In flight Emergency
"McGuire Command Post, We Have A Problem .... "
By Daedalian Member Dudley F. "Lee" Waters
Note: To the best of my recollection, the following event happened sometime during the summer of 1971. I also believe that the C-141 tail number was 38078, although I have been unable to retrieve any Form 5 records of the flight. At the time I was assigned to either the 30th or the 6th MAS at McGuire AFB, NJ.
The airdrop mission began just like many personnel airdrops I had flown previously. At the squadron we three crews involved in the formation flight received the standard premission briefing. I was informed that my crew and I would be flying position number two of a three-ship formation flying from McGuire to a target drop zone within Ft. Bragg (which is in North Carolina), making a personnel airdrop, without landing, and then flying back to McGuire for landing and mission termination. Each of the three aircraft would be dropping a relatively small group of Army reserve paratroopers who badly needed the parachute drop to retain their currency and not lose their jump pay.
Preflight inspections were normal as was our flight planning at Base Operations. Fortunately the weather would be "severe clear" all the way around the flight-planned route with light and variable winds at McGuire and at the drop zone. Piece of cake ....
Once at the aircraft I met with the Army paratroops we would be dropping. There were an even dozen of them. The Jumpmaster was very experienced with many jumps under his belt, but most of the others were less experienced. I gave the combined aircrew and paratroops the normal briefing after which the jumpmaster took me aside and told me that they really needed to complete the airdrop in order to continue to receive their jump pay. It seemed that they had put off scheduling the time away from their civilian jobs to do the jump until they were close to the last days of their eligibility. I said I would do everything I could to ensure they got their drop.
Start, taxi, and takeoff were uneventful and, following takeoff, our three aircraft joined up during the initial stages of the climb out. My aircraft was in the number two position as planned. Our three C-141 s had taken off to the south from McGuire, so we made a gentle left tum to fly over Atlantic City's VOR to pick up the airway for our continued climb to cruise altitude and the flight down to Ft. Bragg for our airdrop.
Passing over the Atlantic City airport's VOR and climbing through about 19,000 feet altitude, I was shocked to hear the number three engine begin to compressor stall severely! It was booming and banging so hard I had a real concern that the engine would either start throwing out turbine or compressor blades or fly off the pylon since there were only two big bolts attaching the engine to the pylon mounts. The whole aircraft was shuddering and vibrating! The vertical scale engine instruments for number three would drop to zero following a loud BANG! that reverberated throughout the aircraft. Then the engine would re- light from the continuous ignition and begin spooling up to match the throttle's climb power position. Then BANG! and the whole thing would repeat itself. I rapidly performed the emergency procedure which directed the throttle to be retarded toward the idle position until the engine settled down, then to advance the throttle back to power. I retarded the throttle, but the only time number three would settle down was at idle. The minute I began inching the throttle out of idle the severe banging would begin again.
Remembering the Jumpmaster's predicament, I rapidly reviewed my options and the regulatory constraints that applied. I basically had two choices: 1) Return to base and scrub the mission and hope the troops could get another drop in a hurry (which was a remote possibility) or, 2) to continue with the drop with three engines at normal power and number three engine operating at idle. Technically, I decided, I did have all four engines running and the airdrop was important to complete. But the safe thing would be for me to swap positions with the number three aircraft so if anything further happened during the drop at low altitude and airspeed, I wouldn't have my options limited by an aircraft immediately behind me, nor have the possibility of me flying right behind a steam of parachutists jumping out of both sides of number one. I surely didn't want to fly through the troopers in their 'chutes if the worse happened and I couldn't hold altitude. Flying in number three position would also give me a choice of dropping back to get more spacing to handle the emergency safer. So I advised Lead of my predicament and suggested that number three and my aircraft exchange positions and I would continue as "Tail-end Charlie". When he asked, I told him I had about 3000 hours in the aircraft and that I held an instructor pilot qualification level. Lead was somewhat hesitant to allow it, but my plan did eliminate or reduce any risk to minimal and I would be technically within the regulations, so he agreed.
All three of us aircraft commanders quickly devised a plan. In changing positions, I would slide out to the right until well clear of the formation, then number three would move up to the number two position. I would then drift back to become level with the vacated number three position and subsequently slide left into position. It seemed like a solid plan to all of us and our navigators had enough time remaining enroute to adjust their lead point and drop timings, so Lead directed us to begin. I briefed my crew on intercom and no one had a problem with it. The Loadmaster would bring the Jumpmaster up to date on what was happening.
