Bound for Yuma

by L. D. Alford

“Hey, Co, let me see that weight and balance sheet again. I think there’s something wrong with it.”

Pete handed the crumpled piece of thin computer paper across the counter.

Major Mac looked up and down the sheet, “This just ain’t right. It would be okay for a standard Sabreliner, but not this bird. This is 874, the only Sabreliner in the world with an electronic countermeasures pod carriage adapter mounted under its belly, and today we’re flying it without any pod. I tested this puppy; I know the weight and balance is wrong. On this aircraft, maintenance has to ballast the nose with 300 pounds of lead; if not, the nose’ll come up real fast on takeoff and we’ll never get it to come back down again.”

T-39 pod modification

Pete drew his finger across his throat.

“Pete you finish up the flight plan, I’ll go talk to the weight and balance shop about it.”

Mac got on the phone and finally talked to a weight and balance troop. At first the civilian in charge of the shop didn’t understand what Mac wanted. After a long discussion, Mac finally convinced him to redo the sheet. “…and make sure maintenance ballasted the nose.”

“Sure,” said the tech as he hung up the phone.

Mac hovered over the FAX machine grumbling until the weight and balance sheet came through. He studied the document while he walked over to flight planning room where Pete was working out the takeoff data. “Sorry, Pete,” said Mac, “I can’t give you a good weight, this one looks bogus too.”

Mac pulled out his T-39 flight manual and 874’s partial flight manual and began calculating the weight and balance by hand.

“Mac, the Ops Officer will never accept that. You have to have an official weight and balance sheet from Quality Assurance. Plus for our cross country to support the Yuma test, we need the Squadron Commander’s sign off.”

“I know. I know. I just want to have the right numbers in my hip pocket so I know when we get an accurate weight and balance.”

Pete laughed, “That makes sense to me.”

“I’ll call again. You see if the Squadron Commander will give us a conditional sign-off.”


This time, it took Mac a half an hour to get the tech to understand the problem. Mac read the numbers to him over the phone. The tech said he would send the form out to the aircraft.

“Okay, Mac. I got the Squadron Commander to buy off on the plan. He says we can go when we get an accurate weight and balance form.”

“Well…” said Mac, “I have one in my pocket.”

Pete gave him a look

“Alright, I’ll make sure we get an official form.”

They gathered their flying gear and walked out to their jet. The flight line there at Edwards was at least 110 degrees and they were melting by the time they finished the walk-around. At least the nose was ballasted correctly with a hunk of orange colored lead. Finally, the dispatch truck came rattling up. Mac’s favorite dispatcher Staff Sergeant Ready stepped out and handed him a fresh weight and balance sheet.

With the Sergeant and Pete looking over his shoulder, he compared it with his own calculations.

Pete let out a groan, “That one’s wrong too.”

Mac shook his head, “Sarg can you give us a ride to the weight and balance trailer? We have got to get this right before we takeoff.”

Sergeant Ready waved them on board.

Pete and Mac hung on for dear life as Sergeant Ready drove them down the flight line to the trailer.

Inside, Mac showed the tech what was wrong, and they recalculated the form. This time it came out right. “’Bout time,” Mac looked at his watch, “If we hurry, we can just make an on-time takeoff. Pete, take the copy to the squadron. I’ll get the checklist started.”

Pete delivered the form and hurried back to the plane, the minute he shut the door, Mac had number one engine turning.

They taxied out at an Edward’s taxi pace and made it to the runway just before a formation of F-15s and a C-17 claimed the number one position.

“Eddy tower, Sabre 21 is number one for takeoff.”

“Saber 21, Eddy tower, you are cleared for takeoff.”

Mac taxied onto the runway and held the brakes. He pushed up the throttles and swept his eyes over the engines.

“Mac, number two fuel flow is a bit high.”

“I see it. It looks like it’s within limits—barely. Let’s go.”

The Sabreliner gained speed quickly.

“Go! Rotate!” called Pete.

Mac rotated the plane and it slowly lumbered into the hot clear sky, “Gear up!”

Pete raised the gear and called on the radios, “Eddy tower, Sabre 21 going to sport.”

“Roger, Sabre 21.”

“Sport, Sabre 21, climbing past 3,000 and turning toward Hector.”

“Sabre 21, Sport, radar contact, climb on course to Flight Level 310.”

“Sport, Sabre 21 climbing to Flight Level 310.

Mac said, “She seems a bit sluggish, today.”

“Bumpy too.”

“Was weather calling for light chop? I don’t remember that in the forecast.”

“She’s bouncing around pretty good. The leading edge slats on my side are chattering. We’re burning fuel fast on number two.”

“Number two is turning and burning all right. I’m setting climb power.”

