Skidmarks in the Sky
Viking in the Dust
A large part of flying is dealing with simulated emergencies, in preparation for that one really bad day we hope we'll never have. Experience shows that this ton of prep does translate into saved lives, so we practice for disaster, and hope for clear skies.
I left HSL-33 at North Island in 1987, and one of my last flights brought me face to face with statistics.
Only a short time before, the loss of Challenger had shocked us to the bone. Flying over Imperial Beach with perhaps a dozen other lazy helicopters, we received the word that the Space Shuttle had been blown to bits. After the radio call, one by one, we turned to fly away: Back at our own base, the stunned ground crews didn't even meet us, as they stared uncomprehending at the endless looped video of the explosion.
Now, things had slowly returned to normal. The periodic crashes within our small community of helicopters (only 70 on active duty at the time) continued to whittle us down, but it was considered acceptable.
I did my usual -- the minimum of work I had to on the ground, and sucked up all the Flight Time I could. Most flights aren't glamorous, and some are just plain a pain, but I had a reputation for taking ANY flight, on any machine (except Zero Five, of course). To me, flying was all good.
My first squadron in the Navy was the TOPCATS of VS-31. A jet squadron equipped with S-3 VIKINGs, the TOPCATS went to sea aboard the USS Eisenhower. America's premier nuclear aircraft carrier had us to rely on, for defense against Soviet submarines. I learned a ton in that squadron, where I was assigned as a Plane Captain (crew chief).
Now, seven years later, we rode my favorite helicopter around the afternoon skies of Southern California.
Our short hop was nearing the end, and we headed toward the base on Coronado Island. NAS North Island's runway's look like a flattened X on the ground, with headings of 180 degrees (North/South), and 290 (West/North-West).
As was my habit, I listened to any radio frequencies that my pilots did not. The often personal nature of their conversations was of little interest and very distracting to me.
Coming over the Bay Bridge, only 3 minutes from landing, I caught a radio call from a totally unconcerned VIKING pilot, announcing to the Tower that he had just lost his IDG on #2 engine. The IDG is a very obscure part of the jet's engine, but I knew from my time with the TOPCATS that it could have major consequences.
Out of my window in the distance, I could see the fat-looking white jet over the field.
As I kicked the microphone to call my pilot, the VIKING pilot "called it" -- declared an Emergency. I broke into the conversation to tell the rest of my crew that a Jet guy was in trouble over North Island.
During this, the VIKING pilot announced he was shutting down his #2 engine, which made him the most important man in the sky. Coming in on a single engine means many things to a flyer. While most aircraft can fly on one engine, few can climb, or lift off on just one.
NAS North Island responded by immediately closing the airbase, but we had already arrived over the landing pads. This put us in a great position to help or watch. Due to the time delay before they could stage a crash, we politely asked for permission to land.
Since we were not anywhere close to the runway that the jet would use for the floorshow, we were tersely ordered down.
Overhead, the VIKING circled, getting themselves mentally prepared for that once-in-a-lifetime emergency. We slowly taxied up to the fuel pits -- the noisy, exposed fueling station very near the cross of the two runways. We would have an excellent view of the unobstructed stage.
I used the long walkaround cord connecting me to the chopper, to step out ahead of the helicopter as we sat idling. The wait would not be long. I told my pilot that the VIKING would have to come in a lot faster, so he could get airborne again if he messed it up. My pilot made a snide remark about being in the front seat of an airplane before...
Then, it was time. The dusk was full, hiding the jet as it approached. Rotating lights came closer, heading toward Runway Two Niner. The VIKING is a pig on one engine, and I expected the jock would catch the arresting gear to stop his jet. This 'gear' simulates landing on an aircraft carrier, and is strung across the runway to catch the aircraft's hook. If that worked, the pilot wouldn't have to consider struggling back into the air with Point Loma filling his windshield. That was the plan, but the night was still young.
To me, it looked like he landed beyond the wires, just missing, abut he had actually skipped the hook over it. The now-impotent hook dragged a long shower of sparks behind the jet.
Now, he had to stop the speeding aircraft with half a runway and brakes. I told my pilots with a yell that there was a blue light under the VIKING -- superheated brakes and an eminent fire. The only option for the crew was to either let off the brakes, or risk much worse karma. All this now, with less than a third of the runway left.
Point Loma was half a mile ahead, with San Diego Bay between them. The jet had disaster in its immediate future.
I yelled for them to punch out, frustrated and horrified that the crewmen in the back had no view of their own rapidly approaching end.
All this is happening in the space of 8 seconds. It began to go very bad.
The aircraft was nearly even with us, when the pilot attempted a 90-mph night ground loop to keep from going off into the Bay. This is essentially trying to cause the aircraft to spin down the runway: theory being that your speed will be used up and you slide to a stop. Usually, you cover your eyes when a student ground-loops a bird, but this was at night, and I hadn't actually seen anyone go this way before...
The only lights were the jet's own, until it hurtled past the Fuel Farm and into the bright glare of construction lights at the Rework Facility. Suddenly, the VIKING was in full view -- as it slid by on a wingtip and its nose -- it was going over on its back in slow motion!
The shower of sparks increased into a blast of incandescence and I yelled out.
The jet let out a shrieking howl; the sound of the metal being rent and twisted violently. Then, abruptly, it swung and slammed back into the darkness. A final heavy impact was loud enough to hear over the noise of my own helicopter only 40 feet away.
Suddenly, it was over.
I felt sick, turning to walk back to my place at the door. It was cold and I often would stand outside the doorway in the buffeting downdraft of the engine exhaust as we fueled. Most people detested the job of fueling because of the intense exhaust, but I felt it comforting.
This night, as I stood and faced the dark, I felt no warmth. Crash trucks and emergency vehicles all raced by in a brilliant display of lights and sirens, but I had no reason to look back.
We taxied back to the flight line and shut down. Everyone was very excited, telling us that all four of the guys had made it out just fine. I have never been more surprised in my life.
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Copyright © 2003 Gordon Permann and Coastal Computers, Inc.
Last Modified: Saturday March 21, 2009