Category Archives: Aviation Safety

The Story of a U.S. Navy S-2 Tracker that lost one engine, at night, in bad weather, off Norway

Flying a US Navy S-2 single engine to the beach while the ship was begging it to come back aboard.

“Jimmy, how you doing?” Jack shook my hand. We were in the Reno, Nevada hotel meeting room that would serve as our reunion headquarters for the next three days. Whenever I hear Jack come into sight, he always says the same thing: “Jimmy, how you doing?” No one else that I know ever calls me “Jimmy”, but Jack always uses that diminutive for some reason. Not that I mind it – after all, that is what most people called me through high school. I cannot see Jack or hear his familiar voice call me Jimmy without thinking about one night forty years earlier in September, 1972, a night that is seared into my brain forever.

We both sit down, I give Jack a bottle of cold beer, and go through the old ritual of getting out my old dark blue Navy pilot’s flight log book and thumbing through the drying and yellowing pages. We do this every reunion. There it is, September 26th. The line entry in the logbook is written in red ink. A flight in a Stoof, the unofficial name for an S-2G “Tracker”, Bureau Number 152811, 5.8 hours total flight time, 4 hours of night time, 4 hours of actual instrument conditions, and an actual radar approach and landing in Bodø, Norway. And it shows that Jack and I flew together on that dark and stormy evening. Suddenly, I am no longer in a Reno hotel room but instead north of the Arctic Circle over the Norwegian Sea in our twin engine carrier-based Navy aircraft.

****

“Jimmy, let’s climb up and get some altitude.” As soon as I advanced the throttles, there was a series of loud bangs and milder pops. Then the cockpit filled with flashes of light, white smoke, and the smell of burned aviation gasoline and oil. I looked at the red lit gauges in the dark cockpit and saw that the port engine tachometer was falling off, showing that it was not developing full power. I instinctively throttled back the left engine until the popping stopped and turned the aircraft east towards the nearest land and a safe long runway ashore. “Jack, I’m headed to the beach” and I turned the aircraft to the east.

Jack, sitting in the right seat as co-pilot, was senior in rank to me and actually pilot in command of the flight. That meant that Jack would be making all official decisions during the flight. Both of us were fully qualified aircraft commanders and we had been scheduled together so that Jack could conduct my annual instrument check. I was sitting in the left seat and performing first pilot duties while Jack in the right seat acted as co-pilot although really in charge.

Jack radioed USS Intrepid (CVS-11): “We have a rough running port engine and are headed to the beach.” After a slight pause, the air controller replied: “Negative, return to the ship for a landing. Your signal is Charlie 30” (indicating that we should expect to land in about thirty minutes). Despite my instincts, I turned back in the rain and dark towards the west and the aircraft carrier. We were given radar vectors and then told to hold until the flight deck was cleared of other aircraft so that we could make a landing.

S-2G cat shot VS-27 USS Intrepid 1972

Image credit: Jim Tritten

New and even louder bangs and pops filled our eardrums and the cockpit once again filled with flashes of light, acrid smells, and white smoke. Both of us flinched in our seats and involuntarily took in sudden breaths. Then without any actions by either of us, one tremendous “BANG” caused the whole aircraft to shudder as yellow and red flames shot out the front of the port engine through the slowly rotating propeller. “Shit” we both said as we looked out the left side. I pulled back and to the right on the controls as the aircraft pitched down and yawed to the left. Engine sounds diminished and blue flames out of the exhaust stacks died completely. Our speed slowed and the altimeter began to unwind. I increased rudder pressure on the right rudder pedal as the aircraft’s remaining engine responded to my throttle movements forward to generate more power that would keep us in the air.

“Jack, we’ve lost number one and I have to feather it.”

Since Jack was legally in charge, I did not automatically feather the propeller but instead informed him that is what we needed to do while I awaited his concurrence. Making a decision to feather a windmilling propeller attached to a dead engine was a no brainer. Without moving the propeller blades into a streamlined position, and by doing so reducing the drag, we would descend and eventually hit the water. Jack and I both agreed on which of the two engines was causing the problem and which button would feather the dead prop. I pushed the correct [left] red feather button, causing the three propeller blades to align themselves with the wind stream so that we could maintain altitude and airspeed.

