by L. D. Alford
Crewchiefs don’t ever get enough respect. The famous joke among aviators is: what are the three greatest lies in the Air Force? The last lie is, “I’m the regular crewchief.” Like I said, crewchiefs don’t ever get enough respect. They work in a hard, uncomfortable, unforgiving, and difficult job that is made worse by having to be the frontline interface with flying officers. They should get more respect. Unfortunately, in this true account, I’ll not be adding to their respect quotient. In the future, I’ll try to be more generous in my praise for the unappreciated crewchief—they really do deserve it. For the record, armament crewchiefs get even less respect than the proverbial regular crewchiefs.
The actual point here is how do you really know you have a problem with an aircraft? In the air, you hope your instruments and crew can spot the problem before the “wing-off” light comes on. On the ground, you hope, prior to takeoff, some bright person on the inside or the outside of the aircraft sees something funny and tells you about it. Or, like in the air, your instruments inform you something bad is happening.
Does anyone get the impression that instruments are not the best indicator of impending disaster? I can assure you, they are not. As a matter of a fact, in the history of aircraft, except in flight test, those systems of high danger and a catastrophic nature are rarely instrumented. There are no “tail about to come off” lights. There are no “fire in the wing” lights. About the best you can do for some very significant events in some aircraft is to note that the instruments just aren’t reading quite correctly. When they all stop working at once, that’s a real indicator; it usually means the fire has finally burned through the wires.
Even flight critical items with great warning devices, like fire warning systems in engines and compartments can be worthless. I point out, for example, a T-39B being flown by a couple of test pilots that had a fire warning system in the tail compartment to help notify of a fire in the hydraulically driven 10 KVA AC generator. In this event, the hydraulic system caught fire due to a leak and almost burned the tail off. The pilots, on downwind in the pattern, had one flicker of the fire warning system light before the wires burned through, and they landed immediately. In this case, the fire light almost acted like a tail off light—it was nearly too little too late, and I’m glad my buddies were in the pattern or the world would have lost two awesome aviators. Such happy stories are not the norm. A C-130 with repeatedly odd engine Turbine Inlet Temperature (TIT) indications on one engine lost the wing due to burn through. The fire was in an area where the fire loop couldn’t detect it, and so it goes. In this case the crew never received any wing off light indication—it just came off. They were very unlucky.
So if you can’t trust your instruments, who can you trust? You can trust your crew. Eyes and ears are really important for detecting problems in aircraft. Engines sound differently when they aren’t running properly. Unfortunately, fire usually doesn’t make more noise than just a regular running engine. Still, actually being able to look at the engines or the wings or other important parts of an aircraft is really a great thing. You and your crew can’t usually look at the entire aircraft in flight—that’s why wingmen are worth their weight in gold. Outside observers are very helpful too, and that’s where our crew and armament chiefs come in.
In the military, at fighter bases, the armament troops always run a “last chance.” Last chance is where the weapons on the aircraft are armed, and the plane gets a final look before it blasts off into the wild blue. This “last chance” is the responsibility of the armament chief. Generally, on the ground, the only way to communicate with your crewchief and armament chief is through hand signals. Hand signals are also important during formation flight, when you don’t want to burden the airwaves to communicate certain basic flight functions and information. So what does it mean when the crew or armament chief turns and runs away from the aircraft? I can assure you that is a very negative signal.
On a beautiful summer day in Zaragoza Spain, I was sitting on the ramp in an OV-10 four ship waiting for the armament troops to arm the 2.75 inch willy-pete rockets in the launcher under my sponsons. I was number four, the last guy in the lineup. The armament chief stepped in front of my aircraft. I gave him the pull the safeties signal. The armament chief repeated my signal, and I put my hands up on the side rails to keep them in sight. The most dangerous thing that can happen to someone on the ground under an aircraft is for the pilot to advertently or inadvertently move something in the cockpit that activates a device on the outside the aircraft. To prevent misunderstandings and accidents, the pilot puts his hands in clear sight went the ground crew is around the aircraft—especially a running aircraft.
