Fighter Pilot Diaries: New jet, new day
This column is part of a series from “Josh Arakes,” a senior U.S. military pilot who has obtained permission to share some of his life with Hagerty. Josh’s writing orbits the intersection of cars, the rigors of military aviation, and how we all think and work under pressure. Enjoy! —Ed.
Cleared for takeoff, I turned my fighter jet onto the runway, stopped on the centerline, pushed hard against the top of my rudder pedals to hold the brakes, and ran up my engines. Looking over the cluster of gauges, I verified that my rpm, oil pressure, nozzle position, and exhaust temperature were all in limits. Content with my final checks, I released the brakes, selected maximum afterburner, and my jet leapt forward, anxious to slip the bonds of earth.
During a takeoff roll, a variety of speed measurements are important to the pilot. One is the calculated takeoff data (takeoff distance, speed, and required stopping distance in the event of an emergency, etc.) which need to be verified are valid. Another is abort speed, or the maximum speed at which you could decide not to go airborne in the event of a catastrophic emergency and stop in the remaining runway. Once you’ve exceeded abort speed, it is physically impossible to stop in the remaining runway should you decide taking off is not in your best interests; the decision is especially fun when if you can neither takeoff (engines fail) nor stop in the remaining runway. Thus, even if your engine(s) is/are on fire, while moving at above abort speed the right answer is generally to select max afterburner (if you haven’t already), get airborne, raise the gear, and then work to address whatever the issue may be. Letting the engine(s) literally cook for as long as it takes to get airborne and (somewhat) away from the ground is the only way to keep from losing the entire aircraft.
Initially, the takeoff roll on this particular day was nominal; I was rolling down the runway in my multi-million dollar fighter jet, no big deal. That is, until I accelerated through abort speed, at which point there was a disturbingly loud “boom” from behind me and my caution/warning panel lit up like Clark Griswold’s house on Christmas. Concurrent with the boom was a significant loss of thrust. In short, all signs, auditory (the boom), physical (clear loss of thrust), and visual (caution/warning lights and zero rpm showing on the engine gauges), indicated my engines had shelled themselves and were no longer producing any thrust (though I imagine the fireball trailing behind me must have been a sight to see).
Recognizing going airborne was not an option (no engines = no thrusties = no lifties = no flying) and that there wasn’t enough runway remaining in which I could stop using my brakes, my only chance to stop before rolling off the end of the runway at a high rate of speed was to put my jet’s hook down and catch the cable resting on the runway about 1000 feet prior to the departure end for just such emergencies (whether they be Air Force or Navy aircraft, all U.S. fighter jets have a deployable hook). Tragically, I soon became task-saturated and misprioritized my actions. Pulling the throttle back to idle to minimize the fireball trailing behind me (and to ensure I wasn’t still accelerating), getting a radio call out to tower so they could get the fire trucks rolling to put the fire out, and fighting the jet’s tendency to drift towards the side of the runway all distracted me; I put the hook down just after I passed over the cable.
(On an unrelated note, there’s a saying that the three most useless things to a pilot are the altitude above you, the air in your fuel tanks, and the runway behind you.)
Once I realized the cable wasn’t going to stop me and I was about to go off-roading in a fighter jet, I applied maximum braking pressure in an effort to get the jet as slow as possible before going into the dirt. I had decided long before that if I were to exit the runway at more than 50 knots (about 55 mph) I would eject as the rollover risk was just too high. Best-case scenario now was that I’d be under 50 knots and I wouldn’t have to pull the yellow-and-black striped ejection handles that would rocket me airborne and set me down gently (ish) under a silken halo.
As I departed the prepared surface, just below my self-imposed 50-knot limit, everything froze.
The lights in the simulator turned on, and the sim instructor’s voice was immediately in my ear asking me what I had done wrong.
This simulator exercise occurred after my initial pilot training was complete and was part of my training and qualification for flying a fighter jet. I’d had roughly six weeks of preparation (hours of academic lessons and simulators), and I hadn’t yet flown the jet for real, so there was lots I was still learning. We spent a few minutes going over my myriad mistakes, noted our sim session was about to end, and the instructor asked if I wanted to try the same scenario again. I replied I absolutely wanted to get it right and to put me back at the approach end of the runway.
After resetting me, clearing all the cautions/warnings, and giving me a fully functioning aircraft in the process, he uttered the words fighter pilots frequently hear when practicing emergency procedures: “New jet, new day.” It means that whatever messy emergency situation we had just been working through was all in the past and my aircraft was considered good as new.
One hundred and sixty-seven days ago, the engine of our 2006 Lexus LX470 died, resulting in an early-morning taxi ride of shame. We took it to a mechanic in town who specializes in Land Cruisers/LX470s. After the confirmed diagnosis of rod knock, we opted to pay for a replacement engine since we loved the vehicle so much and in our roughly 18 months of ownership to that point we’d already taken it on several epic trips and had plans for many more. He gave us a couple options, and we opted to pay a bit more to get an engine with a six-month warranty, which he then doubled (gratis) to 12 months.