“Jack, I think we ought to go to the beach.”

Without waiting for a reply, I turned the yoke to bank the aircraft again the second time towards the east. We had taken off from the ship a little over an hour before. When our Stoof was catapulted into the air, the 872 foot long gray aircraft carrier had been pitching and rolling with white foam coming over the bow with spray hitting the aircraft parked behind the island amidships. After we had taken off, the sun had set and a cold front had moved in, further agitating the ocean. Steady rain now fully obscured the moon and stars. Outside of the cockpit everything was gray.

Jack radioed the ship: “We’ve lost the port engine and are headed towards the beach.” The ship replied with a “Roger.” I jettisoned the aircraft’s ordnance load to lighten the aircraft and calculated roughly how long it was going to take us to get to the closest divert airfield – Bodø, Norway – about two and a half hours east with a tailwind. The ship then radioed a “Request you return – your signal Charlie upon arrival.” Not an order but clearly what they wanted.

I knew that we were scheduled to finish our major multinational naval exercise in the morning and the ship was due in England the following evening. Having a broken plane stuck in Norway would prove to be a bit of a logistical and maintenance problem with the rest of the air wing a thousand miles away. “Jimmy, we need to go back to the ship…” Not an order but close enough. I banked the aircraft again to the west.

All I could think about was how tough it was going to be to land our plane with only one working engine onboard a heaving deck, in a storm, and in the pitch dark. “… Jimmy, I really want to get back aboard tonight.”

S-2 making a foul weather landing

Image credit: U.S. Navy

I, on the other hand, was actually flying the plane and I was very skeptical of this course of action. “Jack, if you really want to land this broke-ass plane aboard the ship tonight, you should get into the left seat and do it yourself.”

Before he could reply, I radioed the ship to let me talk to one of the landing signal officers (LSOs). To my relief, one of my fellow junior officers and good friends came on the radio and I asked him directly: “Paddles (the universal call sign for the LSO), how is the deck?” I knew I could count on him to describe the actual conditions of the sea and the pitching and rolling of the deck at that moment without any editing from the senior officers also listening to the radio chatter.

There was an abnormally long pause before Paddles very crisp and abnormal monotone answer “Smooth as glass.”

“Bullshit” both Jack and I exclaimed as I turned the aircraft again to the east.

“Jimmy, you’re right, let’s go to the beach. There is no way that ship is not rocking and rolling in this weather”

Despite frequent continued calls from the ship’s controllers, our squadron commander, and a number of other “heavies” to please come and at least try to land on the ship, we kept flying east until we were picked up by Norwegian military radar and got a steer to Bodø. Our broken Stoof droned on toward the Norwegian coastline in the dark, the rain, and with only the one engine keeping us in the air and out of the frigid turbulent sea. The Norwegian controllers tried to keep up our spirits with occasional chatter about what to expect upon arrival.

On final approach to the east, the Bodø tower controller informed us that: “Bodø has rainstorms in all quadrants with winds gusting from variable directions but generally from the west northwest.” The winds would be behind us and to the left on landing. A quick calculation revealed that the cross wind that evening was outside the design specifications of our Stoof for a safe single engine landing. I would not be able to generate sufficient thrust with just the one good engine to get airborne again once we had touched down. Also, even if Jack and I both pushed on the right rudder pedal would we be able to generate the muscle strength needed to manhandle the asymmetry of the one good engine? It was going to be a straight shot in from the west over the water for one shot at bringing this crippled bird down in one piece. “Jack, this is not going to be pretty – follow me on the controls and back me up.”

As I lined up on final approach with our landing light shining ahead through the rain, I could see the green runway threshold lights and the white striping at the approach end coming closer as we lowered down towards terra firma. The wheels touched down one at a time on the dark pavement and the white lights on either side flashed by way too fast. The rear quartering wind pushed us down the runway instead of a landing into the wind where the wind would slow us down. I throttled back to idle on the good starboard engine. Red overrun lights at the far side of the field rapidly approached. The brakes had no effect on the wet tarmac.

