And then our pilot said, "Prepare for a possible crash landing!"
That is a sentence I hoped I would never hear while flying, but there it was, and there we were, in some serious trouble onboard a broken airplane.
I was travelling with the XX Airlift Squadron out of Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento, California. We were based, in Christchurch, New Zealand, flying missions down to McMurdo Base in Antarctica.
Primarily these flights were to carry scientists and cargo down to McMurdo and bring back returning personnel and garbage. Nothing that did not belong in Antarctica in the first place is ever left behind.
McMurdo sits on a small island in the Ross Sea, about 800 miles from the South Pole. It is nestled right at the base of an active volcano called Mt. Erebus. I loved flying by that volcano when we would come in for a landing, because, dense steam was always pouring out of it, and near the top, the ice and snow was pockmarked from the lava bombs it would occasionally blast out. I also adored it because this volcano had been covered in ice and snow for so long it was blue.
The flight from Christchurch to McMurdo was about 6 hours, give or take, and we had flown down there in a huge cargo jet called a C-141B Starlifter. The tail rises way up high in the back to allow for massive doors underneath to open, allowing whole trucks to drive in and out while transporting cargo. I had been on some flights where there was a tank sitting in the belly of the plane, and, another had a bus
My little outings with the Air Force were genuinely amazing adventures, and being with them, able to spend time in New Zealand and Antarctica as a guest of the Air Force had been fantastic. I was down there doing research for another painting for the National Archives; taking photographic reference, sketching, researching and talking with as many people "down on the ice" so that I could come up with a worthy story for my painting. I posted a copy of the painting here - it shows a Starlifter in the distance behind the group of pilots I had flown with and, my beloved Mt. Erebus just a bit further back.
Our third trip down there had been delayed because of weather. Storms are constantly brewing all over the continent, and, the winds never stop. We already had to rush to get out of there during our last flight because whiteout conditions were taking over the base. It was shocking how quickly the horizon was obliterated by the wall of snow blowing towards us. It actually rarely ever snows down there. What happens, is that, because the wind is blowing all of the time, when they kick up and increase in speed and intensity, snow is picked up in one area of Antarctica and hurled all over another. This goes on and on and on as it has for millions of years.
We got out of there OK, but it was a bit nerve wracking, looking out the front windows of that massive jet and seeing only white. No sky, ground, nothing…just white.
For the next few days we cooled our heels in Christchurch and visited the nearby flight museum and played lots of basketball. We could never wander too far away in case the weather broke and then we would literally sprint for the Starlifter and head back down. Such was the case this day, and off we went. The pilots told me to stick close to the jet after we landed at McMurdo, because, they had an emergency situation to deal with and once they were ready to go, that was it, they were leaving.
I stayed around the landing area, visiting a few people and places I had not seen yet and was ready to go when they were. Coming back on board I could see quickly what the emergency was that had us leaving in such a hurry. An injured man had been brought on board and was strapped down onto a gurney-like table near the center of the plane. He had a huge neck brace on and his face was badly bruised and swollen. He had been operating a pneumatic tool of some kind which backfired and punched him in the face. His jaw broke, several of his teeth were gone and the biggest fear was that his neck was broken as well.
Because of the bad weather that had been swirling around McMurdo, this poor guy had to lay there, strapped tightly to a back board with that neck brace on for over 24 hours before we could get down there to rescue him.
Usually, on the return flights we would be laughing and joking, but this was dead silence. The closer we got to New Zealand, the more we moved into night and darkness swallowed us up.
I was sitting next to the two navy doctors who were with the injured man. We had already completed nearly 5 hours of the flight when the engineer walked briskly past us carrying the largest wrench I had ever seen in my life. He was followed by a few more airmen, walking quickly behind him. They disappeared into the dark at the back of the plane.
I had to know what they were doing, so I jumped up and raced after them. The engineer saw me and handed me a flashlight, told me where to shine the light so they could see what they were doing. He popped a panel off of the wall of the plane, and inside, we could see several long tubes filled with some kind of fluid. One of them was losing the liquid inside of it and the engineer and airmen swore and rushed towards it.
One of them came running back towards us with a case full of cans of hydraulic fluid. He dropped it on the metal floor plates and he and one other airman proceeded to try and smash holes in them with screwdrivers, without much success.
Whenever an Air Force jet heads out on a mission, meals would be made up and packed for us in cardboard lunch boxes with a tin of soda. Also inside the box was a plastic envelope containing disposable flatware and a metal can/bottle opener - one of those old fashioned church keys. I always kept mine because it was very handy in case I needed to pop open a film canister.
It was in one of the zippered pockets of my flight suit, so, I quickly retrieved it and handed it over. The engineer laughed out loud and said, “Good thing we have an artist on board with us.”
Quickly they opened most of the cans and started pouring hydraulic fluid into the tube, but, it wasn’t working. As fast as they pumped it in, it was running out somewhere else. More of the crew were yanking the plates off of the walls, looking for areas where there might be a leak. Dutifully, I followed along and kept lighting up the areas with the engineer’s flashlight. After maybe ten minutes of this, it was clear that they were not going to be able to fix the problem. Unlike commercial planes which have backup systems on backup systems, Air Force planes do not. That is why they carry an engineer with them.
