“We’re on fire!”
by Richard S. Hefner, Col, USAF (retired), C-141, B-52, C-5 Pilot
Terror and danger in aviation comes from when planes are flying around in the wide open skies and something goes wrong. After all, flying is not a natural human act and when we get in the air, we should anticipate danger. However, in a weapon system as large as the C-5, sometimes a situation can occur on the ground that is every bit as hazardous as something happening in the air.
My most alarming and scary ground incident occurred at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. I was in command of a C-5 mission that departed Travis AFB, CA and was to carry sensitive cargo to Japan. Because of the nature of the cargo (which I honestly cannot recall what it was), the plane was a “keeper” for the crew. Normally, the Military Airlift Command kept the plane moving with a fresh crew meeting the C-5 upon its arrival. As soon as the plane was refueling and pre-flighted by the new crew, it was airborne again…like the pony express but in reverse. However, on this mission, “our horse” sat on the ground in a relatively remote location, waiting for us to return, mount up and ride the rest of the way to Japan.
Ordinarily, having the C-5 sit on the ground for 12 hours is no problem…but this was Alaska and it was winter. Elmendorf is not an abnormally cold location, even in winter, due to its proximity to the ocean. However, on this occasion, the temperature was really, really cold … like minus 40 degrees!!! (By the way, Fahrenheit and Centigrade are equal at minus 40…and did I say its really cold!!!) Leaving the C-5 on the ground for those 12 hours meant the next day’s preflight would be in that bone-chilling cold. Everything in that plane was going to be cold-soaked at minus 40 degrees.
We were alerted the next morning and hustled through the flight planning and breakfast so we could get out to the Galaxy and see what warming-up problems we needed to overcome. The wind was light, 3 to 4 mph, which astonishingly dropped the chill factor to an unbelievable minus 52. The crewmembers working outside the Galaxy were going to have to work in shifts of 5-10 minutes, then back into the plane to get out of the dangerous cold. Guys came back into the plane with ruddy, chapped skin and icicles hanging from mustaches and nose hairs.
Inside the plane, everything was cold. Normally, the engineers had heated the plane so by the time the pilots and navigators arrived, only a flight suit was needed to stay warm. Not today … thermals, flight suits, winter parkas and gloves were needed. Nothing on the plane wanted to move … not even electrons! Hydraulic fluids, electrical motors, even the plane’s inertial navigation systems (INS) did not want to work. However, with the ground auxiliary unit plugged in we were getting electrical power to the plane, so our ovens were operating. I put the INS boxes in the ovens to warm them up before programming them with the needed co-ordinates.
The plane’s Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) was being stubborn and slow to fire up, but the engineers finally got it on line. We now had additional electrical power and more importantly we had warm air going into the plane’s environmental system. With the ability to direct warm air into different compartments of the plane, things were beginning to operate and look normal again. The C-5 was slowly warming up and coming to life.
While I was programming the 3 INS boxes, base operations called and asked if we were ready for the de-icing truck. We had a thin sheet of ice on the C-5 from its overnight stay. De-icing a C-5 can take a bit longer than de-icing smaller planes, so we called for the truck a little early. With a plane the size of a C-5, even the thinnest coating of ice can literally add “tons” of weight to the plane and very adversely effect take-off and flying conditions … not to mention normal operation of flaps, ailerons, rudders, etc. Bottom line, our Galaxy needed the de-icing.
With our cargo loaded from the previous day and the plane being de-iced, the only thing we needed now were the 73 passengers who were flying “space available” with us to Japan. All was progressing well, so I requested the passengers be sent out. Fifteen minutes later, the pax bus arrived and the passengers filed out, all bundled up, and begin the boarding process. Slowly they climbed up the ladder to the cargo deck. Then they climbed up a second ladder to the passenger deck which is behind the flight deck and above the cargo deck…a long way up.
