Happy Birthday…part three
This is the third of a three part series. All of the following events happened on 6 April, 2003. This is a long post, I apologize in advance. In the coming days, I am going to take a break from war stories for a short while. I need a break from memory lane and I am looking forward to talking about more important things like my fantasy baseball team, the nfl draft, ASU football, and other more pressing life issues. I have made several offers to offer a guest post to my fellow Tabukians. Thus far no one has taken me up on it, but I am hopeful. I appreciate all of the support and off line comments from my former partners in crime.
We approached H1 airfield from the southeast. Almost every runway in the Middle East is aligned in basically the same heading. Oriented to the northwest and southeast, the most common direction for the runway is 15/33. This means that an aircraft can land either northwest (330 heading) or south east (150 heading), and take off in the same directions. When winds are an issue, pilots like to land pointed into the wind as much as possible. For several reasons, but the main reason is that it just makes things easier.
We contacted the Special Operations guys on the ground through the secure radios. There are several way to make the communications secure. The two best options for us were “Have Quick” that changes or skips through several frequencies in rapid succession. Secure Voice is basically a narrowing of the bandwidth frequency to a very small range.
I preferred to use Have Quick because the conversation is clear. The listener hears the literal click in the transmission as the frequency changes. It switches frequency at a random, preprogramed rate with multiple switches every couple of seconds. Think click, click, click, click, click… If you care, here is the Wikipedia description of Have Quick.
Secure Voice is different. It enables several radios to communicate but both clarity and range are sacrificed. It reminds me of listening to an AM radio station near power lines. Captain Bill Grimes told me that he never could contact the ground forces. He landed not knowing who would greet the airplane. Things like that happen in war. Again if you care, here is the Wikipedia description of secure voice.
We were able to contact the ground forces and they cleared us to land on runway 15. The wind direction they called out to us was 330 at 10 knots. This meant that we were landing with a ten knot tail wind. Not a big deal, Scott was flying from the left seat and started the approach. The C-130 has a navigator and has a navigation system known as SCNS (Self-Contained Navigation System). It has dual inertial gyros that are updated by GPS. It is very accurate to within three feet, and highly reliable.
All approaches in the C-130 are hand flown. This required Scott to be 100% eyes outside the aircraft. He was looking for the box of IR lights that identified the landing zone. My job was to give him constant audible updates on airspeed, altitude, and descent rate. The navigator’s job was to update the pilot on the course to the field. “Turn left/right 5 degrees.” Gary, used the readout from the SCNS as well as his NVGs to help Scott maneuver the airplane to the runway. The flight engineer, Paul’s job was to monitor everything inside the flight deck and be the safety monitor. I think he had the hardest job because all he saw was darkness outside the windows. His job relied 100% on faith that the two knuckleheads in front of him, wouldn’t kill him. Deron and Tracy were in the back, along for the ride.
The winds at altitude were close to a forty knot tailwind. This required Scott to increase the descent rate. A normal 3 degree is a descent rate of 750 feet per minute. With this tail wind, Scott needed to double it at a minimum. When I first learned to fly, I thought one of the most unnatural actions was to deliberately point the nose of the airplane at the ground. In fact, that is the only way to descent. Flying on NVGs while staring out into the dark vastness of the dessert, Chuck Yeager would have been afraid to increase the descent rate to 2,500 feet per minute.
The weather guy told us the visabiliy would be good, six miles or greater. He was wrong, it was one mile and less at times. The winds were blowing the dust and sand that dramatically limited what we could see. It could be best described as landing in a haboob, in the pitch dark, with no moon, no cultural lighting, in a poorly lit aircraft with an unsuitable, improvised flight deck lighting procedure all held together with duct tape. What could possibly go wrong? Scott saw the lights about a mile from the end of the runway. We were too high, so Scott wisely went around.
In my aviation career, I have gone around a number of times in training. It is something that is practiced and highly encouraged by everyone. If the airplane is not in a safe position to land, you go around and try again. Most pilots perform a go-around once a year. It is uncommon to go-around, but not out of the realm of normal flight operations. This was our first time, on this night.
We stayed low, about 1000 feet and entered the downwind for the runway. While we were flying, everyone praised Scott for his decision and then we offered recommendations to get in the second time. Nothing unusual so far. Scott looked out his window and saw the landing zone perfectly. The second airplane was still ten miles out so we had time to try for a second time. Scott descended early and kept the descent rate up but it was not going to happen. Too much tail wind. He went around the second time. I relayed the information to the second airplane.
