Looking Over The Edge
by Keith “Rosey” Rosenkranz
Aviators who’ve been to “the edge of the envelope” definitely know the name “Chuck Yeager.” On Oct. 14, 1947, the legendary test pilot became the first person to fly supersonic, breaking the so-called “sound barrier” in a rocket-powered Bell X-1.
Many of the era’s experts believed the sound barrier was impenetrable. That view was reinforced, during early X-1 test flights, when Yeager encountered severe buffeting and abrupt nose-up and nose-down trim changes. On one occasion, he lost pitch control altogether, when a shock wave formed along the hinge line of the X-1’s elevator.
Fortunately, the X-1 had been designed with an all-moving horizontal tail, which ultimately allowed Yeager to control the rocketplane as it passed through the transonic region and attain a top speed of Mach 1.06.
His dance on the edge of the envelope had lasting impacts on aviation. As a former Air Force T-38 instructor and F-16 fighter pilot, I was one of many who benefited from Yeager’s discoveries. In fact, they may have helped me survive my 28th combat mission during Operation Desert Storm.
On Feb. 25, 1991, my F-16 wingman, Geoff “Grover” Cleveland, and I arrive at the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron–the “Black Widows.” Our unit had deployed five months earlier from Hill AFB, Utah, to the United Arab Emirates in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm.
Five weeks into the war, things are going well. The ground phase is underway and allied forces are moving rapidly into Kuwait. Tonight’s mission should be no different than others I’ve flown recently, although the weather is questionable. Low ceilings and heavy rain have impeded the allied advancement, and no improvement is expected until later in the week.
After the mission brief, Grover and I suit up and step to our jets. We start engines on time and soon taxi onto the runway. Grover turns off his taxi light, I switch my position lights to steady and we both run up our engines. When my clock reads 17:15:00, I release brakes. Takeoff and join-up are routine, so I start looking for our assigned air refueling tanker.
The night is pitch black and we’re still in the weather, but my Lantirn navigation and targeting system’s forward-looking infrared (flir) finally shows the tanker 3 mi. ahead. As I approach it, I pull the F-16’s throttle back, open the air-refueling door and switch the electronic countermeasures pod to standby. I’m 500 ft. below the tanker; clouds are still thick. With one eye on airspeed and the other on the tanker, I ease to within a few hundred feet, watching the outline of a KC-10 begin to appear on my flir display. There! I’ve got the refueling boom in sight. I switch the radar to standby, push my throttle up and ease into the contact position. The boomer eventually plugs in and fuel begins to flow.
Grover waits patiently on the tanker’s left wing. When my tanks are full, the boom disconnects, I pull the throttle back ever so slightly and maneuver to the tanker’s right wing. Grover drops into refueling position as I punch-in the primary strike radio frequency and contact our Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft, call-sign “Bulldog.”
“Bulldog, Husky 07 checking in with two, mission number 3207 alpha. We’re carrying Mavericks and CBU-87, and we’ve been assigned to AG-6. Any words?”
“Negative, Husky 07. Advise when you’re ready to proceed north.”
I continue to orbit with the KC-10 and switch over to Joint Stars, which is tracking ground targets with its powerful radar. I make the same call and get the same response as AWACS gave me. My next transmission is to an Airborne Command, Control and Communications (ABCCC) C-130 controller, who tells me to contact a Marine Corps commander who’s looking for air support. By now, Grover has finished refueling and is rejoining on my wing. I punch in one of two frequencies the ABCCC controller provided and call the Marines.
“Go ahead, Husky 07,” a gruff voice answers.
“Husky 07 is a pair of F-16s carrying Mavericks and CBU-87. ABCCC said you might be able to use us.”
“Copy that, Husky 07. We’re getting ready to take an airfield called Ali Al Salim. The base is located 10 mi. west of Al Jahrah in AG-5 quadrant-one. I’m anticipating resistance from Iraqi forces. I’d like you to come in and work along the highway between the base and Al Jahrah. Remain east of the airfield and call me when you come off.”
“Husky 07 copies. We’re departing the tanker track and should be in the area by 1900Z.”
Once clear of the tanker, I call Grover and tell him what we’re tasked to do. “I want you to take spacing while I pull out my map and plot some coordinates. I’ll cross-check them with you to make sure we match. We have to remain east of the airfield, so one of our points will be the base and the other will be along the highway 15 mi. to the east.”
“Husky 08 copies.”
I level off at 24,000 ft., engage the autopilot, plot the coordinates and enter them into my F-16’s fire control/navigation system as steerpoints 15 and 16. I then call for a bearing-and-range check. There’s no room for error on this one. Dropping bombs or firing missiles anywhere west of the airfield could become an inadvertent “friendly-fire” incident.
