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Hours of Terror

"We had number four caged and shutdown conditions existed on the other three . . . As far as I knew there had never been a successful ditching of an Air Force C-130"

Major John 'Jack' O'Connor USAF

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There's probably neither a real moral to this story, nor any cut-and-dried lessons to be learned. I'll let you be the judge of that. But I feel compelled to tell someone about that trip over the Pacific last February. I have flown for thousands of hours, a great many of them with MAC, and have never experienced anything to equal it in terms of sustained anticipation. Or, if you prefer, continuous fright.

First off, I'm assigned to the test flight section of the Defense Contract Administration Office (DCASO) at Hayes International Corporation here in Birmingham, Alabama. We fly acceptance check flights on aircraft under-going periodic depot maintenace. I'm a navigator, which doesn't have much to do with the story, but let me begin.

Jack O'Connor's routing Anchorage, USA to Korat, Thailand

It had been a long time since any of us had gone on a decent TDY trip. But this time we drew a good one — we were to fly a C-130 gunship from Alaska to Korat, Thailand. Looking back, I remember that some of us had an uneasy feeling about the ferry flight, but in view of all that happened, maybe this is Monday morning quarterbacking.

I won't go into detail about our preparation for flight — you all know that bit. I'll just begin at the point where everything started going to hell in a basket.

We launched the Herky into a beautiful Alaskan sky, the kind you see in the travel posters. How well I remember. I can recall see-ing smoke billowing from a huge fire in downtown Anchorage as we climbed out. We were feeling pretty good. Adak was our first stop and the forecast was for hot and dusty. But about midway into the flight, things started happening.

AC-130A Hercules Gunship

Our earlier premonitions began to hit home when Sergeant Hall — we call him Bud — reported fluid flowing from between the outer dry bay and number four engine. Well, that sounded bad to me, although I don't know as much about aircraft systems as I would like. But when our aircraft commander, Dave Harmon, decided to shut down number four, I knew I was right. Dave figured we probably had fuel in the dry bay. Well, while we were debating whether to continue or return to Anchorage, we crossed paths with another Hercules gunship that was en route to Elmendorf from Adak. The pilot confirmed the good weather at Adak, so we pressed on.

We were feeling pretty good about our situation by the time we got within UHF range of Adak. But how quickly things change. Adak Approach reported ice already on the runway and snow was forecast for our arrival time. A fast-moving cold front would beat us there! Closer in, Mother Nature really lowered the boom on us. The ceiling had dropped to 100 feet and visibility was a half mile, with intermittent conditions of 300 and one and a half. We'd have to land our crippled bird into an 18-knot right crosswind, blowing snow and on an RCR of 4. We would have chosen somewhere else to land, but by this time, our fuel supply committed us to Adak.

Dave was having a go at a precision approach and we were on final when the controller called the field below minimums. We were all mentally setting up for a missed approach when, at about two miles, the weather came back up to minimums. The engine-out hadn't created much of a problem on final, but after touchdown, Dave, and Capt Harry Hillman, the copilot, had to manhandle the yoke to overcome the crosswind. We rolled to a stop with a collective sigh of relief. Now, the reason for our earlier premonition was behind us, or so we thought, and we were intent on enjoying the remainder of the trip.

Hell Breaks Loose

The next leg, to Midway, was as serene as any I can remember. We counted gooney birds during our crew rest and the following morning set out for Kwajalein on what was to be the most harrowing peacetime flight of my career.

We didn't even get on the run-way before things began to happen. We were taxiing to the runup area when a cargo compartment overheat light illuminated and the pressurization failed. As we taxied back toward the ramp for maintenance, we saw some sergeant running toward us. He was frantically motioning toward number two engine. What caused his excitement was a 15-foot streak of flame shooting out of the engine. Dave quickly feathered it. We shut down and found that a hydraulic hose inside the nacelle had broken and the fluid was burning.

The hydraulic line was repaired, but we had to go without pressurization. We got off once again and the peaceful Pacific was passing slowly beneath us when, just two hours from Kwaj, Sergeant Hall came on interphone.

"Hey, AC, this is the engineer. I think I saw a few little puffs of fire coming from number four engine."

He might as well have said, "All hell is about to break loose" because that was exactly what was about to happen. For a few minutes number four's instruments indicated normal, so we kept 'er running. Then, Sergeant Hall saw it again.

"There it is again — more —better shut it down — now!"

Dave took the suggestion and in seconds we had shut it down. But we still had three good ones left. For that we were all thankful.

