I’m sure there are a lot of people in this world who, like me, occasionally wonder if life is at best a random affair or one defined by higher purpose. I guess it’s not in the cards for us to know the answer to that question in this life but it continues to haunt me every time I’m reminded of an incident that not only brought me to the brink of the big dirt nap but, more importantly, to a realization that there is a dimension in life that few humans know about let alone ever experience. It’s a phenomenon called emotional telepathy. This is a pretty long and somewhat convoluted story so please bear with me.
On a classified but routine mission to the south shores of Saudi Arabia 30 years ago, the B-52 I was navigating lost its hydraulic system. Now that probably doesn’t mean much to the unschooled but to one sitting in an ejection seat 33,000 ft above sea level, it means that if you make it to a runway your odds of walking away from the landing are about 1 in 100. It meant a great deal more to me at the time because just five years earlier we lost a B-52 that experienced the same problem returning from a training mission to Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH.
I was on alert at Wright Pat that night when we were told by the command post that Charlie Brown’s crew had lost all hydraulics and were circling the base burning off excess fuel before they attempted a landing. (Yes, that was the aircraft commander’s real name.) I remember the night well because the field was covered by low hanging fog and when the crew made a preparatory fly by to test manual flight controls, we could just make out the bottom of the fuselage as they overflew the runway.
The pucker factor was in full play as we listened to the command post talking them down on their final approach. Standing at the north end of the runway about 50 yards from the hold line, we could hear the aircraft overfly the end of the runway but couldn’t actually see it because the fog had not only dropped but thickened. Seconds later the tires gave a high toned shriek as they met the runway and then we heard a crashing sound followed by the scream of the aircraft’s eight engines going to full throttle. Five or six seconds later we heard the final crash and explosion.
Jumping into our alert response trucks we sped through the fog down the runway hoping beyond hope that someone might have survived. A minute or two later we all breathed a sign of a relief for there in the thickening fog we could see the entire crew was standing by the crew cab which had separated from the rest of the aircraft and was lying on its side in the infield. Apparently, the aircraft on landing had hit the runway so violently that the crew cab actually tore off the main body of the aircraft. It was then that the engines went full throttle, taking what remained of the aircraft airborne again only to do a wing off, crashing beyond the end of the runway.
With the preceding story in mind, let’s return to my crew’s experience dealing with the same problem.
Like most large commercial aircraft, the landing gear of a B-52 can be extended and locked in place manually but when hydraulics are lost that is the least of one’s problems. No back up system exists that will enable a pilot to adjust an aircraft’s flaps and rudder which one needs to control the plane’s direction and rate of descent. And these adjustments are no easy tasks when you consider that those surfaces are attached to an irregularly shaped, 360,000 lb. dead weight moving at an ground speed at touchdown of 120-130 miles per hour. (If you’ve ever tried to turn the steering wheel of a parked car that doesn’t have its motor running, you can relate to the challenge involved. )
Add these control factors to the following set of circumstances and you can begin to understand the complexity of our particular problem.
- At the time we discovered the problem, we had about eight hours of fuel left which left us two hours short of a return to Andersen AFB, Guam, our home base.
- The tanker dispatched out of Diego Garcia (a small island in the south Indian Ocean) to refuel us an hour earlier could not be reconstituted and launched in time to rendezvous with us to refuel again before we went dry tanks.
- We couldn’t land at Diego Garcia because the runway was too short.
- As the mission progressed we learned that there were a number of countries with airfields long enough to accommodate us but only one within range and en route to Guam expressed any interest in offering assistance. The Japanese, understandably, had a very real problem even considering the idea of allowing a U.S. nuclear weapons carrier to land on their soil. Thailand wasn’t much on speaking terms. Finally, rumor had it that Marcos was more than willing to let us land in Manila but the State Department probably balked at the idea of making a sizable deposit in one of his personal off shore accounts.
Anyway, while the powers discussed our fate in the Pentagon, at HQ SAC, and with the consulting Boeing engineers in Seattle, Air Division command scrambled a KC-1135 (airborne gas station) out of Andersen. That part of the drama ended when we linked up with just west of Malaysia an hour before we were to reach dry tanks.
An hour and a half later, we discovered that we had still one more problem. The two tires on the starboard side of the rear landing gear were in shreds. It was then that we all recalled the major shimmy we’d experienced as we passed the speed that constitutes a point of no return on takeoff.
Sounds foreboding doesn’t it? Well, as it turns out the pilots eventually brought us in for an uneventful landing which turned the entire experience into much adieu about nothing.
Several months after we all returned stateside, the mission was declassified and soon, thereafter, I had occasion to share this harrowing experience with the wife and kids. When I finished Connie got up from the dining room table table to look at a calendar hanging in the kitchen.
“What day and time did you first realize you were in trouble?” she asked looking down at a calendar in her hand.
I went to my nav bag and pulled out a flight log. Comparing notes we discovered that within moments — if not the exact time — I learned that we didn’t have hydraulics, Connie had broken down in uncontrollable tears standing in the principal’s office at St. Leo’s in downtown Minot. She recalled the specific day and time because it coincided with some scheduled event at the school.
Imagine that — being so connected to another human being that an emotional response can be triggered from a location 7,400+ miles away.
Upon return an investigation was conducted and we learned that as we taxied from our parking spot to the approach end of the runway the morning of our departure, one of the right front tires picked up a gas cap that someone had not secured to a power cart. It was theorized that as we approached S-2, the takeoff speed when an aircraft is committed to taking off, the cap dislodged itself and catapulted into the bombay where it not only sliced the main hydraulic line but dislodged a metal bar securing four quick start cartridges to the bulkhead. Apparently these cartridges, about the size of a football and weighing about 30 lbs each, fell beneath the landing gear and blew two of the four aft tires out.
As time goes by
Every time I’m reminded of this series of events, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that I sometimes fail to grasp let alone appreciate the importance of the little things in life. That an inanimate object as small as a power cart gas cap could have a direct impact on the lives of so many people — the ground crew, flight crew, a couple of engineers at Boeing, the talking heads in the Pentagon, State Department, HQ SAC, Andersen AFB, and various foreign government agencies — boggles the mind. Not taken into consideration — the potential impact a different set of outcomes would have had on the flight crew’s families.
Given the impact a single oversight — losing track of a gas cap — had on the lives of so many people, I can only begin to grasp how minor events affect the course of human history — a simple kindness, a comment, or something as simple as avoiding a catastrophic event by stopping to do nothing more than tie one’s shoes, pick up a piece of trash, or lock the front door.