Most folks that fly have a pretty level head on their shoulders, for good reason. There is an oft-quoted rule in aviation that states flyers are no smarter than ship-riders; however, any weaknesses they have are highlighted quickly and in much more dramatic ways. That's the polite version anyway.
When a flyer finds himself or herself at that point, there are lots of mental things going on. Ego disappears and is reduced to available options and how much time is left to carry them out. Several airline pilots, knowing they were doomed, have made comments on the flight recorders that illustrate just how clearly they understood their fate and the lack of options.
The one phrase that I think all flyers hate the most, is "Uh-oh!". It has been the traditional last words for generations of pilots, from the First World War, up to the Space Shuttle Challenger's pilot. There is often little time to record something dramatic, like PSA Flt 182's doomed pilots' request to, "tell my mother I love her". So, the last thoughts and words tend to be reduced to just those two syllables. Let me tell you, flightcrews HATE to hear a pilot mumble, "Uh-oh".
The day comes, usually without forecast of dread or doom. Flyers tend to love to fly, so they approach their birds with anticipation and a light heart. Only rarely does the aircraft give any prior indication that today might be its last.
Probably the closest I came to checking out in an aircraft was during a flight from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, to the Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia. The extreme distance involved meant that every flight included a fully-loaded aircraft, straining under the weight of extra fuel, passengers, and essential cargo. Sitting on the end of Diego's runway, we were completely overloaded, but we didn't know it yet...
The big ORION Patrol Bomber ran up her four engines to Full Military (maximum power), and the four turbo-props howled as we approached the runway. The fifteen crew and passengers strapped in tight, all eager at the thought of a trip into Africa, nodding and smiling as the pilot let go of the brakes.
Diego Garcia is a tiny coral atoll just below the belt of the equator, straight South from India. It is tropical and hot, making takeoffs a very prolonged run down the airstrip. Lots of aircraft struggle to clear the trees, but no-one had ever hit them.
The P-3 ORION slowly, painfully, picked up speed, getting closer and closer to airborne. Several of us noticed the apparent slow pace, but we were getting closer to "rotation" - the speed required to lift into flight. At that point, the pilot eased the nose of the over-burdened bomber into the sky, and reluctantly, the bird obeyed.
Out the window, those familiar trees went by, not under us, but even with our wingtips. WHAT THE HELL....?
I jerked my head to look out the window, just as the pilot dragged our right wing up to clear the palm trees waiting to kill us. All fifteen of us made some sort of squeal or profane protest as the bomber THWAPPED through the palm fronds and wallowed even lower into the sky. We were airborne, but not for long.
The end of the runway points out to sea, so the pilot unconsciously continued our un-graceful turn toward the lagoon, only seconds away to our left. My mind's eye could clearly see the aircraft cart-wheeling across the emerald bay, ending all of our lives. We were at no more than 30 feet off the water, in a shallow left-hand turn that would shortly get us wet.
The Number 3 Engine (left wing - engine closest to the fuselage) had had enough abuse. With a loud, teeth-rattling explosion, the complex and dependable turboprop engine came apart, almost vibrating completely off the wing.
Both pilots let out a terse, "UH-OH!" and began their final exam. In the back, we watched, fascinated as the water came a wee bit closer. The bay of Diego Garcia is an anchorage for dozens of large ocean vessels, and we must have given the crews of those ships quite a show. At wave-top height, we bounded through the palm trees and out over the bay, streaming a thick trail of greasy black smoke.
To lighten us, or just to appear to be staying busy, the co-pilot hit the handle that jettisons the cargo in the bomb-bay, and also grabbed the handle that dumps the fuel in just this kind of emergency.
The unfortunate thing about that second action is that the Fuel Dump is located on the left wing, behind the Number 3 engine - in effect, all of our gas was being dumped into the sparks and smoke from the disintegrating engine.
In a second, the vaporizing fuel was ignited into a flowering torch. The bomber raced out over the bay between the ships, dragging a long, colorful trail of orange and magenta. Lots and lots of folks were saying "uh-oh" by this point.
I could see pretty well from my "port-aft" observation window; it was a magnificent fire, but the engine was just a blurry vibration.
I took a couple of pictures, stuffed my camera and my logbook into a waterproof sack and hung on for the ride, mumbling the Airman's Prayer*. We were a Roman candle on the Fourth of July, and it didn't seem like the ride was going to last much longer.
With a heavy rippling shudder, the bomb bay released its cargo. Tons upon tons of liquor - dozens of cases of every conceivable distilled spirits from Champagne to 3-2 Beer - tumbled from the belly of the aircraft and into the salty water of the bay, only a few yards beneath us. I stared at the fuel coming out of our wing and igniting, wondering how much longer this was going to take...
We crossed the five miles of bay in a minute, without losing any more altitude. Mostly, because there wasn't any altitude left to lose! The pilots held our ORION straight and level as we passed the last ship and headed out over the Indian Ocean without rising about 50 feet.
Painfully, the Lockheed P-3 began to feel the wind under its' stubby wings, and we felt the pressure slowly raise us, a few feet at a time under the reduced weight. What wasn't possible with four engines was gradually becoming possible with only three. Even crippled, the ORION wanted to live almost as much as we did.
