Jay Lacklen is a former B-52 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. He’s working on the last book of the trilogy.
Engines Dancing on the Wing
In about the middle of the crew’s three-month course, on the Friday Thanksgiving weekend of 1977, I found the Grim Reaper seated in my seat. We had just started the post-air refueling navigation leg over the snow covered Sierra Nevada mountain range. I had about an hour off since students both rode their seats for nav leg. I slipped the Playboy magazine out of my helmet bag and sat on the floor behind the jump seat, the only place I could stretch out a little.
I had just opened the centerfold, a lovely naked brunette seated on a chair she had rakishly turned backwards, when the copilot came up on interphone. “Ah, IP, copilot!”
Oh, great, I thought, what problem could this rookie have now? I told him to go ahead.
“Ah, are there supposed to be holes in the engines?”
“Yes,” I told him, “one in the front, one in the back;’ irritated he was dragging me away from the brunette.
“No,” he said, his voice now quavering, “I mean holes in the side of the cowling.”
Uh, oh, I thought. I folded up Miss Playmate and went forward, grasping his headrest and leaning around him to look at the #5 engine, the first one visible out his window.
My vision replicated a movie cinematic technique, where I initially saw the entire engine, then zoomed into the midsection in horror. The engine had two overlapping basketball-sized holes where the N2 compressor turbine resided. Looking into the holes, I could see the remnants of that turbine twirling madly and unevenly, throwing sparks wildly as its broken blades struck the side casing. Suddenly, the fire light and bell alarm on this engine’s pylon mate, engine #6, came to life, the bell clanging and the light flashing ominously.
“You, out of the seat!” I shouted at the copilot as I grabbed my helmet and checklist and moved aside for him to clear the copilot position.
When I landed heavily in the seat, I immediately pulled the fire handle on both #5 and #6 to shut off fuel and hydraulics at the firewall at the top of the pylon. I told the student pilot to fly the plane while I handled the emergency. I also strapped tightly into my ejection seat.
Mercifully, the fire light and bell went out on #6. Engine #5 was apparently so torn up that the disintegrating compressor had probably severed the fire loop warning system, because it gave no warnings at all despite being in shambles. What I did not know until the next day was that shrapnel from the disintegrating compressor had blown into the fuselage as well as into engine #6. Fortunately, it didn’t hit anything vital, to include a wing fuel or me and my Playboy magazine. Had it hit a fuel tank, the plane might have exploded and none of us would have known what happened.
Catastrophes are impossible to plan for completely. You can have am engine fire, and you know the Bold Print responses, yet you can’t anticipate surrounding events, complications, or your location when the shit hits fan. In this case I had to think quickly of where we were and where we should go to land. In these days, prior to INS and GPS navigation systems, I did any self-respecting pilot would do—I shouted on interphone for the navigator to give me the nearest SAC base. A few seconds later, he would be Mather AFB in Sacramento, CA, twenty minutes to the west.
I looked out at the two stricken engines on the pylon, and things gotten worse. Engine #6, which I could not see except for the front intake, seemed largely intact, and the airstream passed through it cleanly. Engine #5, however, having torn itself apart, would not allow the airflow through unimpeded and now put heavy drag on the pylon. This uneven airflow through these pylon mates had now caused them to start wobbling, or Dutch rolling, on the pylon, a terrifying dance that threatened to tear the engines off the pylon. The Reaper had joined us in the cockpit.
Fearing what two engines departing the plane might do to my aerodynamics, to say nothing of what would happen if they hit the tail on the way by, I again shouted to the radar nav to give me the nearest runway. A moment later, he said it would be Lake Tahoe, but he didn’t recommend it because it was a short runway and at the bottom of a steep valley.
“Turning for Mather!” I said.
“Heading two-seven-zero,” he responded.
