Continued from Tailview in the December 2007 issue of Flight Journal
The Tomcat’s Tale
By Tony Holmes
F-14A BuNo. 162594 had given the Navy almost 17 years of frontline service by the time it met its premature demise when it slammed into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico on the evening of 3 October 2002. One of 24 aircraft built as part of Block F-14A-135-GR, it had been delivered to the fleet in January 1986 and initially served with fleet replacement squadron VF-124 “Gunfighters” at NAS Miramar. Following a short spell with the training unit, the fighter joined VF-111 “Sundowners” in 1988 and eventually became the unit’s “CAG jet”. It flew as “Sundowner 200” until 28 September 1992, when the aircraft entered standard depot level maintenance at NARF North Island.
BuNo. 162594 returned to fleet service in 1994 with VF-21 “Freelancers”, this unit being based at NAS Atsugi, in Japan, as part of the forward-deployed CVW-5. The aircraft transferred to the air wing’s VF-154 “Black Knights” when VF-21 was disestablished in January 1996, and it remained in Japan until flown back to the USA in early 1998. The F-14 commenced its one and only East Coast posting with fleet replacement squadron VF-101 “Grim Reapers” at NAS Oceana shortly thereafter, the jet swapping its “Black Knight’s” sword and shield on its twin fins for a scythe-toting winged “Grim Reaper”.
Tasked with training future pilots and RIOs for fleet service, VF-101 taught the bulk of its five-phase replacement training syllabus at Oceana. However, the unit also maintained a permanent detachment of 20 maintenance personnel at NAS Key West, and aircraft were flown down to the naval air station when students were undertaking the highly demanding Tactics phase of their training. A further 70 maintainers would also be flown in to cover the increased workload associated with jets on deployment. With superior weather and range availability nearby, Key West was the ideal location for novice crews to get to grips with the F-14”s capabilities as a fleet fighter, as Operation Enduring Freedom veteran, VF-101 instructor and former Blue Angel Lt. Cmdr. John “Shorn” Saccomando explained; “We usually did our Tactics detachments down in Key West because of the vast airspace, good weather and fairly low traffic in the working areas. Also, we typically met aggressor squadrons down there so that they could provide bandit support for us. Otherwise, the students didn’t get a chance to fight dissimilar aircraft, and it would be very difficult for our squadron to provide ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’ air for every event.”
In October 2002, one of those nugget pilots coming to the end of his Tactics phase was Lt. Dave “Hound” Bassett. A 1995 graduate of the US Naval Academy, Bassett had spent the first four years of his Navy career as a “black shoe,” completing several operational cruises aboard USS Shreveport (LPD-12) and USS Nicholas (FFG-47). Selected for flight training in 1999, Bassett had flown T-2Cs and T-45Cs with VT-7 and VT-9, respectively, at NAS Meridian, Mississippi, prior to receiving orders to VF-101 in 2001 upon the receipt of his coveted Wings of Gold.
The syllabus awaiting Lt. Bassett at Oceana consisted of five phases that followed a tried and tested building block approach. The initial stage was the Familiarization phase, followed by the Weapons Control Systems phase and then the Strike phase (typically completed with detachments to the bombing ranges at El Centro, in California). Tactics training at Key West came next, with the Carrier Qualification phase completing the course.
Lt. Bassett’s evening mission on 3 October 2002 was meant to be his graduation flight from the Tactics phase. His backseater in “Reaper 136” was instructor RIO Lt. Craig “Ike” Turner, formerly of VF-31. Now promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander, Bassett gave the following details about this fateful sortie to the author;
“The lead aircraft for our section was on a double cycle, and we were to meet them it on station. After rendezvousing with the lead jet, we then proceeded to execute the mission. We were simulating a defensive counter-air mission, and the first presentation went as advertised, with no issues.
“The second presentation threw up a range problem. After merging and cleaning up the first group of bandits, lead and I got separated by approximately five miles, with lead ahead of me. Ike and I ended up in the low block (between 10,000 and 14,000 ft), with the bandits in the high block (30,000 ft). Lead failed to get either shots off or a tally on the bandits, and as he merged with the trailing group of “enemy” fighters, I obtained a tally at “12 o’clock high.
“Since we were fuel limited, we had decided as a crew to limit ourselves to military power only and not select blower. As I obtained the tally, I had a speed of 300 knots on the jet. I elected—with hindsight, not a smart decision—to try to execute essentially an Immelmann turn in an effort to consummate the merge with the bandits.”
When performing an Immelmann turn, the pilot flies level with good energy and then pulls back hard on the control column, thus bringing the aircraft into a steep climb. This climbing turn is maintained until the aircraft passes through the vertical and completes a half loop. At the top of the loop the aircraft is inverted and the pilot rolls the aircraft back into the upright position. The aircraft is now at a higher altitude and has changed heading by 180 degrees. This maneuver allows for some energy management through altitude gain, but there is an obvious speed loss.
