Rule #1. Don’t make my wife mad…
The following story is being told out of sequence since it makes more sense to tell it now as opposed to when it actually happened.
Rarely do stories from a rotation beat you home. Most of the time, I only found out about my friend’s experiences months or years afterwards. That is one of the downsides of being deployed in smaller numbers. This was one of the few stories that beat us back home.
After the few days of despair following my issues with my wife, Donetta. I tried very hard to find a new usual routine which involved trying to call home as much as possible. Those calls were not always pleasant or productive but they did serve to keep the lines of communication open. One of those calls didn’t go very well and later I found out that Donetta was thinking that her life would be better if I would just simply go away and die. I don’t blame her but this was the first time that I discovered that she has powers beyond most women. Her power is that she can change her thoughts into reality.
We were scheduled to go on a regular Air Medal mission out of K2 Uzbekistan, down to Herat, Afghanistan to Bagram, Afghanistan, to Jalalabad, Afghanistan to Kandahar, Afghanistan back to Bagram and back to K2. All of that in an easy twenty-hour day. We called them Air Medal missions because we would carry Uzbek air to Herat. Herat air to Bagram and so on. We mostly flew empty and occasionally with a couple of passengers or a little cargo. It was simply a regularly scheduled mission that could be re-tasked easily should the need arise.
The co-pilot, Shy Dog, was flying the first leg out of K2 because it was his turn to fly first. Climbing up to twenty-five thousand feet, I already had my chair back and my feet up. He was hand flying to altitude which was the normal routine. We had one of the rare morning departures so the sun was already high in the sky and life was good until he engaged the auto-pilot.
When he did, the aircraft went into a violent spasm, I don’t know how else to describe it. In a nanosecond, it went from smooth flight to severe shaking. A good metaphor would be sitting on a house sized can of paint on the paint mixer. The airplane shook so hard that not only was dust falling down from the overhead panel but it was rising a foot off of the floor. My pilot friends know what severe turbulence feels like and this was way beyond anything I had ever felt. The rudder pedals were popping a couple of inches fore and back, so much that it hurt my feet when I put them to the pedals. The yoke was moving in a circular pattern fore and aft and side to side. Not only that but the sound was overwhelming and over rode the already loud roar from the engines.
I looked at Shy Dog and in typical pilot fashion. “What did you do!” I yelled into the intercom. I was yelling not because I was mad but because I couldn’t hear myself talk through my headsets.
Defensively he replied. “I turned on the auto-pilot.”
“Turn it off!” I commanded using the long-time pilot technique which reasons that if you press a switch and something bad happens, then by turning it off will fix the problem.
He quickly turned off the autopilot and it did nothing to dampen the vibration although the flight controls were no longer fighting themselves. The severe vibration continued and they could be felt everywhere including my chattering teeth. I asked for the airplane and Shy Dog was happy to give it back to me. I had no idea what our airspeed, altitude or heading were because it was impossible to read the instruments. If it had been nighttime, then we would have a more complex issue on our hands. But since we could see the ground, we were able to keep the wings and pitch attitude level.
Richie was one of the most experienced Flight Engineers we had and he was already working to diagnose the problem. Initially, he thought we might have thrown a propeller off an engine. Carl D. and Patrick were already looking out the windows at the engines. As I learned later, they were crossing back and forth from window to window looking for something out of the ordinary. They quickly determined that the engines were operating normally. Carl D even looked at the landing gear thinking that one might have popped out of its lock. It was normally stowed.
After what felt like an hour but in reality must have been thirty seconds, Richie said the worst possible words. “Robbie, I have no idea what is going on.”
Shy Dog and I both turned around to look at him. He just shrugged. That is when I really started to get scared.
He suggested that maybe a life raft had deployed since that had happened to a Marine Corp C-130 a few months earlier. That airplane made an emergency landing in Huntington and our mechanics went down to help them out. But from what we heard, when they had that issue the airplane pitched hard up and rolled over onto its back while the autopilot was on. They were very fortunate to have survived. At that moment, I was expecting the tail of the airplane to fall off and we would have to spend the next several minutes doing our death yell.
