There I was…The Day I Boomed Muleshoe, Texas

Watching the Blue Angles last year reminded me of another incident that occurred during USAF flight training.
Midway through our T-38 training, we were introduced to formation flying beginning with two-ship formations and then four-ship groups (sometimes they were actual formations).

I enjoyed formation flying. It was a challenge to maintain position only a foot or so from the lead aircraft traveling at 450 knots. It was work, and I was pretty well beat after an hour of formation flight. On advanced two-ship formation flights, one instructor had two students. He rode with one student, while the other was solo, but under the guidance of the flight instructor.

There is nothing like flying 600 knots while only a few feet away from another aircraft. This is formation flying. (USAF Photo)

There is nothing like flying 600 knots while only a few feet away from another aircraft. This is formation flying. (USAF Photo)

Supersonic flight was one of the coolest things in two-ship formations. The T-38 is a slick airplane. In the aircraft, the only indication of achieving supersonic flight is a slight hesitation in the movement of the Mach indicator; then it bumped up to Mach 1.1.

Shock waves form around a T-38 as it accelerates to Mach 1.1. Under the right conditions,  these shock waves are visible. This is a dramatic NASA research photo.

Shock waves form around a T-38 as it accelerates to Mach 1.1. Under the right conditions,
these shock waves are visible. This is a dramatic NASA research photo.

Shock waves form around a T-38 as it accelerates to Mach 1.1. Under the right conditions,
these shock waves are visible. This is a dramatic NASA research photo.

In formation flight, as we crept up on supersonic speeds, a visible compression wave formed over the nose of the lead aircraft. The wave, visible to the wingman, was a wedge of denser compressed air over the top and bottom of the aircraft.

Incidentally, we were restricted to high altitudes for intentional supersonic flight to reduce the effect of the sonic boom at ground level over the high plains of West Texas. We were told that there were mink ranches in the area, and that a sonic boom made female minks lose interest in mating. Apparently, mink ranchers were quick to complain about sonic booms! (I have no idea if this was true, but that is what we were told.)

On one two-ship flight, our exercise was for the formation so split up and then the lead aircraft would, in effect, try to lose the wingman. The objective was for the wingman to maneuver so that he always kept the lead aircraft ahead of him and in sight. If lead turned left, the wingman would turn hard left and cut across the arc of lead’s turn. Of course, lead would reverse his turn, and then the flight would be turning right, or climbing, rolling, or diving. It was the nearest thing to a dogfight we did. It was fun, but then, no one was trying to shoot us down.

There I was…

It was my turn to lead. I was in the solo aircraft and I decided I was going to lead them on a high energy, hard turning, climbing and diving chase. I had it in my mind that as long as I did not exceed 360 knots indicated airspeed I would stay below Mach 1.0. I did not want to upset the mink ranchers!

I initiated a series of hard turns, added a climb and came up and over the top inverted and pulled hard into a dive. Looking up, I could see them cutting inside the arc of my path, keeping up with me nicely. I reversed course hard, pulling Gs and then again up and over the top, rolling as I climbed. I could not shake them. Again I pulled hard down, checking my airspeed indicator, pegged on 360. As I leveled before another turn our instructor came on the radio. “Okay guys, time to go back to the base. Two, lead us back.”

I hit my mike button, “Roger.” They pulled up on my wing in a nice tight two-ship formation and I contacted approach control requesting a penetration approach (a steep descent approach from high altitude, used to allow aircraft to stay at a high altitude until close to the base).

The Tactical “Overhead” Pattern

We were cleared to descend and started down. Approach control guided us to the “initial point” for a visual approach, and the tower cleared us for a tactical or “overhead” traffic pattern.

In an overhead pattern, the aircraft enters the pattern at the "initial point" flying directly over the runway at 800 to 1000 feet; turn hard left at the "break point" while reducing power, slowing and rolling level on the downwind leg, parallel to the runway and extend the landing gear. When the approach end of the runway is about 45 degrees behind the aircraft, begin the “180o turn” back to the runway. “Roll out” aligned with the runway, recheck flaps and landing gear down and locked and land.

In an overhead pattern, the aircraft enters the pattern at the “initial point” flying directly over the runway at 800 to 1000 feet; turn hard left at the “break point” while reducing power, slowing and rolling level on the downwind leg, parallel to the runway and extend the landing gear. When the approach end of the runway is about 45 degrees behind the aircraft, begin the “180o turn” back to the runway. “Roll out” aligned with the runway, recheck flaps and landing gear down and locked and land.

We flew directly over the runway at traffic pattern altitude—about 1000 feet. At the midpoint of the runway we rolled left into a hard left turn, or “pitch out,” at the break point to the downwind leg of the pattern. In a formation, the lead aircraft would pitch out at the break point. The wingman would count to three and then pitch out. This provided adequate spacing between the aircraft for landing.

On downwind, we reduced power and configured the aircraft for landing (landing gear and flaps down!). As the approach end of the runway passed by the wing, we ease back on the power and begin a wide descending arc and rolled out lined up with, and descending toward, the runway. The next few seconds were about not embarrassing myself with a poor landing.

We taxied in as a formation, pulled into our parking spots, and shutdown the aircraft.

Ooops!

We climbed out of our aircraft and, as we came together in front of my plane, the instructor said, “Well you did it, Lieutenant.”

“Did what, Sir?” I asked.

“Lieutenant, you boomed Muleshoe.”

Changes in altitude change the relationship between indicated airspeed and Mach 1. As it was, 360 knots indicated airspeed, was in excess of Mach 1.0 during the higher altitudes of our maneuvering, creating a sonic boom over the town of Muleshoe, Texas.

Ooops!

But, to my knowledge, no mink rancher registered a complaint.

About/Content Entry

The Day that I Boomed Muleshoe was the day I was leading a two-ship formation in a high speed chase over the high plains of west Texas.

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7 Responses to There I was…The Day I Boomed Muleshoe, Texas

  1. Pingback: Renaissance Musings Table of Contents | Renaissance Musings

  2. In Oklahoma (Vance AFB) we were told the cows would quit giving milk if subjected to a sonic boom. Later, as an IP in Arizona, i dreaded filling out the supersonic log at the SOF desk with times and geographic location of the booming activity. I felt that i was fabricating official records because i was never that sure of where we were at the time.

  3. merlinjr01 says:

    That reminds me. I asked the instructor about filling out the “boom log” (as we were supposed to do). Not only was the answer “no”, but accompanied by details of our anatomy that might be removed if we did.

    • I was on the wing with a solo lead in eastern Arizona at 27,000 feet, 0.9 Mach. Lead gave the pitchout signal and headed down into our assigned area. Looked cool but we were supersonic within a few seconds. Years later I used to chase clouds in a Citabria. I would fly it up a cloud and roll inverted to go down the other side, but it would hit redline in seconds Whoops! and I’d roll out. You really couldn’t over-speed a T-38; the thing you really had to watch for was over-g. They taught us a way to guard the stick at PIT which usually worked, and if you wrote up an over-g in the 781 you’d eventually hear from someone about it. We didn’t get critiqued on the supersonic flight. I did have to make a call to the US Fish and Wildlife Service one time apologizing, though.

  4. merlinjr01 says:

    Like I said, the T-38 was a slick airplane. Have a bunch of hours in a Citabria too. Fun airplane. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Pingback: Sunday Stills Challenge – Pointy Things | Renaissance Musings

  6. Pingback: T-38 Rainbow | Renaissance Musings

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