Bandit 650: Part one

Pilots love to sit around telling airplane stories, but none I’ve ever heard can even come close to that of a really good friend of mine, Doug Downey.  Besides being an awesome guy, Doug is a retired USAF Lt Col who is an Academy grad and flew as a fighter pilot in the F-16 Viper and the F-117 Nighthawk.  Nighthawk pilots call themselves "Bandits" and each of the 558 Air Force pilots who have flown the F-117 has a Bandit number that started at 150 and added on sequentially from there.  Doug was the 500th pilot in the jet and flew with the call sign “Bandit 650.” 

He flew the jet in multiple combat tours in the Balkans and the Middle East and also served as a combat logistician, wing commander, an instructor pilot, check pilot, and air show demonstration pilot. He was an advance agent for Air Force One and President G.W. Bush for five years and later a diplomat in Pakistan and a military advisor to the Pakistani Air Force.  If all that’s not enough, he is genuine hero and his story puts all the elements of SA that we have been picking apart over the last few months into perspective.

Doug survived a near disaster in the F-117 that we had spoken about a couple of times a while back.  Last month Doug gave me more details of his story while we were sitting around over beers, steaks and airplane tales in Wichita KS at the Bombardier Safety Stand Down.  It happened on February 5, 2004, a crisp, clear New Mexico afternoon, while Doug was practicing emergency procedures and simulated single engine approaches at Holloman AFB.  The training procedure required the simulated flame out engine retarded to 65% RPM but not completely to idle as the jet is already thrust limited.  Standard practice at the base was that the go-around be conducted no lower than 100 feet off the ground. Because of an internal design flaw in the F-117 engine that made an untimely first appearance just at that moment, the “good engine” flamed out before the engine that he had retarded power on had time to spool back up. 

The slow speed, limited available thrust, high angle of attack (AOA) and adverse yaw put the jet in a non-aerodynamic flight envelope that resides on the “bad” side of the power curve and a place we all like to avoid. As we talked about last month, Doug’s new “real’ reality was that his stealth fighter was suddenly a stealth glider.  Doug put all the elements of SA together to avoid letting his crippled jet crash onto the base or into a park full of families on a Sunday picnic at White Sands National Park adjacent to the field.  This would have been a disaster that would have killed him along with dozens of kids and their parents on the ground.  Not to spoil the ending, he was eventually able to turn the plane around and coax the jet back onto the runway.

The seeds of this near disaster were planted long before that February day.  Back in 1964 a Soviet mathematician named Pyotr Ufimtsev published a paper modestly titled “Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction.”  The study ushered in the era of stealth technology by proving that the strength of radar returns from an object (jet wing) are related to edge configuration, not size.  Based on this work, the stealth technology project was taken up in 1975 at the Lockheed Skunk Works with a model they dubbed the "Hopeless Diamond.”  This was a pun on words because of the similar shape of the prototypes to the Hope Diamond.   The finished product became the nearly invisible F-117 stealth fighter that weighed 30,000 lbs but still had a radar cross-sectional area that is less than a golf ball and unimaginably small, only 0.001 m2 (0.0108 sq ft). 

The control problems Doug faced when he lost his engine were largely due to aerodynamic penalties of the stealth shape and technology such as lower engine thrust due to exhaust limits in inlet and outlet jet flow, a very low wing aspect ratio, and a high sweep angle (50°) needed to deflect incoming radar waves to the sides.  In addition each engine is covered with an “ice cube tray” over thrusters to deflect radar signals but at the cost of imparting drag and that acted like a wind milling prop when the engine behind it is stalled.  The good engine that had been pulled back for the training mission would require almost a minute to spool back up.  And now with his other engine suddenly flamed out and no use at all, Bandit 650 was about as aerodynamic as a cinder block.  Doug wrestled with the airplane while executing a real-life single engine go-around on limited thrust and high AOA. 

He abruptly experienced so much sink and adverse yaw that the jet veered off the runway heading and was pointed directly at the control tower. The first reaction he relates was to avoid hitting it so he pushed the jet further into the roll to steer clear of the tower.  He actually passed 100 feet below the control tower cab and cleared the tower itself by only a few feet laterally.  This took him off the airport and away from the runway towards the vastness of the desert and White Sands Missile Range complex.  Yet another place no one really wants to be.  The next problem he faced was that the jet had entered an aerodynamic flight envelope few have experienced known as “PLAZ”, possible loss of aircraft zone.  As the jet enters PLAZ the immediate memory action items triggered in every Nighthawk pilot’s brain were to gain any altitude possible and configure the jet in a safe ejection parameter (no roll, no sink). This was so the pilot could safely eject before the jet enters an uncontrollable roll and spun into the ground.  He knew he could not eject over the ancient lava flows off to his right without getting cut to ribbons.   Looking the other way from less than 100 feet up, he saw dozens of families in White Sands National Park that he instinctively knew would be killed if he ejected then and let the plane crash into the park.  It was time for plan B – but there was no plan B. 

Next month we’ll analyze how Doug managed to nurse his wounded jet back for a successful landing on the runway.  We will dig into the lessons we can learn from all the elements of SA in this story and see how we can put it to use for our own safety in the sky.

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS
Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in principles of aviation safety and has adapted those lessons to healthcare and industry for maximizing patient safety and minimizing human error. He also writes and teaches pilot and patient safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery/surgical critical care and general surgery. Dr. Stahl holds an active ATP certification and a 25-year member of the AOPA with thousands of hours as pilot in command in multiple airframes. He serves on the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors and is a published author with numerous peer reviewed journal and medical textbook contributions. Dr. Stahl practices surgery and is active in writing and industry consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

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