When I think back to some of the most dangerous moments I’ve had during my military career, the worst wasn’t about me or a situation I put myself in, but a situation I put my son in on a hot Louisiana summer night. At the time I was more than chest deep in my military career and stationed at a small air base south of New Orleans along the Mississippi river. Physically and mentally I was at the height of my game. I was strong and I had a hand in just about everything I could qualify for in our Fighter Attack squadron. I was a certified Physical Fitness Instructor for our squadron, I was an assistant to our squadrons Urinalysis Program Advisor and I was also a Drug and Alcohol Program Advisor and answered only to our squadrons Commanding Officer. As far as the jets went, I was qualified to do just about everything on the F-18 Hornet Fighter jet but fly it. I had worked my way into a Full System Quality Assurance job which basically meant that I could inspect and sign off on any maintenance done to the aircraft, some very critical maintenance that involved flight safety items. I was responsible for all the squadron audits and inspections and my job was to make sure the squadrons maintenance department followed the rules. There was a lot of responsibility that came with the job and I needed to be mentally focused at all times. One of the qualifications I held in the squadron, and probably the most dangerous was an engine high power operator, which meant that I was qualified to start and run the engines at a higher power settings from 80% to full afterburner. Sometimes our jets required engine testing before, during and after maintenance had been done or an engine had been changed out. There were only a couple of us that were qualified to do this engine testing and at high power engine settings as it was a very danger job. On this particular week night, my son Derek and I were home after a day of school and day care for him and a long days work for me. I was a single parent at the time and it was just Derek and I living in a little house just outside the main gate of the base. I could be at work in 10 minutes if necessary, and sometimes it was necessary. The phone rang around midnight and Derek and I were sound asleep at the time. It was the squadrons maintenance department and they were in a bind. It seemed the engine guys were troubleshooting a problem with an overheating engine compartment, most likely caused by a bleed air leak. Bleed air leaks were very tough to troubleshoot but it was a system that could cause the aircraft to wind up in a flaming heap so it was something that was very serious and dangerous. Bleed air is basically super heated, highly pressurized air that is bled from the combustion area of the engine to be cooled through heat exchangers and used for environmental systems like air conditioning and such. The bleed air lines were well insulated and ran along the inside of the engine compartment. There were joints and couplings in the lines and sometimes these joints would become unseated and spring a leak. The heat sensors in the engine compartment would warn the pilot that his engine compartment was getting hot and if it was not addressed quickly a fire could soon start. The pilots procedure was to shut the affected engine down and fly home on the remaining engine, declaring a single engine emergency. Needless to say, it was pretty serious to have a bleed air leak. Our squadron Maintenance personnel told me that they had no choice but to call because at the time I was the only guy holding a engine high power certification and they desperately needed the jet early in the morning for a mission. They thought they had the bleed air leak fixed, but needed to run the engines at high power to make sure. My job was to run the affected engine at high power settings and try to duplicate the discrepancy. If I couldn’t duplicate the discrepancy, my job was done. I would sign off the aircraft as fixed and safe for flight. The only wrinkle in the plan was my son Derek. I couldn’t leave him at home alone, as he was only around 10 years old at the time. I told the maintenance chief that I would drive out to the squadron and do it but only if Derek could come along. The chief agreed. I told the chief to have the guys get the jet ready for a high power engine run, which consisted of towing the aircraft out to a remote area, usually at the end of a runway, called a “high power pad”. It was generally well marked and had a big thick metal ring anchored down in the middle of an open circular area with a jet blast deflector along the edge to deflect and dissipate the very dangerous jet blast caused by the engines at high power settings. The jet had to be positioned perfectly, tied down with a very heavy chain, chalks and smaller chains to hold the aircraft back during testing. Once the aircraft was set up and ready, I would ride out to the high power pad in a work van with Derek and a hand full of maintenance guys. Derek would stay in the van with the windows up and hearing protection on while I ran the engine at higher power settings for a while and if all went well, we’d be back home in an hour. I woke Derek up and explained what we were doing. He was used to the military life and was familiar with what I did, our aircraft and our maintenance team. For him, it was like being awakened to a trip to Disneyland. He loved to see the jets and for a 10 year old kid to see his dad in a jet in full afterburner in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night was pretty crazy I’m sure. I got to the squadron and went into maintenance control to review the aircraft logbooks and familiarize myself with the aircraft. We had 12 aircraft total, and every one was different. They all had there little ghosts, hick ups and histories of years of maintenance. I chatted with the maintenance guys to find out what maintenance was done to the aircraft to fix the problem. Once we got all the formalities out of the way, we loaded up in the maintenance van and we were all on our way down the taxiway to test the aircraft that was waiting at the high power pad. When we pulled into the pad, there were several ground crew guys standing around waiting to assist in the evolution. The aircraft was chained and ready to go. We all exiting the van except for Derek who I instructed to stay in the van no matter what. I told him that it was very important that he DO NOT leave the van under any circumstances. The van was parked about 100 feet from the jet at the edge of the pad and we left the dome light on so I could se Derek at all times. I did a thorough walk around with my flashlight and