Our fighter pilot on cloud chasing, donuts, and bingo fuel
This piece is part of a series from “Josh Arakes,” a senior U.S. military fighter-jet pilot who has obtained permission to share some of his life and experiences with us here at Hagerty. Josh is willing to tell us anything that doesn’t compromise operational security. Enjoy! —Ed.
Back in high school, my buddy David’s family had two MGBs and two VW buses because, as the adage says, two is one and one is none. Returning to his house in one of those VWs, after some unremembered adventure, we exited the freeway (at what was surely not freeway speed, given the bus) not quite two miles from his house. We came to a halt at the first stoplight. There were two lanes continuing straight ahead across the main road, and we were the second car back in the leftmost turn lane. As a matter of random occurrence, the other three cars in the first two rows were all brand-new Corvette convertibles with their tops down.
David was never one to pass up an opportunity for mischief. Years later he’d grab my goldfish from its poo-filled tank with his bare hands, give it a quick rinse in the sink, eat it whole, and then proceeded to hop around the kitchen yelling that he could feel the fish flopping around in his stomach. No alcohol or drugs were involved, and he wasn’t dared to do it. That’s just him.
Within clear earshot of the Corvettes, David revved the VW’s engine and repeatedly bounced off the poor thing’s 4000-rpm-ish redline. All three Corvette drivers turned to see what prole would dare rev his engine in the presence of such automotive royalty. Upon seeing our hooptie bus, their looks of incredulous derision quickly changed to genuine laughter. As they revved their small-blocks in response, the light turned green. They absolutely left us in the dust, though not for the reasons you’d expect. Exactly at the moment the light changed, we ran out of gas.
“Bingo fuel. Bingo fuel.”
By regulation, and for obvious reasons, we fighter pilots have to land our jets with a reasonable fuel reserve. We set a “bingo” fuel quantity that, once reached, prompts us to leave the airspace and return to base (RTB).
Things don’t always go as planned, of course. Maybe you’re next to land and the pilot in front of you blows a tire or has some other issue that closes the runway. At an airfield with multiple runways this would not be a big deal, but if the airfield’s single viable runway is not viable, and you are right at your allowable reserve-fuel limit, a decision needs to be made very quickly. Should the pilot be diverted to another location? Is that even an option given weather and location? (Miles of open ocean can make diverting impossible.) Or should the jet immediately climb and hold at a higher altitude while crews work to clear the runway? (Fuel consumption is lessened at higher altitude.)
I’ve experienced multiple situations in which the weather was great until just a few minutes before I arrived to land. In one instance the only viable divert option was to land my fighter jet at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—for real—with less fuel remaining in my tanks than the published error. (A 1000-pound tank, for example, actually holds 1000 pounds +/-50 pounds, or whatever; add up the +/- of each fill-up and my fuel gauge at engine shutdown indicated less fuel than the cumulative error of all the tanks. Pretty sure if I’d run out of gas over downtown Atlanta you wouldn’t be reading this right now!)
On another occasion, I held at altitude at maximum endurance airspeed (to provide the maximum time aloft) while my squadron mates on the ground frantically searched for a nearby airfield with suitable weather to which I could divert. After what felt like an eternity without a viable option, I called the tower to ask the current ceiling and visibility; automated reporting only updates every few minutes and I needed to know the conditions right then to see if I could chance a landing. If I tried and failed, that would cost fuel I could have used to land elsewhere. (Not that there were any divert options anyway, so it had to work.) Their reply indicated sketchy weather conditions, though it was the best they’d seen for a while. “If you’re going to try it, now’s the time.”
