When panic sets in

By Col. Dick Hefner, USAF (retired) aviation writer, 20thCenturyaviationmagazine.com   ( Former C-141, B-52 D/G, C-5 A/B pilot )


When Panic Sets In…

The flying hours in the C-141 mounted up quickly during the Vietnam Conflict.  After about a year of being a co-pilot and a first pilot, I had amassed over 1,000 hours in the Starlifter and was recommended for upgrade to aircraft commander … the left seat! 

To anyone flying a single seat aircraft, what’s the big deal … left or right?  Well, when flying a large plane with multiple crewmembers, it’s a huge deal.  All the decisions ultimately come from the person in the left seat.  For instance, the co-pilot flying in the right seat brings the landing gear up after take-off, but only when told to do so by the pilot in the left seat.  Co-pilots are expected to demonstrate flying skills, but left seaters are expected to lead, to manage, to think ahead, be ready for any curve ball headed his way and (oh by the way!) demonstrate even better flying skills.  In short, it’s the left seater’s show and how well he or she performs is often a topic of discussion by the other crewmembers.  A pilot’s reputation is based on his performance in the air and analyzed by many on the ground, usually at the bar. 

So, needless to say, I was excited about the prospect of becoming an aircraft commander, but first I had to pass the local check ride then a line check.  The local check was done in the pattern and included multiple types of approaches and simulated emergencies, including engine out and no flap landings.  No problems, all the required flying maneuvers went well and I was recommended for a line check. 

Line checks had no set number of legs to fly.  The pilot being evaluated had to perform flying and leadership skills to the satisfaction of the evaluator.  Some evaluators made quick decisions.  Others wanted a longer look.  I was expecting a flight to Vietnam via Alaska and North Pac 1 for my line check since most of our missions went in that direction.  However, to my surprise, my line check was set up to go to Greenland, England, Germany, then back to McGuire AFB in New Jersey. 

My first leg was from McGuire AFB to Sondrestrom Air Base, Greenland, which is located 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle!  Even though I had never been to Greenland, I wasn’t too concerned flying into an unfamiliar field…after all, most runways look about the same.  My primary focus for this day was to impress my evaluator with a flawless crew briefing and an on time departure.  And, to my delight, all phases of the departure went well and we launched on time! 

Now I had time to take a look at Sondrestrom AB… wow, mountains and ice all over the place.  The runway itself was plenty long, but the runway condition reading (RCR), which tells how slippery the runway is due to water or ice, could be a problem depending on landing speed.  On the approach plate, there was a warning associated with “go around” procedures due to the mountains that needed to be cleared on any missed approach.  We were basically flying up a box canyon, thereby making a ‘go around” maneuver a potentially hazardous decision, especially in the weather. 

Luckily, weather was not much of an issue…scattered clouds and little wind.  All I had to do was fly up the ford and put the plane on the runway.  All was going very well and very routinely until I told the co-pilot to lower the flaps.  “Sir, the flaps are not moving,” stated the co-pilot.  OK, no big deal, just add about 8 knots of airspeed to the approach and landing speeds and plant this baby on the runway. 

“Engineer, with the extra airspeed and the current RCR (patchy ice), confirm the runway is long enough for me to stop this beast,” I asked.  “its close, sir, but you do have the needed length with a few hundred feet to spare,” confirmed the engineer.  On a no flap, with the increased airspeed and the ground effect, the Starlifter has a strong tendency to float down the runway, eating up valuable stopping distance…not good when the runway is icy and the mountains are all around.  No sweat, do not flare, just plant the plane on the ground!  This was not the time to grease one on…fly the plane onto the runway! 

With the throttles at almost idle, I brought Starlifter down the glide slope at approach speed.  All was looking good.  As I crossed the threshold at approach speed (10 knots above landing speed) and felt the ground effect kick in as I continued to fly the plane down to the runway.  The plane started to float a little and the airspeed was slowly decreasing.  At 140 knots, we seemed to be eating up a lot of runway!  Remember, runway behind you is of no use.  I shifted my gaze down the runway and to my surprise the end of the runway looked to be only 5,000 feet away.  Panic! I needed about 9,000 feet to stop the plane after it touched down!!! 

In that millisecond of panic, thoughts flew through my head.  I knew a “go around” would be dicey, but this plane and its crew were going to go off the end of the runway if I continued with the landing.   I felt the wheels contact the runway and I was just about to announce “go around” and advance the throttles when … the rest of the runway came in view! 

The runway at Sondrestrom AB has a big hump at its midpoint.  With the flat trajectory of the no flap, the last 5,000 feet of the runway was not visible to me.  I was within a fraction of a second of executing a “go around” when it would not have been needed.  I must have recovered quickly because the evaluator had nothing but praise for my handling of the no flap approach and landing at Sondrestrom.  Little did he know what thoughts were racing through my mind in that microsecond of time. 

The rest of the mission was uneventful and the evaluator called my line check complete after three legs.  I think he just wanted to fly those last two legs himself.  I certainly was not going to argue, after all, I was now a left seater, a position I grew to appreciate in all the planes I flew.

Sondrestrom AB … notice that hump in the middle of the runway!

A sondrestrom


(Publisher’s Note) if you want to learn more regarding the status of Sondrestrom Air Force Base and the history you can click on the link.

Leave a Reply