'Pacman' saves multi-million ringgit jet, air force chief lauds great airmanship

“I WAS 50 feet off the deck at 220 knots and then, all of a sudden, ‘BANG!’”

For 13 years, Major Goh Keng Loon of 18 Squadron, “The Mighty Hornets”, had been flying the Royal Malaysian Air Force Boeing F/A-18D Hornet strike fighter without incident, logging more than 1,800 flight hours on the type.

Yesterday, soon after takeoff from Langkawi’s Padang Matsirat at the start of his solo display routine in conjunction with the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition 2019, Goh, callsign “Pacman” suffered a turbine failure which necessitated a single engine recovery back to the airfield.

Major Goh Keng Loon

Recounting the harrowing incident to the New Straits Times, Pacman said muscle memory instantly kicked in and he just reacted to the situation.

“It proves that RMAF’s training and procedures are sound,” he added.

“I slammed on the throttles and began my takeoff roll at 2.08pm. Once I reached 220 knots, I ‘cleaned’ up the jet, retracting the flaps and landing gear.

“I was looking for 280 knots airspeed before pitching my nose up for a high-alpha vertical climb; I was just skimming the runway at this point. Then, I heard a loud bang… and the entire aircraft began to shudder.

It was during this low-level transition that his left General Electric F-404-400 EPE afterburning turbofan engine ingested a foreign object. The results were catastrophic. Observers on the ground saw orange flame belching out of the left engine nozzle. Pacman was so low that the fuel and flame mixture from his engine that floated down to the ground ignited the dry grass on the airfield.

“I heard the aural warning ‘Engine Left … Engine Left’ in my helmet, and felt the deceleration, as my jet began losing thrust. I immediately began converting my airspeed to altitude. In our preflight briefing, I had told my Whizzo, Major Mohd Izhar Mohd Tarmizi, that if anything happened, he would punch out (eject) first, while I steered the jet clear of the crowd.

“At the same time, I radioed the tower that I was aborting my routine. The tower told me that they had seen a fireball coming out of my left engine.

Pacman said the training and recovery procedures taught to every RMAF aviator worked as advertised.

“We practise for every possible contingency, we know the procedures by heart. When something like this happens, your training kicks in and you just react.

“I shut down my left engine and firewalled the right; once I was happy that I was getting good thrust from the good engine, I reduced power a bit.

As Mohd Izhar, callsign “Crawler”, read off the emergency checklist from the back seat, Pacman began orbiting the airfield and started to dump some of the 9,000 pounds of fuel he had on board to reduce the weight of his jet. After one orbit, Pacman told the tower that he was coming in.

He and Crawler, on board “Hornet 01”, made a perfect straight in, single-engine approach and nailed the landing. The pair then taxied all the way back to the flightline and egressed the jet with little fanfare.

“Just another day in the office,” quipped Pacman.

His faith in the Hornet and the groundcrews that keep them flying, is unshakeable.

“They’re the best. And this jet always bring us home,” he said of the Hornets.

He added that in his 13 years of flying demos, he had never taken his wife Alyze Ting, and son Ezra, aged seven, to watch him fly.

“I think my jet was jealous,” he laughed.

Air force chief General Tan Sri Affendi Buang said Pacman showed great airmanship by bringing home the stricken aircraft, adding that the incident was well within the capabilities of other RMAF pilots and aircrew.

Flameout! Flames belch out of the Hornet’s left engine after it ingested a foreign object, just after takeoff at the start of the F/A-18Ds solo display at LIMA 2019. PIC BY AHMAD AZAMIRUDDIN MOHD KAMAL