt slope.
In the time compression that occurs during stressful times like this, my mind quickly recalled stories I had heard of planes rolling over in tragic fatal crashes that had occurred in situations similar. It’s the closest I’ve come to pulling the ejection handle, which would have propelled me into the air on a rocket-propelled seat, deployed a parachute – which, in theory, had enough time to open up and lessen my impact with the mainland. I chose to stay in the jet and take it out. I estimate I was going about 50-60 mph when I left the track. I quickly cut my engines, offered a quick prayer, and hoped for the best.
Fortunately, it had rained the previous days and the ground was soft. The tires dug into the ground, and the jet and I quickly came to a stop a few feet from the concrete trench, standing and in one piece. I loosened my seat cushion, as they say, took a deep breath, and told the control tower I was in the dust. At first they didn’t understand. To them, I had simply disappeared—it was dark, my headlights had been turned off since I had turned off the engines, and they couldn’t see me.
After convincing them that I was really off the track, they sounded the alarm and a slew of rescue/fire/rescue trucks arrived on the track, lights flashing. They arrived and quickly realized I was fine and the plane was in one piece, albeit a bit muddy. I was still trying to figure out what happened to get me to this point when I noticed a trail of hydraulic fluid on the track. I asked the fire chief to help me investigate and follow the trail in his truck. We traveled thousands of feet to my landing spot and there on the runway we saw the cause of the incident: a coyote, neatly bisected by my right main landing gear! I hadn’t seen it in the dark or felt the impact, but it hit with such force that it severed all hydraulic lines to the brakes and drained all the fluid. That’s why my brakes, steering and emergency brakes didn’t work.
Over the next few hours, I assisted in the recovery efforts for the aircraft, essentially pulling it out of the mud with the largest vehicle we had on base. Fortunately, there was very little damage.
Our expert maintenance Marines replaced the hydraulic lines, checked the operation of the gears and brakes, and flew it a few days later. That night, I filled out some paperwork and went home, exhausted. I went to bed around 4am, hugged my sleeping wife, grateful to be alive.
Some follow-up stories:
1. In typical Marine Corps dark humor fashion, the silhouette of a coyote was painted on the nose of the plane as a “kill” and my callsign was temporarily changed to “Roadrunner” in reference to the Warner Brothers cartoon featuring the dueling duo.
2. If I had been a little quicker to think after the incident, I would have taken the coyote halves to a taxidermist and preserved them well. I might have been able to get an old F/A-18 tire and wheel and make a diorama of the incident to display as a unique conversation piece!
3. Knowing that the close-knit Marine Corps aviation community would likely spread the story of a jet running off the runway, I wanted to make sure my wife heard it from me first. I woke up with her the next morning and in my cool, calm fighter pilot best way explained the coyote, the lack of brakes and steering, the edge of the track, the concrete ditches and how everything is fine now. I didn’t know how she would take it all, but she quickly gasped and exclaimed “that poor coyote!”
Well, that wasn’t quite the point I was hoping she would take away from the whole story!
Although the death of a coyote is really sad, I may have underestimated the fact that her husband almost bought the farm!
The author lives in Lancaster.
If you know of an interesting story, write it in 600 words or less and send it to Mary Ellen Wright, LNP Editorial Department, PO Box 1328, Lancaster, PA, 17608-1328, email it to features @lnpnews.com. Please include your phone number and the name of the city in which you live.