scoured the aircraft and area for anything that might cause a problem. My plan was to start the right motor, which was the good motor, and then start the left motor which was the motor to test. Once I got all of the systems on line I would start running the left motor at higher settings and try to duplicate the problem. Sometimes I would really have to put the big GE 404 motors through their paces to figure out a problem so I warned the ground crew to keep on their toes. As I climbed into the cockpit ejection seat I looked over at the van and saw Derek staring out the passenger window with his oversized cranial and hearing protection on. The maintenance guys would all be scouring the engine compartment for leaks as I put the engine through it’s paces so I needed to keep a close eye on Derek as well as the instruments and engine parameters. I fired up the APU and cranked up the right engine and brought the big jet to life. Everything was good on the right engine so I started the left engine and got everything warmed up for some serious high power engine settings. The crew on the ground gave me the “all clear” and I made a quick check with Derek who was still looking out the passenger window. I pushed the left throttle up to the 80% stop and I could feel the thrust of the jet pulling the heavy chains and the aircraft lurched forward. The feel of the thrust from underneath me was a feeling like I’ve never experienced before. I’ve often wondered what would of happened if a jet were to get loose and snap the big chains while high powering. I gave the ground crew the signal that I was going to run the engine up to higher settings. This is where the most dangerous part comes in. The intake in the front of the aircraft becomes a giant vacuum at higher power settings and anyone within 15 feet of the intake during this time would be sucked up, chewed up and spit out the back of the engine in ragged pieces. Anyone around the back of the aircraft that wandered into the exhaust area would be blown into the jet blast deflector and thrown hundreds of feet from the area. All of our maintenance guys were well trained and know exactly where to be during any given time. I pushed the throttle to the 100% stop and scoured the instruments for anything abnormal. The aircraft lurched forward even more and I could feel the pressure on the holdback chain from the cockpit. The throttle was just a half inch away from busting the first zone of afterburner and I made one final check on Derek before really tearing into testing this engine. My thought was that I would rather find out if the jet was going to break on the ground than have it break in the air and crash it into a school house. I pushed the left throttle into afterburner and felt the extra thrust provided by the afterburner stage as the blue and white flame lit up the night all around the aircraft. I looked at Derek and I could see his eyes as wide as silver dollars as he looked back at the tailpipe flames reacting from my throttle motions. I pushed the throttle forward to full afterburner and left it there in order to heat the engine quickly. Each engine provided 22k lbs of thrust in full afterburner and the feel of the power underneath me was unbelievable. I quickly checked with the ground crew through hand signals to make sure everything was going well during full afterburner. I got a quick thumbs up and did a quick check on Derek who was still in the window watching intently. I jerked the throttle back to idle and then quickly pushed it back up to afterburner to simulate in flight conditions and hopefully duplicate the problem if it wasn’t fixed. I really put the engine through it’s paces and if it was going to heat up my job was to make sure it happened on the ground. After 10-15 minutes of running the engine at different power settings I had the engine in full afterburner and watched my ground plane captain walk to the rear of the aircraft, out of site of my view. It made me very nervous not to have a ground guy around within plain site. I pulled the throttle back to idle in order to get someone’s attention and the ground crew guy came running out of the dark, giving me the signal to run the engine back up. As I did he ran back into the darkness and I was left alone with the engine at high power. Out of nowhere my left “LH BLEED AIR” red flashing warning light comes on in the cockpit. Anything that is red and flashing in the cockpit means “warning”, and is a serious problem. Yellow flashing lights mean “caution” and is some thing that might be livable, but red means big trouble. Just to add to the dilemma, I also get an oral tone in my headset which is referred to as “Bitchin Betty” and she tells me I have a big bleed air problem in the left engine area. I did a quick check of the rest of the engine data to make sure the engine wasn’t overheating or operating out of perimeters. When I looked out of the canopy and on the ground for any sign of maintenance people it was dark and no one was around. I didn’t know if there was an actually fire back there in the engine bay but when I looked at the maintenance van, the door was wide open and Derek was gone. I can say this about that split second in my life; it was the most gut wrenching, uncontrollable situation I’ve ever been in. Only a parent could ever experience this feeling and it isn’t pretty. Just imagine that your child had just wandered onto a busy freeway of speeding traffic and you have no control of the outcome. To this day it’s hard for me to relive that moment in time. Within a split second I chopped that motor to the “OFF” position and raised the canopy to climb out of the jet as quickly as possible. I jumped down onto the ground from the canopy ledge which was a good 8-10 feet and ran to the back of the plane. There was a crowd under the jet and I could see Derek right there with the crew, under the engine area. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but I nearly came unglued. I yelled at everyone including Derek who was looking up at me from a kneeling position. I asked Derek why he left the van and he said that the maintenance guys were waving him over to help. They were actually giving hand signals to each other because of the deafening sound and Derek mistook a maintenance hand signal for a “forget everything your dad said and come over here under the jet”. Basically the jet was still broken so it was back to the drawing board for the mechanics and it was back to bed for Derek and I. I told Derek that never again would I do such a stupid thing and he got a good grounding for not listening to his dad. I think I got a few grey hairs that night.