Military aircraft – fast cross-country pit stop?

I was recounting this story recently, and realized that I was not 100% sure of all of the facts and how clear my memory was – so I thought that this board might help me to get the facts right and have an interesting discussion. So please help me substantiate or correct this (or alternatively tell me to go and find a dedicated aviation forum!)

I was living in Houston about 20 years ago, and decided to learn to fly and get a basic private pilots license. So I signed up to a flight school, and did a series of lessons in a Cessna 152 (2 seat, single engine high wing light aircraft) around the area. As well as a few small airfields, and also landings at Hobby Airport, learning to mix it with the commercial jets, a lot of the hours were at Ellington Airfield, which was quiet most of the time.

A large part of learning to fly is landing, so I was “flying the circuit” at Ellington doing touch and go landings. So - take off and climb, turn crosswind, then turn downwind parallel to the runway, followed by turning onto the base leg, and finally a turn onto final approach hopefully lined up with the runway and at the right height to have a nice descent to touch down. Before each manoeuvre, I was talking to the control tower on the radio and asking for clearance, which was normally given immediately since there were no other aircraft around.

On one of the circuits, just as I was starting to prepare to turn final, the tower urgently called my sign and instructed “hold position for fast approach” or something like that. I had no clue what to do – how could I “hold position” in a fixed wing aircraft at a particular point on an already tight circuit? My instructor quickly said “my aircraft”, grabbed control, and put it into a very tight turn with full throttle– far tighter than anything else I had ever experienced in training to that date! So we held like that - maintaining altitude and turning in a very tight circle just short of the runway line for a minute or so. I then saw 2 military jets (probably F16s) approaching on the runway line, very low and fast. The raced down the glide slope to the runway very quickly, and then landed (together side by side I think). I then noticed that one of the big military hangers had opened up, and a whole lot of equipment and vehicles had moved close to the runway. The jets stopped at about the midpoint on the runway, and the people and vehicles swarmed around them. After about 2 or 3 minutes, the ground crew backed away, and the aircraft were left on the runway. At about this point, the tower radioed back and said I was clear to continue. The instructor levelled off, and handed me back the aircraft control, and said to continue with the landing. There were still two jets stationary in the middle of the runway! He just said “carry on – they’ll be gone!”.

So the control tower then gave me permission to turn onto final approach, which was weird to me as the first time I had been cleared to land while I could see that there was still something on the runway! As I turned to line up with the runway, the two jets accelerated away and were quickly airborne again. By the time I landed a couple of minutes later there was no sign of them - already up into the clouds and away. Also – all the vehicles and people had gone back inside the hanger with the door closed as if nothing had ever happened!

I carried on with the training flight doing a few more touch and goes, with seeing anything else. Afterwards, my instructor didn’t say much about it, other than that the airfield is sometimes used for training, and that seemed to be a cross country exercise – probably jets on from the West Coast relocating cross country, and what we saw was a pit stop or fast refuel exercise.
Over several more weeks, I never saw anything else like that, and the big hanger doors never opened again!
So my questions are:

  • Is it possible or usual for military jets do a Formula 1 style pitsop like this, where they land, refuel and take off immediately to continue a journey?
  • Were these likely to be Air Force or National Guard jets? F16s?
  • Would it really be a cross country transit type of thing, or just regular training.
  • Any other questions or facts about this would be of interest!

I don’t know the answers to your questions, but when I was in Naval Nuclear Power School in Orlando, one of my classmates was a fighter pilot who was learning how to command a nuclear aircraft carrier. Sitting in a classroom and not flying drove him crazy.

When we got to Christmas break, the rest of us went home. He was told there was an F18 waiting for him on the tarmac at Jacksonville and to be back in two weeks. He said his orders allowed him to land at any military field in the country to refuel. All this fell under the umbrella of “proficiency training”.

All that’s a long winded way to say the planes you saw could have been from any of the services and they could have been ferrying or they could have been training.

I should say that if you knew they were F16’s, then that rules out Navy or Marine Corps, to the best of my knowledge.

Back then, Ellington had a squadron of Texas Air National Guard fighters stationed there(111th Fighter Squadron), and they’d go fly daily patrols over the Gulf. By 2001, they had F-16s- I recall reading that F-16s of the 111th escorted Air Force One with President Bush back to DC on 9/11.

Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was some sort of training exercise for the ground crews or something like that. Or maybe some sort of special training. I can’t imagine that they were from somewhere else, considering that Ellington had F-16s stationed there, and were actively flying patrols at that point.