A sudden gust from the north caught the tail. The plane weather-cocked violently to the left. “Shit.” We were going down a wet runway with the tires hydroplaning on top of the water but not gripping the surface. Worse, the tires were not rolling in the direction of our travel – the wheels were cocked about 45 degrees to the left of the direction of travel. As we skidded off the runway, I began to see blue taxiway lights and the blackness.

“J-I-I-I-M-M-M-Y-Y-Y, you got this aircraft under control?”

I didn’t reply. I was too busy stomping on the brakes, kicking the rudder pedals, and bracing for a crash. Fortunately it was either not our time, or Jack and I had cashed in on some good karma. After leaving the runway, the plane rolled over dirt and wet grass and we finally slowed to a very welcome stop. I cut the fuel and ignition to the starboard engine. Jack and I sat there, immobile and speechless. Our flight suits were soaking wet.

After what seemed like an eternity, I exited the aircraft on not too steady legs. We sat on the wet ground under the starboard wing and sucked in the welcome clean cold Norwegian mist. The sound of sirens from the crash trucks grew louder as they closed to our position, red lights flashing and deep-throated diesel engines racing.

I looked up towards the tower. There was a SAS jetliner on the ramp only a few hundred feet away from where we had ungracefully ceased moving but on a direct path ahead. The boarding ramp on the SAS plane was still down and its engines did not appear to be running.

Without saying a word, I got up, trotted over to the airliner and walked up the ramp.

Five minutes later I slowly walked back to our broken down aircraft, grinning widely – with eight frosty cold bottles of Tuborg beer.

***

“Well Jack, is that the way you remember it?” Jack shakes his head and says, “Jimmy, we only made the one turn back to the ship and I always agreed with you that we should go to the beach.”

“Bullshit Jack,” I insisted as we both laughed and drank a nice cold bottle of Tuborg to the memory of our LSO who told us, without words, that there was no way in hell that we were going to safely get aboard the ship that night.

James Tritten Commander, US Navy (Retired)

***

Originally published in the Corrales Writing Group 2013 Anthology, Sandi Hoover, Tom Neiman, Don Reightley, Jim Tritten, Patricia Walkow, Leon Wiskup, North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, October 2013, pp. 107-113.

 

[Photo] U.S. Air Force C-17 caught fire at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

An engine malfunction led to a C-17 Globemaster cargo catching fire at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

On Jan. 7, a C-17 Globemaster III with the 445th Airlift Wing caught fire upon engine start at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

The air crew shut off the engine and the fire was quickly extinguished by the base Fire Emergency Services.

A base service member took the above image which shows the plane’s right wing engulfed by flames.

The extent of the damage is unclear: according to the 445 AW spokesperson, the damage is estimated at 300,000 USD whereas a memo of the firefighters at WPAFB obtained by 2 NEWS says damage at the airlifter is estimated at 1.5M USD.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

The nuclear nightmare of Savage Mountain: when a B-52 crashed due to turbulence. With two nukes

This is true. And it’s terrifying. It reads like an Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy thriller. But it’s real.

0138 (Local) Romeo Time Zone (UTC-5:00). 13 January, 1964. USAF B-52D Stratofortress Callsign “Buzz 14”, Flight Level 295 over Savage Mountain, Maryland.

Major Tom McCormick, USAF, can barely see.

Whiteout conditions and buffeting winds at 29,500 feet are so bad he radios Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZOB) for clearance to change altitude to flight level 330, or 33,000 feet. He is trying to get his B-52 bomber above the freak winter blizzard.

“Cleveland Control, this is Air Force Buzz one-four, request climb to level three-three-zero. Weather, over…”

“Roger Buzz one-four, this is Cleveland Control. Ahhh… Please stand by.”

As with the tragic crash of the AirAsia Airbus A320 flight QZ8501 over the Java Sea two weeks ago McCormick’s big bomber must find clean, stable air or risk breaking up, stalling and falling out of the sky. But unlike an airliner over turbulent seas McCormick’s two passengers are far more crucial. And deadly.

