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The Plane Captain

by AMSAN Scott Shavers
VF-101 Grim Reapers (1989-1992)

Being a Plane Captain for the F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft was a trying, yet rewarding job. The position of Plane Captain is not one that is “given” to you. It is an earned opportunity. A Plane Captain must know everything about his or her aircraft. If a problem arises during an inspection or a preflight walk-around, the Plane Captain will have to know how to rectify it. Or, at the least, know who to address the problem to. The plane captain, or PC, has to know the aircraft from tires to canopy.

Upon arrival at work, which the PC calls the “Line Shack”, he is assigned his own aircraft, or bird. The PC then preps the bird for the scheduled flight of the day. There are certain panels and doors that must be open for the pilot to do their preflight inspection. These doors and panels vary from the engine daily doors to the hydraulic inspection panels. The canopy has to have the prescribed amount of air, or nitrogen, so it will close and open before the launch as well as after the landing and recovery.

When the pilots walk, they expect a smart salute, a Top Gun PC and a prepped bird that’s ready to fly. Any problems noted during their preflight inspection are quickly remedied. At this time a fuel leak or a puddle of hydraulic fluid would be a bad thing. The pilots, trusting this aircraft and PC with their lives, look over the bird in great detail.

After the PC assists the pilot and RIO with the “strapping on of their aircraft”, he shimmies down the side to secure the steps and ladder. This should be the last time the PC utilizes voice commands. After this it will be too loud to hear anything. The pilot and RIO complete their cockpit checks, pushing in fuses and tightening seatbelts while the PC stands patiently on the ground waiting for the next instructions. The pilot then signals for the electrical power to be applied. The PC signals his Trainee to hit the wells unit switch but applies the power to the plane himself by hitting the switch under the fuselage. This gets the first sounds of computers whirring to life and the exterior lights on the plane to start flashing. The pilot continues his cockpit check with the electric on and when they’re ready, signal the air to be turned on. Again, the PC signals his Trainee to hit the air on the wells unit. The air needed to turn over the turbine blades rushes through the hose with a deafening roar. At this time the environmental controls are working inside the cockpit and the pilot will close his canopy. The PC then assumes his position.

The first hand signals to the pilot begin on the port side. Windmilling the port engine causes the airflow to circulate the turbine blades and begins the computer cooling efforts. The port engine isn’t fed fuel by the pilots which would cause the engine to crank yet. Instead, the PC switches to the starboard side of the aircraft to signal a windmill for that engine. At that time the fuel is supplied and the turbofan engine fires up. Throughout the launch procedure, the PC is usually the only eyes on the outside of the plane. During the firing of the engines, there could be an occasion of the engine to be fed too much fuel and not enough spark, leading to a wet start. The wet start is visible to the PC because smoke will pour out of the exhaust pipe, but the engine will not fire up. The PC would then signal the pilot of the wet start and again windmill the engine to clear out the unspent fuel. Usually the second firing of that engine will lead to a rather large, yet controlled, explosion. Not so much bomb-like, but enough to let you know you are dealing with thousands of pounds of thrust and it generally puts a huge grin on your face. After the starboard engine is running up to speed and the sound of turbines and smell of burnt jet fuel is in the air, the PC moves back to the port side of the plane. The same sequence again of firing up that engine occurs. Usually without the windmilling though, since it was already accomplished earlier. After both engines are running the PC signals that he is going to remove the ground lock safety devices. At this time the PC signals his trainee to shut off the electric and air from the wells unit. The electric cord and air hose are removed and the panels are shut. If the PC’s trainee is good, he’ll roll up both the cord and the hose for you. Since hydraulic fluid is pressurized throughout the system, there is no fear of the landing gear to collapse, so the bright red metal pieces are removed from each strut. The PC then shows the pilot all three locks are removed displaying the “remove before flight” lanyards and placing them in the respective storage panel under the plane. Note that after certain signals given by the PC, a “hands off” signal is also shown. Any time the PC must go near the plane, this signal lets the pilot know that any bumping of flight controls inside the cockpit could injure of kill the PC. A good PC will wait until he sees the pilot with both hands visible before running towards the plane. After the ground locks are secured the pilot is ready for the actual launch procedure. The PC then runs to the front of the plane, and waits for all personnel to leave the danger zones of the plane. Note the word “run”, since from here on, the PC runs to every position instead of walks.