Although active duty military aircraft will stop at civilian airports from time to time you won’t find the kind of hanger facilities you describe for active duty Air Force. It is very common for Air National Guard squadrons to be located at civilian airports. For instance the 177th Fighter Wing is located at Atlantic City Airport in New Jersey and they fly F-16s.

BNA is a important stopover point.
But they have a Transients Barracks (looks like a small motel) that aircrews use.
Regulation prevent flying on too little sleep, except in emergencies.

For the quick stop and go, we called them “hot pits”. For fighters, the plane would land, refuel, reload armaments all with engines still running.

I never saw done exactly the way you described it, but I was avionics, and we didn’t really deal with that.

I gotta ask, as best as memory serves, what kind of equipment did you see? What you describe makes me think it was some sort of in-flight emergency (IFE). I was in AF Civil Engineering, which had Fire and EOD response capability. I do know that F-16 engines are a little. . . flaky at times, and in a single-engine jet with no other source of power for flight, an IFE is a “land-it-now-safely” kind of a deal.

I don’t sense a “hot pit refuel/re-arm” situation though–I’ve never heard/seen them done on an active runway. Taxiway, sure, but not a runway when you’re launching and recovering jets.

F-16s? Feh. A-10s? Hells yes!!!

Yes, I thought of that after posting, but too late to edit.

Hot pits and quick turns are not performed on the runway.

unless you’re a Viper driver it’s what F-16 pilots call themselves..

Notwithstanding my recreational disdain of F-16 pilots, I think he’s describing the recovery of an IFE. Especially if everyone backs away leaving the jets there…

F-15E, B-52H, A-10, and even the B-1? Yay! F-16s? Booooooooo. Sorry, I’ll shut up now. We now return to an honest, factual discussion.

Apparently whatever this was, it was something the instructor was familiar with, and something that made him confident that the fighters were going to take off very quickly. That doesn’t sound consistent with any sort of emergency.

Landing side by side in pairs was ops normal. The normal approach speed of an F-16 is going to look real fast to a Cessna pilot. And if we were in a hurry, we could stay real fast until 2-3 miles from the runway then slow quickly to land at our typical speeds.

We certainly did the “hot pit” refueling & rearming with engine running drill. But it took 15-20 minutes and didn’t happen on a runway.

20 years ago would be about 2002. So a year or two after 9/11. In that era there was a lot of extra fighter patrolling around the peacetime skies just in case a rogue airliner needed a shootdown. Those patrols would need to be refueled, but not rearmed. And in that era the tanker forces simply weren’t numerous enough to be everywhere needed.

So although I do NOT know for sure, as this was after my time in the biz, this sure sounds like a pre-planned quick refuel “gas and go”. The many bases that were pressed into interceptor patrol duty did not have dedicated quick-turn facilities built into the parking areas at runway end. So they’d (probably) be improvising with a couple of fuel tanker trucks plus a pickup truck full of ground crewmen.


As @Chronos wisely said just above, everybody including the OP’s instructor was unfazed by this event, so it was apparently semi-routine for that field at that time.

Thanks for much for all of the informative responses. You have certainly helped me to validate my recollection of this event. I’ll try to reply to all the relevant points and questions.

Yes it seems from this and a few other posts, that National Guard F-16s seem to be the most likely explanation. However, I rarely saw any fighter activity when I was at Ellington, and any aircraft that were stationed there must have been kept inside hangers, as I don’t think I ever saw any parked up on the apron.

This is the sort of confirmation that I was after - that at least some sort of landing for a quick “service” with engines still running was carried out.

I have an image of say 2 tankers, (grey version of the fuel tankers you get at commercial airports) and maybe a fire truck and a few passenger vehicles.

Perhaps my observation of exactly where the fighters stopped was off - they could have pulled off onto a taxiway along side the runway. I was doing tight turns at the time, and worrying about my own airspeed, altitude and wind drift at the time! The might have moved back onto the runway as I was preparing my own approach. They certainly were rolling for take-off on the far half of the runway as I was aligned on final.

It might have been that they were training for an IFE (rather than refuelling) but it didn’t seem like any sort of actual emergency. The control tower and my instructor seemed to be entirely expecting this to happen so must have been a pre-planned or routine event. Also surely it would take more than a couple of minutes to diagnose and repair a fault?

This really helps me to confirm my recollection thanks. I wasn’t sure that landing in pairs was routine, as perhaps was just an airshow or demo occurrence. And yes it all certainly looked very fast to me!

How quick could it be done if it was just refuelling and not rearming? From what I remember it must have been 5 minutes max, and as above, potentially on the taxiway near the mid point on the runway. Is that enough time to get anything done?