Just as I was beginning my slight right tum out of position, number one and two engines started to boom and bang just as number three had done not more than three minutes before! BOOM, BANG, SHUDDER! The aircraft felt like it was going to come apart any second! I pulled those two engine throttles back to idle, checked my altitude (passing 21,000 feet) and directed the Flight Engineer to change feeding the engines out of different fuel tanks (in case of bad fuel) and yelled (I am embarrassed to remember) over the interplane radio that two additional engines were doing the same thing! I said I was returning to McGuire or executing a power-idle glide into nearby Atlantic City's airport if number four began doing the same thing!! I quickly informed the loadmaster what was happening and as I was telling him, he informed me that the Jumpmaster was running up front to talk with me. I turned back to look at the cockpit entry door and as I did, I saw that the cockpit seemed to be about five times bigger than it actually was! Adrenalin? Yup; bet on it!
The Jumpmaster hurried up to me and yelled that his men wanted to jump out of the airplane! (They didn't care if we would have been 20 miles out over the ocean; they just wanted to depart the sick aircraft which sounded like it was going to shake to pieces!) I quickly thought that request through, but was confident with the altitude I had and the fact Atlantic City's airport was almost under us and that McGuire wasn't too far away, I could get them back without them having to walk a long way back to civilization for rescue. I also wasn't about to compound my control problems by increasing drag on the aircraft that slowing down to drop speed and opening a door for them to jump out of would have caused. Nor were they equipped or, I believed, trained for a high-altitude bail-out. So I promised him I would get them back to a safe landing either at Atlantic City's airport or McGuire and told him to return to his seat.
After leveling off and declaring an emergency with our departure controllers, I told the controller of my intentions to attempt to return directly to McGuire essentially under a powered glide. We were cleared direct, given a heading to pick up and an altitude to descend to. I told the controller I would prefer to keep as much altitude as I could until I was sure of the landing at McGuire.
With the three ailing engines at idle, number four at climb power and the aircraft trimmed up, I still couldn't maintain altitude. The best I could do was a 300-feet-per-minute slow descent. I didn't want to retry any of the three bad engines because the compressor stalls had been so severe my crew and I believed serious or catastrophic damage would happen if I tried once again to increase the power. I planned to use the sick engines only if it became evident that we wouldn't make the field safely. Thank God the weather was clear with about 10 miles visibility.
Our controller handed us off to the McGuire approach controller who must not have been briefed very well because he immediately told us to descend and maintain 1500 feet altitude. I told him what the situation was and to just give us headings to the runway. I requested a reverse direction landing to the north so we wouldn't have to maneuver around for a landing to the south. He told me the winds would allow for a landing to the north and would set it up. During the descent, I made a radio call to advise our Command Post of what had happened and our intentions. The CP controller said they'd all go outside and watch our (hopefully) successful landing. I didn't appreciate the levity, I can tell you.
Since my engines were still rotating with enough RPMs to allow for a normal approach and landing configuration, I briefed the crew that I would delay configuring the aircraft for landing until we had the field made and then do a hurried gear lowering and performing an approach flap landing so as to reduce the drag on the aircraft until the final moments. We would perform as much of the applicable checklists as possible but keep the gear and flaps up until we were assured of making the field. I told them I was planning to execute a higher than normal VFR final approach to runway 36. I briefed each crew member what I wanted him to do in addition to his normal checklists. I asked the Scanner, who had very few duties during the final approach, to be my flaps and gear monitor and to call out if we had omitted lowering them within 5 miles from the runway. The Navigator was to be his gear monitoring backup.
Final approach to the field was uneventful. But in spite of the higher than normal altitude of my approach, the C-141 ran out of altitude just a little beyond the threshold. Roll out and taxi to parking procedures were normal with no further problems being encountered. I can tell you that my flight suit was drenched with sweat by the time we shut down the engines.