At that point, I had only been truly scared once and that was doing a night vision goggle landing in a dust storm. You can read about it here part 1 https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/1184. Part 2 https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/578 part 3 https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/594
The difference between these events was that at that time, the airplane was working great so it was a pilot problem. I was concerned another time after taking off with the airplane’s center of gravity out of limits forward. I never was really worried about that event but I knew that we were operating at the edge of a flight limit so we needed to be very cautious on landing. You can read about that here https://wordpress.com/post/robakers.wordpress.com/1184
This was very different as we didn’t know what was wrong and we didn’t know how much longer the airplane would stay in one piece. I told Carl D, Patrick and Anita the Navigator to put on their parachutes. I would have told Shy Dog and Richie the same thing but I knew they would have told me where to put with that order. For better or worse, we were going to ride it in together.
We knew we had to change something and since we were officially test pilots we could do whatever we wanted. I slowly pulled back the throttles to idle so that we could slow down. To my surprise, the vibration dampened as we slowed. It took a minute or so to slow down from cruise speed towards a speed that required flaps. We talked about if we should change the configuration of the wing. We agreed that we could try as long as we made very small changes so that if things got worse we could try to fix it.
We were still at 25,000 feet and slowed down to our landing speed but were still going towards Afghanistan. I thought that Anita was in the back putting on a parachute when I asked Shy Dog to find us a field when she spoke up. She was still standing at her post and had the information available. Anita told us to return to K2 as it was much closer than Herat. I asked why she didn’t put on her parachute when she actually told me what I could do with that suggestion. She was going to ride it in with Richie, Shy Dog and me. Carl D and Patrick already had their parachutes on. I thought was good to have a living witness.
We made the turn back and declared an emergency with Uzbek air traffic control. We decided to descend to 10,000 feet so that when the tail fell off we wouldn’t have as long to scream. We also did a landing check with the landing gear down and half flaps so we felt pretty sure that if we made the runway then we could land. The vibration had dampened but it was still like driving your car over the rumble strips to the side of the interstate. We could actually see the instruments and the dust was no longer raining down on us. If it took thirty minutes to fly out, it must have taken ninety minutes to get back. It was the longest flight of my life. No one said a word. The airplane was out of trim and heavy on the controls.
We reasoned that it was a problem with the elevator but couldn’t be sure if it was in the trim section or the elevator itself. Several years earlier, an Alaska Airlines MD-80 had an elevator problem that resulted with them being unable to pull out of an un-commanded dive. They all died as they crashed into the ocean just off the California coast. Their problem was attributed to a jackscrew breaking in the elevator. As we slowed to landing speed, the airplane was nose heavy and once we discovered that the normal trim wasn’t working properly, we decided to use our muscles and not trim the airplane. The problem was that it took effort to hold the nose up so we traded controls frequently.
Approaching the field, we could see that the entire base had come out to watch us land. The fire trucks were out, there were at least a hundred-mechanics standing outside and whoever else got wind of the news that we were coming back. I flew and Shy Dog worked the controls with me. Together, we touched down gently and taxied in un-eventfully. I’m sure everyone left a little disappointed that they didn’t get to see us die in a Hollywood style fireball. What can I say, I have been disappointing people my entire life.
We hardly had time to pry the seat cushions out of our backside when the maintenance guys came up. They had already found the problem and were working on fixing it. The actuator that moved the trim tab had broken, so the vibration was coming from the trip tab fluttering in the wind. That is why when we slowed down, we also slowed the air flowing over the flapping tab so that the vibration was reduced. We went back to look at the elevator and the trim tab. The elevator is the size of King Author’s Round Table. It is a huge piece of metal. The trim tab is about the size of a 2X4 piece of lumber. We milled around the airplane for a while, just getting our senses back. Of course, there were hugs and pats on the back but for as scared as we were, it really seemed like the damage to the airplane was minimal.
We were asked if we wanted to go back out and finish the mission. I declined the offer and told the Commander that we needed a break. I’m not sure anyone believed us when we described how violent the flight was, but I didn’t care. I was just glad to be alive. I was so happy that I called home to tell my wife how close she came to being a widow. That is when she told me that she was actually thinking that she would be better off if I had died. But after hearing my voice and heading the story and knowing that she was really close to getting her wish, she and I both felt a renewal and for once there was hope.
Earlier, I said that this story made it home before I did. That was true, after my wife and I spoke she called Billy G’s future ex-wife, Sherri and told her about what happened and how that she thought that I would die and it almost happened. Sherri told Billy and about a month later when I got back to the squadron for a normal training flight. No one cared about the story or anything else about what had happened. All they cared about was if Donetta was happy with me when I left the house that morning because they were not going to fly with me if she was mad at me. From that point on, it was common knowledge that she had super powers and her feelings were not to be trifled with.
Until next time, keep on rockin.