The armament chief waved to his armament troops. Behind me, I knew the “last chance” airmen were pulling the safeties from the rocket launcher and arming the rockets. I smiled to myself, after that, I’d be sitting on an aircraft with armed explosives ready to go.
Firing the 2.75 inch rockets was a blast. The only problem was the Air Force made us qualify in mostly low angle deliveries including negative five degree lofts. We did get to do some fourth-five degree deliveries, but everything was for qualification, and I never got enough practice. Still, it wasn’t unusual for an OV-10 pilot to hit the bull’s-eye once or twice a range visit especially in the forty-five degree rocket patterns. A bull’s-eye was unusual from a range perspective. Fighters with practice bombs usually couldn’t hit the bull’s-eye, and when they did, the practice bombs wouldn’t do much damage, just a little puff of smoke and a clang—that is if they really hit anything. A practice bomb bull’s-eye is as big as the lethal radius for the real thing—that’s pretty big.
In 2.75 inch rockets, a bull’s-eye was really a bull’s-eye. It meant you actually hit the target. There was no leeway. The most difficult shots were low angle, but that allowed you to get further away from the target—the accuracy just reduced. The negative five degree lofts were something else. You stood off at five kilometers, pulled the nose up five degrees, and waited for the pipper to move up to the target. If you were careful, and the airspeed, altitude, and trim were right on, you might hit the broad side of a barn.
Still, willy-pete made any rocket practice worthwhile. Willy-pete is white phosphorus. It’s a nasty, pernicious metal that burns at a very high temperature. In fact, water will cause it to burn. It makes great smoke and that’s why we used it for target marking rockets in Forward Air Control (FAC). Willy-pete will also burn metal. The range officers hated the stuff. Every time an OV-10 pilot hit the target on the range, the target usually burned up. Since the targets on the range was a fire truck or an old tank, when OV-10s were around, the range went through a lot of fire trucks and old tanks.
So you can see, once the rockets were armed on the aircraft, you were a flying—bomb. I never worried about it much, but it does sound kind of exciting. I was watching the armament chief closely, because I wanted to get out on the range and show my stuff. I was ready to kick some “you know what” and win the pot for the day (pilots always bet on the outcome of the practice range). The armament chief was taking his time, and I wondered if there was something wrong with the launcher. Then he turned and took off running. He didn’t give me a signal or anything. He just ran. I looked around the aircraft and saw armament guys scrambling in every direction.
I glanced at my element lead in the OV-10 next to me, and he shrugged. That was really helpful. That’s when I saw one of the other last chance troops wheeling over a big red fire extinguisher, and then I knew what to do. I feathered both engines, shut down the aircraft and bailed over the side. It was the fastest I think I’ve ever exited a cockpit. That’s when everything really became exciting.
There wasn’t a fire. There was a hydraulic leak on the left side where my element lead couldn’t see it. Apparently the hydraulic fluid burst a seal and fluid was squirting at high pressure everywhere. Hydraulic fluid is kind of a ground guys nightmare. It is usually pressurized from 3000 to 7000 psi. That’s enough to take your arm off. If it doesn’t remove a body part, the pressure can drive hydraulic fluid into your body and poison you. Crewmembers have been killed just by extensive exposure to hydraulic fluid, but that still doesn’t forgive them for running away. Once I shut down the aircraft, the hydraulic pump didn’t get any more power and the spraying fountain turned into a drip. Out on the ramp, there was still a bleeding red pool of slowly moving hydraulic fluid that spread across the ground under my aircraft.
My flight lead assured himself I was safe and sound then took off with the rest of the flight. I ran for the spare. I didn’t get a chance to tell off the armament crew; I was moving so fast to get the new aircraft ready and catch my formation, I couldn’t take the time. I didn’t win the pot for the best rockets that day either, pity.