It took a couple weeks to find a replacement engine, and we settled on an engine that had about 80,000 miles on it (our original engine had 120,000) from a Toyota Tundra. About six weeks after the initial engine failure, the replacement engine arrived at his shop. It wasn’t a drop-in motor, and he had to move over essentially everything that wasn’t the block and headers (accessories, intake/exhaust manifolds, injectors, timing belt, water pump, etc., etc.). While pulling all the various parts off of the old engine on which he found signs of damage. That included water and mud in the intake, as well as an extraordinary quantity of rodent droppings.
We’ve done water crossings with the Lexus, but not anything that was even close to deep enough that it would send water down the intake. I’ll confess to not having cleaned the K&N air filter since we bought it, nor do I recall pulling the air filter as I was inspecting it pre-purchase, so I can’t say with 100-percent certainty the water and mud in the intake wasn’t our fault. But I’m 99.99-percent certain it wasn’t us. I’m no rodent scatologist, thus I chose not to wade into the hantavirus soup to determine its precise vintage. We did park the Lexus outside, so that might have been on us, but in any case the soup didn’t seem to be the root cause of the engine failure and there weren’t any signs the rodents had chewed on anything. Just a nasty mess, though.
Not long after the new engine arrived, the mechanic had to depart the shop space he was renting due to a variety of electrical code issues the landlord wasn’t willing to fix. The new shop was an hour away from his old shop and it took some time to move all the vehicles and get set up, resulting in more delay.
The mechanic and I talked a lot about what parts should be replaced while the engine was out. The LX470 only had 120,000 miles on it, but anything that looked suspect and was easily accessed with the engine out we agreed would be replaced for essentially only the price of the part. The starter and torque converter were the only things he found concerning, and we had to wait a bit for those parts to arrive. The actual swap went well. As his new shop was 90 minutes from my house I only made one trip to check on the progress, though he was always super responsive with updates and photos.
Understandably, my wife and I were ecstatic when our mechanic got it back on the road in late February and everything was looking good. We picked a Wednesday to come pick it up, but we had to shift it to Saturday when the crankshaft position sensor failed Wednesday morning. He installed it Friday and during the subsequent test drive he heard an ominous clunk, so he told me not to drive up on Saturday while he investigatied.
A couple days later he texted and told me the head had failed and the engine was shot.
This was not as easy as new jet, new day.
The good news: We had paid extra for a warrantied engine. The bad news: The company wouldn’t send engine #3 until they received engine #2 and looked it over to verify it had, in fact, failed. Naturally, the person handling all their warranty stuff was out for a couple weeks due to a medical issue. Our mechanic pulled engine #2, stripped off all the parts he would need to now transfer to engine 3.0, and shipped it back once the warranty paperwork was finally started.
About 10 days ago the supplier was finally able to verify engine #2 had failed and they owed us another engine. It took them another week to get a line on an engine, though they won’t actually take possession of it until this week (at the earliest), at which point they can do their work to ensure it’s ready for primetime (cough like engine #2 cough) and then ship it to our mechanic.
Speaking of the mechanic: The warranty only provides a new engine but doesn’t pay him for all of his extra work. I’m not infinitely patient and my wife and I have been frustrated, but he’s been great to work with and always super responsive even though he’s essentially working for free at this point. He’s as ready as we are to get it out of his shop and back to us. Then, we’re going to go wheeling together.
As I write this, 167 days after the initial failure, I’d be surprised if we have the truck back before the end of June. After all, it’s going to be at least two weeks before it’s even shipped to the mechanic, one week in transit, then he’s got to fit us in with all his work for which he’s still getting paid, then several days for test drives (he did about 100 miles on engine #2 and I’d like a similar quantity on #3 before we pick it up), and my wife and I have to find a day in which we have three hours to spend on the roundtrip to pick it up.
Each of a fighter jet’s engines are held in place by about three bolts. To be sure, there are lots of other fuel and electronic connections, but actual bolts holding the engine to the aircraft total three. Considering the tens of thousands of pounds of thrust they output and the forces they have to withstand, I was stunned to learn how little fastens them in place. I’ve not watched an entire engine swap, but I’ve watched enough to be impressed with how quickly the maintainers remove and replace one engine with another.
It takes longer than in a simulator but a whole lot less than 167 days. New jet, new day indeed!
Epilogue: In the weeks since I wrote this (working through the process for the military to approve these articles takes some time), the engine company decided engine 3.0 was also bad. After a couple weeks of them not trying especially hard to find another one (the fact that these engines are now going for $2000 more than we paid for ours likely had nothing to do with that, right) we gave up and decided to rebuild our original engine. The engine company happily returned our money and our mechanic sent our original block (which had never even been picked up by the engine company) to a shop that builds race car engines. I’m writing this mid-July and we hope to have the LX470 back mid-August, some 270 days since it failed.
Guess it’s a good thing I bought something else in the interim, but that story will have to wait. New jet, new day!
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