Flying formation in the T-38 was tons of fun and very rewarding. It was always challenging, both as the lead and wingman; we flew positions from as little as three-feet wingtip clearance to one-mile lateral separation, and from zero airspeed at the start of the takeoff roll to 500 knots in the military operations area. Landing the T-38 single-ship, with a basic fuel weight approach speed of 160 knots, was not an easy task. Leading another jet in a formation landing was a notch more difficult. Flying a formation approach and landing in a T-38 on the wing was probably the hardest syllabus task our students had to accomplish.
On a beautiful sunny day, my student was finishing up a nice formation sortie and all we had left was the formation approach and landing from the left wing. A well-trimmed airplane, along with smooth and small corrections, help dampen the small pitch oscillations that can occur on final, and my student was handling things well.
We crossed the 1,000-foot overrun about 50 feet in the air, and then crossed the runway threshold about 10 feet in the air. As our lead settled to three feet above the runway in the flare, we were holding about 10 feet in the air—a terrible position to be in in any airplane as the airspeed was bleeding off for landing. We still had a few knots left and my student safely worked his way down to about two feet above the runway. We landed about the same time as lead, except we dropped the last two feet straight down while our lead greased his landing. As soon as our tires contacted the ground I felt a very subtle yaw to the right.
I immediately took control of the airplane and told my student that I thought we blew a tire. He didn’t believe me. After a formation landing the lead will normally delay his or her aerobrake slightly to allow the wingman to get a good aerobrake and create nose-tail separation on the rollout. I told lead that I thought we blew a tire to make sure he didn’t slow down too quickly—especially since the blown tire would be the right one and our lead was on our right.
As the flight manual suggested, there was no indication of any problem until I slowed to less than about 80 knots. The jet then started drifting to the right. I initially used just rudder for directional control, then differential braking, and finally engaged the nosewheel steering. Below about 20 knots we could feel and hear the “thump thump” as the squared-off and now lopsided part of the tire kept contacting the runway. We eventually came to a safe stop.
Our post-flight walkaround revealed our right tire had a flat spot worn down to a hole in the middle. The right brake had been locked on touchdown, either because the student had his foot on the brake or there was some mechanical problem with the jet.
I had practiced this emergency in the simulator more than a few times and actually found that the real emergency was easier to handle than the ones in the sim. Even without a simulator, this is one of those situations that you will never have time to pull out a checklist for. Do you have your landing and rollout emergency checklists memorized?
Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,600 hours total time during his 32 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”