Home Losses and Aviation Safety The Incredible story of the KC-135 crew Who Recovered a Stratotanker that had been on Fire Under the Floor while Flying 200+ miles west of Hawaii

The Incredible story of the KC-135 crew Who Recovered a Stratotanker that had been on Fire Under the Floor while Flying 200+ miles west of Hawaii

by Dario Leone
The Incredible story of the KC-135 crew Who Recovered a Stratotanker that had been on Fire Under the Floor while Flying 200+ miles west of Hawaii

“Honolulu Center, TORA 54 is currently fighting a fire in the cargo compartment of the aircraft!  STANDBY!,” Mark Hasara, Former KC-135 Pilot.

The following cool story, that exclusively appears on The Aviation Geek Club, has been written by Mark Hasara, author of the book Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit. For twenty-four years Mark Hasara operated one of the Air Force’s oldest airplanes, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. His career started during the Reagan Administration, carrying out Strategic Air Command’s nuclear deterrent mission. Moving to Okinawa Japan in August 1990, he flew missions throughout the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. His first combat missions were in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As a Duty Officer in the Tanker Airlift Control Center, he planned and ran five hundred airlift and air refueling missions a month. 

Squawk 7700 and Ident

1035 Thursday 28 May 1995

Over the Pacific Ocean

200 miles west of Honolulu Hawaii

“Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.”  

–Actor John Wayne

“We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and depending on as much time as possible in deliberation. We only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress when haste does not make waste when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world.”

–Canadian journalist, author, and speaker Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

“If black boxes survive air crashes, why don’t they make the whole damn airplane out of that stuff?”

–American comedian George Carlin

“The real definition of flying is long periods of boredom interrupted by short, intermittent periods of extreme terror.”

–An anonymous pilot

Stationed on an island in the Pacific Rim had positives and negatives.  One negative is the terrible effect saltwater corrosion has on old KC-135 airframes.  By regulation, a KC-135 airframe stayed no longer than two years on Okinawa.  A lot of tanker aircraft tails passed through Kadena because of the two-year rule on forty-year-old airframes.  Effects of the salt air usually showed up as corrosive rust in the wing spars, large beam structures giving the wings their strength.  Any sign of corrosion usually grounded the airplane.  Wing leadership submitted “flight waivers” to get aircraft back to the States for corrosion control.  Waiver approval for flights back home is a cumbersome and time-consuming process.  Flying a plane with one or two flight waivers is very uncomfortable.  But these cases were rare.  Most of the time a crew made it back to the states without any problems.

Every crew wanted an airframe swap-out trip.  It meant an opportunity of flying back to the States, “Land of the Big Base Exchange” as we called it, and possibly see your family for a day or two.  Every US Air Force Base is near Walmart, Target, or better yet a Costco… and Valerie always stuffed a long shopping list in one of my flight suit pockets when going back to the states.  In May 1995, my crew flew a KC-135 to the States, swapping our now salt-covered jet for two KC-135 tails from a tanker wing in the states.  All of us were glad this swap out was not in the winter, temperatures in North Dakota dipped to -40° in the winter.  Departing Kadena Saturday morning, my crew flew nonstop to North Dakota, a second crew sleeping in the back of the jet.  Major Arceneaux in 909th Maintenance told all of us to make sure we reviewed every page of the aircraft maintenance forms closely for discrepancies.  “Don’t bring home any Hanger Queens we can’t use the day after it lands” he told us.  Many bases give away their hangar queens on swap outs. 

Reviewing the aircraft forms very carefully Tuesday morning, I did not see any discrepancies Major Arceneaux might disapprove.  Both jets took off thirty minutes apart for Hickam Air Force Base Hawaii and an overnight stay.  One ground item learned from several trips to Hawaii: never go to base billeting office before 2 pm.  On-Base Billeting is always full after 2 pm from all the AMC airlifter crews arriving from the states.  Walking in the Billeting Office at 2:15 pm, every room was packed.  Hickam Motor Pool delivered us to the Outrigger West a few blocks from Waikiki Beach.  Tuesday night, all fourteen of us, eight flyers and six maintainers enjoyed watching the sunset and eating at a Bar and Grill on Waikiki beach.

Departing Hickam Wednesday morning at 1000, my crew and jet did not get very far.  Passing 10,000 feet, Johnny my Copilot noticed the airplane depressurizing.  Pulling the throttles back leveling off at 12,000 feet, the aircraft re-pressurized.  