Which was all right with us. Fifteen guys all gave some kind of "Yeeee Haa!", and the big bird came up with a gentle swoop, making its smokey way around a big circle to face that long runway again. In that moment, we all knew it was going to work out. The aircraft continued to rise and swing its nose around until the island was again slipping under us.
The airfield was only a mile or two away, and the landing gear was dropped at the last second, to keep from robbing us of any airspeed. It was a warm day, so we were all sweating.
The aviation term for our landing is called "greasing it in". We landed very fast and shallow and hard. I guess the emphasis would be fast. We blasted back over the runway and smacked down, and the final problem of the day began when our brakes caught fire trying to stop us before we careened off the far end of the runway. Imagine the sound of a dozen 18-wheelers, all sliding down the highway with their brakes locked. Now, imagine that sound lasting for thousands of feet as we screeched down the uneven runway.
With a long, grinding squeal of protest, the large bomber skidded to a slewing halt right in front of the main hangar. I thought it was a reasonably good ending, considering.
The fifteen of us clambered down the boarding ladder and walked into the hangar, while the crash trucks took care of the smoking patrol bomber. I took the rest of the day off, and we took a different aircraft to Somalia the next day.
Of course, there are other kinds of defining moments. My second "Uh-oh!" story occurred a few thousand miles from the first and it happened in my favorite little helicopter.
The Soviet Pacific Fleet was arrayed in front of us, stretching for miles. It was eleven Soviet Naval ships and just the one of us. It was a tense time during the Cold War and this was the first time that the Red Navy had sent a Battle Group toward Hawaii, then all the way back to Arctic Seas.
Our helicopter collected information about the Soviet aircraft carrier and all of the aircraft and ships that sailed with it. All day, and most nights, we trailed the Red Fleet, learning everything we could about how they conducted war. It seemed strange that we used a 20 year old ship and a 30 year old helicopter to chase the newest ships the Communists could build.
Sometimes, helicopters that old can fail. Things break.
The USS KIRK was following the NOVOROSIISK, just a bit to the left of the larger ship's wake. The rest of the Soviet Fleet sailed in a fan-shaped formation around the squat, massive aircraft carrier. The sound of the ocean passing on all sides could not mask the haunting shouts and mechanized drum beats issuing from the Red warships as they held their formation at 25 knots.
To launch our helicopter, the KIRK pulled away to give us clear air. By the time we got airborne, the KIRK was now some ten miles from the Bad Guys. As soon as we had left them, they had begun a high-speed run in the other direction.
We took off after them and flew in a quick, sweeping arc around them to the East. Low and fast, we roared over the wavetops, painting the Fleet with our radar. The Soviets mutely steamed like mindless juggernauts, towards their unknown destination.
Well, this seemed like as good a time as any for one of those failures, so -- BA-A-AM! -- the helicopter reared over to one side and every "Caution Light" on the instrument panel came on. There are a couple of Warning Lights that are extremely critical in a helicopter and they all lit up in unison.
The temperature of the water at this time was about 32 degrees, the amount of control of the aircraft lessened each time we slowed, and the warnings indicated our main gearbox (the contraption that makes the rotor blades spin) was preparing to seize. In a helicopter, this is fatal. Lots to think about in the span of one or two seconds.
The three of us on the crew went through our checklists and got all the required things done, preparing for a crash at sea. The vibration in the rotor head began to increase each second. Finally, the heavy vibration began to wreck different pieces of electronics gear, so I took one last reading on our home ship's position, right before the radar went out.
We were not even close, and the whole Soviet Fleet was between us and the USS Kirk's tiny helo pad. The pilots and I were trying to figure out if we should just splash it right in, try to get closer, or consider trying to crash or land near a Soviet Navy ship. They would surely be equipped to rescue us and it appeared we would shortly need rescuing.
While the two guys up front began the discussion about landing on a Russian ship, I told them that my vote would be to crash our helicopter into the bridge of that enemy aircraft carrier, so we would at least do some good! They turned around to look at me and I said, "It's as good a plan as GIVING them a helicopter! THEY ARE THE *&%#! BAD GUYS!" I was furious - the Soviets had captured Navy enlisted crewmen before, and basically, they never came home. As we dealt this issue and our dying helicopter, the KIRK realized we had dropped off radar and was coming at full speed, closing the 12 miles between us and them.
With a grinding, rock-tumbler sound, "SeaSnake 2-0" brought us back aboard. We made the fastest landing of my life - the pilot roared around the back of the ship and slammed us down on the deck of the landing pad, with only a single terrified deck crewman cringing up at us.
All switches off; GET THE HELL OUT! -- we abandoned our smoking, sputtering aerial contraption as various components smoked and failed: It was that helicopters final flight of the cruise; 2 out of 5 gearboxes had completely seized in the moment of shutdown and most of the important systems were no longer functional.
Later in the Wardroom, the pilots discussed the options and still, none of them agreed with my option. Luckily, we never had to find out who was right.
©Gordon Permann 1989
The Airman's Prayer
Let me die in peaceful sleep,
like my beloved grandfather.
Not screaming in terror
like his passengers.
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Last Modified: Thursday March 05, 2009