I felt very ill though when I heard him say this wasn’t going to get fixed and they had to move on to plan B.
“What is that?” I asked one of the airmen as quietly as I could.
I was starting to feel a bit nervous now. We were still more than an hour out of Christchurch, over the ocean, and I could feel that we were flying into some turbulence.
He told me that the system which had failed was the one used to lower the landing gear. When he said that, I had to reach out and hold onto something. I felt like someone had just kicked me in the gut.
The landing gear was compromised.
The pilots brought us way down below compression altitude and the crew popped open more plates in the sides of jet, right below the wings. They opened up ports in the sides of the plane that created an opening all of the way to the outside. This was weird. It was like traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, with a window down. These ports were not terribly big, but, they were still open holes to the outside of the plane, so, we kept as far away from them as we could. The crew ran a long pole through this opening and hooked it up into the landing gear under the wing and they pumped them down by hand.
It was such hard work! The wheels were incredibly heavy, and, after they finished one side, they moved over to the other one and then they pinned the gear in place so they would hopefully not fold up when the plane touched down. The nose gear was still a problem. They were able to get up under the flight deck and pumped that down by hand, however, they were going to use the engines upon landing to steer us because that hydraulic system which had failed, was used to steer the nose gear.
So far so good. We were still in a broken plane but it looked like we were going to be able to land OK. Maybe. At least I hoped so.
The plane was bucking a bit more. We were not able to go up higher to get out of the turbulence because of the openings in the side of the plane. Apparently, we were heading into a storm. A bad one. There were high winds over Christchurch and, especially since we were in a broken plane, were advised to land elsewhere. There was a landing strip on a small island east of Christchurch that had actually been built during WWII. It had not been used in years and years, but was serviceable enough for our needs.
The plan was that we could land there, and then, camp out in the plane for a few days while engineers and equipment could be brought over from Christchurch to fix it. The pilots took all of this into consideration; the storm, the high winds, the broken plane and the fact that, we had a seriously injured man on board with us who really needed to get to a hospital and not spend a few more days out on an island strapped down to a backboard.
The decision was made. We were going to land at Christchurch.
I was still in the back of the plane, holding the flashlight while the crew back there picked up tools and secured everything. The plane dropped out from under us, and I was airborne for a few seconds then slammed into the metal plates. I tried to get up and could walk a few steps before I went down again, so decided it was easier to crawl. As I got closer to the rest of crew secured in the jump seats along the side of the jet one of the airmen told me a spot had been saved for me right by the door. I was grateful for that, but at the same time, a bit unnerved. They did that so, if things went badly during the landing, I could get out first.
As I crawled up into the seat, holding on to everything and anything while the plane bucked badly in the wind, I was doing my best not to let the fear I felt run away with me. I was grateful for the seat they had saved for me because these planes don’t have windows in them, except for the doors. I knew also that there was some concern that the gear would not hold up when we hit the runway. A lot of things were going on, but, a decision had been made and we were all sticking by it.
The pilots let us know we were close and to prepare for a possible crash landing. The wind was sweeping us from side to side and I turned to watch out the window. It was about 10PM, very dark, extremely windy and part of me wanted to squeeze my eyes shut, but, part of me wanted to see every little thing.
I could see that we were coming in over the runway now, and every emergency vehicle they had there started to pace us right next to the landing strip. We touched down and I braced myself for the gear to collapse.
The gear held up.
To avoid stressing them any more than they had to, the pilots used the entire length of the runway to gradually slow us down and control the nose gear.
We finally slowed to a stop and, the emergency vehicles stopped next to the plane. Firemen and EMTs jumped out, ready to help. The crew on board popped open the door next to me, and in mere seconds, we all grabbed hold of that man strapped to the back board and passed him down through the opening to the EMTs who whisked him off in an ambulance.
That amazing crew I had been flying with got him there.
We evacuated and left the plane to the Firemen and ground crew, who would shut everything down and monitor as they did so for any fires.
The next day, we learned that, the man we had rescued from Antarctica, although hurt with a fractured jaw did not have a broken neck. The hydraulic lines that broke, causing such havoc with the landing gear, had done so high up in the tail of the plane, where they could not be reached while in flight. The pressure from the altitude caused the fluid to be sucked out of the system into the air, but, it had already been fixed.
We still had about a week left down there and at least one more flight down to the ice, which, I went on in that same plane. I always carried my camera bag with me everywhere I went. I’d set it down to get the photos I needed and each time I would go to pick it up, metal bottle openers, those church keys, had magically appeared in it.
I never saw them doing it, but know it was my crew. This was their way of saying thank you for the tiny bit I did to help during an emergency, and I was thankful for it. By the time we left, going through customs in New Zealand to then head up to Pago Pago, I had tied them together, and, there were some 30 or more of them. I kept them for many years, and, would smile every time I saw them, because, we made it.