We Shut The Runway Down

Below is an article I was requested to write back in 2004.  It was published in the Air Force safety magazine called The Combat Edge a few months after the incident occurred on a very dark December night in Afghanistan, 2003.

I’ve always read the “There I was…” first hand accounts of mishap reports with a sort of distant reverence for the mishap writer, never thinking I might be writing the next edition. The rapidity with which things can turn to worms illustrates the need for constant vigilance on the flight deck and really all crew positions when flying a plane like the mighty Herc.

So there I was, sitting in the right seat of my favorite airplane, on my first combat mission in the Stans.  Tonight was the real deal, everything we’d trained for coming to fruition, complete with tracer fire and maybe a few rockets being launched down there in the dark void of Afghanistan at midnight.

We deployed from the comforts of home exactly a week prior and its doubtful not one of us wasn’t suffering some remnants of jet lag and perhaps a few nervous jitters brought on by the unknown of what or who was down there waiting for us to fly over head.

Our first stop was Kandahar for normal download/upload of cargo and then on to Bagram.  We’d been briefed on the condition of the runway at Kandahar as being “the worst runway you’ll ever land on.”  It was, but they don’t call it the Hercules for nothing – that’s our mission after all, beans and bullets to the guys up front.  You call, we haul, anytime, anywhere.

The landing part wasn’t so bad and as we slowed down the runway seemed to smooth out.  The take off was a different story and as we got to rotate speed the bumps were worse than I’d ever experienced, and that’s having been on a departure from the snow packed ski-way at the South Pole.

We put the gear in the wells, popped our fillings back in our teeth and began the spiral up to altitude. We all felt a significant bump as we rotated and the shimmy of the gear in the wells was more pronounced than what we were all used to, but we wrote it off as being just a pockmarked runway.

After we got to altitude we prepped for the descent into Bagram, where the runway was supposedly a lot smoother.  We were on NVG’s and the pilot briefed the descent and landing profile, just like we practiced back home for just such an occasion.  The pilot descended on a normal glide path, normal sink rate and touched down about 800 feet past brick one.

As a testament to the pilot’s skill, I never felt a pull to the left or anything else that would indicate anything but a normal touchdown.  When we passed through about 100 knots, I took the yoke, the pilot pulled the throttles into the ground range and the plane started to pull to the left.  At 90 knots we heard an expletive over the interphone.  Simultaneously, around 80 knots an ELT began chirping in our ears, another expletive followed by the pilot stating we had a blown tire on the left and the loadmaster saying he saw something hanging from the right trailing edge of the wing.

By 60 knots we were all on the same sheet of music.  We hadn’t been shot, which was the first thing that popped into my mind when I felt the airplane snaking its way back and forth over the centerline and hearing the loadmaster stating he saw something hanging of the right side.  We began working in a coordinated effort to bring the airplane safely to a stop on the runway so we could get out of it.  Using the brakes on the right side and nosewheel steering, the pilot brought our mighty Herc to a stop on centerline about 3500 feet from where we touched down.

Here’s where one of the most important lessons I learned in pilot training came into play.  A lesson learned from Ol’ Cap’n Shenk back in Columbus, when he asked me who was more important to aviation, Bernoulli or Marconi?  The lesson being, aviate first and then communicate later.

I got in what seemed to be a 10 minute whizzing contest with tower over our current situation.  They wanted us to clear at Echo and I told them we were unable on account of us not having any tires on the left side of the airplane anymore.  I told tower we were shutting down on the runway and they told us to clear the runway.  And here lies the perfect reason behind the seemingly endless hours we spend on CRM training each year; to speak clearly and concisely and to make affirmative statements all the time.

Tower asked if we were requesting a progressive taxi and I replied in the negative, that we had to shut down on the runway.  They proceeded to clear us again to taxiway Echo and I pulled out the trump card I should’ve played immediately upon the airplane grinding to a halt.  I declared the emergency, told them the nature of the emergency and asked them to roll the fire trucks.  It didn’t sink in right away and I’m really not sure when it did because I gave up and went back to the aviating part of Capt Shenkenberg’s lesson. They’d figure it out soon enough.

I feathered all four, the pilot sounded the alarm bell, the Nav grabbed the fire extinguisher and a first aid kit, the Eng did what he does and the loads led our two pax out the crew entrance door.  The plane was listing to the left as we all raced out like it was a burning building.  The pax headed straight for the grass and we quickly yelled for them to get back on the pavement because who knew if they swept the infield for mines.  We rallied up 300 feet off the nose and watched out for the emergency equipment, which incidentally we didn’t see a single sign of yet, counted noses and began getting our stories straight.  About 10 minutes had passed and the fire trucks were rolling.  The night DO at Bagram was there about the same time to see just what we had done to shut his runway down.

The lessons learned in our little escapade are that things can go to hell in a hand basket real quick.  Just because we’re in a war zone doesn’t mean the airplane miraculously stops breaking of its own free well. Words of wisdom my Dad imparted on me rang true this night: back in the 70’s flying off carriers in Vietnam they had far more operational casualties than any the NVA could inflict upon them.

We were all geared up for the Triple A and MANPADS threats from the ground and probably each of us breathed a little sigh of relief and let our guard down when we felt the gear touch down.  The blown tires and subsequent ELT (which was ours and we can’t figure out why) was the wake up call that brought us all right back in the game.  We gathered our wits immediately, maintained aircraft control, analyzed the situation and took the appropriate actions.  The airplane was brought to a stop with minimal damage and more importantly everyone got out safely and efficiently. We never did figure out what the Loadmaster on the right side was seeing, we finally decided it was just a wierd reflection caused by his NVGs while looking through the window of the paratroop door.

Once the airplane was brought to a stop, the emergency wasn’t magically over.  I was still pumped full of adrenaline and had a hard time  articulating to the tower the nature of our plight which illustrates the need to follow our basic CRM lessons at all times in order to get the necessary people on the same sheet of music.  Had the airplane been on fire I think the tower would’ve had a better idea of what was happening, but fortunately that wasn’t the case.  The egress went smoothly, but perhaps we should’ve briefed the pax, and the crew for that matter, not to depart the paved surface should the need arise to egress.

The final lesson is to always throw an extra pair of underwear, a toothbrush and a few overnight amenities in your flight kit before leaving the home drome, even on a milk run.  You never know when you’ll need a fresh pair of underwear.

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