Communication on the flight line is a must for survival. Everybody has to have their head on a swivel. Things happen very quickly and sometimes without forgiveness. If something is missed, somebody can get blown down, sucked up or run over. Everybody’s lives rely on everybody else. Teamwork was essential and never over-practiced.

After each commanded action is successful the PC will show a thumbs-up to the pilot. The first signal given is the opening of the wings. During any launch procedure the PC looks for anything that could go wrong. Hydraulic Fluid leaking from anywhere is a bad thing. The PC has to keep in mind that any type of fluid spraying from a small orifice could be injected into a person’s blood, directly through the shirt sleeve. One of the thousands of things a PC needs to keep an eye out for, a small red cloud. There’s an old adage, “If a Tomcat isn’t leaking, then it’s empty” is a true statement. Some fuel leakage is going to happen. Especially in the colder weather.

After the PC steps back out to the front of the plane, where all flight surfaces and ground crew are visible, the PC will begin. First, the signals for the inlet ramp checks are given. The “one” and “two” signals from the PC tell the pilot to do the first two checks. As the inlet ramps in the engine intakes come down, the horizontal stabilizers at the rear of the plane lower slightly. During this test the sounds of the engines are different since the intake air is being restricted. A good PC can hear the difference even at night on an aircraft carrier. A third ramp check is done and if they are completed correctly, the launch carries on. The signal is given to open the wings out to full extension. Then the flaps and slats are brought down. This is called the "dirty" configuration, since while in flight this slows down the air and creates more lift for slower flight, thus "dirtying the air". The PC looks for any binding flight surfaces. Also for jerky movements, as this could be a hydraulic malfunction or even a mechanical failure. The pilot cannot see these actions so he must trust in his Plane Captain’s attention to detail and expertise to spot any troubles. After the wings are dirtied, the PC signals a stick wipe-out. This entails the pilot to operate every flight surface from the spoilers on top of the wings to the rudders on the vertical stabilizers. The PC must first ensure that no ground crew are around any flight surfaces as the actions are swift and could be deadly to anyone that they come in contact with. After the stick wipe-out, the signal for spoilers is given. The horizontal stabilizers at the rear are what turn the plane in flight, so normal ailerons are not present on the main wings. The spoilers assist in quick flight maneuvers and consist of four on each wing. All eight must be functional to carry on with the launch. The flaps and slats are then closed, but again opened a second time, but only halfway. In this "semi-dirty" configuration the wings are able to fold backwards, but not sweep all the way back. This allows the PC to detect any flaws, mechanical or hydraulic, with the flight controls. The flaps and slats are then closed all the way, and the wings are fully swept. Usually this takes a few seconds for pilot and hydraulic systems to complete. If the wings do not sweep all the way, then there is a failure somewhere.

The PC now signals the pilot to release brakes halfway and also signals "hands off". The PC must trust his pilot to comply with the hands off command, as most of the time the PC cannot see the pilot. The PC runs to the nose landing gear wheelwell, places his hand on the launch bar (to sense movement of the plane) and presses the brake anti-lock test button on the forward bulkhead. The plane should move forward an inch or so, signaling that the anti-lock brake system in working properly. If not, then it’s pilot discretion to advance on to the rest of the launch procedure. The PC then is in close proximity of the plane from now on, so the danger zones have to be respected. A PC can be severely injured by being hit by flight surfaces. The signal is given to open the speed brakes, windshield air and fuel probe. From the front of the aircraft the upper speed brakes are not visible, but since they are mechanically linked to the lower two speed brakes, if the bottom two open then the upper one is guaranteed to operate correctly. The windshield air is air that is forced over the wind screen to blow away moisture or whatever is blocking the pilots view. This is tested back in the nose wheelwell and felt with the PC’s hand over a check valve blowing air out. The extended fuel probe requires several checks. Once the probe is out, a red light illuminates showing out-and-locked. If the light doesn’t illuminate, it could either mean the bulb is burned out (which it would be over ninety-percent of the time), or there is a mechanical failure. If it is the latter then it would be easy to see with the surfaces not fitting flush. Note that any gripes forward of the engine intakes usually results in a down airplane. The pilots hate this as they have to either switch to another aircraft or not fly that day. After these checks, which take the PC less than fifteen seconds to complete, the signal is given to close speed brakes and the fuel probe and turn off the windscreen air. Again, all are rechecked by the PC to ensure proper operations.