Strange… 

Figuring some peculiar momentary anomaly, I pushed the throttles back up climbing for 28,000 feet.  After climbing only 2000 feet, Johnny said the plane was depressurizing again.  All of us could feel it in our ears; the cabin altitude closely matched the plane’s actual height.  Twenty-six space available passengers sat in the back returning to Okinawa from summer leave in the States, one a three-month-old baby returning with mother, father, and older sister from his first trip to grandmas. We decided to turn around and head back to Hickam.

Declaring a precautionary situation, Honolulu Center vectored us for landing on the Reef Runway.  The long Memorial Day weekend approached, and both Kadena and Hickam were to close Thursday afternoon for four days.  Hopefully, the Hawaii Air National Guard or HANG maintenance could fix the problem.  With a red pencil, I scribbled in the maintenance forms “Airplane will not pressurize above 10,000 feet” and handed the notebook to the Hawaii Air National Guard Line Maintenance Chief.

The Incredible story of the KC-135 crew Who Recovered a Stratotanker that had been on Fire Under the Floor while Flying 200+ miles west of Hawaii

Thursday morning 28 May, I started the exterior walk around by looking at the forms. Next to my write up were the letters CND, meaning “could not duplicate.”  After a long discussion with the Line Chief, I headed up the airstairs and gathered my crew around the galley. I showed our Crew Chiefs the “could not duplicate” note.  The CND worried us all.  “Could not duplicate” tests on the ground didn’t mean I couldn’t duplicate the pressurization problem in the air.  I told everyone we are not taking Space-A Passengers which everyone agreed was a great idea.  Dave, my Navigator, gave AMC’s Passenger Terminal the bad news, and all of us could hear the terse conversation in the background.  Minutes later the Air Mobility Squadron Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel, pulled up next to the plane, threw the gear shift into park and started up the steps. Each of us could hear him bounding up the airstairs appearing in the cockpit moments later. He was not going to let us take off without passengers.  I determined they’re not coming with us and my Commander would back me up.

“I have a lot of passengers in my terminal needing a ride to Kadena, Captain!  What am I supposed to tell them watching your empty jet leave?”

I answered him in as professional a manner as I could,

“Sir I don’t know the condition of this airplane.  Hawaii Air National Guard Maintenance could not duplicate our pressurization problem on the ground.  I betcha’ I can duplicate it in the air though. I don’t want to take passengers if pressurization breaks on a seven-hour flight.”

The Lieutenant Colonel got heated.

“Captain! I have a terminal full of people ready to go home.  I’m tired of all you Kadena guys coming through here and never taking passengers!  Who is your Squadron Commander?”

Standard tactic: threaten to call your Squadron Commander and make you do it.  My Squadron Commander Geno trusted all his crews, so I knew his call gets the AMC Lieutenant Colonel nowhere.  Geno might have some interesting words for the Air Mobility Squadron Commander holding us up.  I wanted to listen to that conversation with Geno but had a sortie to fly.  I politely told him,

“My squadron commander is Lieutenant Colonel Geno Redmon. His DSN number is 315-634-0909. I’m sure he would love to talk to in his Big Red Way.  Now Sir, if you don’t mind, we have a mission to fly.”

The Air Mobility Commander passed on a few louder sentences, but now we were running late for takeoff.  I did not want twenty-six to thirty passengers in the back of the airplane flopping around on the floor due to lack of oxygen, particularly a three-month-old baby.

Taxiing from Hickam’s Base Operations to the Reef Runway took fifteen minutes. Taxiing out, I told everyone to have a personal oxygen kit with them because pressurization may go at any time.  Departing Runway 09, TORA 54 began a right-hand climbing turn to 15,000 feet.  Right on cue passing 10,000 feet, Johnny saw the pressurization needle start moving backward again.  I told the crew let’s investigate the problem.

It was my first big mistake which almost cost us our lives.

Requesting a climb to 16,000 feet, I told Honolulu Center we had a pressurization problem, and I needed to climb a bit higher.  Staying below 18,000 feet meant if the aircraft lost all pressurization, the loss is not written up as a “physiological incident” requiring all of us to go through an altitude chamber ride for requalification to fly again.  Any physiological incident experienced on a flight goes in your medical records, potential baggage later in your career.  Reaching around to my left, I grabbed the Quick Don oxygen mask hanging next to the window and placed it snugly over my face.  If we lost pressurization, we’d all be breathing.