The Jumpmaster and his entire group made a special effort to thank my crew and me for the successful landing before they departed the aircraft. I never did find out if they got another jump before their currency period expired. I also never found out exactly why those engines failed although an aircraft commander friend of mine (some two weeks later) experienced the same problem with all four engines when they were at cruise altitude and about half an hour past the eastern Canadian coastline enroute on an Atlantic Ocean crossing. He said that if he had been five minutes further along the route he didn't believe he could have made it back to Goose Bay Royal Canadian Air Base. Based on these two incidents happening so close together, when the command post at Goose informed the MAC command post of what was happening, the MAC Deputy Commander for Operations (DCO) immediately directed that all McGuire C-141 crews in the air worldwide be contacted and issued an order to find the nearest airfield and land immediately until the cause could be determined.
The cause was determined a couple of days later. Algae had been able to survive and even grow in the JP-4 fuel storage tanks at McGuire. No one could believe that anything alive could survive in such an extreme environment, but it so happened that the algae could and did. As I heard it, when the fuel pumps within the aircraft's tanks got somewhat clogged they would begin cavitating and starve the engines of fuel which would cause compressor stalls. Since we had IO tanks on the C-141, not all engines would experience the problem at the same time unless all engines were fed out of the same tank at the same time which was a rarity.
The fuels folks at McGuire and on all MAC bases throughout the world had their work cut out for them. Before any aircraft out of McGuire could resume flying, the fuel folks had to drain, inspect and clean all fuel tanks (both storage and aircraft) plus verify all their tanker trucks and fueling
hoses were free of contaminants. Fortunately, I heard that some sort of fuel additive was available that would kill the algae and ensure a stop to the algae problem once all the fuels were passed through some big filters. I heard that the fuels folks also had to back-track where the fuel had come from and inform officials there of the situation and recommend that they check their tanks and transport systems.
© 2007 by Dudley F. "Lee" Waters
In 1979, C-141 Starlifter no. 40614 from the 53rd Military Airlift Squadron lost two engines immediately after takeoff from Richmond, Australia, en route to Alice Springs. A fire broke out in the cargo hold, filling the airplane with thick smoke. The pilot veered toward a nearby riverbed to avoid hitting the town of Richmond, but then managed to return to the airport. The Starlifter landed trailing engine parts and fuel, with all crewmen surviving unhurt.
DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do are more than mere words on a page, they are Air Force Core values; the foundation in which every Airmen builds character.
For crewmembers of a military strategic airlifter, the C-141 Starlifter, these are words to live by.
Three decades after a near-fatal crash in Richmond, Australia, all living members of the group, one eye witness and family members, reunited for the first time at the 309th Air Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Oct. 31 for a memorial service honoring three of their comrades in arms; Veterans Capt. Chester J. Trosky, Jr., aircraft commander, Staff Sgt. Robert E. Wright, Jr., loadmaster, Master Sgt. Roosevelt "Rosie" Williams, loadmaster, and, to say good-bye to the old 'friend', that held their lives at bay that day.
Affectionately referred to by its' tail number, the 64-0614 or "40614" arrived at AMARG Jan. 28, 2004 and provided the setting for the memorial service and reunion, where the men reminisced about their life-changing, near-crash.
They took their original positions in the aircraft at AMARG, reflecting on how events unfolded.
The 53rd Military Airlift Squadron Airmen took flight from Norton Air Force Base, San Bernadino, Calif., on a special mission to Alice Springs, Austrailia, they explained.
"Our orders were to quietly go in and get out", said the flight's Navigator (1st Lt.) Eli E. Colotta, shaking his head.
The 40614, however, wasn't privy to their mission objective.
Directly after taking off from Richmond, Australia, en route to Alice Springs, the aircraft's number three engine experienced an un-contained engine failure, where a turbine blade split and penetrated the number four engine; instantly causing it to fail.
A cargo fire soon ignited, instrument panels went out and the aircraft filled with thick, dark smoke from the burning household goods.
The augmented crew couldn't see what was going on from inside, but they knew it was serious and solemnly prepared for a crash landing.
(Capt.) Robert T. Brown, co-pilot, previously stationed at D-M and reunion initiator, told of his flight instructor's heroism.
He said (the then 28-year-old) Capt. Trosky, took over the controls and veered toward a nearby riverbed with just two good engines and no standard operating procedure to refer to, as the ablaze 40614 continued to descend on the town of Richmond.
While still prepared for a crash landing, Capt. Trosky lead his men to safety. He pioneered an unrecognized technique referred to as "milking up the flaps," which stabilized air speed and later became an officially recognized procedure for handling a multi-engine failure.
All crewmembers scrambled to do their part and teamwork paid off.