They went around, number three went around and number four went around. The fourth airplane had the combined knowledge of the first three and it was just too much tail wind. The forth airplane told the ground guys that they needed to turn the lights around so we could land from the north. The problem was an unsecured oil pumping station to the north. The bad guys could be there and shoot us while we tried to land. Oh well, but no one is landing unless they switched sides. The ground guys did as requested and asked for thirty minutes to do it.
Here is an aerial photo of H1 and the pumping station. It is a much larger compound that it was described before we departed. If I had seen this picture I would have tried another approach to 15.
No worries, we climbed to 3000 feet and started holding ten miles north of the field. Flying into Iraq, we turned off all the lights, the radar, transponder and any other transmitting equipment so that the Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles could not track us. In the vastness of the Iraqi dessert, there were four airplanes holding in a small piece of air. I made a casual radio call to the others, just to let them know where we were. “If anyone cares, we are ten miles north of the field at 3000 feet.”
I expected something other than what the reply was. “So are we!” “We are too!” “Us too!”
That is not good. Scott, Paul and I all bumped hands reaching out to turn on the transponder that would transmitted our position to the other aircraft. Immediately it started barking out orders, “Climb!” “Descend!” I think it even said, “You dummies are going to die!” Paul turned on the navigation lights and I turned on the wingtip lights. With the NVGs the other aircraft were easy to see, Scott picked a clear area and gained separation. There is no doubt in my mind that there would have been a fireball over Iraq that night if someone didn’t speak up. We climbed to 6,000 feet while the other airplanes stacked below us with 1000 feet separation. We were scheduled to be the first to land, now we were going to be the last.
The runway was turned around and we started in order from the lowest altitude to us, the highest. In single file line, the first airplane went around, then the second, then the third, then us. We never saw the landing zone after the first pass. The reason was that we were looking in the wrong place. The tactics guys loaded our data transfer devices with all of the information that Gary needed to enter into the SCNS. When we arrived late to the airplane, Gary barely had enough time to get the SCNS set for take-off. On the 45 minute flight, north he did his best to verify the information from the maps to what was given him. The coordinates to Runway 15 were correct. The mistake was that the coordinates to Runway 33 were wrong, they were cut and pasted from runway 15. We were not approaching the runway from straight on, but actually from an angle. The landing zone was off to the right and 1.5 miles closer in that what the SCNS indicated.
The gaggle continued as Scott said that he almost as many NVG go-arounds as he did NVG landings. When we started training, the minimum requirement was three NVG landings to be qualified. We gave a few more, I think it was six landings. Scott was a basic Aircraft Commander at the time, and we were in a time crunch. He got the minimum number of landings plus a couple if we had the time. As one of the Instructors, I sat through hundreds of landings, and I got to demonstrate one to each student. I had my minimum of three, plus an additional twenty as demos. We had been flying for over two hours, and we still were not on the ground. My neck ached from wearing the six pounds of helmet, NVG, battery pack and extra weight to even out the load. The birthday present was beginning to look like it wasn’t the good deal I thought it might be.
On downwind an amazing thing happened. The first airplane landed. Then the second one landed, and then the third landed as we started our five mile final. Dang, things were looking up. Scott started his descent normally and about a mile out we saw the first two lights of landing zone. We were not lined up exactly, so Scott made a slight bid to the left and then back on course heading directly for the pair of lights. From this point on, Gary was looking at the zone with his NVGs, backing up Scott with the descent rate and line-up. Scott is 100% eyes out the window focusing only on flying to the lights. Paul can’t see anything but the instruments. My job is to watch the instruments and call out the airspeed, altitude and vertical descent rate. All is going as it should.
I am a fairly spiritual person. I always have been even though I may not have always closely held to the tenants of my belief structure. I have heard stories about divine intervention, miracles, and other seemingly indescribable events happening at just the right moment in time to avert disaster. I am not sure that I totally believed that if those type events were true or the figment of someone’s imagination. By as I sit here today, I swear the following event happened and I offer it without exaggeration. It still feels more like a dream than something that actually happened.
By the way, I never shared this with any of my crew in the days that followed this night. I may have shared it with Scott at some point in the last ten years, but I am not sure. I have shared it with my wife and some other folks, but not many and always in an environment that I felt comfortable. So here goes.