B-53_nuclear_bomb

Image credit: Wikimedia

Buzz 14 is carrying two live, 9 mega-ton B53 thermonuclear bombs. They are among the largest nuclear bombs in the U.S. arsenal. This warhead also rides atop the giant Titan II ICBM, a ballistic missile designed for smashing secret Soviet underground installations and wiping out Russian cities. And Buzz 14 is carrying them over the eastern United States.

McCormick has another concern. His nuke-bloated bomber was diverted to the place this flight took off from after its original crew reported… a technical problem. The mission started as part of the Chrome Dome nuclear-armed airborne alert patrol but was forced to land at Westover AFB in Massachusetts because of an in-flight emergency, in this case, an engine failure. After the in-flight diversion the nuclear warheads were not off-loaded.

Problems with the B-52 are not new. Three days earlier a structural problem with another B-52H, aircraft number 61-0023, resulted in a famous incident when its vertical stabilizer completely fell off. Since the aircraft was able to find relatively calm conditions after the extreme turbulence where the accident happened, it managed to land safely. A famous photo of the plane still in flight with its tail completely gone is one of the most widely viewed of the B-52 bomber.

Right now Buzz 14 needs to find relatively calm air too. If it has another engine failure or losses its tail in this blizzard it will not be as lucky as 61-0023 was three days before.

And 61-0023 didn’t have live nukes on board.

McCormick abandons his experienced, light grip of the Stratofortress control wheel for the authoritative hand of a man trying to tame a machine bucking out of control. The rudder pedals are kicking back; wild swings of the wheel seem to have no affect on the aircraft’s flight attitude. Trying to keep the giant Stratofortress in level flight in the howling frozen sky is like arm wrestling an abominable snowman.

Then suddenly… nothing.

The pedals go light. The control links to the rudder are severed. The aircraft pivots. Yawing. Snaking wildly, first one side, then skidding back the other way on the frozen air in the blinding snow squall. McCormick and his co-pilot Capt. Parker Peedin are expert bomber pilots. They try to use ailerons to stabilize the giant bomber. But there is no solid purchase in the icy maelstrom outside. The B-52 becomes a giant, nuclear-armed Frisbee, entering a flat spin and departing controlled flight.

Five miles above the ground Buzz 14 rolls on its back in the driving blizzard, its last fatal surrender.

Ejection seats in the B-52 work when miniature thrusters blow hatches off the aircraft, resulting in rapid decompression of the cockpit and a howl of arctic air at near supersonic speed that is so cold the wind chill is impossible to calculate at 500 M.P.H. The navigator and radar operators’ seats eject downward… when the plane is right side up. But Buzz 14 is upside down now. And losing altitude fast.

B-52 crew-positions

The B-52 half-rolls again, this time near level attitude. The crewmembers reach for their ejection seat handles. Explosive fasteners in the crew hatches detonate when the pilot orders, “Eject, eject, eject…” over the intercom.

The pilot, Maj. Tom McCormick, co-pilot, Capt. Parker Peedin, navigator, Major Robert Lee Payne and tail gunner Tech Sgt. Melvin E. Wooten all managed to actuate their ejection seats and egress the aircraft into the black, freezing sky. Presumably, alive.

Major Robert Townley may have been pinned inside the B-52 by G-forces as the crash accelerated out of control and he struggled with his parachute harness, his ejection seat may have malfunctioned or he may have been knocked unconscious in the bone-breaking turbulence. He never got out. His body was discovered days later in the wreckage.

But the most critical survivors, at least to national security, are the pair of live B53 nuclear bombs. They ride the plane into the ground. Where two of the deadliest weapons known to man will lie unattended and unguarded.

For almost a day.

This is where the story could fly off the non-fiction shelf and onto the pages of a Clancy, MacLean or Fleming novel. All three authors started stories like this; Ice Station Zebra, Thunderball, The Sum of All Fears. Ian Fleming’s novel Thunderball was published in 1961, three years before the Buzz 14 crash. The film adaptation of Thunderball was released in 1964, a year after the Buzz 14 incident. Fiction that recounts the horror of a nuclear weapon or critical national security asset lost, something that has actually happened more frequently than you care to imagine. A few have never been recovered.

But in this instance the weapons are found. Not entirely safe, but “…relatively intact…” according to the Air Force. It’s a scary sounding moderation to describe radioactive A-bombs lying around in the woods of the Eastern U.S. unattended. The bombs come to rest on the placid Stonewall Green Farm.