The oxygen masks were my second big mistake.

Reading through the Pilot Manual emergency section, Alternate Pressurization procedures didn’t fix the problem.  Johnny, Dave and I tried everything we could think of to get the airplane to re-pressurize.  I asked one of the senior Crew Chiefs to come up front and see what he thought.  Every time I pushed throttles up, the airplane depressurized.  Every time the throttles came back, the aircraft re-pressurized.  Looking at the primary flight instruments, they showed our position precisely 210 miles west of the Honolulu VORTAC, a radio navigation aide dead center between Honolulu International Airport’s runways.

I kept thinking, “why can’t I fix this airplane?”

The Incredible story of the KC-135 crew Who Recovered a Stratotanker that had been on Fire Under the Floor while Flying 200+ miles west of Hawaii

Hearing heavy footsteps coming across the plywood floor of the cargo compartment is never good in a KC-135.  I looked over my right shoulder back at Dave sitting at the Navigator’s table to see what the commotion was.  Tech Sergeant Wilson ran past Dave and bent down over my right ear.  He tapped me so hard on my right shoulder with four fingers it hurt.  A look of real terror filled his eyes. 

Why’s he so afraid?

“TURN AROUND, CAPTAIN HASARA! TURN AROUND NOW!  I KNOW WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE AIRPLANE!  TURN AROUND NOW!”

Looking past Sergeant Wilson into the cargo compartment through the open cockpit door, one Crew Chief with a fire bottle between his knees, pulled a firefighter’s mask over his head and then pulled the Fire Bottle pin, activating the bottle.  Two other maintainers speed wrenched screws out of the plywood floor just behind the galley.

Twisting the autopilot turn knob left, I told Johnny to squawk 7700 and push Ident in the IFF.  7700 and ident flashes your position on Air Traffic Control radar screens, transmitting the plane has a dangerous situation.  Squawking 7700 and ident’ing may seem a morbid thought, but the first thing going through my head after seeing the horrific look on Sergeant Wilson’s face. The Air Traffic Controller always marks the bright flash and the computer reads out the latitude and longitude from our 7700 reply to his radar sweep. I wanted Honolulu Center to at least know where to start their search for our wreckage when we blew up.

Honolulu Center replied to our squawk immediately, “TORA 54 Honolulu sees you squawking 7700 with a flash. State nature of the emergency, souls on board, and fuel remaining please.”

I didn’t answer.

I did this all instinctively from hundreds of hours in the simulator.  AVIATE… NAVIGATE… COMMUNICATE.  Every pilot knows those three words in that order will save you ninety-eight percent of the time.

Retarding the engine throttles, the jet slowed to 255 knots, the best airframe speed according to the pilot manual in case of structural failure.  No use rushing to our deaths… whatever’s under the floor is causing it.  One Crew Chief slid a crowbar between two pieces of plywood prying one up.  As the plywood raised, bright yellow and orange flames shot out singing the hair on his arms and dropping the plywood momentarily.  The masked Crew Chief squeezed the fire bottle trigger, point it at the fire.

“TORA 54… Honolulu center. State nature of the emergency, the number of souls on board, and fuel remaining.”

I answered, “Honolulu Center TORA 54, standby.”

White gas and flame retardant powder shot onto the burning plywood.  After emptying one fire bottle on the flames, the plywood reignited.  The Crew Chief pulled the pin on the second fire bottle and squeezed.

Honolulu Center became pretty upset when I wouldn’t talk to them…

“TORA 54 Honolulu center! We see you in the turn passing southeast and descending… are you returning to Honolulu?  We need to know the nature of your emergency.  State number of souls on board and fuel remaining.”

I answered him again, “Honolulu Center, TORA 54, STANDBY!

Descending to 9000 feet supplemental oxygen masks were not required.  Removing my oxygen masks, the inside of the aircraft smelled like a wood-burning stove.  And it’s hot in the cabin.  Crew Chiefs carried the still smoldering sheet of plywood by the corners, laying it on the floor near the forward baggage bin blackened side up.  One Crew Chief remained in a firefighter’s masks, holding a third fire bottle nozzle toward the blackened plywood in case it flared up.  Another Crew Chief pointed a fire bottle at the hole in the floor.

Why’s he doing that?

