Note: To the best of my recollection the following event happened sometime during the summer of 1971. I also believe that the C-141 tail number was 38078, although I have been unable to retrieve any Form 5 records of the flight. At the time I was assigned to either the 30th or the 6th MAS at McGuire AFB, NJ.
The airdrop mission began just like many personnel airdrops I had flown previously. At the squadron we three crews involved in the formation flight received the standard pre-mission briefing. I was informed that my crew and I would be flying position number two of a three-ship formation flight flying from McGuire to Ft. Bragg, making a personnel airdrop, without landing, and then flying back to McGuire for landing and mission termination. Each of the three aircraft would be dropping a relatively small group of Army reserve paratroopers who badly needed the parachute drop to maintain their currency and not lose their jump pay.
Preflight inspections were normal as was our flight planning at Base Operations. Fortunately the weather would be "severe clear" all the way around the flight planned route with light and variable winds at McGuire and at the drop zone. Piece of cake….
Once at the aircraft I met with the Army paratroops we would be dropping. There were an even dozen of them. The Jumpmaster was very experienced with many jumps under his belt, but most of the others were less experienced. I gave the combined aircrew and paratroops the normal briefing after which the jumpmaster took me aside and told me that they really needed to complete the airdrop in order to continue to receive their jump pay. It seemed that they had put off scheduling the time away from their civilian jobs to do the jump until they were close to the last days of their eligibility. I said I would do everything I could to ensure they got their drop.
Start, taxi, and takeoff were uneventful and, following takeoff, our three aircraft joined up during the initial stages of the climb out. My aircraft was in the number two position as planned. Our three C-141s had taken off to the south from McGuire, so we made a gentle left turn to fly over Atlantic City's VOR to pick up the airway for our continued climb to cruise altitude and the flight down to Ft. Bragg for our airdrop.
Passing over the Atlantic City airport's VOR and climbing through about 19,000 feet altitude, I was shocked to hear the number three engine begin to compressor stall severely! It was booming and banging so hard I had a real concern that the engine would either start throwing out turbine or compressor blades or fly off the pylon since there were only two big bolts attaching the engine to the pylon mounts. The whole aircraft was shuddering and vibrating! The vertical scale engine instruments for number three would drop to zero following a loud BANG! that reverberated throughout the aircraft. Then the engine would re-light from the continuous ignition and begin spooling up to match the throttle's climb power position. Then BANG! and the whole thing would repeat itself. I rapidly performed the emergency procedure which directed the throttle to be retarded toward the idle position until the engine settled down, then to advance the throttle back to power. I retarded the throttle, but the only time number three would settle down was at idle. The minute I began inching the throttle out of idle the severe banging would begin again.
Remembering the Jumpmaster's predicament, I rapidly reviewed my options and the regulatory constraints that applied. I basically had two choices: 1) Return to base and scrub the mission and hope the troops could get another drop in a hurry (which was a remote possibility) or, 2) to continue with the drop with three engines at normal power and number three engine operating at idle. Technically, I decided, I did have all four engines running and the airdrop was important to complete. But the safe thing would be for me to swap positions with the number three aircraft so if anything further happened during the drop at low altitude and airspeed, I wouldn't have my options limited by an aircraft immediately behind me, nor have the possibility of me flying right behind a steam of parachutists jumping out of both sides of number one. I surely didn't want to fly through the troopers in their 'chutes if the worse happened and I couldn't hold altitude. So I advised Lead of my predicament and suggested that number three and my aircraft exchange positions and I would continue as tail-end Charlie. When he asked, I told him I had about 3000 hours in the aircraft and that I held an instructor pilot qualification level. Lead was somewhat hesitant to allow it, but my plan did eliminate or reduce any risk to minimal and I would be technically within the regulations, so he agreed.
All three of us aircraft commanders quickly devised a plan. In changing positions, I would slide out to the right until well clear of the formation, then number three would move up to the number two position. I would then drift back to become level with the vacated number three position and subsequently slide left into position. It seemed like a solid plan to all of us and our navigators had enough time remaining enroute to adjust their lead point and drop timings, so Lead directed us to begin. I briefed my crew on intercom and no one had a problem with it. The Loadmaster would bring the Jumpmaster up to date on what was happening.
Just as I was beginning my slight right turn out of position, number one and two engines started to boom and bang just as number three had done not more than three minutes before! BOOM, BANG, SHUDDER! The aircraft felt like it was going to come apart any second! I pulled those two engine throttles back to idle, checked my altitude (passing 21,000 feet) and directed the Flight Engineer to change feeding the engines out of different fuel tanks (in case of bad fuel) and yelled (I am embarrassed to remember) over the interplane radio that two more engines were doing the same thing! I said I was returning to McGuire or going to perform a power-idle glide into Atlantic City's airport if number four began doing the same thing!! I quickly informed the loadmaster what was happening and as I was telling him, he informed me that the Jumpmaster was running up front to talk with me. I turned back to look at the cockpit entry door and as I did, I saw that the cockpit seemed to be about five times bigger than it actually was! Adrenalin? Yup; bet on it!