Pilot Maj. Thomas McCormick survived the ejection and landed in relatively good condition. He reported seeing lights on the ground during his parachute descent and was found by a local resident who drove him to the Tomlinson Inn on National Road near Grantsville where he reported the crash by phone.

Co-pilot Capt. Parker Peedin also survived, but went through a 36-hour survival ordeal in the harsh winter conditions before being found. The rest of the crew, radar bombardier Maj. Robert J. Townley; the navigator, Maj. Robert Lee Payne and tail gunner, TSgt. Melvin F. Wooten did not survive.

[Read also: On this day in 1968 a B-52 crashed in Greenland with 4 hydrogen bombs]

There are some… potentially disturbing… inconsistencies about the reports on the crash of Buzz 14.

Buzz 14 pilot in command USAF Major Thomas McCormick would report after the crash that, “I encountered extreme turbulence, the aircraft became uncontrollable and I ordered the crew to bail out,” he said. “I then bailed out myself after I was sure that the other crew members had bailed out.” [emphasis added]. But Major Robert Townley did not get out of Buzz 14. One account even suggests that the aircraft navigator, Major Robert Lee Payne, seated next to Townley in the B-52, may have attempted to assist Townley in refastening his parachute harness after a bathroom break inside the aircraft. If he did, we’ll never know. Major Payne died of “exposure” after the crash.

The official Air Force account suggests the B-52 was at 29,500 feet at the time of its first radio call to Cleveland Air Traffic Control and the crew requested a climb to 33,000 feet to get above the bad weather. To most pilots this makes sense. Other news accounts, including The Baltimore Sun newspaper corroborate this flight profile.

An account by journalist David Wood of the Newhouse News Service appears to quote actual radio transcripts from the crash. Wood’s report says the B-52 crew requested a descent from 33,000 ft to 29,500 ft. Why? Also, Wood’s account mentions the crew used their Air Force call sign with civilian air traffic control, a seemingly unusual practice for a bomber carrying live nuclear weapons. Today nuclear armed aircraft like B-2 Spirit stealth bombers transiting civilian airspace may use an alias call sign to avoid detection by civilian listeners on ATC radio scanners. Recently a failure to use (alias) civilian call signs resulted in civilians monitoring the flight data of B-2’s on their way to bomb Libya, a serious security breach.

documents

A search of ATC contacts for the region surrounding the crash site indicates that, while Cleveland ATC center is repeatedly mentioned as the air traffic control center in contact with Buzz 14, the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZDC) is actually closer to the area where the crash occurred and listed by several resources as the center controlling air traffic in the region of Buzz 14’s crash. Why was Buzz 14 using Cleveland Center ATC instead?

Details about the retrieval of the weapons themselves are sketchy. E. Harland Upole Jr., a retired state parks veteran, told the The Baltimore Sun that he located the crash site and the bombs. Upole’s account said the bombs’ “…insulation was torn off”.

Upole went on to report the bombs were “loaded onto a flatbed truck” and driven through the city of Cumberland at 2:30 AM on the way to what is now called the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport.

Another report in The Washington Times dated January 14, 2014 says, “A local excavator was authorized by the military to move the bombs two days after the crash. He used a front-end loader, but first lined it with mattresses from a nearby youth camp – to keep the nukes nice and swaddled, just to be on the safe side.”

A typical large front-end loader, like a Caterpillar 906H2, has a lifting capacity (according to Caterpillar) of “3,483 pounds”. But a B-53 nuclear weapon weighs 8,850 pounds, or more than twice the capacity of a large bulldozer like the Cat 906H2. How were the two nukes moved if they were relatively intact?

And here is another minor wrinkle: The official website for Greater Cumberland Regional says its longest runway is RW 5/23, a 5050-foot long by 150-foot wide grooved asphalt runway. More than one resource says the take-off distance (to clear 50ft.) for a loaded C-130 transport, the most likely aircraft to have retrieved the heavy nuclear bombs from Buzz 14, is 1,573 meters or 5,160 feet. That suggests the main runway at Greater Cumberland Regional is over 100 feet too short to accommodate a C-130 cargo plane loaded with the two heavy nuclear weapons. The total weight of both bombs would have been over half the maximum weight the C-130 could carry, so presumably a little extra runway may have been nice, especially at night in winter weather.

