Pat Hatch's PhotoJournal A blog about photography & other musings…

Fire in Flight – Page 5.

I was trying to get the loadmaster Willard's perception of the fire.  I asked him how far the fire extended aft.  I had begun a slow left turn with the thought of returning to the field.  Willard was saying that the fire extended aft out of sight, then aft only to the tail, which just reaffirmed that we had a fire burning totally out of control.

I remember thinking, that's it, we're done.  The adrenalin was really pumping, no way were we going to get this airplane back into Katum and there were no clearings within eyesight.  This airplane needed to be landed immediately or abandoned--those were our choices and neither seemed possible at that moment.  At the precise moment that you would expect despair to set in, the opposite happened.  Your instinct for survival and your training take over and, for me, the effect was very calming.  Everything started to move in slow motion, I became very deliberate and knew exactly what I had to do to have any chance to survive.

I quickly realized that we didn't have enough time to maneuver this sick airplane and align it with runway 34 at Katum, which would have taken us right back over the area where we had been fired on.  I quickly discarded this approach and asked the navigator, Jon Alexander, for a heading to the nearest airport.  He immediately responded, "Tay Ninh, heading 200 degrees!" as if he had been reading my mind.  Oh yeah, right, we had been there already that day.  So I had this vision that maybe, just maybe, we could make Tay Ninh, some 20 miles away.

I gave the command to prepare for bailout, mostly for the loadmaster's benefit, so that he would bring parachutes forward to the flight deck in case we began to lose control of the aircraft.  I turned the aircraft to 200 degrees and raised the flap handle to clean up the aircraft.  I immediately recognized that the flaps did not come up, so looked over at the utility hydraulic pressure gauge on the copilot side and saw that utility pressure and quantity were zero.  The copilot, Britt Blaser, was busy making the emergency radio calls and as he caught sight of Tay Ninh in the distance reported our position as 20 miles north of Tay Ninh.  Amid a lot of radio chatter, I made a mental note that we would have to crank the gear down if we ever got that far.  Thankfully, we were lined up with the runway at Tay Ninh.  The flaps remained at 50, of course, which was just as well at that point.

I looked out on the wing and saw the ribbon of fire burning unabated towards the leading edge.  It had burned about a third of the way forward through the wing and was approaching the main spar.  If it breached the spar, it would be all over.  So it became a race towards Tay Ninh to see if we could outrun our fate.  I noticed that the outboard section of wing--from about 3 feet outboard of the #1 engine to the tip--was bending ever so slightly upwards and twisting as the center of lift worked on the failing structure.  The effect was like a giant aileron trying to roll us to the left.  I knew we had to get rid of some or all of the fuel in the left wing to have a chance, so I called for the engineer, Joe Basilisco, to dump the fuel from the left wing.

The jet fuel used at the time, JP-4, was not as volatile as aviation gasoline, thus it was not as great a danger to explode.  I remember thinking that if the wing was going to explode it would have by now, so I saw little downside in attempting to dump the fuel.  When you dump fuel, it exits through a mast in the wing tip at a pretty good clip.  Flame arrestors in the dump mast prevent fuel from igniting and burning back into the wingtip.  It turns out that this was indeed a very good move as it counteracted the rolling tendency of the aircraft to the left.  The weight of the fuel in the unbalanced right wing helped offset the loss of lift on the left wing.  The process of starting the fuel dumping did cost us a few precious seconds, though, as the engineer and the copilot struggled with the over-gauge safety wire on the dump switches.

Next, I ordered the flight engineer to lower the main gear manually.  He went off headset momentarily as he made his way to the cargo compartment and, along with the loadmaster, began manual gear extension procedures.  The first step in the procedure is to disengage a clutch which allows the gear jack screw to rotate freely.  This action alone sometimes is enough to allow the gear to free-fall, however, if it doesn't, 450 turns on a crank are required to fully extend each gear [Ed. thanks to Bert Piper, retired C-130 LM, for the correct Dash 1 number, which is 330 turns!].  In our case, the left side free fell, the right side did not.  The engineer was back on headset and announced that he was cranking the right side down.

As this was going on, I was having difficulty applying the amount of right rudder I needed to keep the airplane flying straight and upright.  I asked the copilot to hold full right rudder for a while because my right leg was beginning to tire in spite of the adrenaline.  At about 10 miles out, I began to notice that the dense rain forest below was changing into scattered rice paddies and I briefly considered dumping the airplane into one of them.  But the airplane was holding together and I thought we had a better chance proceeding on course to Tay Ninh.

I stole a glance at the left wing and saw the tip was noticeably bending and twisting and the blowtorch-like fire had just about reached the main spar.  Things were deteriorating rapidly and it was taking almost full right aileron and rudder to keep the wings level.  Tension was palpable as it became a race to see if we would make the runway before the left wing came apart.  At about 4 miles out, I was probably indicating about 180 knots, way too fast, but speed was necessary both to fly the airplane and to get to the safety of the runway.  I brought the power back to idle as we had plenty of energy to make the runway and needed to start slowing down.  As the airplane slowed, it was taking all of the right aileron and rudder to keep the airplane from rolling left.

Having heard nothing from the rear, I made the decision to call off any further gear extension efforts and told the engineer and loadmaster to get up to the flight deck and strap in.  They immediately went off headset to make their way forward.  I did not realize the engineer was off headset as I called for him to position the nose gear emergency extension handle to the "down" position as he made his way to the fight deck.  This handle is located near the entrance to the flight deck and would have been easy to actuate on the way forward, but this was not to be.  This was probably just as well since we didn't have the right gear anyway.  The last command on my part was the call for everyone to lock shoulder harnesses.

Here we are on short final, power to idle, flaps 50, left gear down, right gear up, no nose gear, #1 engine shut down:

Fig. 6 - Enlargement of the slide of the aircraft on short final.

Fig. 6 - Enlargement of the slide of the aircraft on short final.

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  1. I was Allen 08 that day!

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