In order to tell this story, I’ve got to go back a long way. I believe the year was 1989, shortly before the lead-up to the first Gulf War and I had been working on F-14 Tomcats for about 2 years. It seemed like the whole time I was in San Diego working on Tomcats I worked the night shift. The bad thing about working on Tomcats and working the night shift is is that your shift was supposed to end around midnight, but it seemed like it never ever ever ended around midnight. Most of the time we work on the jets till 2:00 AM, 3:00, AM 4:00 AM and sometimes we’d work on The jets until the sun came up and our day shift counterparts came in to relieve us. Our departure from work all depended on the next days flight schedule and aircraft availability to fulfill the mission. Basically, if the pilots needed 8 jets for the mission, we gave them 8 jets. One thing I can say about tomcats is that it was very hard work; it didn’t matter if you were an electrician, hydraulics man, metalsmith or engine mech, the work was hot, hard and dirty every night. The Tomcat was not only a big bad fighter jet, it was also a big fuel, hydraulic fluid and oil leaking dangerous hunk of metal and you had to respect that or things could be very bad. When young men work on multimillion dollar, 20 ton flame throwing machines of war, things can go from good to bad faster than a snake can strike.
I know you’re probably wondering about that catchy title of the story so I’ll get you up to speed on Navy squadrons and aircraft stuff before we get into the story. Generally in a fighter squadron you operate with 12 aircraft. Each aircraft is assigned a aircraft number from 00 up to 12 and out of those 12 aircraft a few may not be able to fly due to some form of scheduled or unscheduled maintenance. If a squadron can maintain an average of 7-8 aircraft being flight capable at any given time, you’re doing good. Some of the aircraft that are not flyable may have little problems that need minor maintenance attention and some may have big problems that require some form of specialized maintenance that could require months of waiting for the repair from a specialized group. That was the case with aircraft 00 which we appropriately named “Nuts” for short, so instead of saying “aircraft double zero” we just called her Nuts. Nuts had been a “hangar queen” of ours for just less than a year. Hanger queen means that it sat in the hangar unfixed for months. When the hangar queens are resting in the hangar waiting for specialized maintenance we would cannibalize the aircraft, meaning that we would take parts off of it in order to use for other aircraft to meet the flight schedule. Cannibalization was pretty common among the hangar queens and the longer an aircraft sat in the hanger the longer it would be cannibalized. In the case of Nuts, it spent close to a year in the hangar before the needed repair and after the repair was complete it was time to put it back together and fire it up….literally.
The bad thing about Nuts was that it had been cannibalized a lot and looked like Swiss cheese because it had so many holes in it before we put it back together. It was missing both engines, just about every computer had been taken out and probably hundreds of other parts including just about all of the gauges in the cockpits. It literally took us a few weeks just to get to the point of applying electrical power to the aircraft safely after we put it all back together. The engines were re-installed and every part that had been cannibalized had been replaced over the course of a few weeks. The longer an aircraft is in the hangar the longer it took to get it back in the air. We worked our butts off to make sure Nuts was ready to fly again before it’s year out of service was up. We had a deadline to meet and the aircraft needed to fly within a year or there was going to be some explaining to do with our Carrier Air Group Commander or “CAG”. CAG was our boss and you just didn’t let a jet sit a round for a year without flying it.
Once we put Nuts back together in the hangar, we jacked it up off the hangar deck and cycled the landing gear as well as many of the flight controls necessary for the aircraft to fly. Everything was working great in the hangar and it was time for us to tow Nuts out to the flight line to fire up the engines and bring the big jet to life. The engine mechanics were usually the ones in the front seat who started, ran the engines and did all the many maintenance checks that are involved with getting the aircraft ready for flight. The back seat of the Tomcat was for all the electronic equipment and the back seater had no controls for the engines, flight controls or many other systems. The back seater handled the navigation and weapons duties while the Tomcat pilot flew the aircraft. Most of the electronic testing and ground type electronic testing for us electricians and electronics technicians was done from the back seat. On the night we towed nuts out to the flight line for the first time it was late, we had been working all night just to get the jet ready to start. Everyone was tired and all we had to do was start the jet, try and run a few electronic tests as well as making sure the engines didn’t have any major issues. Well, like any other well laid plan in the Navy, it fell apart. Our engine mechanic and the guy that was going to start the engines on the Tomcat was my roommate “Chief” in the barracks and a good friend. I’m going to change a few names here because I think there may have been a procedure or two that was overlooked or bypassed to achieve our goal. In order to start and test the engines you needed to have a “turn qual” certification and it wasn’t easy to get. The squadron only maintained a few engine qualified folks and my roommate Chief was one of them. He hadn’t been a turn qual very long but we really needed to get the jet going and he was all we had.
