Fun and Games
[excerpt from chapter 5 of The All-American Boys]

"The All-American Boys" by Walter Cunningham

You can find a lot of Air Force jocks who will argue that a T-38 can't fly 1,380 miles without refueling or remain airborne for more than two and a half hours. We demonstrated otherwise, time and again, in a contest that matched man against machine and man against the elements.

The game was usually played in the late fall and early winter, when the jet stream had dipped far enough South to give us the kind of help we needed along the route. Of course, that time of year also marked the beginning of the night ground fog season at Houston's Ellington Air Force Base.

For this trip, the important part was not in seeing how fast you could depart from Los Angeles airport, but in minimizing the time spent on the ground and the fuel used for taxi, take-off and climb-out. Since the distance was beyond that which could be filed for legally under the federal air regulations, a flight plan would be filed for El Paso. Careful fuel and ground speed checks would be a continuous activity during the flight. After passing Tucson, Arizona, if the necessary tailwinds had developed and if the weather was forecast to be good enough for a visual decent, it was possible to legally [almost] re-file for Ellington, our home field.

The fuel-saving techniques we practiced were those that any good aviator acquires over a flying career. If it still seemed prudent to hedge the bet after passing Tucson, we would re-file for Austin, allowing the final decision to be postponed for one more hour. The game had a way of fully testing one's nerve and judgment because landing under your own power depended on your ability to project fuel, winds and weather conditions one hour and 700 miles farther East.

I don't recall who started this madness by making the first nonstop run, but I suspect it was John Young or Gus Grissom. I do recall that Gus and Roger Chaffee came closer than anyone else to not making it. One of their engines flamed out on a landing roll-out, and the tanks took more fuel than the books says a T-38 will hold. Deke Slayton and the NASA flight operations people raised unshirted hell over that episode. But far from discouraging the rest of us, it merely stimulated our glands.

In eight years of flying the T-38, I made this non-stopper more than two dozen times, and it was never a boring flight. Usually it was quite the opposite, a continuing series of go, no-go decisions. One trip that still stands out was a flight with Wally on a clear summer night; Wally was at the controls and I was n the back seat doing the navigation and fuel calculations. We operated on a rule of thumb that if we had an average tailwind of 70 mph for the duration of the flight, then we could make it to Houston - assuming, of course, we hadn't wasted any fuel on take-off and climb-out.

On that night as we crossed the Colorado River heading east at 41,000 feet, we had about 30 mph of tailwind with an increase forecast as we approached Texas. We were pulling down 40 mph as we passed abeam Phoenix, and at Tucson the tailwind had picked up to 50 mph. Over El Paso, our ground speed was 670 mph, indicating that we were finally getting our 70 mph tailwind. We knew we had to average at least 90 the rest of the way in order to make it home with enough fuel for an idle descent and landing.

Well, faint heart ne'er won fair lady - nor a race against the clock. I re-filed for Austin and we discussed the fuel situation for the next forty-five minutes. The first low fuel warning light came on while we were still 250 miles west of Houston, indicating we had twenty to twenty-five minutes' worth of fuel remaining before the tanks were dry. I made one more calculation, re-filed for Houston, told Wally we could make it if we had no problems, and put away the calculator

We started our letdown 100 miles out with both engines in idle and a few minutes later agreed that we'd be better of to shut down one of the engines completely. [It would save 30-40 pounds of fuel, you know.] Nearing the field on a straight-in, idle approach, Wally, not wanting to get too low too soon, was still 5,000 feet in the air as we approached the runway. That conservatism meant we had to make an overhead circle to lose the altitude, burning up more fuel.

The tower operators at Ellington were aware of our little gambits and generally had a good idea that were were low on fuel. That was a good thing for us. It would be a hollow victory if we had to declare an emergency and obtain priority for landing. We started up the second engine while Wally was banking around for the approach. With both engines in idle, Wally was still high and diving for the ground in an attempt to avoid another go-around, a somewhat precarious situation in a T-38.

At this point I was sitting in the back seat telling myself that if he had to take it around again we just might have enough fuel for a very tight 360.  At the same time, though, I sat with my back rigid, my head against the headrest, and both hands gripped firmly around the ejection handles - the prescribed posture for an ejection.

When it came to stick-and-rudder work, Wally was one of the best. He made a beautiful landing. As we taxied in, patting ourselves on the back for making it in one piece, I calculated we still had a couple of minutes of fuel remaining.

Those were the hours and the personal contests we liked the best. We knew NASA frowned on it and did their best to stop such mischief. But hanging our fannies over the gaping precipice and pulling them back in safely reinforced that feeling of invincibility residing in any good fighter pilot. It further increased self-confidence and, in doing so, added to that arrogance which is born of confidence. Climbing out of the cockpit after a trip like that, we felt we had squeezed something out of the machine the engineers hadn't designed it to do. A contest had been won not just over the machine but over ourselves as well. The greatest obstacles to performance are those hurdles we build in our own minds.

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