I immediately told Air Traffic Control (ATC) I was going for it, and that I needed the shortest possible vectors to get to the final approach course of the Instrumented Landing System (ILS). The ILS provides both lateral course and vertical glidepath guidance, allowing the pilot to get within 300 vertical feet of the runway (though the actual altitude at which the pilot must abort the landing if they don’t see the runway depends on the aircraft’s equipment and the pilot’s qualifications). In this case, I could only descend on the ILS’s constant 3-degree glidepath until I was 300 feet above the runway’s elevation, at which point I’d need to initiate a “go-around” if I was still in the weather. (For reference, 300 feet above the runway on a 3-degree glidepath is one mile away from touching down.)
With my head-up display (HUD) projecting the ILS’s course and glidepath information in addition to attitude, altitude, and airspeed, I stared through that info into the milky soup of all-enveloping clouds. Rain streaked on the canopy. The altitude dipped ever closer to the point at which I’d have to abandon the approach without sight of the runway environment. I used every bit of my fighter-pilot eyesight to will the runway lights into visibility from beyond the clouds.
Then, a mere 10 feet above the 300-foot “go-around” altitude, the runway’s flashing strobe lights faintly appeared through the soup. Subduing my elation, I focused on finishing the approach and nailing the landing; the downpour would reduce my traction with the runway and braking power, so landing long could mean going off the end of the runway.
Finally on the ground and fully in my aerobrake (think popping a wheelie in an airplane; the planform initially slows the aircraft more quickly than braking), I watched my airspeed slow to the point at which I could set the nose down and start braking normally. It wasn’t until I felt the brakes grab that I knew I’d be able to stop with plenty of runway to spare. Finally, I exhaled.
Around that time, tower called to ask if I had landed or gone around. It’s the only time in my entire career I’ve had a radio call like that; the weather was so poor and the runway I’d landed so far from the tower that they couldn’t see me at all.
As I’ve aged and had many more close calls, I’ve become a bit more conservative with my fuel. Not that I return with twice as much fuel as I need to, but rather I just keep better awareness of conditions than I did in my younger years. Of course, given the long list of skills and tasks at which we fighter pilots need to be proficient, returning with a bunch of extra gas means time that could have been spent improving is lost.
And part of being good stewards of the vast sums of taxpayer dollars spent to get us in the air means balancing all of those priorities. As pilots increase in capability and responsibility, leading lots of jets around means always working to stay ahead of the mission, whether that’s in the middle of a training fight or merely flying to/from the airspace and airfield. “Staying ahead of the jet,” as we say, takes lots of brain bytes. It doesn’t leave much time to take in the view.
But every fighter pilot allows time, now and again, to go cloud chasing. And it is glorious.
Disclaimer: There are mandatory distances from which pilots must remain clear of clouds. I’m not advocating violating those rules. I am saying that, on occasion, in restricted airspace when I am 100 percent certain there are no other aircraft around, I get as close as I can to those minimum distances. After all, if the minimum wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be the minimum!
As you may have noticed as a commercial passenger, flying at high altitudes without clouds nearby renders it impossible to perceive how fast the airplane is really going. The same is true in a fighter jet. I remember flying at altitude and in the middle of the jet stream (flying east with the wind), my groundspeed indicating over 1000 miles per hour yet still subsonic. I looked down. It didn’t seem like I was moving very fast at all. Fly near a (relatively) stationary cloud and that speed becomes immediately apparent.
The best clouds for cloud chasing aren’t flat, neither are they cumulonimbus or lenticular (which indicate thunderstorms and turbulence, respectively). The ideal clouds are relatively small, have vertical development, and maybe even some tunnels through them.
My very favorite cloud-chasing moment ever was years ago, over the ocean. Events of the day meant I ended up flying single-ship, without any other aircraft in my formation or against which I could fight. Out in the airspace, I practiced a variety of maneuvers—high-performance break turns, gun jinks, radar switchology, and more—making good use of the fuel in my tanks even though I was alone (and unafraid!).
And then I saw the cloud to end all cloud-chasing clouds.