Capt. Trosky was quoted in the Sun-Telegram describing his teams actions, "I kept getting reports from the back (saying) that we were on fire." He said that while he fought for control, crewmembers fought the flames, assessed the damage and radioed for crash-crews to stand by.
They landed trailing engine parts and fuel; all Airmen miraculously survived.
"So much for the quiet entrance," they joked.
Debris from the plane fell on homes in the town of Richmond, where the town's newspaper published the story, front-page news. Photos of a once-in-tact engine near a home where one woman was hanging out her laundry hit the media, along with photos of a toddler -- who sat with her toys next to the too-close-for-comfort, peppered-full-of-wholes, engine cowling.
Native Australian Bob Maddern was working on the nearby C-130 flightline, when he heard a skin-crawling explosion. He joined the crew's memorial service and reunion and has since moved to the United States, devoting the past 30 years of his life working on aircraft.
"The (near-crash) demonstrated how fickle life can be," he said. "It's an example of people surviving against all odds."
Crewmember, (Staff Sgt.) Karl Freienmuth, one of the crew's flight engineers, sums it up this way: "We are all tested in different ways, but 'passing' a test like what we went through, gives one a certain confidence that sticks. A subset of that is, we all passed together; everyone kept trying. Even when very little was working, no one even considered giving up. We don't have to wonder if we'll pass the big test when it comes. We (already) did that together."
Although 30 years have gone by, the men agree -- their bond is unshakable; Wingmen for life.
One of the crews navigators (1st Lt.) Israel "Izzy" Yarchun said that after the incident some of the crew used to get together, occasionally, but gradually lost touch.
"I'm really thrilled to be able to get together with the crew," he said. "It's not the aircraft that matters to me -- my sentimentality is toward the people I shared the experience with. It's momentous."
The emotional reunion and reflection was an opportunity for the men to remember their departed comrades and put to rest their short, nine-minute-and-55-second "test" of faith.
During the memorial ceremony, Chap. (1st. Lt.) Douglas Hess, 355th Fighter Wing chaplain, led the worship service, providing guidance to help put things further into perspective, with the reading of the Holy Bible's 91st Psalm. He reminded everyone of God's providence.
"Providence is a word that is not often used in today's language, but it is very appropriate for our ceremony here today," he said.
"When we think about Providence, we think of God's works, which are Holy and wise; that powerfully preserve and govern all His creatures and all their actions."
"Today, we who are gathered, are thinking about that . . . 'How did this plane stay in the air when everything went wrong? Why did some parts of the plane stay together and other parts fail?' The flight crew may be asking, 'how did we do the very things that we did to stay alive, when other flight crews did not?' We're thinking about those who lived through the crash and those who lost their lives un-expectantly. In all of it, we are humbled and thankful at God's Providence," he said.
"This is the work of God's providence. May we not miss His lesson and may we honor Him with our praise."
After closing prayer, the group signed the aircraft, reminisced and said their final goodbye to a faithful 'friend,' -- good 'ole 40614.
Capt. Trosky was honored by his wife, Kate, and two children Ken and Brittany. They signed the plane with unfaltering conviction, and wrote these words in shouting, uppercase letters: "IN LOVING MEMORY OF CHET TROSKY, JR. -- HUSBAND, FATHER & PILOT EXTROARDINAIRE!
(Staff Sgt.) Freienmuth said, "It's interesting, at least to me, to think about the demographic of 10 guys -- a big, augmented crew for 24-hour-duty days. As you see all the time, the service is a great melting pot, where our country's finest meet. In our case, here we are 30 years later. There were six officers (two of whom were Air Force Academy graduates) and four enlisted guys. We lost Chet to cancer, Rosie (to a tragic death) and Bob Wright died in a rare C-141 crash. The remaining guys are living pretty successful and comfortable lives. You have to wonder if that's about normal for any group of 10 Air Force guys you'd track, after three decades . . . That (single) event connected us for life."
(Capt.) Ronald Pregmon, co-pilot, added, "Getting back together, renewing our friendships and more importantly, remembering the three crew members that are no longer with us was the most important part of our reunion."
The men expressed what a joy it was to meet their former Captain's children and their gratefulness that his family could attend.
"One of the greatest aspects of our reunion was meeting Chet's children. It's amazing to think that they wouldn't have been born if we had not survived the accident. I was so glad they, and Kate, could be here to see us honor Chet's life and his flying accomplishment in Australia," (Capt.) James Tompkins, co-pilot, said.
