Always Have a Way Out

An F-5N Tiger II assigned to the Sun Downers of VFC- 111 launches from Boca Chica Field in Key West (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brian Morales)

BY LT ROBERT GWINN, VFC-111

Key West is a wonderful place to live and an even better place to fly, but what happens when you leave the security of sunny blue skies and calm seas during a large frontal passage over the mainland? Nothing good. Multiple storm fronts were tracking their way across the continental United States, with commercial flights being rerouted. Our squadron was returning two F-5N Tiger II aircraft that were on loan from our sister squadron, VFC-13 at NAS Fallon, Nevada. Having completed my cross-country familiarization flights, I was excited to ferry one of the jets back to NAS Fallon. My skipper would fly the other.

The plan was to depart Friday, Oct. 30, 2016 solo, and the skipper would leave the next morning. I left that afternoon and spent the evening in Pensacola, Florida. I was ready to go as soon as the airfield opened in the morning.

As I completed my preflight planning and my take-off time approached, I checked the weather again, revealing deteriorating conditions, with a solid line of thunderstorms extending from southeastern Texas to Tennessee. As I reviewed multiple DD-175-1s on various routes of flight, I delayed my takeoff and held off on my decision to fly until I consulted with my chain of command.

I attempted to call my skipper to see what his game plan was since he would be faced with the same dilemma, however, the call went straight to voicemail. My next call was to my operations officer, who agreed with my assessment of the weather and suggested I wait until I could speak with the skipper. When I reached my skipper, he told me he was past the storm and was able to pick his way through the buildups at FL420. After another check of the weather and verifying suitable diverts, I walked, not very excited about this. I should have stopped here, remained until the weather passed, but I didn’t.

The beginning of the route of flight was standard until I was told to level off at FL220. After multiple requests for FL420 to attempt to climb over the front, I was capped at FL280 due to multiple airliners along the same route and the F-5 being non-RVSM. Since I couldn’t climb over the front, I started deviating to the south around the storm, remaining VMC and looking to see if there were any breaks in the storm. I was not planning on splitting any cells but looking for a clear break in the weather.

I continued paralleling the storm and started receiving reports from center about airliners being clear of the weather near the fix I was proceeding toward still VMC. Continuing to track my fuel, I hugged the south side of a haze layer. I had estimated another four to five more minutes along this route of flight before I would have to turn around and proceed to my divert, New Orleans, if no break was found.

I know what everyone is thinking; at this point I should have just cried uncle and turned around as nothing was going my way. I was capped at a flight level well below the tops, I hadn’t seen any breaks in the weather nor did I expect to see any, and fuel would soon be an issue.

Eventually, I went into a haze layer for approximately one to two minutes but still able to see the outline of the sun to the south. My left elbow was on the canopy rail, touching the canopy, and I received an electric shock of what felt like static electricity – just like after someone rubs their feet on a carpet and touches you. Removing my arm from the rail, I processed what happened. In that brief time of thought, I saw something I hadn’t seen since being at a science museum. The canopy looked as if it was the glass of a plasma ball. The canopy engulfed in a white spider web of static electricity crawling front to back in a matter of seconds. At the same time an arc went from the canopy to my left to the iPad strapped to my left knee and to my waist. The shock was minor and of the same intensity I had felt earlier, just much more dramatic!

Being shocked twice, in haze without weather radar, it was time to turn around! As I turned through south toward my divert, I was instantly back in blue skies. I arrived on deck with no further excitement and with no noticeable system degradations or failures.

Thankfully, I’m walking away from this only shocked but unharmed, but what happened and what are the takeaways? Was it static electricity buildup to a discharge, St. Elmo’s fire or a lightning strike? Damage on the aircraft indicates a lightning strike, with exit holes on the trailing edge of both LAU’s and delamination of the aircraft skin on the stop of the vertical stabilator.

There were many points in which I should have decided to not push a situation but did so anyway. My uncomfortable feeling prior to manning up should have been heeded and I should not have been persuaded by others with more experience but less knowledge of the total picture. Something we all can take away from this event is that if flying in the vicinity of known and unknown locations of storm cells ensure to remain clear, far enough away from where lightning is occurring, and above all else – always have an out.