‘The SEAL boat, officially termed the “Mark V Special Operations Craft,” is a monster. It is 82 feet long, 17.5 feet high, and most significantly, weighs 120,000 lbs. All takeoffs with the boat on board were white knuckle, max performance affairs, requiring long runways to attain our critical field length,’ Jay Lacklen, former C-5 pilot
Jay Lacklen is a former C-5 pilot with 12,500 flying hours and the author of two books, Flying the Line: An Air Force Pilot’s Journey and Flying the Line: An Air Force Pilot’s Journey Volume Two: Military Airlift Command. The following story comes the last book of the trilogy, in progress: “Flying the Line, an Air Force Pilot’s Journey,” book three, “Air Mobility Command, 1993-2004,” in progress.”
In the winter of 1998, a dream mission, for me, came down the scheduling desk. It promised an around-the-world trip westbound. I had done two other world-rounders eastbound in 1983 and 1993, so this one would give me a shot at a westbound. I immediately jumped on the mission in command.The mission would pick up a Navy SEAL boat in North Island NAS in San Diego, CA, and deliver it to Kadena AB, Okinawa. We would then continue westbound to pick up another SEAL Boat in Bahrain to return to San Diego.
The cargo made this a challenging mission. The SEAL boat, officially termed the “Mark V Special Operations Craft,” is a monster. It is 82 feet long, 17.5 feet high, and most significantly, weighs 120,000 lbs. This meant our C-5 zero fuel weight would be 600,000 lbs., leaving only about 170,000 lbs. for fuel before reaching our maximum takeoff weight of 769,000 lbs.
Aside from making us extremely fuel limited, our high gross weight meant we could only fly at much lower than normal altitudes that would burn our limited fuel much faster. This dictated we fly either short mileage legs or air refuel.
The pilot crew for the mission was raised to four pilots to handle long days with multiple stops. The other three pilots were Dan Triplett, Steve Warner, and Paul Staquet. Four pilots allowed us to have an A team and a B team to keep both pilot seats constantly manned. This proved a much more comfortable arrangement than sharing long days among the usual three pilots.
The trip from Dover to San Diego had none of the upcoming restrictions, however, since we flew an empty airplane. The North Island, NAS, landing had an unusual wrinkle to it. Final approach took us low over a section of the city where we could almost look into apartment windows off our right wing on a hillside.
Loading the boat the next day for the flight to Alaska provided a loadmaster’s nightmare. The boat barely, and I mean barely, had clearance to fit into the cargo compartment. It took the full three hours’ load time to wedge the boat in and tie it down.
A Dover active duty crew on the same mission with the same sized boat would take off just before us for the first flight leg with the boats to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. They got off about twenty minutes before us, and we followed them until we got to waters off Oregon. Watching our fuel burn and time left to fly on our flight management system, I didn’t think we could comfortably make it to Elmendorf. We would arrive overhead with 12,000 lbs. of fuel instead of the 20,000 we were scheduled to have. Our low cruise altitude, requiring a high fuel burn rate, had deprived us of our safety margin. I decide to divert into McChord AFB, WA, to refuel. I listened on the center radio frequency to see if the active duty crew had also diverted. They had not; they were going to go for it. Our divert had put us several hours behind them, and I never had a chance to ask what fuel they landed with.
The hard winter in Alaska was dark and frigid. Roads ran between snow walls on both sides. It was four p.m. local time and as dark as midnight. We dined at an on-base ski chalet–type facility and slept in one of the large billeting complexes on base.
The next morning things began to go awry. A maintenance problem put us behind our time line for takeoff. This might not have been significant, except we had an Elmendorf tanker orbiting above us to refuel us prior to entering the R-120 navigation route to Misawa AB, Japan. We had to have all the scheduled air refueling off load to make it. The tanker called us on the command post frequency to check on our progress. He informed me if I didn’t get off soon, he would have to cut our off-load to provide him enough fuel to return to Elmendorf from the Pacific. Translation: he would soon start burning my fuel in his overhead orbit. This would be a dilemma not of my making that I would have to manage. The weight of the damn boat complicated everything.
