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Dirt runways…

March 3, 2014
dirt 1

C-130 playing in the dirt.
Photo from yahoo



Hey Y’all,

Disclaimer: I am not sure if this event happened on this rotation in the fall of 2003. It very well might have happened on a different rotation in 2004. I seem to remember a different Flight Engineer talking to me as it happened. The guy I remember is Rich L, a great friend and very experienced FE. We did three rotations together so it were well could have been him. But the reason I think it was this rotation was there was a change in our flight manuals just before we departed on this rotation. I remember that the major change was that we had to bump up our flight speeds from ten to fifteen knots on everything we did. I am 51% sure that this is the rotation this event happened.

Before we left we needed to attend some training. The briefer was Steve H, the Standards and Evaluation Flight Engineer at the time. He had hurt his back in the summer of 2003, his back eventually heled him to make the decision to retire. This briefing happened the day after Billy and I buzzed every Meth Lab in the state. The most memorable part of the briefing was Russ P. and Paul G. showing up looking like members of the “Hells Angels” not members of the military. They had spent their 35 days riding motorcycles and forgetting how to use a razor. Technically, we were still on leave but also technically we were still on active duty. It was expected that we show up in uniform, and they didn’t.

Our Commander who had not deployed with us, showed up from his airline job to yell at us for our circus stunt flyover when we returned. Thanks to Russ and Paul’s obnoxious goat tees, the rest of us got was a stern “don’t do it again.” They got yelled at, embarrassed in front of the group and sent home to shave. The briefing was painfully boring as Steve went over take-off and landing performance charts to see the changes. I think Lockheed changed the performance charts to make the new C130-J model look more impressive when compared to the H model that we flew. It is all about business and they had a new airplane to sale.


dirt 6

The tag stated a New Zealand C-130 in Bagram. But I am not sure, I don’t remember the mountains being so close. Cool picture though.
Photo from yahoo.


Sometime in late September or early October, we were in Bagram, Afghanistan. Our mission for the day was to fly to a dirt runway on the boarder of Pakistan. I don’t remember the name of the field; I think it was called Salerno. Sitting at the footsteps of a mountain range that separated the countries, the field was in a relatively flat area. But that was deceiving because twenty miles away was another set of mountains and hills. It was more like a bowl than a plain. To make matters worse, there wasn’t a very good way to approach and depart the field. Basically, you had to land to the east and roll to the end of the 3,000 foot long dirt runway. Then you would make a 180 and download the cargo with the engines running. Once they were finished you were expected to depart to the west and spiral up between the mountains until you had the altitude to go back to Bagram.

I hated a spiraling climbout. Climbing with the nose banked upwards severely limited the visibility of the crew to find the threat. The slow airspeed hindered my ability to maneuver and the high power setting on the engines made them the perfect target for a heat seeking missile. Plus we all knew the Army did not have the area surrounding Salerno on lockdown. In fact the runway wasn’t even controlled. Several times a local tribesman would walk across the runway or stand very near the airplane watching us. I was not comfortable and we modified our arrival and departures but there is only so much you can do.


dirt 4

Not sure where this is, but this is what it looked like from the flight deck.
photo from yahoo


On this day, we approached Salerno and called the tower about twenty minutes before we landed. We were going to have a ten knot tail wind on landing which was our limit. The tower was not a tower in the traditional sense. It was more of a treehouse with a radio, that sat a good distance from the runway inside the wire. I have no idea Ides if the guy on the radio was certified. Gummy ran the performance data and gave Kevin and I the airspeeds. I remember being surprised at the approach speed. Normally we were in the 110 knot range for landing but with the new corrections and the tail wind we were almost 140 knots. In a 757 that is fast. In the C-130 it is excessive. If we had been landing on a concrete runway that was 8,000 feet long I would have flown the numbers because I know the airplane would stop. But on a 3,000 foot long dirt runway, I thought it was about twenty knots too fast. I briefed the crew that I would be on the slow side of the approach speed number. We landed and stopped with plenty of runway left. I was surprised at how quickly we stopped and I missed my first clue that something was amiss.