Returning to the action over the Gulf of Mexico, Lt. Cmdr. Bassett recalled:
“As we passed through the vertical, we realized that we were not going to make it for the airspeed was rapidly winding down through 100 knots. If this happened when flying a Tomcat, the pilot released the controls to allow the aircraft to seek a nose down position without confusing the jet’s flight control system with spurious control inputs. Just as the nose of our jet began to point down, the left engine stalled and the Turbine Inlet Temperature (TIT) began to rapidly increase.
“The aircraft was still waffling, and it continued to be unresponsive to my control inputs. Simultaneously, the right engine stalled, and this too had rapidly increasing TIT. Just prior to the right Pratt & Whitney TF30 stalling, I had begun to shut down the left engine in an attempt to get a cross-bleed start from the good one. As I was doing this, I noticed that the right engine TIT was spiked, signaling that it too had stalled out. At this point I elected to shut off the right engine too and attempt a windmill start.
“In the F-14A, starting parameters for the TF30 in flight were approximately 18,000 ft and 150 knots over the nose. However, for a windmill start, you needed an angle of attack of about 60 degrees nose down and 310 knots to get the engines turning. When we reached an altitude of 5000 feet, we realized that we were not going to get the engines restarted in time. I leveled the aircraft off with residual hydraulics and we ejected.
“I learned two important lessons from this mission. Firstly, understand what your energy state is on the jet, and how that applies to each phase of flight. And secondly, NATOPS (Naval Aviation Training and Operating Procedures Standardization) is written in blood. Although there was no boldface procedure for a dual compressor stall, there was a description of what to do if that emergency occurred. It’s better to have an engine eat itself— sacrifice it—to get an engine running. Essentially, this meant that I should have let the left TF30 cook off to get the right one started again. Now, with that said, only 30 to 40 seconds passed from the time the second engine stalled to when we abandoned the aircraft.
“After the Fleet Naval Aviation Evaluation Board (FNAEB) investigation had concluded, I was cleared to fly again. Shortly after this I did a simulator hop with Rear Adm. (Ret.) Hayden. I have met no finer simulator instructor, and he taught me something that I will never forget. We have always been told that there are no fast hands in the cockpit. However, there are some emergencies that if you do not implement the correct procedures in the quickest possible time, then both the aircraft and you are doomed. Not only is it incumbent to learn bold face, but we have to understand the why behind these procedures. Some emergencies do not allow you to take a deep breath. We need to identify those procedures that require an instantaneous response from the aircrew.
“Although I switched from the A-model to the F-14B in the wake of this accident, I was told that the NATOPS for the F-14A in respect to recovering from dual engine stalls in flight was changed through the addition of two more boldface items in the Compressor Stall procedures. Additional new warnings and notes were also added pertaining to dual compressor stalls. However, I do know that this particular scenario was given to the students in the RAG during emergency “sims”, with eye-opening results.”
Lt. Bassett’s call-sign changed from “Hound” to “Snuffy” for obvious reasons in the wake of his accident. Unperturbed by the crash, he subsequently completed the Tactics and CQ phases of his training and joined VF-11 “Red Rippers” in 2003. Bassett participated in the unit’s final cruise with the Tomcat in 2004, during which time he saw combat over Iraq during the first Falujah campaign in April-May of that year. He transitioned with the squadron to F/A-18Fs in 2005, and was then transferred to VFA-125 at NAS Lemoore to convert onto the F/A-18C in late 2006 in preparation for his department head tour with VFA-94.
FNAEB Viewpoint (crosshead)
VF-101 instructor Lt. Cmdr. John “Shorn” Saccomando was a member of the FNAEB that was convened in the wake of the Tomcat crash, and he gave the following account of the 3 October mission;
“Lts. ‘Hound’ Bassett and ‘Ike’ Turner were following their leader into a merge when they gained sight of a bandit well above their altitude. They immediately went vertical to try and convert on him. Once their Tomcat was nose high, the airspeed rapidly came off of the jet and they ended up not making it over the top of the Immelmann. The F-14A’s TF30 engines were notorious for their propensity to compressor stall when the throttles were either ham-fisted or the jet had any back pressure on the nozzles. Hound ended up stalling one of the motors at this point in the failed turn.
“NATOPS for the F-14A stated that with a single compressor stall, the pilot had to bring the throttle back to idle. If the TIT continued to rise past a certain point following the retarding of the throttle, then the pilot had to secure the engine by pulling the throttle off—this procedure was only to be adopted for a single compressor stall.
“After the first stall, the jet yawed into the bad engine, further blanking the airflow into the good engine with the fuselage. This caused a compressor stall in the right engine. This wasn’t as common as having a single compressor stall, but the procedure for dealing with a dual stall was, nonetheless, detailed in NATOPS. It stated that with a dual compressor stall, the second stall was most likely caused by the first, so the pilot had to let the first engine cook off (overheat) while securing the second. This way, the pilot’s chances of relighting the good engine were increased, as although the TIT in the first engine would rapidly heat up, it would still be able to supply the aircraft with hydraulics, electrical power and, crucially, bleed air to cross-bleed to the other TF30 in order to start it up.