To avoid our running into each other in the clouds, Grover will work the area at 14,000 ft. and above. I’ll remain at or below 13,000 ft. as we work the highway between steerpoints 15 and 16.
Turning to a 010-deg. heading, I start descending, power up my Maverick missiles and complete the “fence check.” I have no idea where the bottom of the cloud deck is, so I verify the automatic low-altitude warning system is set at both 9,000 ft. and 6,000 ft. If I’m still in the weather, “Bitchin’ Betty,” the computer-generated audio warning, will warn me if I’m approaching a 6,000-ft. floor I do not want to penetrate.
I fly to a point 10 mi. east of steerpoint 16, make a hard turn to the northwest, then call up my ground-moving-target radar image. After a few sweeps, I lock up the first vehicle–20 mi. on the nose, 5 mi. east of the airfield. I descend again, hoping to find clear skies below the cloud layer.
Airspeed is 360 kt. passing 9,000 feet, when “Bitchin’ Betty” calls: “Altitude! Altitude!” I continue to descend through 7,000 ft. and finally see clear airspace starting to appear.
“I’ve got a mover locked,” I radio.
Through 6,000 ft. and Bitchin’ Betty warns again: “Altitude! Altitude!” I level off, hit the uncage switch and Maverick video appears on my right multifunction display. The target is close to the Maverick’s tracking gates, so I push the target management switch forward and slew the gates over the vehicle. Now the infrared image is perfect and the pointing cross is holding steady. Approximately 5 mi. from the target, I hit the pickle button. With a loud roar, a missile flies off the rail, and I thumb the radio-transmit button on my throttle.
“Husky 07, missile’s away.” Pulling hard to the right, I spot a stream of red tracers at my 4 o’clock position. I jink right a couple of times, then check back to the left.
“Copy that,” Grover responds. “I’m 13 mi. in trail. Tell me when you’re coming left.”
Rolling left, I stare into the blackness below, waiting for the missile to reach its mark, then respond, “I’m in a left-hand turn now, through 320… Splash the target! It’s a tank! He’s burning!”
What an incredible sight! The armored hulk exploded directly underneath my jet!
“Say your heading and reference off steerpoint-five,” Grover replies.
“Okay… Stand by.” I realize Grover made reference to the wrong steerpoint, so I pause before answering. “Understand steerpoint 15?”
Waiting, I glance at my instrument panel. After confirming that I have the correct steerpoint in, I perform a range-and-bearing check to relay my position to Grover. Suddenly, instinct tells me something isn’t right. The F-16’s flight controls are extremely sensitive and the wind blast against the bubble canopy is deafening.
I flash back to supersonic flights I flew with students, when I was a T-38 instructor pilot. Every student breaks the sound barrier during his first flight and comes away with two distinct impressions: It’s extremely noisy in the cockpit, and the flight controls are much more sensitive, thanks to increased airflow over the wings.
Realizing what’s happened, I check my main attitude-director indicator. I’m 30 deg. nose-low, diving at the ground–and altitude is fast-disappearing as we scream through 1,600 ft. With no hesitation, I pull on the sidestick as hard as I can. The world goes black as the rapid onset of gs forces blood from my head; I can’t see a thing.
“Oh, man… Hold on!”
Finally, I’m climbing. I relax stick back-pressure, and my vision returns. I take a deep breath and check altitude. Now I’m 40 deg. nose high and airspeed is quickly falling off, so I roll inverted and pull the nose back down to the horizon line on my HUD. Once I regain situational awareness and roll back to wings-level, I key the mike and radio: “Okay, say your altitude right now.”
“Two-three-zero in a left-hand turn over steerpoint 15,” Grover replies.
“Copy. Stand by…” I was just a little nose high… “Hold on a second.” I’m still trying to settle down, fully aware of how close I came to auguring into the desert. While celebrating a Maverick kill and preoccupied with determining Grover’s position, I had broken a cardinal rule of fighter-flying: never lose situational awareness.
Minutes later, having scored four Iraqi-tank kills, Grover and I depart the area. I chew on a granola bar and reflect on our mission as we head southeast, climbing to 37,000 ft. Perhaps I’m dead and I just don’t know it, I muse, still shaken.
Fourteen years have passed, but that mission is still fresh in my memory. And I’m thankful for that experience as a T-38 instructor. Those supersonic runs over the plains of West Texas saved my life that dark night over Iraq.
I have an old test pilot–Chuck Yeager–to thank, as well. He showed me a pilot could look over the edge of the envelope and live to tell about it.
Keith Rosenkranz, a top-rated flight instructor and Top Gun in F-16 fighter training, flew 30 combat missions–most at night–during the Gulf War. He scored 10 Maverick missile kills during the “Highway of Death” battle, and was awarded four Air Medals and two Aerial Achievement Medals. Now a pilot for Delta Airlines, he authored “Vipers in the Storm: Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot,” an Aviation Week book.