When the van arrived at the flightline, we saw that things weren’t going quite as planned. Pilots cowered under the wings of their jets, trying to stay dry as the crew chiefs did final maintenance. For safety reasons, an aircraft cannot be refueled while another is running next door, so the crew had to ground-check the running jets, then move them out of the way while the rest of their flight got ready.
The carefully laid plans of matching experienced pilots with inexperienced ones quickly gave way to elements being flown by whoever had an aircraft ready. Soon the roar of departing aircraft overcame the battering of the rain on the canopies, and the flightline began thinning out.
As soon as my jet was ready, I hopped up into the cockpit and cranked the engines. The cockpit was a pool of water, and I briefly wondered if any pilot had ever been electrocuted in a rainstorm when electrical power for the aircraft had come on line.
After condensing 15 minutes of ground checks into five, I began checking the status of my flight members. One was having a problem with one of his engines and had called for maintenance to try to fix it. Another wingman reported that maintenance had forgotten to fuel his external tank, leaving him short of the gas needed to make Tinker.
Operations told us to taxi out and plan to depart with the two jets that were ready. They were worried that the weather would go below takeoff limits, trapping aircraft on the ground directly in the path of the storm. It had just about become every man for himself.
As we were getting our last-chance maintenance checks done at the end of the runway, operations reported that two more jets were ready to go. Though they weren’t part of our original four-ship, operations wanted them to go with us to get as many aircraft airborne as possible.
After figuring out who was who over the radio, we were ready for departure. The tower cleared us for takeoff as we moved into position on the southeast-bound runway. I was the first of our element to start down the runway and was amazed at how unstable the jet felt in the rapidly changing winds. The combination of the strong crosswinds hammering the F-15’s towering twin tails and the reduced stability from hydroplaning on inches of standing water made the airplane want to weathervane into the wind.
As we passed 100 knots, it was taking nearly full stick deflection to keep the airplane pointed down the runway. Forty knots more to takeoff. As the nose gear lifted off the runway, the weathervaning effect intensified. I cut the normal climb angle of 10 degrees in half in a feeble attempt to reduce this effect and build up airspeed a little bit more rapidly.
As the jet finally lurched into the air, the flight controls went all sloppy as they fought against the gusts. Wind shear kept dropping the airplane back down. Should I raise the landing gear for an increased climb rate or leave it down in case the winds forced me back on the runway?
The rain sounded like a machine gun as I informed departure control that we were airborne. Already, I could hear signs of trouble. One of the jets that had taken off just before us had developed an attitude indicator and heading problem. The pilot was currently flying off the small standby attitude indicator at the bottom of his instrument panel and receiving his heading from his wingman’s radio calls.