Aircrew's heroic efforts earn Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Award
Released: 14 Jun 2000
by Senior Airman Korey London
Three hours into a flight from Elmendorf to McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., the aircrew from the 517th Airlift Squadron here got all the excitement it could handle in the span of 20 minutes.
The aircraft was 15 miles from the small town of The Pas in the province of Manitoba, Canada, when Staff Sgt. John Sheets, the flight engineer, noticed that an indicator light signaled a problem in one of the engines.
"I notified the co-pilot up front about the situation, and we coordinated the engine shutdown," said Sheets.
While Sheets performed follow-on procedures for the engine shutdown, co-pilot Capt. Richard Wells noticed an indicator light for a second engine had illuminated.
Wells made a visual scan of the second engine and saw it was spewing fluid from the nose cone on the propeller.
The crew decided to fly the disabled aircraft to the nearest Air Force base, which happened to be Grand Forks AFB, N.D., but their plan didn't work when they were forced to shut down the second engine as well. With two engines shutdown less than five minutes apart, the crew was concerned that a third engine might follow suit so they prepared to make a landing.
"Before we shut the second engine down, Wells asked me what (air) fields we were closest to, and I ran down a list," said navigator Capt. Ronnie Hall. "I gave The Pas as my first choice because, at that point, we where only about 10 miles past the town."
Despite a thick cloud cover hanging low over the airfield, the crew made the decision to land at The Pas and declared an emergency with the local air traffic control tower there. After receiving clearance to land, the pilots were faced with the challenge of making an approach to the airfield through the clouds.
"The area around the airport was overcast at about 2,500 feet," said Wells. "If you're trying to land in cloudy weather you need an instrument approach, which (uses) a device that sends signals from the airport to the aircraft informing the pilot of the flight path and altitude to take to get below the clouds. Once you can see the field visually you can land. But this field didn't have an instrument approach (system)."
The weather conditions made it nearly impossible for the pilot to make visual contact with the runway so the crew began gathering needed information about the terrain surrounding the airfield. Next, the pilot searched for a hole in the clouds to fly through in order to land.
"Hall informed us that we didn't have any mountains to contend with so we looked for a hole to fly through and found one," said Wells. "We flew through the hole and knew we were safe."
Or so they thought.
When all four engines are operating properly, a C-130 aircraft has full hydraulic pressure, according to Wells. With two engines down, the aircraft's hydraulic system responds much slower to the pilot's commands -- a side effect the crew had to contend with as they began the process of lowering the landing gear.
It seemed like only seconds before the aircraft touched down on the runway that the landing gear extended and locked into position, according to Wells.
"We didn't know if it was a landing gear problem or just slow actuation of the gear," he said, "but it was too close for comfort."
Hall said everyone was really relieved once the plane touched down safely and the crew was off the aircraft.
"Everyone was pumped up to be safe on the ground," he said. "We were also wondering where we were."
The Pas wasn't exactly a metropolis, but the hospitality the crewmembers received from many of the 6,000 residents made the whole experiencwe much more tolerable.
The crew stayed in The Pas for seven days waiting for parts to arrive and to get the aircraft engines repaired. During the wait the aircrew enjoyed celebrity-like status, making the front page of the town's newspaper and being interviewed on the radio. Curiosity of the aircrew's plight even got the best of the town's mayor and judge, who invited the tourists-by-chance to lunch and fishing.
Near the end of the weeklong delay, an aircraft inspection revealed that blown seals in each of the malfunctioning engines were the cause of the fluid leaks. But for all the excitement the two seals caused the crew members, they were thankful that the situation turned out as well as it did.
"This was kind of a fluke," said Sheets. "Some people go through their entire careers [flying C-130s] and never have to shut an engine down, let alone two of them. But we had a pretty good situation because we had one good engine on (each) side of the aircraft."
"I didn't think things could go bad that fast," said Hall. "You really can't relax too much when you're flying. This helped me see the importance of knowing the procedures and always having a backup plan."
The unpredictable flight to The Pas is an experience Sheets won't soon forget as he continues his career as a flight engineer. Neither has it caused him to lose confidence in the C-130 Hercules.
"I had faith in the C-130 before this," said Sheets. "And if anything, this has increased my confidence in the C-130."
"This was really a crew effort," said Wells. "There were no heroes in this."
Wells considered the situation a matter of everyone making the best out of a bad situation.
"Everyone did their job and by doing so we got the plane on the ground safely," he said. "We all had our pieces of the puzzle, and it all came together nicely -- it's what we trained for." (Courtesy of Air Mobility Command News Service)
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