The Incredible story of the KC-135 crew Who Recovered a Stratotanker that had been on Fire Under the Floor while Flying 200+ miles west of Hawaii

            I soon found out.  Sergeant Wilson came forward telling us hot air from cracks in the bleed duct under the floor blew scorching hot air along the bottom of the plywood. But that wasn’t the worst part.

Hot bleed air directly off the engines was blowing on top of the forward body fuel tank holding 18,000 pounds of gas.  The hot air was also blowing on the pilot and copilot elevator cables controlling up and down movement of the aircraft.  I looked down at the exhaust gas temperature gauges, all four indicating close to 690°C or 1274°F, hot enough to start spruce plywood on fire.

“TORA 54 squawking 7700 Honolulu center! State nature of your emergency!  We see you in a left-hand turn heading east descending past 11,000 feet.  What is the nature of your emergency TORA 54!?!”

I replied tersely but very professionally…

“Honolulu Center, TORA 54 is currently fighting a fire in the cargo compartment of the aircraft!  STANDBY!

Usually, Air Traffic Control frequencies are full of radio chatter near large international airports like Honolulu.  Not a single radio call went out for ninety seconds on Honolulu Center’s frequency.  It was as if everybody waited to hear us explode.

Two minutes later I answered all of Honolulu Centers questions.

“Honolulu Center TORA 54, the fire is out.  Hot bleed air is blowing on top of our forward body tank filled with 18,000 pounds of gas and the pilot and copilot elevator cables. TORA 54 is declaring an emergency, requesting present position direct to Runway 09 Right.  Notify emergency vehicles of our condition to respond once when we land.”

Honolulu Center calmly answered back,

“TORA 54 is cleared direct to the Honolulu VORTAC, maintain 9000 feet. Emergency vehicles have been alerted and will be standing by.”

Thanks.

Sergeant Wilson invited me back to see the damage but told me bring my Nomex fire-proof flight gloves.  Standing over the hole in the floor, I saw cables running on each side of the bleed duct. Sergeant Wilson instructed me to put gloves on and stick my hand in two locations, but not leave them there.  With my gloved right hand, I quickly poked it down in front of one suspected holes in the bleed duct.  Thirteen-hundred-degree air blew on my gloved hand.  Then he told me to stick my hand next to another on the other side of the duct.  A second hole in the bleed duct directed hot engine exhaust air on the gas tank and flight control cables.  Two four-inch-long holes, covered in the fiberglass putty but now wide open, could be seen on both sides of the bleed duct.

Strapping back into the left seat, I pulled my headset over both ears.  Radio chatter now continued on Honolulu’s Centers frequency.  Someone had a question.  In a distinct accent, a British Airways Captain concerned for our welfare asked,

“TORA 54 this is SPEEDBIRD 102. How you chaps doing?”

Pressing down the mic switch on the yoke, “SPEEDBIRD 102, TORA 54 is doing fine. The fire is out, but it smells like I’m flying a wood burning stove!”

“Excellent chaps! Hope to see you on the ground, and the first pints on us!”

Sixty minutes after telling Johnny to squawk 7700 and ident, TORA 54 landed on Honolulu International’s Reef Runway.  Three fire trucks met us on the taxiway.  Rick opened the crew entry door, and the Fire Marshall came up the ladder, followed by a guy in a silver fire-resistant suit.  I showed him where the bleed duct was located under the floor.  Both firefighters inspected the blackened plywood laying on the floor to see if it would flare up.  Leaving the silver-suited firemen and a fresh fire bottle on the aircraft, Honolulu’s Fire Marshal went down the crew entry chute, Rick pulled the ladder up and shut the entry door for taxi back to Hickam Base Operations.

Shutting engines down, the Air Mobility Commander and several others waited for us to open the cargo door.  Two of the Crew Chiefs leaned the plywood up against the forward baggage bin. I wanted the Commander to see why we didn’t take passengers, knowing he would be the first one up the airstairs.  As the airstairs stopped next to the plane, he walked up with three people following.  The first person he saw as the cargo door swung open was the silver-suited fireman.  I was mad and did not care about his rank.  Everyone could see the still smoking piece of plywood leaning against the baggage bin. The first thing I noticed about the Air Mobility Lieutenant Colonel was he did not have wings on his shirt… not a flyer.

KC-135R Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ

“Well Captain, I guess you made the right decision not to bring passengers.”

His comment made it worse.

