Learning not to mess with Mother Nature
By Col. Dick Hefner, USAF (retired) Former pilot (C-141, B-52 D/G, C-5 A/B), aviation writer
As a rookie co-pilot flying the C-141 in the early 1970s, I settled into a life of flying mission after mission into Vietnam. We took off from McGuire AFB in NJ, flew up to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska, followed the contrails of the “aluminum bridge” along North Pac 1 into Yokota Air Base in Japan then down to Vietnam and back. Upon our return to McGuire, we got minimum crew rest, max 3 days, then launched back in the air and back to Vietnam. The flying hours piled up quickly but the time at home was at a minimum.
Then one day, in the middle of this hectic flying pace, a “plum” mission came down… a trip to Christchurch, New Zealand to pick up some Navy guys returning from the “ice” (Antarctica). I was coming out of crew rest at the right time, so I was selected to be one of the three pilots for the flight! This was an unusual mission and the crew was excited to have the opportunity to bring the Navy home, especially since that meant crew resting in Hawaii and in New Zealand! After all, we were leaving New Jersey in the dead of winter and were going to places where the sun was shining and the temperatures were warm.
When we landed at Hickam AFB in Hawaii, we were greeted with a 24-hour layover before we had to depart for New Zealand. Twenty four hours gave us time to hit the beach at Waikiki. So, after checking into our rooms, we three pilots donned our bathing suits and headed down to the beach. Cool breezes, , sparkling beaches, warm ocean waters, bright sunshine, girls in bikinis … does life get any better? After about 4 hours on the beach, we had to pack it up and head back to our rooms to get some sleep before the next day’s long leg to New Zealand.
Morning came quickly and as I rolled out of bed, I realized I had spent more time in the sun than I should have. And, when the crew bus arrived to pick up the pilots and the nav, it did not take me long to see that the other 2 pilots were in even worse shape than I was. Our faces glowed like small nuclear reactors. Our AF flight suits, which were designed to protect the body from an outside fire, were doing an excellent job of containing the heat from our sunburns on the inside. Not what we needed to be wearing!
Our discomfort was turning into outright pain as we completed flight planning and breakfast. However, we knew we still had more additional heat to face…the rest of the crew. As we climbed on board, the engineers were first to see the bright red beacons coming into the cockpit. The laughter started and word soon spread to the loadmasters, who made special trips to the cockpit to personally see their “glowing pilots”.
Strapping into the pilot and co-pilot seats just added to the pain for now we were sweaty hot and those flight suits, pressured by the straps, were grating into our tender skin. As we started engines and began to taxi out, one of the other pilots stated he could not handle the “discomfort” any more, so he slide his seat back, unstrapped, and took off his flight suit. Now he was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat in his underwear, headset, and flying boots. Great idea, so the other pilot and I followed his lead and immediately stripped down to just our underwear.
There we sat, number one for take-off and wearing nothing but our “tidy whities” and sun glasses. “Clear for take-off” came from the tower. The pilot advanced the throttles and down the runway we shot…wearing nothing but our underwear, headsets, and flying boots! And while this story has little to do with flying, I’ll bet there aren’t too many people who can boast they flew a military aircraft in only their underwear!
However: Mother Nature, 1; Hefner (and other young crispy pilots), 0
Learning not to mess with Mother Nature
Crew rest at Christchurch was uneventful for us three pilots, primarily because we chose to stay in our rooms, all lathered up with sunburn relief ointment. We did manage to visit a local pub for a pint or two after the sun went down. But even that was a little embarrassing because of the strange looks we were getting … and it was not because of our American accents.
Morning arrived and the Navy personnel from the ice were excited about finally climbing aboard a plane that was taking them home. We loaded them up and took off for Hawaii, California, Virginia, and Maine. When we landed in Hawaii, the pain from our sun burns was starting to ease up, however, going to the beach had lost its appeal and we again chose to remain in our rooms during the daylight hours…nothing like being in Hawaii in January and choosing to stay in your room!
By the time we arrived in the continental US, the sunburns were well under control and the peelings were now pieces of artwork. As we began our descent into the Norfolk area, we were warned of strong thunder storms in the area. Our nav had his radar on and tuned in the weather cells he thought posed a problem. Approach control and the local base weather station continued to caution us about the severity of the storms, but our nav felt he could pick through the front without too much difficulty.
Approach control vectored us towards the runway and gave us clearance to deviate left or right to avoid cells as needed. We were in the soup and could not see anything but dark gray clouds with occasional bursts of lightning. Turbulence was only moderate. The nav was doing a good job of getting us close to the runway and on the radar scope it looked like we were going to make it without hitting anything significant.
Then it hit…all of a sudden we were getting thrown left and right, up and down. I had the yoke turned fully to the left but the plane was banking 20 degrees to the right! Turbulence became severe and the altimeter was fluctuating plus and minus 300 feet. I honestly thought “this plane is about to break into pieces.” Evidently we had flown under a huge cell which was not picked up by the radar because the radar beam was pointed down towards the runway, not up where the cell was!
Realizing I had loss control of the airplane, I pushed the throttles forward and counted on the Starlifter’s engines to rocket us out of this highly undesirable situation. As we gained airspeed (and some control), I pulled the nose up and asked the nav for a safe heading. Then a sharp crack sounded simultaneously with lightning flashing across the windshield. Great, my first lightning strike! Now what?
Mother Nature, 2 : Hefner, 0
We successfully punched through the weather cell, found some clear air, and settled into seeing what damage the lightning had been done. Luckily, we had lost only one communication radio and some navigation equipment. All our engines were still running and our flying gauges were all good. However, to get the equipment fixed, we had to divert to McGuire AFB, where maintenance was available.
We landed at McGuire AFB and were told we had enough time left in our duty day to continue our mission to Maine. After our weather encounter at Norfolk, we were pretty wiped out and flying on to Maine sounded like one rotten idea. As we begrudgingly began our flight planning, our command post informed us our mission was cancelled…we no longer had any cargo to carry to Maine! The Navy personnel we were carrying had unanimously decided that their flying days were over!
We were later told that when the lightning struck, a large ball of static electricity rolled down the center aisle of the cargo section and exited out its right side. A combination of the turbulence and the lightning were more than enough for our Navy friends as they convinced their headquarters that getting back aboard that Starlifter was no longer an option for them … send a bus!