Now I had to start talking and coordinating. I declared the emergency on the Oakland Center frequency and told him we had two engine failures, engine fire, and needed clearance direct to Mather with further clearance descend and maneuver as necessary while doing so. This busy Air Traffic Control (ATC) frequency went silent except for me and the controller, pilots in a couple of dozen other cockpits, civilian and military, listening intently. As I found over the course of several emergencies, ATC can save your ass in a pinch. This controller locked into the situation immediately and professionally. He gave me the Mather weather, altimeter setting, and landing runway, which fortunately would provide a straight-in approach. He then asked for status on the engines and I reported the instability. He switched me to another frequency to free up the main frequency for everyone else. I’m sure those couple of dozen other cockpits switched a backup radio to that frequency to follow the emergency, fascinated at the drama and thankful it was me, not them.
My other UHF radio still had the Castle command post frequency in. I switched there and gave them a brief summation of the situation, then returned to the ATC frequency to report how far out of Mather we were. He said he had notified Mather we were inbound.
[…] I could now see Mather far in the distance. I could also see the engine dance getting worse. I flicked my radio control back to Castle since they would be berserk to talk to me. I also feared the DCO, the chief of stan/eval, and an assorted multitude of other ops types would be leaning the controller’s shoulder to ask me fifty questions about my situation. I saw Mather drawing closer and decided I didn’t have time for that. This was going
to be over, one way or the other, in five minutes, and I didn’t want to spend it talking to them.
“Castle” I said, “This is Panzer Eight-Zero. I’m on fire and I’m headed for Mather; if you want any information, ask them.” Then I clicked the radio back to Mather command post. They didn’t have any operations personnel on duty over the holiday and wouldn’t know what to ask. Just as well. I’m sure the Castle DCO was turning back flips to know what was happening, but I hoped he would understand.
Later I got another interesting perspective on the whole scene from the instructor EW seated behind me in the cockpit. When I leapt into the copilot’s seat and started shouting at everyone, the EW feared I might soon give the bailout order, so terse did the dialogue sound. He knew we were over the snow-covered Sierras and he didn’t have his winter flight jacket on. He said he eyed it sitting on the floor next to him and wondered if he had time to unstrap from his parachute to put it on. He listened to the frantic discussion up front and decided he did not dare do so. He grabbed the jacket and pulled it through his chest strap, hoping it might land somewhere near him if he punched out. I had not thought I sounded that bad; I mean, I wasn’t screaming or anything, but perhaps my voice went up an octave or two. I had no plans to make the ejection call unless the engines came off the pylon and resulted in a loss of control, and they had not, as yet. I didn’t have my jacket on and never thought about it. It would have been a cold ride down to the snow for me if it had come to that.
Approach control switched me over to tower to get landing permission. I now had to pull the engines to idle and deploy the airbrakes to slow down so I could extend the gear and flaps. Everything came down properly, we landed, and soon we were rolling out on the runway with an armada of fire trucks chasing us. We cleared at the end of the runway and let ourselves get surrounded by the trucks. After observing us briefly, two of the silver-suited, alien-looking firemen inspected the #5 and #6 engines and decided this emergency was over.
We taxied to parking and shut down the engines. I scrambled out of the plane and raced over to the wrecked engines.
I found an engine stand already up against #5 with a crusty old guy in civilian clothes wagging an unlit cigar from his mouth. I climbed up next to him and looked into the gaping hole in the side of the engine and the mess of metal within. The old guy muttered, “Five more minutes and these engines would have come off the pylon.”
“Wow,” I said, “are you an (enlisted) engine guy?”
“No,” he growled. “I own this place!”
Oops! I don’t know if he was the wing commander, the maintenance commander, or the ops commander, but I took his word for it.
The Grim Reaper had again left my aircraft empty-handed. I tell my current pilot training students that the Reaper will visit their aircraft in the future, and I wish them luck when he does.
Photo credit: Senior Airman J.T. Armstrong U.S. Air Force and Landmark9254 (Own work), via Wikipedia
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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