I Learned About Flying From That

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In the mid-60s I was posted to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, home of Headquarters Strategic Air Command. I was not in the HQ, however, but in the Operations Squadron of Offutt's Air Base Wing. The ABW ran all the base's goods and services, we in the ops squadron provided support for all the aviators assigned to the HQ. My primary duty was as instructor pilot and flight examiner in the T-29 (navigator trainer based on the Convair 240), and ditto in the C-97 (military version of the Boeing B377 Stratocruiser). The Air Force never encouraged multiple currency, but when you only have some 20 pilots doing the instructor and examiner duties for well over a thousand HQ denizens, you have to double up -- or more. I would eventually add two more birds to my list, but that isn't germane to this tale.

Every weekday we would launch a C-97 called the East Coast Courier, destination Andrews AFB, near Washington, D.C., via an intermediate stop at Patterson Field at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, outbound and inbound. The primary purpose of the mission was moving large loads of classified material, usually tied down in the lower aft compartment. On the upper deck were some 50 passenger seats, and it was a rare day they weren't filled with temporary duty travelers, military people hitchhiking on leave, occasionally even a congressman who was serious about fiscal responsibility.

Most of our C-97s were castrated KC-97G tankers; boom pod, refueling boom and fuselage tanks for jet fuel removed. Clamshell doors replaced the boom pod, and a jury-rigged stairway raised and lowered by hand through the open doors provided for passenger use. The interior was as-built basic; no soundproofing, few windows, but the seats, while not fancy, were roomier than any air carrier's coach seat.

The crew consisted of the two pilots; a navigator, who logged time, ran the radar and played follow-the-pilot, since our route was on airways, always IFR, irrespective of weather; a flight engineer, essential to the operation of the airplane, most of the engine information and control being under his hands in coordination with the pilots; and two scanners, the particular airplane's crew chief and his assistant.

A rule of long standing was that each C-97 flight be under the command of an ops squadron instructor/examiner, which is why I was in the right seat of the Courier one murky Nebraska morning. I met the pilot for the first time ever in base operations, where we checked weather and filed our flight plan. It was a matter of pride that the Couriers took off at precisely 0800 local time. FAA was so used to the operation that we were never delayed. Once departing the parking space for taxiway and runway, the next time the parking brakes would be set would be at Patterson.

Off we went, into a ceiling of perhaps 800 feet, got our vectors for Des Moines, and settled down in a nice, steady climb. I had eyeballed the pilot, a young captain, closely. He knew his procedures and flew well for somebody whose days were spent shuffling paper. Things were going smoothly, my coffee was strong and of the right temperature. Should be a good day. Bang! Rumble! Vibrate!

"What's up, engineer?" I asked, he a master sergeant friend from tanker days.

"Number three, sir. It's coming unglued," was the reply.

The engineer's panel is not visible from the right seat, but by twisting around I could see him alternately eyeing his panel and the cathode ray tube of the engine analyzer.

"Best we shut 'er down," I said, glancing at the captain, who immediately went into his engine failure procedures. I read off the checklists, I feathered number 3 prop, completed the checks. The engineer set up three-engine cruise while I told our tale of woe to Center, who cleared us to reverse course and go back home. Two unhappy crew chiefs appeared on the flight deck and got the detailed bad news from the engineer.

The captain made a precision radar approach very nicely, we broke out under the same 800 feet, and taxied into the slot we had just left. The ops squadron was delighted to know that a substitute C-97 was available (although I imagine the air was blue in the maintenance squadron).

We transferred pax and cargo and got airborne once again in good time. The captain's approach and landing at Patterson, ceiling maybe 500 feet, was well executed. We did our business quickly, foregoing a leg stretch on the ramp for an engine start ASAP, and were off for Andrews.

A little frisson of doubt probably made me frown when Washington Center instructed us to hold at such-and-such VOR (I forget which), a request rare as hen's teeth for the couriers. We made one circuit before Washington said that Andrews was accepting approaches again, clearing us to descend and contact Andrews' surveillance radar.

(Accepting approaches again???)

The precision approach controller took over as we rolled onto the extended runway centerline. He gave us minor corrections to centerline, the air perfectly smooth in pure white cloud. I dropped the landing gear at the pilot's request as we intercepted the glidepath.

"On centerline, 10 feet high on glidepath, bring her down a bit. On the glideslope, on the centerline."

Looked good, but where the hell was that 800-foot ceiling? Then things started going to pot.

"You're going 20, 30, 50 feet high on the glideslope, bring her down -- you're too high for a safe approach. Take it around and contact GCA on."

As soon as we began flattening out, I had glanced over at the pilot, and saw him looking out the windshield!

As he made the missed approach, I said, "Stay on the gauges. I'm the one who'll tell you when we're visual."

We did it again. Same song, second verse. Except that Andrews closed down after our second try. I don't remember the RVR reported, but it was the practical equivalent of a 100-foot ceiling and a quarter-mile visibility, the absolute minima for a precision radar approach.

"Is Dulles taking approaches?" I asked. They were. We were given vectors to the ILS final, and on the way over to IAD I took control so that I could get the captain's undivided attention.

"Look," I said, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice, "you have got to fly the instruments to the exclusion of all else. I'm your copilot. It's my responsibility to get things all set up for you, and to bring the visual into the crosscheck of my own gauges. Stay on the instruments!"

Verse three was no better. I could see the ILS glideslope head for the bottom of its case. "Take it around!" I ordered.

In reporting the missed and asking for another crack at it, I heard a commercial 727 report IAD as missed and proceeding to his alternate. My morale bottomed out. This old ex-tanker with rudimentary instrumentation attempting an approach that a modern Boeing three-holer couldn't cut?

Things rarely go to hell in a handbasket in just one way. First: The engineer leaned around toward me.

"Boss, we've got about 45 minutes of fuel left."

A quick check revealed that the entire Eastern Seaboard was down. It was Dulles or nothing.

Second: The captain looked over at me with a wild expression and said, "I can't do it! I can't do it!"

Well, that left it up to me to solo the old barge. A practical problem was that the only VOR/ILS instrument on the panel was in the upper left corner on the pilot's side, a distance of a least four feet from my position on the right.

At instrument school they always harped on flying basic instruments and bringing the ILS into the crosscheck. And as one got closer in, sensitivity of the centerline and glideslope needles increased.

So. What I said was something like, "We're going to make this approach and land. I hope it's on the runway. But if it isn't, it will be right side up and safe, even if we're in mud up to the axles.

The ILS went better than I'd have thought -- that crosscheck was a doozy, but it worked.

"What I want you to do," I said to the captain, "is keep your eyes glued on that windshield and let me know when you see something useful."

It was getting dark after all our fooling around, which was probably in our favor. As we came lower I started to pick up the sequencing strobe lights in my peripheral vision. What a glorious sight, even without peeking.

But then we began to run out of strobes, still in the soup.

The last one disappeared under the nose -- and it was suddenly black outside.

"The runway! The runway!" the captain shouted.

I looked up. High intensity runway lighting! Runway centerline lighting right down the groove! I pulled the throttles back to idle, flared, and let the old girl flop onto the wet concrete. I felt the engineer's hand grip my shoulder. I thanked God most profoundly.

In the terminal, one of the airport manager's staff allowed as how it "ain't amachoor night out tonight."

My errors? The worst in assuming that the weather briefing we received initially was guaranteed infallible, and failing to check the general East Coast progs more than superficially. The next in assuming that the captain was better at his aviating than the average deskbound pilot. I should have taken over after that first missed approach at Andrews. There are probably more. I'll let you, my peers, do the judging.

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.