To solve it, I had to be rock solid and precise in two facets of my job. I absolutely had to be able to take the gas quickly during the refueling, with no disconnects from the tanker. This way I could take the full off-load in minimum time to make up for my fuel he was burning in his orbit. Second, I had to know precisely how much fuel I needed to reach Japan after taking the fuel. There is only one available divert base in route to Japan: Shemya AB in the Aleutian Islands. And that would be inconveniently underneath me shortly after finishing the refueling. I’d have to make the go–no go decision right then.
As it worked out, we got fixed shortly thereafter. I took the gas in one gulp from the tanker, and we even had a slight fuel pad to make Japan as we passed Shemya.
All takeoffs with the boat on board were white knuckle, max performance affairs, requiring long runways to attain our critical field length (the point on the takeoff roll where you can lose an engine and either stop or continue takeoff). Further, our climb gradient suffered due to our weight, so we could not tolerate any obstacles on our takeoff path. That meant we had to take off to the south at Elmendorf, toward the ocean, instead of north toward the mountains.
We quick-turned Misawa for fuel and made the relatively short hop to Kadena AB, Okinawa, for crew rest.
The next mission segment would be the diciest, this time for the landing phase. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate that when we took off from Kadena for the boat’s destination in Korea.
The airfield at Pohang has a most unfortunate feature. The approach to one of the runways requires flying through a narrow notch in a ridge line about a mile from the runway threshold. In addition, the runway is only 7,000 feet long. This is barely enough runway for a C-5 carrying a 120,000-pound boat even if you touch down at the 1,500-foot marker.
We had reviewed the approach plate but didn’t recognize the ridge height or its proximity to the runway. The other runway had no such obstruction, and we didn’t know which one we would get. Fortunately, we arrived in bright morning sunshine for vectors to final for a visual approach.
As I turned from base to final, I saw the dilemma. I would have to fly through the notch and immediately dive to the runway to land in the first 1,000 feet or so. As we approached the notch, we were below the ridgeline on both sides. It was disconcerting to look at the other pilot and see terrain above us about a quarter of a mile away. This is insanity, I thought. What moron designed this airport? Of course, smaller, lighter aircraft would have no problem with these conditions. But I was flying one of the world’s largest aircraft with a stupendously heavy cargo that required a higher approach speed. I would have to make do with conditions as they were.
With many years as an instructor pilot, I knew how to handle this. I’d had to save several rookies from this dilemma they had gotten themselves into without a notch to fly through. If you are too high on short final, you must dive for the runway. You generally pull the throttles to idle to get down quickly. As you near the runway, however, you need to rotate the nose up crisply to avoid pounding the plane into the runway. If you do not add power just before doing so, you will stall the airplane and it will fall to the runway with possibly dire consequences.
So, the millisecond I thought I was through the notch, I pulled the throttle to about 25% power (due to high aircraft weight) and dove for the first brick of runway from about 400 feet above the ground. As I neared the threshold, I jammed the throttles up and got a burst of power as I started the rotation.
At my heavy landing weight, the charts said I could have no more than six feet/second sink rate to avoid damaging the landing gear struts. I held the power until almost level, then retarded the throttles to idle and got a smooth gentle touch down with the rear wheels. I pulled the throttles back into reverse and held the nose up to cushion its fall to the runway. Then it was all noise and airframe vibration from max performance on the engine thrust reversers and anti-skid breaking. Even with all that, I needed most of the 7,000-foot runway to stop.
If I had been a rookie aircraft commander or if it had been a wet runway, this would have been a very exciting landing. Beyond the overrun on the far end of the runway, the ground dropped off to a gradual slope into a field. Any misjudgments might have put us into that field.
Photo credit: Brett Snow / U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com