The group would like to see the aircraft on the main Pima Air and Space Museum tour route, but because the 40614 has been reclaimed for parts, its' airframe sits hollowly at AMARG in a Type 4,000 storage category and is considered excess to Air Force requirements.
"The aircraft will, more than likely, remain in its current parking position," said Terry Vanden-heuvel, 309th AMARG Public Affairs representative and tour-guide. "Because the airframe is very visible from the public tour bus route, its' historical significance will be included in the official tour script."
The men wanted to thank everyone for all they did to help make their reunion possible.
"I appreciate all the people at Davis-Monthan and the Pima Air and Space Museum, who made it possible for us to honor our brothers and meet Chet's family," said (Senior Master Sgt.) James Copeland, the crews flight engineer. "We were treated with so much kindness and respect. It's heartening to experience that there are still people in our country who value our service and treat us with such enormous regard and dignity."
From the crew's heroic actions in Australia that day, to the lovingkindness and protective concern for their fellow Wingmen and their families, to AMARG's unprecedented accommodation of their request, including Ms. Vanden-heuvels preparation and escort, to Chaplain Hess' well-thought-out memorial service, to the maintenance personnel and tour bus driver, to Mr. Maddern, who came to show support and who, along with Karl Freienmuth, provided research and graphic material, there can be no doubt that Air Force core values: Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do has indeed become the foundation in which these Veterans, public servants and Airmen live by.
These core values are not about being perfect or doing everything right in every instance; that's impossible. They are about having a belief system in place as a gauge to correct oneself, when necessary.
"A failure is not someone who fails, but rather someone who stops persevering," said Pastor-teacher and World War II Veteran (Col.) R.B. Thieme, Jr.
Thank you, Veterans, for your courage, sacrifice and valor. Your service has not gone unnoticed.
October 1973, during the Yom Kippur Airlift
I was in the jump seat when we were taking off from CHS going to Savannah on a mission to pick up a replacement air defense radar for the Israelis. We were empty with a min fuel load, or I wouldn't be writing this.
We broke ground, and immediately we had a problem. Violent doesn't even begin to deserve the response of the aircraft. We went into a radical yaw and roll left less than 100 feet above the ground. The AC at the controls was a FEAC, and a good pilot, and he did what he was supposed to do--keep it under control. When he got it out of the dive, all I can say was I had never seen so much of the ground in an aircraft windshield. What was doubly bad, was the fact that there were no warning light indications at all (explain why in a minute).
I thought initially that the left flap had departed. The scanner ran back to look, and told the AC that # 1 was in reverse. The engineer at the panel checked the circuit breakers and saw one popped and pushed it in, and the engine came out of reverse. So what caused the problem?
Prior to flight MX was working on that reverser. They manually cranked it open for the work. When they work on a reverser they also pull the reverser power CB for safety reasons. So they finished the work, and cranked the reverser back closed. Here's what apparently happened. When they cranked it in, they didn't crank far enough to engage the over center locks that normally keep the reverser positively locked in place. When the MX man went in to engage the CB, he didn't push it all the way in. When the FE checked the panel, the CB looked engaged, but wasn't. So the reverser was unpowered and not locked when we took off. A soon as there was enough slipstream, it just flopped open the unpowered reverser.
What contributed/caused the problem was this, and IMO it was a design flaw in the C-141. The "not locked" and "extended" warning lights are powered through the same CB that provides the reverser power. So when the MX guy pushed in the CB he did so not quite enough. There was no "not locked" light on the TR panel because it was unpowered. When the FE did his checks--ditto. When it extended on takeoff, still no warning. The CB had to have popped out all the way some time after the FE checked the CBs and it was not noticed.
There was an "adding insult to injury" facet of this incident. We pulled up on downwind for an emergency return and called the problem in to ACP. About 30 seconds later ACP made this call. "By direct ordering of the President of the United States you will continue to Savannah". The Israeli's only air defense radar in the Sinai had been knocked out by an Egyptian missile, and they were blind and in a real pickle. This mobile GCI radar we were getting in Savannah was state of the art and was the only one we had. I guess it came from the Army. We weren't really happy about having to continue the mission after nearly dying, but that's life in military aviation, and you do what you have to do.
Next emergency ........