About 100 feet above the ground, I literally felt my head twist to the right forcing me to look out of the right side window. I don’t know many pilots who look out the side window when they are landing. That night, my job was to provide constant, reliable information to Scott. There was no time for goofing off, idle chatter or sightseeing. It was serious and 100 feet above the ground, we still didn’t see anything except the two lights in front of us.
When I say I looked out the window, I mean I had to twist my head to the side and literally look back over my shoulder. And when I say that I felt my head twist, think putting your hand on the head of a little kid and you twist their head to the direction you want. It was over-powering and it was anything but an delibert action on my part. My eyes focused on the four lights hovering in the darkness, it was the landing zone. Realizing what I saw, I felt the force release my head. I looked back forward to see what Scott saw. Two lights on the ground. I did not believe what my eyes told me, so I looked again forcing my mind to make sense of what I saw. To the right and behind the airplane sat the runway and the landing zone. In front of us were the twin lights of a C-130 taxing on the taxiway. We were lined up with and prepared to land on top of the airplane that had just landed in front of us.
I started screaming “GO-AROUND!” I don’t actually remember yelling it out, I do vaguely remember saying it and Scott following the command. Later, they said I was screaming. Climbing away, we got the landing gear up and then I was asked the question. “Why did you call the go-around?” I was too chicken to tell them about how my head was turned, but when I described what I saw, there was complete silence. We were 15 seconds from killing ourselves, the 60 dudes in the back, the crew of that other airplane and their 60 dudes. That is a lot of death for no good reason.
Scott said that he was done. I got it, he had been flying for a long time, and he was tired. He didn’t quit because of those reasons. He is a smart guy. He knew that we were trying to do something that was way past our level of experience. Later on, a friend spoke to some special ops pilots who landed at H1. Their airplane was fitted with forward looking infrared radar (FLIR). Basically it turns night into day. It is magic equipment. They could not believe that slick (C-130s without modified magic equipment) crews were landing at H1 without the FLIR. They told their superiors that someone was going to crash.
I was ready to quit as well, but Gary had something to say. He told us there was something wrong with the SCNS and told us to turn it off. He wanted to do another approach, this time with the radar. I asked Scott if he minded if I tried one. He said simply “Please!” I told the guys that if it didn’t look good, we were going home. One shot and we would land or leave, no mistakes, no unacceptable risk and no exceptions. We started down, and Gary gave me the exact headings to fly. Left three degrees, right one degree. I didn’t move my head to see the instruments. I only moved my eyes, and flew his exact headings. He also gave exact target altitudes and distance from the field. Scott kept me updated with the speed, altitude and descent rate. Together, they build a virtual 3-D picture for me. At 50 feet above the ground, I could start to make out the difference between the dark green of the NVG and the darkness of the approaching runway. At 25 feet, I felt some confidence that we were going to land on concrete.
That was the last time I flew on my birthday. Ever since that night, my birthday present to myself has been to keep both feet firmly on the ground.
Ten years later, when I think of this night. My heart beats quicker, and writing it today is no exception. I landed that airplane but it wasn’t me. It was a crew effort. Scott is one of the finest pilots I have ever known. My admiration for him only grew when he realized that he was doing something that he wasn’t trained to do. In retrospect, I should have turned the airplane around and taken it home. It was dumb to try another approach and even though it ended well, it was not a good decision. That my friends, is poor leadership.
We returned to Tabuk and I told our commanders, “KK” and “Sleepy” that we were not going back. That was too dangerous and someone was going to die. He relayed that information to higher headquarters. Over the next week, several crews made the NVG trip to H1. Everyone came back and with the same description that I gave. Only one crew did not land. It was Seabass’ crew. He made one approach and came back. He is the only pilot in our squadron who had any sense. He is my hero and I hope that I remember that lesson for the next time.
The force that twisted my head is still a mystery to me. When we returned to the tent, I never told anyone what really happened. It has only been in the past few years that I have even felt comfortable enough with my own spiritual growth to even contemplate the event. I am convinced that I did not twist my head on my own will. It was not a conscience thought to look out the window. Even a quick glance would not have been enough to see the landing zone. There was an outside force acting on me that night, I will allow you to draw your own conclusions. I am comfortable with the conclusions that I have made and my only comment is that it was a “God thing.”
Until next time, keep on rocking!