Wing and a Prayer!
Updated: Mar 3
I was so fortunate to be able to fly to some far away and exotic locations with the US Air Force. In 1994 I flew with the 22nd Air Lift Squadron to Christchurch, New Zealand (where we stayed for 3 weeks) and then subsequently completed 3 flights with them down to McMurdo Base on Ross Island, in Antarctica.
Some of the amazing crew I was travelling with.
During one trip back from McMurdo to Christchurch, the plane broke. One of the plugs for the hydraulic fluid way up in the T-tail on the back of the plane let go, and it was just running out into the air, no way for them to reach it. Unlike commercial planes, Air Force ones do not have backup systems, which is one of the reasons they carry engineers with them.
The C141-B, also known as a Starlifter, has such a high tail to that the doors underneath in the back can be opened large enough drive entire vehicles inside.
We were returning quite empty, just the crew, myself and a badly injured man who was a technician at McMurdo. He had been operating a pneumatic tool that backfired and hit his chin hard enough that they thought his neck was broken.
This poor man had already been strapped down on a gurney for 24 hours. We could not get down there sooner because of the frequent storms over the pole. The flight back takes just a bit over 6 hours and we were determined to get him there as quickly as we could.
I was sitting near him, in the back of this cavernous, empty cargo plane when the chief engineer rushed past me carrying the biggest wrench I had ever seen. A couple of other crew were rushing along behind him.
Curious, and a little concerned, I followed them and saw that they had gathered in the gloom at the back of the plane. These Air Force cargo jets only have windows at the doors, so they can get very dark going back towards the tail and the pilots had the interior lights dimmed way down to try to help that injured man get more rest.
Interior of a C141-B Cargo Jet
When I got to the back, I saw that the crew had pulled panels off the wall and were digging around inside, opening up an access port to expose the pipes. Another crew member rushed past me with a crate of hydraulic fluid.
I stepped forward and took the flashlight from one of the crew so they could focus on the work and I could at least help a bit. They tried desperately to pour enough fluid, fast enough into the system to get the landing gear to function, but it did not work.
They explained to me that hydraulic fluid was used to lower the landing gear and steer the front wheel of the plane. To add to this mounting nightmare, Christchurch informed us that we were heading into a very heavy thunderstorm over them at the moment and advised the captain to land on this island with an old runway used during WWII instead of coming into New Zealand. No one was there. We would have to live out of the plane for as long as it took for the storm to pass and help to come to us for repairs.
"You're kidding, right? This is serious! This sounds like something out of a Michael Bay movie," I said.
We hit the turbulence from the storm while I was still standing in the back of the plane and became airborne for a few moments before slamming down hard onto the metal plates of the deck. This happened to me a few more times as I crawled along the deck towards the seats. Other crew members, already strapped in, reached out to help pull me forward.
"We saved the seat by the door for you," one of the crew told me.
Immediately, I knew, this was going to be bad. They saved me a seat by the nearest exit.
I learned then, that the pilots had decided to try for the landing at Christchurch and were bringing us down below decompression altitude so they could lower the landing gear by hand. This was amazing to watch. As soon as the pressure inside our jet matched the outside, members of the crew ran, even while the plane was bucking madly, to open a port, about 10 inches across, right under the right wing.
It took 3 or 4 of them, using a long, metal pole to pump the tires down into place by hand (they refer to them as bogeys). Incredibly, heavy, they have to then be pinned into place. After they wrestled with the bogeys on that side, the crew ran to take care of the next. Landing gear in place now, the captain told us to brace for a possible crash landing.
We banged down into the storm headed right for the runway. The groaning coming from the jet was terrifying and the rain slamming into us made it so hard to see anything.
Turning to look at the man strapped to the gurney, those nearest to him were holding on for dear life, trying to minimize the beating he was taking. This was so scary, all of it.
The pilots, once we had touched down, were going to use the jet's engines to steer the nose gear. Fifteen seconds... then ten seconds... then a smashing sound as we hit the ground hard. We swerved hard to the right for a moment and I was afraid we might roll, then the pilots straightened us out and we raced down the runway.
They were going to use almost the full length of it to slow us down in the middle of this howling storm.
I could see all of the emergency vehicles from the Christchurch airport pacing us as we raced down the runway.
We started to slow and finally slid to a stop. Immediately, and I do mean immediately, the crew around me leapt up and opened the door next to me then ran for the man on the gurney.
Under normal circumstances the huge doors at the back of the plane would be opened up and then the injured man would be slowly, carefully lifted and carried out on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, but not this trip.
As soon as the door opened next to me, I was shoved out. I turned to see these airmen lift that wounded man above their heads then , hand over hand, funneled him out of the doorway at a rapid pace while EMTs gathered him up below, raced him into the waiting ambulance and took off.
Our turn to run now!
Everyone vacated the jet and raced to eleven o'clock. If the nose of the plane is twelve o'clock, and the wings nine and three o'clock, you could imagine where we had to muster. This was a protocol for them. If the plane is damaged, or crashes, everyone meets there then gets the hell away from the bird as fast as possible.
Was it going to catch fire? Blow up? No one was going to wait to find out. As soon as we gathered there, an Air Force truck pulled (like a bread truck) and we were inside so fast, I don't even remember jumping up the back steps. The ground crew, I could see through the back windows of the truck as we took off, were slowly moving towards our jet. They had this look about them, like someone moving in to dismantle a bomb.
Ten minutes later, still in our dirty flight suits, we were sitting in the bar, ordering a beer.
What did we just go through? Did we almost crash? The "Holy crap what almost happened" fear started slowly to diminish. As I looked around the room at these people I had just gone through this dramatic experience with, I could see them, coming back to themselves, calming down and starting to wonder aloud, what had indeed had happened.
We learned the next day, about the damage to the hydraulic system (the break high up in the tail) and that, thankfully, the injured man we had transported did not have a broken neck. In a day, the jet was fixed, we packed up our show again and off we flew, up to Pago Pago, some amazing pancakes there and on to our next adventure.