But our state of bliss didn't last long. Dave had no sooner returned his hand to the yoke from the number four T-handle when number one oil low light flashed like an ominous beacon. As if that weren't enough, Sergeant Martin, the loadmaster, reported a loss of hydraulic fluid in the utility system. Since the utility system goes to number two and four engines — and since four was feathered — this meant that we most likely had a problem in number two.

Sharks Below

By now, it had occurred to me that we were flying over some of the most shark-infested water in the world. But before I could even think, "Jaws," the voice of our flight engineer gave me something else to think about.

"Hey, I don't know how to tell you guys this."

He paused for several seconds as we all braced ourselves for the next event, "but there's fluid flowing back about ten inches inboard of the number three tail pipe. Can't tell for sure what it is."

It had to be fuel, but no one said so.

In a simulator, such a combination of emergencies would have seemed unrealistic. We had number four shut down already and shutdown conditions now existed on the other three. At about this point, it occurred to me that as far as I knew there had never been a successful ditching of an Air Force C-130.

"We'll shut down the first one that catches fire," announced our aircraft commander. "Until then, we just have to let 'em run." My sentiments exactly.

We started back toward Kwaj — an hour and 17 minutes away. I plotted the time and bearing to several atolls, but the coconut and kava trees lining the small beaches just about ruled them out as landing sites. Meanwhile, the oil low light on number one glared at us like a cyclops. Number two hydraulic pump was shut down to save what fluid we could, and what apparently was fuel continued to flow from around number three. Number four prop was as stiff and straight as a good soldier.

Naturally no one heard our HF calls for help in this part of the world. That didn't help our morale much, because most of us felt that within a matter of minutes we would need rescue in the worst possible way. Everyone kept bugging me for the time left to Kwaj. After staring at the radar set for what seemed like decades, I finally noticed a return at 12 o'clock. I have never seen a blip anywhere that caused my spirits to soar as this one did. It was Kwaj. We had it on radar. Now, if we could hold out just a little longer.

Almost There

A 6,700-foot runway awaited us if we could make it. We decided to land without reverse because of the fluid flowing from number three. We were down to the before-landing checklist when we decided the odds were shifting to our favor. Dave flew it onto the runway and as the wheels touched down I felt like shouting. Instead, there was a shout from the load-master.

"Number three is smoking," he yelled.

Hell, I couldn't have cared less if it had been shooting speed. We were on the ground! But Dave caged it and, since number one had shown signs of coming unglued, he feathered it, too. The fire department met us and we taxied off the runway on one engine. We shut down and there was a long silence as our emotionally drained crew silently reflected — and, I think, gave thanks — that we had arrived.

We invaded the local club that evening and, to put it mildly, the alcoholic abuse folks would not have been proud of us. But it had been an unusual day, so perhaps we can be forgiven. The next day we went back down to talk to the maintenance guys. What they told us almost sent us scurrying back to the club.

What Had Happened

In chronological order, this is what happened to our machine. Our problems had started when the turbine section in number four started wobbling. The engine was on the verge of disintegration when we shut it down. Our instruments never indicated this. But had it disintegrated, chances are that red hot shrapnel would have ripped through our wing and fuselage. The oil quantity on number one was almost undetectable, and our old friend the hydraulic hose had come lose again on number two, pouring fluid into the hot nacelle. A pin hole in the hose had also sprayed atomized hydraulic mist into the engine. The fluid which had flowed so freely from number three was, indeed, fuel. The maintenance folks found that the center wing box was puddled with four inches of it and two and a half inches were standing in numbers three and four dry bays.

Altogether, there was enough fuel in these areas for 17 more minutes of flying —if we could have found some way to get it back into the tanks.

Well, that's about all there is to the story — fortunately for us, I might add. I've flown a lot of aircraft, but this is the only time I could ever really feel fate catching up to me. Why we made it, I don't know. Like I said, maybe there's no moral here. Well-trained crew members who made the right decisions at the right time, perhaps. Luck, maybe, or even a combination of many factors. Incidentally, I have ferried several C-130s since this near miss, but never another AC-130A.

Frankly, I'm not too unhappy about that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Major John 'Jack' O'Connor was a senior navigator assigned to the test flight mission of DCASO (Defense Contract Administrative Services Office), Hayes International Corp., Birmingham, Ala. As an airman, he flew for six years, primarily with Air Weather Service. He was commissioned through OCS in 1960 and shortly afterward completed navigator/ bombardier training. Major O'Connor flew MAC C-118s at Hickam AFB, C-124s at Hill AFB, and HC-130s at Lajes. He was later assigned to Scott AFB and his assignment for this mission followed a SEA tour in C-130s. His moving story 'They touched our heroes for the last time' is on this site, and he also features in Irlene Mandrell's video 'Thanks To You' found here (that's Jack in the leather jacket).

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