A few thousand feet above the water was a long cylinder of a cloud, oriented vertically. Think of a roll of paper towels, maybe one or two thousand feet high with a relatively narrow diameter. Looking at my fuel gauge and realizing I had three to four minutes of flying left before reaching bingo fuel and needing to RTB, I pointed my nose at the base of the cloud and used my descent to accelerate. Nearing the base of the cloud, I sharply pulled back on the stick, strained against the g-forces as my jet’s nose rotated into a climb, and then spiraled vertically up and around the cloud.
It was incredible. I leaned my head back into the seat and watched the cloud above me slip by as my curvilinear flight path took me up in a wondrous orbit.
Moving at several hundred miles an hour, it didn’t take long at all to climb the cloud’s entire length. In fact, as I pulled my jet inverted over the cloud’s top, I realized it had gone by quickly enough that I still had the fuel to do the same maneuver once more. And so I did. After the second time, I pointed my nose towards home to RTB and spent most of the recovery pinching myself, undoubtedly with a stupid grin on my face.
Only a week or so before my wife and I were married, we were at her parents’ house. A heavy snow started to fall. In a short period of time, several inches had covered the ground. I grabbed her then-twelve-year-old brother and jumped into my 1989 Nissan Pulsar. We headed to a nearby parking lot where we proceeded to do donuts for what might have been an hour. Having never done donuts before, he still remembers that night.
Recently, we’ve had some snow where we live now. Our Miata has been nestled away in the garage to keep it off the frozen and salted roads, but the conditions one day were just right for a little mischief. I grabbed our oldest daughter, telling my wife we were off to do donuts and that I was reasonably certain we wouldn’t crash. Even getting to the parking lot was an adventure in this kind of snow. Our daughter, who other than a couple of times driving the Miata on clear roads has no experience in rear-wheel-drive vehicles, didn’t really understand what it meant to drive such a vehicle in those conditions. I blipped the gas pedal in a turn in our neighborhood and the Miata’s back end aggressively rotated around.
She was a little unnerved at first, seeing how the car wanted to spin. But after half an hour of whipping around the parking lot and, occasionally, leaving perfectly concentric tire marks in the snow over multiple donuts, she asked if she could drive. We swapped seats and she took to slinging donuts almost immediately. She loved it. Her laughter and smile reminded me of climbing that cylindrical cloud in my fighter all those years before. When the opportunity presents itself, we’re remiss if we don’t take advantage.
In the case of David and the VW Bus, our hoonery landed us in a manure pile of our own making. Naturally, our gas ran out just as we began to turn onto the busy road toward David’s house just a few hundred feet away. Amidst our uproarious laughter, he had the presence of mind to put on the van’s hazards. When our forward momentum ceased (clear of the intersection, thankfully), we enlisted my 12-year-old sister, who had never before driven a car, to steer while David and I pushed. She promptly drove us into the center divider’s curb. As the cars whizzed around us, we gave her a bit more instruction on how to steer before slowly starting off again. Fortunately, those VW buses aren’t very heavy and we were able to clear the busy road in short order and take safer side streets back to his house.
David and I laughed and laughed, trying to ignore my sister’s protestations. I had no idea that I would burn hundreds of tons of gas in fighter jets. Yet the perfect conditions of that moment—three Corvettes, an engine rev that caused the tank to run dry just then, my unlicensed sister steering us into the center divider—seared the memory into my mind as clearly as did winding my jet around the perfect cloud.
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I don’t even want to think about how many taxpayer dollars have been spent “chasing clouds” (although I’m sure it’s a drop in a bucket compared to all the KC-46s I see circling McConnell) but I envy you nonetheless. Great article.
Glad you enjoyed it. I tried to convey in the article that cloud chasing is not a very common occurrence. One of the reasons that’s the case is because of the cost involved (cost in terms of dollars, but also opportunity cost in terms of time that could be spent getting better at one of the million things we at which we must excel). Thanks for reading!
So the photos appear to show an F15 and a F18 Hornet (Navy). What did you fly – one of these or something else. Great story, great detail. Thanks for your service!
