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A Night to Remember
Baran A. A. Khan
From January of 1977 to early August of 1990, I was
a C-141 A & B model transport aircraft loadmaster at
Travis AFB, CA. I ended up attaining 4,031 hours of
flight time as a load, with a smattering of about 45
hours trying to upgrade to Flight Engineer.
That did not pan out, and I left the service in 1990. Under a cloud of personal issues, which of course did not jive with what was expected of an NCO potentially moving up to E-6. I almost checked out, but when family and friends lent a hand, I slowly came through.
So much so that in 1999, after attending an AMT School, I achieved the FAA Mechanics Certificate, A&P. A good friend came by the flight line at Oakland North Airport, where I was putting the Oil filter on a Cessna 152. She was an ART Engineer in the Squadron I was in. I had avoided all contact with anyone from the flying days, save a couple of incredibly special folks.
She told me that they had started to have reunions, and that I should come up. I was hesitant. When I went to my first reunion, I was totally overwhelmed by feelings. And ghosts. Folks whom I owed real amends to had gone to the hangar in the sky.
I remember when the big reunion of 141 folks happened in 2006, when the aircraft was officially retired. I did not go to that. I was busy working and being a single dad.
But I remembered one mission, one that I, nor I believe any of the other members of that crew, would ever forget. And apart from words between the crew right after the mission, I do not believe anyone talked about it. For nineteen years.
I sent an email to our reunion society. I had by then gotten into reminiscing "out in the system moments" and gotten good laughs. I always started out by penning "Once upon a time" "Oops, wrong story." "Now, this ain't no bull?"
In June of 1987, I was flying with a mixed Active-Duty crew (7th and 86th MAS pilots and engineers) with me and one of my buddies from the 710th MAS being the loads on this one. That happened at Travis quite a bit at the time, and as a dedicated man day hog trougher, I was in my element.
We were doing a Pacific Round robin, with a Clark AB to Diego Garcia, crew rest then back to Clark to pick up the Air-Evac back to Hickam and then home. It was the afternoon we were departing Diego, and I was at the aircraft checking the cargo and doing the Form F while my partner was running the checklists.
The Navy crew chief comes back by the ramp and hands me his radio, saying, "Your AC needs to tell you something." I acknowledged him and called base ops.
The AC came on, and said that the WX at Clark, for that matter the whole Philippines was going bad in a hurry, and he needed to know the maximum weight in fuel we could add configured as we were. Our aircraft was one of the restricted ones, the ones that had cracks in the main strap forward of the wing, which meant that a 2.25 G-Load component was the diet for flight, especially at or near max loads. I went through the charts and found that he could tell the guys to add 20,000 lbs. fuel if he felt we needed it, and that would be okay with our payload of about 39K cargo. He added every pound!
It was a nice warm (not hot as hell) day at the plane. The crew got here in about fifteen minutes, and we went through the motions of getting ready to go. We had no pax. Engine start, taxi, cabin report "Secured." I had my bed all made up, and made sure everyone had their coffee, meals, and that all the customs paperwork was done. It was an eight-and a half hour leg, and I slept almost six of it.
As we got over the South China Sea, I went up in the flight station, and sat at the Nav's table so I could get a view of the radar. There was radio chatter between the A/C and Clark about the weather. I believe the pilots had discussed going direct Manila, which would have cut a half hour off our ETA, but Clark would have none of it. The closer we got to the PI, the more the radar made our predicament noticeable.
On every range, save 250NM, it painted red. And at 39,000 ft, we were feeling the storm. As we made landfall, the AC requested Manila control for immediate divert to Manila Intl.
Five minutes later, Manila closed for hail and gusts of up to forty-five knots. We pressed on to Cubi Point NAS.
Five minutes later, Cubi closed for being below minimums. I looked at the scanner and panel engineer. They had that content look, so I figured that the extra fuel was going to get us there. We pressed on over the "hill" to Clark. It was then, that Clark declared closed due to extreme hail, and wind gusts around 55 knots.
A look at the radar showed nothing but red. I took a casual look at the fuel panel. The totalizer showed about 15,000, and a quick glance at the gauges made me think it was telling the truth.
We were doing a slow descent the entire time, to help with fuel consumption. But time marched on. No word for almost 40 minutes. I glanced at the panel engineer. He had gone completely pale. White as a ghost.
We were down to less than 4,000 lbs. of fuel. The A/C said, "to Bleep with this", and declared an emergency. We dove for the approach fix. We were at 14,000 feet when he did this.
At that moment, the approach controller stated "there seems to be a clearing at the end of the runway. You will want to land now." Approach check, then right away "Gear down, Before Landing Checklist."
Checklists were done nicely, and I was watching the engineer and his panel. He already had his left hand on the APU Start Switch. I looked at him, and he said "I am going to start it as soon as the wheels spin up."
I understood then. It would be the one way to keep control of the plane If we flamed out. But that was not going to happen, I thought. At five hundred? #1 engine flamed out. Two or three seconds later, #3 engine flamed out. On touchdown the engineer twisted that knob. The APU started.
And the other two engines flamed out. He switched the power selector, and the lights came back on. We were all smiling big, shit-eating grins. Eighty knots, and then we slowed down to make that big left turn up that little hill to our parking spot, and the APU died. Maybe going fifteen, then ten knots, then five, then no movement at all. The emergency lights were on, and I could see the marshallers waving their wands at this stupid ass crew who must have gone to sleep. We stopped about twenty-five feet short of the chocks.
This was the most chilling event of my career. Yet, it took a long time to really register in my gut. The A/C never admitted that we flamed out. And he was a little more than mad at me for saying that we did. Never officially, but within the crew, I let it be known.
And I emphasized that it was his decision to add the 20,000lbs. of fuel at Diego Garcia that made the difference. I remember playing a game of pool with him when I was at Altus for Engineer TTU, and he just would not give me an inch. "Tony, we did not run out of goldarned fuel." I never lost respect for him, though. I would have flown to hell and back with that crew.
When it comes to flying, and our experiences flying worldwide airlift from America, I still get goosebumps. Show me "The High and the Mighty" and I will watch it again, and again. God was with us when we landed at Clark AB, RPI at zero-dark-thirty on June 4, 1987. And God Bless y'all.
Baran Anthony Andrew Khan Former TSgt E-6 USAFR