These events don’t just happen to fighters. A few years later, I was flying “special” missions out of Panama. I can’t tell you what I was doing exactly—the mission was just “special.” We had a full load of gas in a heavy weight aircraft, 155,000 pounds of C-130 with a full crew and package in the back. Plus this aircraft was really draggy due to the equipment on it. It had junk hanging out of everywhere, so no one could really be sure just how many drag counts should have been added to the performance data—let’s just say it was a lot. Not as much as an EC-130, but a lot.
We always took off right after the sun had come up. That was a positive, you could see and it was still cool even for Panama. After we had the aircraft started, we taxied toward the arming area. On an active fighter base you get a “last chance” inspection no matter who you are.
When you taxi a heavy weight C-130, it’s best to downspeed the engines so you don’t burn up the brakes. That’s how I was taxiing, with the engines downsped and the Gas Turbine Compressor (GTC) running to provide the aircraft air and power. As we were taxiing, all four engines suddenly popped back to normal speed, and the flight engineer announced, “Hey pilot, I just lost the GTC.” The GTC is a small turbine engine mounted in the left wheelwell. It provides compressed air to turn the Air Turbine Motor (ATM) and to start the main engines. The ATM in turn is connected to a generator to provide power for start and on the ground. The GTC and ATM are critical in Panama with a heavyweight aircraft. We use it on the ground for auxiliary power and to help cooling especially when it is really hot outside. Plus, the GTC and ATM have to be running for power when the main engines are downsped. If not, then the electrical systems can be damaged. This is especially true with a special mission pallet on the aircraft.
The GTC is important, but not critical for operations. Since we had the main engines running, the trick was to keep from overheating the brakes. I could do that. I was used to flying OV-10s. In an OV-10, you taxi without using the brakes or nose wheel steering and instead use the engines for steering and reverse thrust to slow and stop. This works great in a C-130 too, it’s just not normal operations. The flight engineer kept trying to start the GTC, but it just wouldn’t come back on.
I taxied into the arming area and the armament chief waved me to a stop. I gave him the clear signal and put my hands on the dash. He stared at the aircraft for a moment, his mouth opened and shut, then he turned and ran for it. I thought it was déjà vous all over again. I thought for a moment about asking the loadmaster to check out the aircraft, but instead, I told the copilot, “Shut her down.”
The copilot just stared at me.
“Shut them all down, co. Feather them all. Load, we are evacuating the aircraft.”
And we did. The moment we opened the crew door, we saw the problem, and we ran out through the paratroop doors in the rear instead. When we all stood at a good distance from the C-130, what we saw under the aircraft was a spreading pool of JP-4. I don’t mean a small pool, I mean a very large pool—a C-130 sized pool. It was still flowing at a high rate out of the GTC compartment and it looked like it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. What was even more interesting was the trail of JP-4 from almost the place we started the aircraft down the taxiway all the way to the arming location. If the fuel had caught fire, the result would have been like one of those cartoons where the fire chases the aircraft—you know the end of that story. There was still a chance of a fire because the GTC was still a thousand degrees hot and fuel was pouring all over it.
The armament chief kind of shame faced came over with the fire department and one of those now big yellow-green wheeled fire extinguishers. They changed the color from red to yellow-green, and I’m not sure why. The armament chief said he saw the fuel pouring out and was worried about his crew. I wished he had been worried enough about my crew and a $50 million dollar aircraft to give me a shut down signal—I told him that. His response, “The fighter pilots didn’t like to be told by armament to shut down even if they were on fire.” The armament chief usually told the tower and the tower told the pilots. The fighter pilots would take direction from the tower better than from the enlisted armament crew.
I told him what I thought about that—I’m not sure if my opinion helped or hurt, oh well.
The funny thing was the nonregular crewchief who launched us said he saw the trail of fuel when it started, but he wasn’t sure if it was abnormal for a C-130. He was used to fighters leaking all the time. Ah, you can’t win for losing.
We lost the sortie and I lost my favorite aviation knee board. I yanked it off my leg when we evacuated and I never got it back after the aircraft came out of impound. The knee board came from Honduras and I never found the guy who made them there again.
The author is a retired Air Force test pilot. His other aviation, technical, and fiction writing can be referenced at www.ldalford.com.
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