T-38 in flight
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
6 min read

In the mid-70s I was a T-38 flight training instructor at Webb Air Force Base in West Texas. As a new guy, my first cross country with a student was flown with a more experienced instructor pilot (my “buddy” IP) and his student, to the same destinations.

Our launch time was in the afternoon with typical thunderstorms in the forecast. We launched, and instead of heading directly west to our destination, El Paso, Texas, we headed north to get around the forming line of storms and then turned west.

As we traveled west, I continued to climb to top the storms and soon found myself approaching FL 450. Up ahead, I could see areas where something was projecting above the storms. Then I realized the updrafts were spitting hail out of the clouds. Wow! So I took the airplane from my student and began diverting around those areas.


Even a T-38 can’t top all the storms in Texas.

My buddy IP was miles ahead of me and he told me there was a large opening in the storm line and gave me a Tacan range and distance. I coordinated with ATC, did a point to point navigation calculation on the HSI, and headed that direction. Soon enough, I could see the ground 45,000 feet below me but the opening was getting smaller by the minute.

I soon realized that at FL 450, the indicated airspeed was well below gear speed. So down went the gear and flaps, and out went the speed brakes. I rolled to 60+ degrees of bank and began a large circle with controlled airspeed and a huge rate of descent.

Around and around we went and soon we were below the 6000 ft. foot broken ceiling at El Paso. I cancelled IFR and headed for the airport. But wait, where exactly was the airport? Soon the tower queried me and asked where I was headed. Instead of fessing up, I simply transmitted, “Student training in progress.” That time, it meant me!

We corrected our heading, landed, did our post-landing checks and taxied to our military operations building for next leg flight planning and fuel.

My buddy IP was already being refueled and he said we needed to hurry and take off before the next squall line approaching from the west was over El Paso. He started engines, taxied, and took off with an afterburner climb to top the approaching weather, and headed west to California, our next destination.

I directed my student to strap in, told him that we needed to hurry, and I did a very quick walk around once we were refueled. I strapped into the back seat, and told my student I was ready for engine start. As soon as he had both engines running, I picked up our IFR clearance, called ground, and requested taxi and and an afterburner climb. I kept looking at the approaching weather, making certain I had a plan and a backup plan in place for what was occurring.

We had a long taxi and as we approached the runway I contacted tower, confirmed the afterburner climb, and got takeoff clearance. My student taxied onto the runway, held the brakes, and ran up the engines to military power (without burner). The right engine generator failed, crossover relay failed, and the master caution light illuminated. I pressed the master caution to reset it, and instructed my student to reset the right generator since that could only be done from the front seat. He did so, and immediately it failed again and my master caution light illuminated. We were whipped. We could only reset the generator one time. With no crossover so the left generator could charge the battery, it would would run down quickly.

I took the airplane, pulled the throttles to idle, coordinated exiting the runway and began a long taxi back to parking. I also began thinking about where I could obtain some maintenance, how to protect the airplane if there was any hail in the approaching storm, and how to let my buddy IP know that I broke down in El Paso.

Then I asked my student to run the after landing checklist. When it can to the “Insert ejection seat safety pins” step, I reached down to grab them out of the stowage case and they weren’t there. They were still in the ejection seat so it was safetied and would not have functioned if I needed it.

That really got my attention! I thought back over the decisions I made and realized that I let an unfamiliar airport, weather, and “hurry up” from a more experienced instructor interfere with proper checklist discipline. Frankly, it scared me terribly.

T-38 in flight

The checklist is no less important just because you’re in a hurry.

I vowed at that moment, I would never let anything, or anyone, hurry me in an airplane. I have maintained that discipline through 40 years of flying. Turns out it saved me another time in my military career. Most importantly, I made certain every student I trained understood and learned from my mistakes.

The next morning we were ordered to proceed to Williams AFB in Phoenix, Arizona, for maintenance. It was a crystal clear day with calm winds. I filed an IFR flight plan and then called ATC and told them that if I lost my generator again after takeoff, I would turn the battery off, disappear from radar and would be going VFR to Williams. I asked them to call Williams and just let them know I would show up there and give them a call on the radio within 50 miles of the airport.

I assembled VFR charts and made myself a flip chart to Phoenix. Fueled, up, briefed, coordinated with the maintainers and my supervisor of flying, I was good to go. Run up, ops normal. Brake release. Good burner light. Gear up. Flaps up. Master caution illuminated, bad right generator and no crossover. Perfect.

This time, I had a good plan. As briefed, my student turned off the battery switch and I just navigated, flying along on a beautiful day. Then I started laughing out loud.

Here I am a highly trained military pilot, flying along like a no electrical system Piper Cub following the interstate highways to Phoenix. I was going faster, but it was much the same experience.

The plan worked perfectly for a safe landing at Williams. Transient maintenance changed the crossover relay and ops check was normal for a departure the next day. I never did re-connect with my buddy IP, but I got all of my student’s syllabus training items completed. In fact, he and I even learned a few things together that weren’t on the syllabus for that flight sequence.

