“It can’t happen to me,” was what I used to think about being in a foreign object damage (FOD) related emergency. You know the drill; we all go to the FOD walkdowns and pick up tiny pieces of trash and occasionally a misplaced washer or screw. The flight deck and flight line are kept clean and the maintainers are like surgeons in the jet, verifying every tool is returned and every screw, nut and bolt are in place. The precautions we take are extensive and led me to a false sense of security. A recent FOD-related incident really woke me up to the reality of the threat.
It was the fourth month of Western Pacific (WESTPAC) and we were operating off of the USS Nimitz near the ODJ bombing range outside of Japan. The cruise had been uneventful and the airwing was operating like a well-oiled machine. This was my second cruise within a year and I had finally started to feel comfortable operating around the boat. The routine of cat-shot, fly, and trap had become the standard.
On this particular day, everything was normal. I was on the schedule for a good deal day bombing flight. Our target was the wake of the ship. The start-up, launch, and rendezvous with my wingman occurred uneventfully. Once joined with my wingman, we proceeded outside of the carrier’s airspace to complete our tactical administrative (TAC ADMIN) checks and get ready for our bombing runs.
The TAC ADMIN checks started normally. We made our standard 90º right and 90º left turns to complete our G-warm. We then initiated our inverted checks. This is a standard procedure done to check for any loose FOD floating around the cockpit. After putting negative G on the jet while inverted, I rolled back upright and pulled the throttles out of military power. The left throttle moved back normally; however, the right throttle was stuck in MIL. I tried again to move it back out of MIL, but it wouldn’t budge.
My initial thought was that during the G-warm or inverted check, I knocked something loose and it was now stuck in the throttle quadrant. I told my wingman about my stuck throttle and that I was returning back overhead the carrier to troubleshoot. As I started troubleshooting, I scanned my instruments for any indication of what may have been causing this problem. Normally, there would be an auto-throttle or some other system failure displayed on the data display indicator (DDI), but there wasn’t. The jet was telling me that everything was working as it should, but my right throttle was telling me something different. I could go into afterburner, but just aft of the detent, the throttle would hit a brick wall. As my troubleshooting efforts continued, my wingman detached to test fly his Rhino in my current configuration and see if there was any chance that I could get back aboard the ship.
While he did this, I continued to try everything I could to get the throttle loose. I pulled up on the finger-lift while simultaneously pulling as hard as I could aft on the throttle. Wiggling, prying and pulling the throttle both laterally and longitudinally had no effects.
After flying in the landing configuration at sea level, with one throttle at 96 percent revolutions per minute (rpm) (my current condition), my wingman realized that my chances were few that I could successfully recover aboard the carrier. In fact, his exact quote was, “Not going to happen.”
As I continued to troubleshoot my throttle overhead the ship at 10,000 feet, the recovery tanker joined on me. Normally I would like to be left alone with my maintenance officer to work through the problem; however, the crew in the tanker happened to be my skipper and the Commanding Officer (CO) of the ship. Needless to say, their experience was more than welcome. They recommended that I do some flight testing of my own. So, I pulled positive and negative Gs while inverted and simultaneously yanked back on the throttles. No luck. With my throttle stuck at 96 percent rpm, we came to the conclusion that I was going to have to shut the right engine down to land.
The ship made a ‘ready deck’ and I dumped some fuel to reduce gross weight and improve the jet’s waveoff capabilities. My skipper told me “You’ve got it from here” and detached. Using speedbrakes to slow down, I lowered the gear normally so I would not have to emergency extend them once I shut down the right engine (the hydraulic system that powers the landing gear is attached to the right engine). After verifying with my maintenance officer that I was indeed shutting down the right engine, I pushed the right FIRE light thereby cutting off fuel to the engine. As if I didn’t expect it, I suddenly hear Betty screaming “Engine right! Engine right! Flameout! Flameout!” Now, up to this point I was the picture of a calm, nerves-of-steal aviator. However, now I was getting a few butterflies in my gut as the realization that this wasn’t a simulator and I had to go land this thing on a ship.
While setting up for an 8-mile straight-in, I gave the Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) on the platform a heads up that I was on my way and trimmed the jet for the approach. I was on glideslope and Commander Air Group (CAG) paddles gave me a timely “little power” call just as I hit the burble to keep me right where I needed to be. I settled a little crossing the ramp and pulled out a safe 2-wire. Other than being a little higher up on the power setting, the landing was anti-climatic. After getting towed out of the landing area, I hopped out of the jet and headed to the ready room to watch my tapes.
Then came the detective work. Maintenance pulled the throttle quadrant out of the jet to investigate the cause of the stuck throttle. What they found was a missing screw that came loose from a cockpit mirror a month ago. How it got in the throttle quadrant remains a mystery. Apparently, after my inverted check, the screw miraculously landed in the only spot and at the only angle that could possibly jam the throttle. The screw landed on a magnetized plate below the throttle lever. The magnetized plate held the screw in place while I proceeded to lodge it between the throttle and the plate with each pull of the right throttle. The harder I pulled on the throttle, the more the screw became wedged. There were actually dents in the plate caused by how hard I was pulling on the throttle.
That screw was a tiny piece of metal that nearly ruined my day. No matter where you are or what you are doing, FOD can find its way into the worst possibly position (or only possible position) to complicate an otherwise routine mission. That day I learned that there is nothing really ‘standard’ about carrier aviation. Landing on a boat is not normal. What we do day-to-day is dangerous, and that danger is only increased with the introduction of variables, such as FOD in the cockpit. We must not get complacent and always be ready for that ‘golden screw.’
Lt. Durkin flies with VFA-41.