The Jumpmaster hurried up to me and yelled that his men wanted to jump out of the airplane! (They didn't care if we would have been 20 miles out over the ocean; they just wanted to depart the sick aircraft which sounded like it was going to break up.) I quickly thought that request through, but was confident with the altitude I had and the fact Atlantic City's airport was under us and that McGuire wasn't too far away, I could get them back without them having to walk a long way back to civilization for rescue. I also wasn't about to compound my control problems by increasing drag on the aircraft that slowing down to drop speed and opening a door for them to jump out of would have caused. So I promised him I would get them back to a safe landing either at Atlantic City's airport or McGuire and told him to return to his seat.
After leveling off and declaring an emergency with our departure controllers, I told the controller of my intentions to attempt to return directly to McGuire essentially under a powered glide. We were cleared direct, given a heading to pick up and an altitude to descend to. I told the controller I would prefer to keep as much altitude as I could until I was sure of the landing at McGuire.
With the three ailing engines at idle, number four at climb power and the aircraft trimmed up, I still couldn't maintain altitude. The best I could do was a 300 feet per minute slow descent. I didn't want to retry any of the three bad engines because the compressor stalls had been so severe my crew and I believed serious or catastrophic damage would happen if I tried to increase the power. I planned to use the sick engines only if it became evident that we wouldn't make the field safely. Thank God the weather was clear with about 10 miles visibility.
Our controller handed us off to the McGuire approach controller who must not have been briefed very well because he immediately told us to descend and maintain 1500 feet altitude. I told him what the situation was and to just give us headings to the runway. I requested a reverse direction landing to the north so we wouldn't have to maneuver around. He told me the winds would allow for a landing to the north and would set it up. During the descent, I made a radio call to advise our Command Post of what had happened and our intentions. The CP controller said they'd all go outside and watch our (hopefully) successful landing. I didn't appreciate the levity, I can tell you.
Since my engines were still rotating with enough RPMs to allow for normal configuration, I briefed the crew that I would delay configuring the aircraft for landing until we had the field made and then do a hurried gear lowering and an approach flap landing so as to reduce the drag on the aircraft until the final moments. We would perform as much of the applicable checklists as possible but keep the gear and flaps up until we were assured of making the field. I told them I was planning to execute a higher than normal VFR final approach to runway 36. I briefed each crew member what I wanted him to do in addition to his normal checklists. I asked the Scanner, who had very few duties during the final approach, to be my flaps and gear monitor and to call out if we had omitted lowering them within 5 miles from the runway. The Navigator was to be his gear monitoring backup.
Final approach to the field was uneventful. But in spite of the higher than normal altitude of my approach, the C-141 ran out of altitude just a little beyond the threshold. Roll out and taxi to parking procedures were normal with no further problems being encountered. I can tell you that my flight suit was drenched with sweat by the time we shut down the engines.
The Jumpmaster and his entire group made a special effort to thank my crew and me for the successful landing before they departed the aircraft. I never did find out if they got another jump before their currency period expired. I also never found out exactly why those engines failed although an aircraft commander friend of mine (some two weeks later) experienced the same problem with all four engines when they were at cruise altitude and about half an hour past the Canadian coastline enroute on an Atlantic Ocean crossing. He said that if he had been five minutes further along the route he didn't believe he could have made it back to Goose Bay Royal Canadian Air Base. Based on these two incidents happening so close together, when the command post at Goose informed the MAC command post of what was happening, the MAC Deputy Commander for Operations (DCO) immediately directed that all McGuire C-141 crews in the air world-wide be contacted and issued an order to find the nearest airfield and land immediately until the cause could be determined.
The cause was determined a couple of days later. Algae had been able to survive and even grow in the JP-4 fuel storage tanks at McGuire. No one could believe that anything alive could survive in such an extreme environment, but it so happened that the algae could and did. As I heard it, when the fuel pumps within the aircraft's tanks got somewhat clogged they would begin cavitating and starve the engines of fuel which would cause compressor stalls. Since we had 10 tanks on the C-141, not all engines would experience the problem at the same time unless all engines were fed out of the same tank at the same time which was a rarity.
The fuels folks at McGuire and on all MAC bases throughout the world had their work cut out for them. Before any aircraft out of McGuire could fly, the fuel folks had to drain, inspect and clean all fuel tanks (both storage and aircraft) plus verify all their tanker trucks and fueling hoses were free of contaminants. Fortunately, I heard that some sort of fuel additive was available that would kill the algae and ensure a stop to the algae problem once all the fuels were passed through some big filters. I heard that the fuels folks also had to back-track where the fuel had come from and inform officials there of the situation and recommend that they check their tanks and transport systems.
©2006 Dudley F. Waters