After unloading and reloading, we were ready. Gummy ran the numbers for the take-off and again they felt very high to me. Doing normal landings, I thought the numbers were fast but not excessive. It was tough to see the changes when factoring in a long runway. But the numbers on a short field were scary fast and painfully obvious that there was a real change. In the past, the real maximum effort take-off speed would have been in the low 90s. But if the airplane rotated at that speed and lost the far left engine, the pilot would not have the speed to overcome the loss of thrust and the torque generated by the other three engines, subsequently the airplane would roll over on its back. In technical terms, that is very bad. After the change, the new number was about ten knots higher and the take-off safety speed was ten more knots higher.


dirt 5

C-130 taking off from a dirt runway. Note the army guys in the tree line watching.
photo from yahoo


To make things more difficult, at the end of the runway was a large, dry creek bed. It was more of a deep crevice and less creek bed. It was so large that landing over it I felt the optical illusion that the airplane was lower than it actually was. This was significant because if something happened, we wouldn’t just roll out into the wasteland, it would be a crash. Our procedures called for us to do an acceleration-time check. We would check Gummy’s numbers based on time and a predicted speed. An example would be after 15 seconds we should be at 80 knots. If we were faster then everything was good, it we were not at the speed we could abort the takeoff and try again.

Before we took-off I remember telling the guys that two months earlier the airplane thought it could fly at 95 knots. The books had changed but the airplane and physics were the same. If it all went bad, they could expect that I would hold it on the ground until the end of the runway and fly it off using 95 knots as a target speed. We started the take-off and when Harry called time we were not at our predicted speed. I pulled the engines in reverse and slammed on the brakes. We stopped and taxied back. That was the first time in my career that I ever saw the airplane fail the acceleration/time check. Gummy ran his numbers again, we re-checked the wind and tried it again.


dirt 2

This is what I was trying to avoid. This is from Iraq, in early 2003 a C-130 landed on a runway at night. The problem was someone cut out about 500 feet of concrete but didn’t put out a notice to anyone. The damage was caused by a three foot indention in the runway. Imagine running across a twenty foot crevasse. It would have been game over.
photo from yahoo


For the second time, we failed the acceleration/time check. We stopped and taxied back again. This time I was starting to get concerned. I still thought the numbers were off because of the change to the performance data. After we reached take-off position, Gummy showed me how he calculated the numbers. It was on and he did everything correctly. This time, we backed up so that the tail of the airplane was hanging off the runway. We were using every inch of dirt available. We started the roll and this time we passed the acceleration-time check by about five knots. It was tight and normally we passed it by ten to fifteen knots. Approaching the end of the runway I looked inside to the speed and saw it stagnate at 100 knots.


dirt 8

I don’t know where this airplane crashed. It is a “J” model, the newest hero of the skies as advertised by Lockheed.
photo from yahoo


Normally we took off at maximum power but maximum power is not 100% power. I pushed the power full forward to the stops or firewall power and held the airplane on the ground in an effort to allow it to accelerate better. The last runway marker sign passed behind us and the airplane was still not accelerating. Too fast to stop and too slow to fly, we were in the area of no man’s land and we were in trouble. At the literal end of the runway, I pulled the nose up and cringed as the creek went right under the window. I fully expected the main gear to hit something but it didn’t. We flew out between ten and twenty feet eyes glued to the terrain and the speed. Finally we reached the take-off speed and soon after flap retraction speed. Gummy reminded me to crack the power back a little so we didn’t blow something up. We cleaned up the airplane, started a climbed and finally reached Bagram. Once again we checked the numbers and they were accurate. I still thought it was the new performance data but I could not understand why the airplane didn’t do what I expected it to do.

The bed news was that we had to go back. This time a different controller was working and she called the winds differently, 180 degrees differently to be exact. Instead of the ten knot headwind we thought we had, it was a tail wind that changed everything dramatically. Before we landed with a suspected tail wind that was in fact a head wind and we departed with a suspected head wind that was in a fact a tail wind. After we landed, Gummy ran the numbers and using some interpolation he figured that we had at least a twenty knot tail wind. This time we taxied down and took off with the head wind, in the direction that was not recommended and it was a non-event. Once again, I would rather be lucky than good, but I did use up another of my nine lives. I am glad I had another one in reserve.


dirt 9

US Marine C-130 landing in Afghanistan.
photo from yahoo


Until next time, keep on rockin.

From → military

  1. Karlene permalink

    Wow… and there you have it. I would rather be lucky that good too! But if we go for good and lucky… I’m thinking we are golden. Great story!

    • Karlene,

      Thanks as always for saying hi. There are very few in the aviation community who are both lucky and good. Their names are among the pantheon of aviators: Lindbergh, Yeager, Armstrong, Pettit.

      • Karlene permalink

        Lol… and you are so funny. But I like the way you think! 🙂

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