I watched the pax bus drive away as I continued to program the last INS box. Then came that unexpected and truly frightening call over the interphone,
“We’re on fire!”…
In a split second, thoughts were flying through my head … loaded with about 200,000 pounds of jet fuel, 73 passengers aboard, minus 52 degrees outside … and we are on fire! There was absolutely nothing good coming to my mind. In a ground emergency, aircrews are trained to first get the passengers off the plane then to evacuate to a safe, away-from-the-plane location. But the outside area was not safe … it was minus 52 degrees!
I was the only pilot in the cockpit and the only person in contact with base operations and the command post. From where I was sitting, in the jump seat between the pilot and co-pilot seats, I could see the smoke billowing up the ladder to the cockpit as the load masters looked for the source of the fire. I called base operations and requested the immediate response of fire trucks to our relatively remote location. Then I reached for the emergency evacuation switch. If I toggled that switch, the load masters would deploy the 4 emergency slides on the C-5 and begin sending the passengers down the slides into the dangerously cold environment. The pax bus had departed and by now, many of the passengers would have taken off their heavy winter garments. Sending them down that long slide into the bitter cold would be very dangerous.
I called back to the passenger deck, where concern was growing because of the suspected fire.
“Deploy the emergencies slides, but do not evacuate the passengers unless I activate the emergency evacuation switch,” I radioed to the loadmaster in charge in the passenger deck.
“Deploying the slides,” came back the transmission.
I could see the fire trucks rushing to our remote parking spot … they were still a few minutes away.
“Sir, 2 of the slides failed to deploy,” reported the loadmaster from the passenger deck.
“Roger, prepare the passengers for evacuation, but do not put anyone down the slides that did inflate until I direct,” I radioed.
I was torn between possible danger of the plane being on fire and the certain dangers of sliding down evacuation shoots and arriving in dangerously cold weather without any possibility of shelter. Sliding down the evacuation shoots are hazardous in good weather, but doing so in the bitter cold, icy weather was definitely going to result in many serious injuries.
Then came the most welcomed radio call I’ve ever heard,
“Hold everything, we may not be on fire!”
Everyone froze (pun intended) as we waited for more good words.
“It looks like the smoke is coming from the environment ducting in the cargo compartment … and it may be dissipating!”
As the fire trucks were responding, the de-icing truck saw the emergency response and stopped spraying the Galaxy with the de-icing fluid. When the de-icing stopped, the smoke stopped coming from the ducting in the cargo compartment! Just maybe, we were not on fire.
“Do not evacuate the passengers!” I radioed.
As quickly as the very ominous situation developed, it began to unravel. The thick, acrid-smelling smoke seemed to be coming from the cargo ducting and not the cargo or a component of the plane. The cargo ducting was being fed by the APU, but the APU was not on fire. Why did the smoke dissipate when the de-icing stopped?
As we pieced the situation together, the de-icing truck had sprayed the de-icing fluid into the intake of the APU. The cargo loadmaster was directing maximum air into the cargo deck to warm up that compartment of the plane. The de-icing fluid was being ingested by the APU and the resulting smoke was being channeled into the ducting of the cargo compartment, thereby flooding that compartment and the cargo in it!
THERE WAS NO FIRE!
We all took a big, deep breath because we all knew the situation was potentially a very grave one. After dismissing the fire trucks, we called maintenance and got all 4 slides (the 2 that worked and the 2 that failed to inflate due to the cold temperatures) replaced. The rest of the preflight went as normal and we took off with all our passengers on board and headed westward to Japan.
When we got to Yokota Air Base in Japan, I called for a special crew meeting to discuss what had happened in Alaska. In a very sobering meeting, we picked apart and analyzed the events of that morning. Bit by bit, it all came together. Rarely does a single event cause the danger. Almost always its a series of events, strung together that result in that dangerous event … the “keeper”, the cold weather, the de-icing, the need for maximum heating from the APU, the channeling of warm air into the cargo, etc.
Bottom line: the crew did a great job of analyzing and responding to a potentially very hazardous situation … well done crew!