“There, Mac, she’s settling out. We must have been in some chop, but number two is still burning fuel faster than number one.”

“Let’s make a good fuel check at Hector. At that rate of burn, I don’t think we’re going to make it to Yuma. Let’s see if the fuel flow improves at altitude. I don’t want to take a sick bird to Yuma; they don’t have any jet maintenance there.”

“Sabre 21, Sport, I show you at Hector. Contact LA center on 284.7.

“Sport, Sabre 21, going 284.7. LA Center, Sabre 21 passing Fight Level 210 for 310.”

“Sabre 21, LA Center, copy 210 for 310.”

“Hey, Mac, the aircraft pressure gauge is surging a little. Can you feel it?”

“Yeah, I thought it was just me. You checked the fuel log yet. How are we doing?”

“Not too good. I don’t think we can make it to Yuma, and the left and right tanks are getting out of balance.”

“Time for a command decision. Tell LA we need to turn around.”

“I’m with you. LA Center, Sabre 21, we need to turn around and return to Edwards.”

“Sabre 21, LA Center, do you have a problem?”

“LA Center, Sabre 21, not yet. We’ll advise.”

“Roger, Sabre 21 cleared present position direct to Hector then Edwards. Maintain flight level 260.”

“We’re almost there. What’s that?”

A loud bang filled the aircraft and the cabin suddenly misted up. The pressurization warning horn began to blare incessantly.

“Holy smoke, rapid decompression. I think we blew out the pressurization valve. Oxygen masks on.”

Mac pulled both throttles to idle and just saw 25,000 feet. He put the T-39 in a dive and threw on his quick-don oxygen mask. Pete swept his on too.

“No speed brake on this aircraft,” he said, “Declare an emergency and tell Center we’re coming down fast.”

“LA Center, Sabre 21, we just had a rapid decompression. We are declaring an emergency; descending out of flight level 200 and we are looking for 8,000.”

“Sabre 21 emergency aircraft, you are cleared to 8,000 direct to Edwards. When able say fuel and number of souls on board.”

“One hour fuel, two souls on board.”

“Contact Sport on 326.2.”

“Contacting Sport on 326.6. Sport, Sabre 21 emergency aircraft we are descending trough 15,000 for 8,000 direct Edwards we’d like a straight-in full stop.”

“Sabre 21 emergency aircraft, Sport, understand you had a rapid decompression. Do you need medical to meet you.”

“Sport, Sabre 21, negative, we never got above 25,000 feet.”

“Give or take a few feet,” mumbled Mac.

At 8,000, Mac fed the power back in and number two engine started to surge.

“Mac, she’s doing it again.”

He pulled back the number two engine, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s compressor stalling, but I never heard of a T-39 with a compressor stall.”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s compressor stalling. I’m pulling it back to idle. We’ll make a single engine approach.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Sabre 21, Sport, contact tower on button 2.”

“Pete tell tower we have another emergency.”

“Yes sir. Eddy Tower, Sabre 21 emergency aircraft. We have a new emergency to report. Our right engine is only producing partial thrust. It’s operating, but we’ll be making a precautionary engine out approach.”

“Sabre 21, Eddy Tower, copy your emergencies. The fire trucks will be standing by. You are cleared the approach and cleared to land. Call gear down when able.”

Mac made a good straight in and they put the gear down on short final. After an easy landing the firetrucks chased them down the runway.

“Sabre 21, Eddy Tower, if able take it to the end for a check out.”

“Pete tell them we are safely down and we’ll taxi it to the chocks.”

“Roger boss.”

The tower came back with, “Saber 21 cleared to taxi as requested.”

Mac pulled into the chocks, and when the T-39 was shut down, the crew chief stuck his head through the door, “Short trip. I guess it’s code 3.”

“Yeah, chief. Double code 3.”

“Hey, chief,” said Mac, “Do you have a spare for us?”

The chief burst out laughing, “I’ve got one, but it needs an engine run and a pressurization check.”

Major Mac looked at Pete and shook his head, “I think we’ll try for Yuma again—tomorrow.”

– The End –

Postscript: This story happened exactly as written here. The aircraft was a modified Air Force T-39 Sabreliner. It was the only Sabreliner in the world with a pod carriage adaptor that allowed the carriage of different types of electronic countermeasure pods. The pod adaptor covered the normal T-39 speed brake and emergency escape hatch. The emergency escape hatch was an unusable joke, but the speed brake could be useful especially in formation flight. This is the only compressor stall I ever experienced in a T-39. It literally shook the entire aircraft, but smoothed out when the power was reduced – very interesting problem. Pete and I eventually got to Yuma, but that’s another story.