It was probably 1am once we towed the jet out to the flight line and myself, Chief and about a dozen other ground crew folks started doing our checks. The jet was chalked and chained down for the engine run and I was going to be the electronic technician in the back seat while Chief ran the tests on the engines in the front once we got the jet started. In order to start a Tomcat you need a “huffer” which basically blows highly pressurized air into the engine to spin it up and turn it on. You also need an electrical cart to supply electrical power to the aircraft during starting. These two items are large pieces of ground equipment hooked up in close proximity to the aircraft and with a bunch of ground crew personal around the aircraft it’s pretty crowded. Chief and I finished all of our ground checks before climbing up into the front and back cockpit. The canopy was open and we jumped into the seats and started turning on instruments and gauges required for the start up. Chief and I had headsets on and we could talk with each other through the internal intercom system and we could also talk to the tower as well as our maintenance office inside the hangar. I was in the back seat doing my checks and talking to the ground personnel about 8 feet below on the ground. When it came time to start the engines we had to close the canopy as part of the procedures but I didn’t mind because we could turn on the air conditioning once we got an engine on line and it would be a lot more quiet and comfortable while doing my checks. We got the canopy closed and Chief gave the all clear to the ground crew and signal to apply huffer pressure to the aircraft. Chief was going to start with the left engine and then when the left was on line we would start the right engine. When the huffer kicked in I could feel the turbine blades on the big GE motor start to spin. Chief let the engine “windmill”, which mean letting the turbines spin without applying fuel or spark to the motor for a few minutes to warm it up. When Chief advanced the throttle from the off position to idle fuel would be sprayed into the combustion chamber of the motor and a giant 20k volt spark plug would ignite the fuel. I say “would be” sprayed into the combustion chamber but on this particular night something went wrong and the fuel didn’t ignite if it got fuel but for some reason the engine wouldn’t start. Chief told me over the intercom that he was going to make a second attempt to start the motor but we needed to raise the canopy to talk with a ground crew mechanic first. When Chief went to raise the canopy, it wouldn’t come up. The big canopy over the front and back cockpits was controlled by 3k pounds of nitrogen pressure and the bottle that held the nitrogen was depleted. We should have checked that before ever entering the cockpit but we were in a hurry and overlooked it. At that time we were a captive audience in the aircraft and the only 2 ways to get out of the aircraft in an emergency was to hand crank the canopy open with a small hand crank under the inside of the canopy sill and it took 275 turns and 5 minutes to open the canopy with the crank. The only other way was to blow or eject the canopy with the rockets that were inside the canopy sill and used for the pilot ejection sequence. If we had to blow the canopy it would result in some pretty bad burns and maybe death. Blowing a canopy was not advised and if you blew one and survived your Navy career would probably be over.
We gave hand motions to the ground crew to have them bring out a nitrogen servicing cart to service the nitrogen bottle so we could open the canopy. At that point we should have sat and waited till the canopy was serviced to continue but we made the decision to press on and try and start the engine again. Once again the motor didn’t light off so Chief kneeled the aircraft in an attempt to move any pooled gas around in the engine. Kneeling the aircraft mean collapsing the nose landing gear strut which is the position of the nose landing gear when it is launched from an aircraft carrier. When the strut is kneeled the nose of the aircraft is lowered considerably and any pooled gas in the engine is shifted to the front and when you are starting a Tomcat, kneeling the aircraft for a short period of time and then raising it somehow works for starting a stubborn motor. Once Chief kneeled and raised the aircraft he gave the ground crew the signal that he was going to try and start it one more time. We got the thumbs up from the ground crew Chief advanced the throttle to idle once again only this time there was a huge explosion in the back of the aircraft. The explosion lite up the night around the aircraft in a giant fireball and everyone on the ground scattered like roaches. I heard our maintenance department guys on the radio inside the hangar shout out “Nuts on Fire”!!!”Nuts on Fire”!!!From where I was in the back seat I could feel the heat from the fireball and when I looked back to the rear of the aircraft I could see flames engulfing the back half of the aircraft. Basically the engine had finally lite off but we had a lot of excess fuel inside the engine and when Chief raised the aircraft from kneel a lot of fuel ran out onto the tarmac underneath the aircraft which no one had seen prior to our startup attempt. When the motor finally lite off a line of burning fuel ran down the back of the tailpipe onto the ground and ignited the ground around the aircraft. At that point we were in big trouble, the back of the aircraft was on fire and I quickly realized I had no way out of the aircraft without blowing the canopy and risking my career and life. It was definitely a bad place to be in but out of a dozen people running from the fire only one grabbed a nearby Halon fire extinguisher bottle, ran towards the fire spraying Halon as he went and put out the flames. Words couldn’t properly describe the feeling of relief I had seeing those flames subsid as the Halon did it’s job. His name was Mike P and I’ll never forget that name or watching Mike calmly put out the fire and possibly save a couple of lives in the process. Things got pretty busy once Mike got the fire put out. The fire department showed up while Chief and I were waiting to get the canopy opened to get us out. I gotta admit that I was pretty rattled when I finally climbed out of the cockpit and put my feet on the ground. The aircraft had minor damage from the flames but nothing that couldn’t be fixed up. Nuts managed to get back in the air shortly after that night and it flew with our squadron for the next 3 years I was there. When I think back to that incident in the middle of the night, I thank my lucky stars and the big man upstairs for my survival in our Tomcat squadron. In my 5 years in the squadron we crashed 3 jets and lost at least 6 squadron personnel, one being a close fishing buddy of mine that I still think about often. Unfortunately bad things happen when you work on Navy jets and you rely on your training to save lives. Mike P knew exactly what to do when he saw the fire while 10+ other guys ran from the fire.