“Sir, imagine what twenty-six passengers would have experienced watching a Crew Chief pull firefighter’s mask on with a fire bottle between his legs, while two Crew Chiefs wrenched this flaming piece of plywood up off the floor.  Flames shot six feet high once they got the plywood up against the side of the airplane.  All three may have burns.”

I pointed to the blackened insulation above the hole.  He did not say anything while I explained what my crew had just experienced.  I understand Geno did give him a call later after our arrival back at Kadena when we showed him the black piece of plywood.  Man, would I loved to hear that conversation!

I asked Sergeant Wilson how he knew we were on fire.  His answer gave me chills.

“Walking by the Galley I saw paint bubbling on the floor!  I had a similar situation on another airplane about seven years ago.  Seeing the paint bubbling, I knew what was wrong. That’s why I told you to turn around.  I was afraid the jet would blow up.”

Squawk 7700 and Ident.  Maybe they will find all the pieces.

            Closed for Memorial Day weekend, Hawaii Air National Guard KC-135 maintainers did not fix the jet until Tuesday the following week.  Sheet metal folks manufactured a new bleed duct section replacing the cracked one, which I had them keep to show Major Arceneaux.  Friday 29 May my crew toured the Japanese Navy Destroyer Kongo, tied up in Pearl Harbor on a goodwill visit to Hawaii.  I thought what a true dichotomy that was, a Japanese Naval Defense Force Destroyer visiting Pearl Harbor Memorial Weekend.  Tuesday morning TORA 54 departed a third time for Kadena, a brand-new clean sheet of unpainted plywood covering the floor.  Sergeant Wilson and the Crew Chiefs hid the blackened plywood in the forward baggage bin so we could take it home as a memento. 

My flight crew owes their lives to those Crew Chiefs.

Geno met us at the jet hours later.  The burnt piece of plywood was the first thing Sergeant Wilson removed from the baggage bin.  Everyone wanted to see it.  The center six to eight inches was about a millimeter thick.  The bubbling paint settled in pools on the opposite side after being placed against the baggage bin.  Only one place deserved to be the final resting place for the burnt plywood, the 909th Young Tiger Squadron Bar!  During a ceremony days later, Johnny, Dave, Rick and myself signed each corner with a black Sharpie.  My crew lifted the plywood sheet up against a wall and hammered into place.  When I left in August 1995 the plywood sheet was still on the wall.

LESSON FROM THE COCKPIT: Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate

Those three words, Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate sounds simple.  Every pilot, every airplane, every flight has a set of procedures designed to minimize the risk of potentially life-threatening mistakes.  This simple three-word mantra every pilot goes through in their heads because it works.  And it has saved countless lives!  Everyone faces situations they are unprepared for and it’s easy to lose sight of what’s the wheat and the chaff being hit from all sides.  One rule is constant in the air though.  A pilot’s first priority is FLY THE JET!  No exceptions.  Flight crews have tasks and checklists but losing control of the aircraft makes them all irrelevant.  Ninety percent of flying is attitude and airspeed.  Tighten your grip on the control stick, push the throttles up, and always keep moving forward.

Eighty-five percent of your energy must be on taking massive action and setting a course toward reaching your goal.  Our goal was Honolulu, the home away from home, our safe space. Turning toward Honolulu and slowing to 255 knots reflected hundreds of hours in the simulator going through flight manual procedures.  Tuning in the Honolulu navigation aid sitting between the runways gave us a course to follow on our instrument panel and laser focus on recovering the aircraft. Picture in your mind where you want to be next year and write it down.  Underneath it write what it takes to get there because that’s your course, your personal needle pointing direction and distance to the runways of your life.

Then communicate.  Let everyone know this is what you’re doing to get back on solid ground… these are the steps and the course I’m following.  Simply dialing in 7700 and pushing the ident button let every Air Traffic Controller know our aircraft was experiencing a potential loss of life and aircraft.  Often in stressful situations, we lose our faith in God or the higher power we rely on.  Keep that communication channel open at all times.  I prayed for inspiration and understanding on this flight to get us back on the ground.  Many things I did that morning were because I felt inspired to do so. Don’t close off that communication conduit of information because it helped me get the jet back on the ground.  Another rule of flying is Radio Calls do not Generate Lift.  After communicating the plan to the proper agencies, shut up and do the work. 

Aviate, Navigate and Communicate.

The Incredible story of the KC-135 crew Who Recovered a Stratotanker that had been on Fire Under the Floor while Flying 200+ miles west of Hawaii

Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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