The crash location is mentioned as “Savage Mountain, Garrett County (near Barton, Maryland) at coordinates 39.565278° North and 79.075833° West. Today Google Earth shows that as an empty farm field. Some news accounts said portions of the crash “were buried” at the crash scene, an unusual sounding practice for a crash of great significance and one that involved nuclear materials.

Is gathering the lose ends of the threads that unravel at the end of this story and weaving them into a Clancy-esque conspiracy tale a reasonable conclusion?

No.

And this is the exact place where fiction departs from non-fiction. But there is one axiom that every good fiction writer knows compared to a non-fiction reporter of actual facts: fiction has to be believable.

memorial

This article originally appeared at Alert5.

 

These are the best videos of the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747‬ emergency landing at Gatwick

A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 was forced to perform an emergency landing at London Gatwick Airport after main landing gear issue.

On Dec. 29, a Boeing 747-400, registration G-VROM, operating as flight VS43 from London Gatwick to Las Vegas, suffered a Main Landing Gear failure immediately after take off.

After two low passes and circling for a few hours over southern England dumping fuel, the Boeing 747 performed a safe, bumpy, landing at Gatwick, with the still retracted right outboard MLG, just before 16.00 GMT.

Here are the best videos of the mishap we’ve found online.

Another one, shot from the runway end.

Here’s all we know about the Indonesian Airbus 320 disappeared over Java Sea

AirAsia A320 gone missing in southeast Asia

On Dec. 28, an Airbus A320-200, registration number PK-AXC, flying as AirAsia Indonesia flight QZ8501 from Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, to Changi Airport, Singapore, lost contact with Air Traffic Control at 06:24 LT over Java Sea.

155 passengers were on board the aircraft: 137 adults, including 2 pilots and 4 cabin crew and 1 engineer, 17 children and 1 infant.

The aircraft was piloted by a captain with an experience of 20,537 flying hours, 6,100 of which were with AirAsia Indonesia on the Airbus A320. The first officer had a total of 2,275 flying hours with AirAsia Indonesia.

According to Indonesia’s Transport Ministry, while flying at FL320 (32,000 feet), QZ8501 requested to deviate and climb to FL380 to avoid very bad weather in the area. Clearance to climb could not immediately be granted because of nearby air traffic.

The Ministry said the aircraft could be tracked by ADS-B until 06:18, when it went missing from radars. Flight crew did not radio any mayday or emergency message.

Noteworthy, a leaked ATC image published by Gerry Soejatman on Twitter shows the AirAsia flight climbing through 36300ft with a Ground Speed of only 353 knots: provided the image is genuine, the radar screenshot would show an airplane much slower than expected at that altitude (a nearby Emirates flight at FL360 – 36,000 feet – was flying at 503 knots).

Leaked ATC image GS FL

Image credit: via G Soejatman (highlights mine)

Flightradar24 receivers have tracked the flight by means of ADS-B until 06:12, when the aircraft was at FL320, 469 knots, 310° heading.

Although any attempt to explain the reason for the disappearance of the AirAsia flight is pure speculation at this time, we can’t but notice at least one apparent similarity with another famous crash: Air France 447.

AF447 was an Airbus 330 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris that plummeted 38,000 feet in 3 minutes and 30 seconds and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. In that case, pilots responded to a stall, induced by inconsistencies between the airspeed measurements likely due to pitot tubes being obstructed by ice, by pulling the nose up instead of pushing it down to attempt a recover.

Even though a low Ground Speed can be caused by strong head winds, the fact that nearby Emirates was cruising at 36,000 feet at a speed of 503 knots, seems to suggest that the missing Airbus 320 was probably too slow and closer to the stall speed than it should have been.

Anyway, although no sign of wreckage, oil, debris were found so far, experts believe there are more chances to locate the aircraft than the Malaysia Airlines MH370 which vanished in March this year and has not be found yet.

Image credit: Flightradar24.com