Father's fuel control design saves son 25 years later
Stars and Stripes June 13, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s 1977, and there is a poster on the wall of the Hamilton Standard engineering shop in Windsor Locks, Conn., where Donald Budrejko and a team of engineers are working on a new fuel control system for military helicopter engines.
Do a good job, the poster says. Don’t ever forget that the nation’s parents are depending on you to bring their children home safely.
Budrejko is a retired Navy aviator. He knows that sometimes the only thing between you and disaster is solid engineering and an angel on your shoulder. So he pushes his team hard.
We’re going to make the JFC-78 jet fuel control system just as sturdy and reliable as we can, Budrejko tells them. They do it.
And 25 years later, sure enough, that dedication to quality does save the life of someone’s child.
Budrejko’s own son.
On March 23, the United States was three days into its second war with Iraq.
The U.S. Marine Corps had brought its Super Cobra helicopters to the fight, helicopters powered by two General Electric T-700 gas turbine engines. Each engine uses the Hamilton Standard JFC-78, which Budrejko helped design.
The system, which functions something like an automobile’s carburetor, “is a nice, solid fuel control,” Budrejko said in a June 6 telephone interview with Stripes from the Arlington, Va., offices of Tenix Datagate, Inc., where he is director of strategic sales. “It’s very reliable.”
Along with the Cobras came the pilots, including the second of Budrejko’s four children, Capt. Thomas Budrejko, 28, a Naval Academy graduate.
Tom flew the first combat mission of his career the very day the war began, with sorties into Umm Qasr in the morning, and then later in the afternoon, west of Basra. His Cobra was hit by small arms fire at some point that day, but the damage was so minor “I didn’t know it until I finally shut down that evening,” he wrote. “Those rounds were harmless.”
That wasn’t the case March 23, when his Cobra was again hit by ground fire. This time, the damage was serious.
The Cobra was flying low, 200 feet from the ground, when the enemy fired from a hidden spot in an orchard.
A blizzard of small arms rounds punched through the sky. They hit the rotor. They pierced the engine cowling. And the hot metal also shredded the JFC-78 fuel control system’s fuel line.
The fuel line held.
And something that Don Budrejko started back in 1977 came full circle.
In a postcombat e-mail to his father, Tom wrote, “Good job with the T-700 fuel control! Even though I was streaming fuel, the engine gave me enough power to make it back.”
“Son of a gun,” Don said. “Whenever you’re designing something, you realize someone’s son or family member will be flying that aircraft, but little did I realize that it would be my own son.”
According to Don, Tom — whose call sign is “Bull” — decided to fly at the age of 7, after his father took him to see the Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration team.
But Tom tells it differently. He said he decided to be a military aviator because he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He always was, and still is, my hero, and I never wanted to do anything else but be a Navy pilot,” Tom wrote in a June 10 e-mail to Stripes from the USS Saipan, which is now on its way back to the United States.
“He joined because of his dad,” agreed Tom’s mother, Mary Budrejko, said in a June 7 telephone interview.
The father pinned the wings on the son when Tom graduated from flight school in March 1999. They were the same wings that Don received in 1970 from his uncle, an aviator who flew in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Tom was assigned to HMLA-269 Det. A, based at the Marine Corps Air Station at New River, N.C., when war with Iraq began to loom.
“He went to his skipper and made sure he was on the list,” Don said.
When Tom did get the call to deploy, his mother was frantic with worry, although she did her best to hide it. She couldn’t stop crying as she bid her son farewell over a cell phone, Mary said.
The young captain’s father, however, was pragmatic.
“If he’s going to make a career of [military aviation], he’s got to see the action,” Don said.
Besides, “He’s a good stick, a good flier. He’s aggressive, he can take care of himself,” Don said. “I don’t worry about Tom.”
The entire Budrejko family, plus Heather Farnum, a pharmacy technician Tom met while in flight school in Pensacola, Fla., and her family, will be waiting at the airfield when Tom’s squad Donflies its helicopters in from the Saipan.
And what’s in store for the new combat veteran when he steps onto the Tarmac?
“Hugs, sweet hugs!” Mary said.
In his own words
On June 10, Marine Capt. Thomas Budrejko sent Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess an e-mail describing his fateful March 23 Cobra mission, during the battle at Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.
Budrejko and his co-pilot, Capt. Mark Vincent, took off from a forward refueling point in Kuwait. They flew into Nasiriyah as a “single” — without a wingman — because their usual partnering Cobra had maintenance problems.
Here, in his own words, is Budrejko’s story. With his permission, the e-mail has been edited for length and clarity.
It was our second sortie into the city.
Our mission that day was convoy escort, and the convoy was receiving fire from all directions. The only way to discern combatants from noncombatants, in most cases, was to either witness the hostile fire or simply detect the weapon system on the ground (tank, AAA, etc.)
The scene was quite surreal. There were Cobras flying everywhere, and smoke pouring from many points in the city. Huge flames burst from a large oil tank in the city’s southern end, where some other Cobras had engaged enemy positions earlier.
We were stressed to the max from the urban fight environment: the non-PC term we use is that I had “my seat cushion sucked up my [nether regions].” Plus it was very hot, and we were wearing these chemical protective suits that are hotter than long underwear. I had sweat dripping off the tip of my nose.
At the time I took the hit, we were screening just forward [north] of the [ground] convoy, picking out threats and engaging them.
The round that hit my engine was a small one [7.62 mm], most likely from an AK-47.
The shots came, predictably, from my left rear, and I heard them loud and clear. Just as the rounds hit, the forward air controller attached to the convoy called out the fire to me over the radio.
I defended myself as best I could. I broke to the right, away from the fire, and [tried] to lose altitude. There wasn’t much to lose, since we were flying at 200 feet over the city. This was about the lowest we could safely fly because there are tall power lines all over the city. I also kicked off some chaff, just in case the fire was guided by radar.
The situation was totally reactive. I had no tough decisions to make. My initial thoughts were first, survival; then to get my nose back around for a revenge shot. Unfortunately, the fire came from a date grove, so while I would love to tell you how I won that gunfight, I can only hope that either the convoy or another section of Cobras took them out.
My third thought was to get the heck out of there, because I had no idea what damage had been done to my aircraft.
As I headed for a forward refueling point in Jalibah, Iraq, I kept a close eye on the gauges. I could tell that my No. 1 engine was burning hotter than my No. 2, but that is not necessarily a problem. I could also definitely tell that I was losing fuel at an accelerated rate, but Jalibah was close enough that we would make it.
When we landed at the refueling point, [Gunnery Sgt.] Michael Gauthier saw the fuel streaming down the side of the aircraft, and he signaled for an emergency shutdown.
After Gauthier thoroughly inspected the aircraft for other damage, I flew the Cobra on single-engine power to a landing pad at about a mile away, where I and 11 other pilots and about 25 Marines lived and fought every day for about a week with only four good [functioning] Cobras and no shelter, despite the sandstorms.
The next day, I had a fresh aircraft, and was back in the fight.
I don’t remember any tangible sensations of fear from that mission or any of my other close calls in the war, except that instincts really do kick in. I know this sounds like a cliché, but to say that “my training took over” is no joke.
Sometimes after a particularly rough day, I would sit in my tent and think, wow, did I really do that?
— Lisa Burgess