“Once the pilot had secured (completely shut down) the second engine, he had to get some airspeed over the nose of the jet so that the resulting airflow cooled it off to the point where the TIT had fallen below a certain temperature. The pilot then had to try and relight the second engine with the bleed air from the other TF30. With the right engine restarted, the pilot then secured the first engine before it caught fire, after which he promptly returned home on a single Pratt & Whitney.
“Although this all sounds quite straightforward, dual compressor stall in the F-14 was not a common occurrence, and it must also be remembered that Hound Bassett was still only a student at the time. Unfortunately for him, he secured the first engine and then got the second stall. He repeated the single compressor stall procedure for the second TF30, securing it too. At that point, he and Ike were strapped into a 64-foot, 60,000-pound glider.
“As you know, by the laws of physics, that didn’t give them a whole lot of time to get things fixed. They started pointing their nose towards the ground, and couldn’t get sufficient airspeed to turn the engines up enough for a windmill start. Both pilot and RIO duly ‘shelled out’ at their predetermined controlled ejection altitude and were quickly picked up by the search and rescue UH-3 from NAS Key West.”
Operation Allied Force veteran Lt. Cmdr. Doug “Thing” Thien had just finished his tour with VF-101 at the time of the crash, although he was still flying with the unit as a guest instructor and Functional Check Flight RIO whilst he awaited orders to his next billet. As an ex-F-14A RIO, he provided some interesting insight into the accident;
“The crew tapes from the sortie made for both frustrating and scary listening if you were an F-14A guy, as having a dual compressor stall on a Tactics hop was one of my biggest fears when flying from Key West. All aircrew flying A-model jets had seen plenty of compressor stalls when in the fleet, but a dual engine stall was a rarity. During my time as an instructor, even practicing such an event with the engines at idle, I typically found that students were— quite understandably—leery about pushing the nose down and trying the achieve the desired air-start airspeed, with the ground getting closer and all the while trying to remember the ejection parameters. “This accident added clarity to the compressor stall procedures, and I know that it helped the Tomcat community as a whole, and at least one particular crew in a jet over Iraq.”
Final Resting Place
Having spent six months in storage in the Irish Aircraft Accident Investigation Unit’s hangar at Gormanston Camp, the tailfin was acquired in late November 2006 by Royal Air Force Typhoon pilot Sqn Ldr Anthony “Foxy” Gregory. Although presently in charge of running the pilot conversion course for Britain’s newest fighter with No 29 (Reserve) Sqn at RAF Coningsby, in Lincolnshire, Sqn Ldr Gregory had previously completed an exchange posting with VF-101 between February 1999 and May 2002. During this period he had regularly flown BuNo. 162594, as he explained to the author;
“I last flew “Reaper 136” on 23 February 2002 from NAS Key West as part of a four-versus-two air combat maneuvering hop. On this occasion I was one of the “bad guys”, training against students conducting the Tactics phase of their F-14 conversion. My fondest memory of BuNo. 162594 was when I used it during a particularly prolonged one-versus-one engagement against an F/A-18A from VFA-204 “River Rattlers” which culminated in a very close slow-speed fight and eventually a guns kill for me – I was certainly sweating at the end of that sortie! I am not sure that the student RIO in the back seat of “Reaper 136” had much idea about what was going on either!”
Having such a strong affinity with the Tomcat and BuNo. 162594 in particular, Sqn Ldr Gregory felt compelled to obtain the tailfin upon being alerted to its existence “on his side of the pond” by The Virginian-Pilot article.
Following approval from the Irish Aircraft Accident Investigation Unit, Sqn Ldr Gregory had the tailfin trucked from Ireland to RAF Coningsby, where it will be cleaned up and lightly repaired by a volunteer crew of engineers and painters and finishers, prior to being mounted on a sturdy frame. Sqn Ldr Gregory then plans to have the tailfin transported to his house, where it will take pride of place in his den!
When “Reaper 136” crashed into the Gulf of Mexico on 3 October 2002, it became the 16th, and last, Tomcat to be lost by the unit in accidents during 30 years of flying with the big Grumman fighter. On a more positive note, the aircraft’s demise has provided Europe with a tangible reminder of a now deceased warplane that had helped the West win the Cold War.
The author wishes to thank Lt. Cmdr. Dave “Snuffy” Bassett, Lt. Cmdr. John “Shorn” Saccomando, Lt. Cmdr. Doug “Thing” Thien, Sqdn. Ldr. Anthony J “Foxy” Gregory and Graham Liddy of the Irish Aircraft Accident Investigation Unit for their help with the compilation of this article. Thank you also to Dave Brown, Ted Carlson, Nicky Hall, Capt. Dana Potts, Cmdr. Tom Twomey and Denis Minihane of The Irish Examiner for the provision of the photographs used to illustrate this feature.