Ron Frederiksen
Latest posts by Ron Frederiksen (see all)
12 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Ron, Those were the days when you could say IFR and it really meant ‘I Follow Roads!’ When I was getting my T-38 check out with my ‘buddy’ IP at Vance, we flew a X-C to Randolph with a stopover at Amarillo to get gas — we knew they always gave you a quick turn and we wanted to get to the Auger Inn (Randolph O’Club bar) before ‘Last Call’. We had to make the second leg after dark and, when I ran up the engines, our right generator did the same thing. However, it reset for us and we ‘pressed’. As we flew south, we skirted a line of thunderstorms (with an impressive light show) all the way into San Antonio. I’m certainly glad that generator didn’t hiccup a second time! BTW, we made it before ‘Last Call’.

  2. Gary Wolfe
    Gary Wolfe says:

    I can most definitely sympathize.
    Back in the early ‘90s, I was part of an EA-6B crew that was switching out an aircraft with another crew who had just landed on the carrier deck during carrier landing qualifications. A “Hot Pump – Hot Switch” it was called, where they land, park in front of the Island (usually), set the brake with a few chains and exit the aircraft with the engines still running and a quick top off of fuel – or not. They yell in our ear and we yell in their ear about the aircraft and we climb in.
    As soon as we connected to comms, the Air Boss was issuing ultimatums to the effect of “get to the Cat now or you’re scrubbed”, with less brotherly love in his tone! We needed the sortie and rolled with a very abbreviated checklist and launched in record time.
    After the Cat Shot, and happy to be again relaxed, I noticed I had more freedom than usual in that Martin Baker seat and immediately realized that the only point of connection between me, my seat and the airplane was the Oxygen/Comm Block attachment.
    I suddenly felt sick as the blood drained from my face and I’m sure I turned as white as a ghost. Thank goodness for a dark visor and face mask to hide it.
    I very covertly attached myself, said nothing – ever, and thought about just how very wrong that could have gone. An “E-Ticket” ride to very Dead if we had to punch out. Seat one direction, remnants of me the other, after going through the canopy.
    After that, I never again rushed anything beyond my comfort zone.
    Live and learn!

  3. Jerry Heller
    Jerry Heller says:

    Hi I flew T/33s at Webb until we broke a blade on my 2d flight. I had flown the T-37 in Primary at Moore. I have a Cherokee and still fly at 84.

    • Bill Palmer
      Bill Palmer says:

      Thanks for the really cool article Ron, no military pilot here, just a Cardinal driver, but wanted to thank Jerry for his example of staying in the left seat at 84 years young.

  4. John Scherer
    John Scherer says:

    Ron, great article! I was a Tweet FAIP at Reese, an FCF pilot at Reese and then one of the ACE guys at Minot. After that three tours in the C-5. I had a similar experience. When I was an FCF pilot, we were tasked to pick up a T-37 that had had a bird strike in the right engine at Amarillo. As I recall, they rinsed the engine out with a garden hose and ran it up. It checked good and a maintenance guy and I flew the airplane back to Reese (about 100 NM straight south) I was busy talking and instructing the maintenance troop about the Tweet. We got to cruise altitude and the Maintenance guy said, “Sir, do we want to take out our ejection seat pins?”. I sheepishly said,
    “yes, now would be a good time”. Lesson learned. I don’t recall ever doing that again. Colonel John Scherer, USAF (ret)

    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      John, I once launched my OV-10 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia without a ground crew supporting me. Got to altitude and, as I turned in the seat looking through my binoculars, I was thinking to myself, “I really can twist and turn in the seat a lot easier today.” It was then I realized I had fastened my seat belt, but I hadn’t hooked the Koch fasteners to connect my harness to the parachute risers on the ejection seat. I quickly fixed that problem and NEVER did that again! From then on, every time I took the active runway, I assumed the ejection position and placed my hands on the D-ring (in the ACES-II for the A-10 and F-16), or the handgrips (in a T-38).

    • Tom Christensen
      Tom Christensen says:

      John, Ron’s story caught my eye and I enjoyed reading it. I almost never look at the comments but for some reason I started down the line and saw yours. Whenever I tell the story of my “one more takeoff than landing” I always mention you. I’ll never forget how grateful I was having you on my wing. What a small world! Drop me a line and bring me up to date on you, and I will do the same. Patti says hi!

  5. Frank young
    Frank young says:

    As a Flt Surg. I flew back seat in several century series fighters but got most of my
    Time in T Birds .It s been a long time ago ( now 89) but I seem to remember having
    To show the seat pins to the crew chief after engine start. I always made the eject decision on the ground: If the Pilot says eject I’m gone.
    Batman , Col ,USAF,Ret.

  6. Allen
    Allen says:

    I coordinated with ATC, did a point to point navigation calculation on the HSI, and headed that direction.

    Point to points! Another skill we were all taught as military aviators that has slid into obscurity with a GPS/INS in our cockpits and I for one are glad that it’s gone!

  7. Joseph Krim
    Joseph Krim says:

    We’d hold up two fingers to get pilot to show me both pins are removed. Both hands when instructor and student

  8. dan marotta
    dan marotta says:

    Great story! But I have to ask if you declared an emergency before plunging 39,000 feet through the National Airspace System? I ask because you said that you cancelled IFR after popping out of the hole at 6,000′ MSL. I had forgotten about point-to-point navigation on the HSI but, while flying a T-Bird in Alaska in the 70s, we used a TACAN facilities chart which made it easy to plot a course and then cross check radial and distance from the course line.
    Still flying at 75.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *