Losses and Aviation Safety

Former C-17 Instructor Explains What Happens if the Aircraft Thrust Reversers are accidentally Deployed during Aerial Refueling

What happens if a C-17 pilot accidentally deploys the aircraft thrust reversers in flight?

Thrust reversal, also called reverse thrust, is the temporary diversion of an aircraft engine’s thrust so that it acts against the forward travel of the aircraft, providing deceleration. Thrust reverser systems are featured on many jet aircraft to help slow down just after touch-down, reducing wear on the brakes and enabling shorter landing distances.

Some aircraft are able to safely use reverse thrust in flight, though the majority of these are propeller-driven. Many commercial aircraft, however, cannot. In-flight use of reverse thrust has several advantages. It allows for rapid deceleration, enabling quick changes of speed. It also prevents the speed build-up normally associated with steep dives, allowing for rapid loss of altitude, which can be especially useful in hostile environments such as combat zones, and when making steep approaches to land.

The C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft is one of the few modern aircraft that uses reverse thrust in flight. This airlifter is capable of in-flight deployment of reverse thrust on all four engines to facilitate steep tactical descents up to 15,000 ft/min (4,600 m/min) into combat environments (a descent rate of just over 170 mph, or 274 km/h).

But what happens if a C-17 pilot accidentally deploys the aircraft thrust reversers in flight?

‘It’s exciting for a bit!’ Says John Tringali, former C-17 Instructor with the US Air Force (USAF), on Quora.

‘I used to teach in C-17s. The thrust reversers are used in flight for steep fast descents, like 15–18,000 feet per minute, which is what the plane was built to do so they don’t have any complicated interlock to keep them from deploying in flight.

Aboard airliners the throttles you hold in flight aren’t the ones you use for reverse, you reach up and move different handles that have interlocks to keep them from deploying in the air. The C-17 just had a hump that you pull up and over.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. C-17A Globemaster III 60th Air Mobility Wing / 349th Air Mobility Wing, 21st Airlift Squadron, 06-6160 – Travis AFB, CA

‘So they’re easy to deploy. They still have electronic logic to keep the engines at reverse idle and not rev them up beyond that level.’

Tringali continues.

‘I was teaching a pilot air refueling. Not initial qualification, just recurring training.

‘We also practice this maneuver called a breakaway where we try to get away from the tanker as fast as possible. In a real emergency that involves hitting the boom disconnect switches (all of them) pulling the power to idle, extending the speed brakes and descending back and down from the tanker. It’s very aggressive and the slipstream separation throws the tanker around so on training we do all of that very slowly, steady, and methodically.

‘So as I recall we briefed it up and the tanker’s boomer called “breakaway” and the pilot flying got his sleeve caught around the #1 throttle somehow and pulled it into reverse with 2 through 4 in forward idle. It was a little surprising to him and as he tried to pull his arm away I think it just made him more confused and then he started to pull #2 into reverse but I’d already grabbed the throttles and his hand and put them back to forward and used some rudder to keep the plane level because it wanted to roll left with that engine directing thrust back and up. The loadmaster was downstairs and yells “What the hell are you doing up there” or something. Anyway it was funny and we debriefed it.’

Tringali concludes.

‘Anyway, no, reverse thrust won’t make you stall IN flight as long as you get the nose down and use gravity to keep the speed. With all 4 engines in reverse we usually flew a deck angle of -20 degrees at .8 Mach to 320 knots down to as low as 2,000 AGL.’

A vortex made visible as powerback is used on a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.

Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Luke Milano / US Air Force and Alastair Bor via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • Some of this may be true but being an A&PIA airplane mechanic I have never heard or seen thrust reversers deploy in the air! On the main landing gear there is a micro switch called a "squat switch" and if the aircraft is on the grown this square switch is pressed giving the pilot thrust reverse capability in the air this "squat switch" is NOT pressed so the aircraft could not go into thrust reverse. If the pilot wants to slow down while flying he/she can deploy the air brake or spoilers (general location is on the upper wings, aft lower fuselage) but to deploy the thrust reversers in the air could lead to catastrophic circumstances and I have read Aircraft Accident reports of such a thing happening on a Cessna Citation which lead to SB's (service Bulletin's) and (AD's) alternate directive's be issued for that and other aircraft like them to be followed during routine maintenance

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