At this time, the PC must physically check the plane out to make sure it is safe and fit to fly. The signal for the PC walkaround is given, again with the hands-off signal given. The walkaround starts at the nose of the radome. At the most forward point of the plane, the Alpha probe sticks out approximately ten inches. There is a ring around the probe that is usually checked during preflight, but sometimes could vibrate loose during the launch procedure. Care must be taken when placing your hand on this probe. While on the ground, the aircrew are responsible for pushing and pulling their circuit breakers inside the cockpit. While on the ground all circuit breakers are pulled on all pitot tubes. When the pitot tubes are turned on they burn very hotly to "cook" any bugs or foreign matter out during flight. The PC walkaround continues down the side of the plane, ensuring all panels are properly secured and there are no rivets or screws missing or loose. Again, care must be given around the plane in regards to the danger areas. Onto the main mount landing gear, the chocks are removed from the tire by a lot of kicking and sometimes being knocked out of the way with another chock. The PC maintains his vigil for anything out of the ordinary such as fuel leaks or hydraulic puddles underneath. The only way to the bottom of the plane is below the intake ducts, which requires a good bit of flexibility on the PC’s behalf. Under the plane is usually dark so an extra moment is taken to see and feel for correctness. There are two fans near the intake ducts, facing down, that need to be operating properly. Either a visible check or placing your hand up to it to feel the suction should reveal such. Towards the ventral fins, at the rear bottom of the tailpipes, there are large NACA ducts. These ducts need to be sucking air into them, again using your hand to verify that. Back under the intake to the opposite side. A similar check from the other side is given here, ensuring all panels are closed properly and tightly.

The PC signals the walk-around is good and stands by for further orders. If personnel are available, the Trouble Shooter does his walk around at that time but pretty much mimics the PC’s walk around. The only difference is the pilot is given the signal to drop the tailhook and lower the plane into the kneel position. After the Trouble Shooter signals the pilot to drop the launch bar on the nose landing gear, which is done by turning the nose wheels either to the right or left, the reverse order is given. Another Trouble Shooter is under the plane near the tailhook and waits for that signal. When the tailhook starts to go back up, the Trouble Shooter shakes the tailhook violently. A safety feature on this plane senses that and hydraulically stops that side-to-side movement, causing the tailhook to rest back on-center and correctly. When these checks are completed, the plane is handed back to the PC.

Once the pilot attains authorization from the tower to proceed to the taxiway, the pilot signals the PC using the "chocks-off" sign. The PC runs back out in front of the plane, checking for ground crew (especially behind the plane), ensuring a clear path and stopping any ground support equipment (GSE tractors) the signals are given. Brakes off and rev up the engines. As the engines rev up, causing the plane to inch forward, the PC signals nose wheel steering. After that check is completed the signal for tapping of brakes is given. This test is used to make sure the plane has brakes before proceeding to the taxiway. The PC continues checking for ground crew and traffic as he "drives" out the Tomcat. The pilot cannot see the ground from where he sits so he must rely on the PC for his eyes. Once nearing the dotted lines signifying the center of the taxiway, the signal is given to turn. As the plane turns past the PC, the PC administers a sharp salute from the attention position and signifies to the aircrew that the plane is theirs. A good pilot, will in turn, look and salute, and depending on the PC’s performance, deliver a thumbs-up himself.

After the successful launch the PC tidies up his parking spot, rolling hoses and cords up and checking for any foreign objects on the deck. This was only the beginning of the PC’s job, as he waits for his bird to come home.

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