Part of my deal with the military lawyers enabling me to write these articles was that I have to use a pseudonym and I can’t tell you what service I’m in or the specific aircraft I’ve flown (only that I’m a fighter pilot).
You are correct though that F-15 and F-18s are depicted in the photos, and there is also an F-22 photo.
Josh, great story, glad Jack brought you on board at Hagerty. Really great that you are teaching you daughter how to handle a spin in a rear wheel drive car. With all the electronic nannies on modern cars pretty soon no one will know how to get themselves out of trouble if the microchips fail….
Love the story! I am a big fan of RWD vehicles and manual transmissions for all the things you can do in them that you can’t do with a FWD slushbox (think ’85 Vette with a Doug Nash 4+3 and a Silverado 2500HD 4WD, unfortunately only available with the Alison auto trans). I will never get to do doughnuts around a cloud in a fighter jet but I am very glad that you got to do so. Twice!
Never flew Military or even exceeded 250 MPH in the air (which was at VNE) but can relate 100% to what the author is writing about… even the VW bus part. Young and wild but ultimately older and totally disciplined is where I lived and later landed in life, too. I did see the clouds and will never forget it.
Thanks for that beautiful story.
Always nice to chat with another pilot, though 250MPH would be pretty slow for a fighter jet!
Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Love the story. Donuts should be a part of one’s regular diet in the air or in the parking lot!
In that one tiny but critical way Josh is just like me!
As a pilot, not an F-16 driver, this story brought back great memories. During my flight training flying around the high puffy clouds was a hoot. On the ground I love nothing more than mashing the throttle of a big V8 and doing donuts in a parking lot. Big smiles and huge amounts of laughter from myself and occasional passenger.
I remember as a young lad of about 5yrs old going to Yosemite, sometime prior to 1943 with mom and dad. Dad found a parking lot iced over and proceeded to do donuts in our 1940 Buick coupe. He also used to like to bury the 110mph speedo when mom was sleeping. At 85yrs I still love to drive fast!
Respect to your dad’s donut skills!
Josh, Great story! Keep ’em coming! To this day if I see or hear a fighter jet I ALWAYS look up and watch and listen until it disappears over the horizon! Absolutely thrilling to the core!
Thoroughly enjoyed this. Anybody who has flown jets, while racing cars for a hobby, can relate directly with a list of these stories a mile long. Check 6, pal . . .
Another, great article, Josh!! Thoroughly enjoy your descriptive writing which brings me as close to your experiences without actually being there – but I’d take that too if ever given the opportunity!
My most memorable ‘donut’ experience was as a 14-year-old on a hockey road trip with my parents and two of my best hockey teammates, Robert and Tony. We had just finished a game and were heading back to the hotel, hoping to find a pizza place open after a severe snowstorm. Hitting the local Pizza Hut and finding it closed due to the heavy snow, my dad maneuvered our brand new 1979 Pontiac Pariesienne (live in British Columbia, so not a Bonneville) into the largest part of the parking lot and proceeded to complete many perfectly cylindrical donuts in about 18″ of puffy powder. My Mom kept slapping his arm as the three of us in the backseat laughed out loud. Amazing memory.
Thanks for the memory Josh!
Thanks for your writings. I enjoy reading your articles. Flight to donuts. I’m lucky enough to live in the White Mountains area and have a ideal location for the Air Guard to fly. I’m still trying to figure out why they fly exactly over my house. I’m thinking maybe altitude as it is 600 feet and we do have a lot of high mountains in our state. They start at a back and forth rumbling around and around. Then a flash of light comes off the wings. If one is not so lucky one or two flairs can be seen. Don’t like to call it luck though. Love my spot here and my monthly air show. Thanks to all of you. Practice makes perfection. I’m always looking forward to the summer months when 6 to 8 A10s return to the air space and tree tops.