It was early in the summer of 1971, just a few short months after returning to active duty, from the Air Force Reserves, I was assigned to the 14th Military Airlift Squadron at Norton AFB Ca. Our schedule took us to Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Shortly after departure from Clark AB, I had my last major close call; it was a doozy! I remember it as if it were only yesterday. It was a very typical, hot and steamy afternoon, it must've been close to a hundred in the shade and the humidity was about the same; it was stifling! It was such a relief to get airborne and have the air-conditioning on full blast. We departed Clark Air Base, for Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, as our next destination; our aircraft was a C-141A model. It was a routine departure and the climb out part of the flight was smooth as well.
There was no indication that we would soon find ourselves immersed in a fight for survival and that our training would be put to the test. During the After take-off checklist, when the pilot called for Gear Up, the co-pilot reached for the gear handle and raised it; the gear retracted, and the light went out. We were directed by the control tower to climb to 3,000 feet and proceeded to do just that. Everything seemed normal with no problems; we were on our way. We started our climb and turned north towards Okinawa our next destination.
I was standing behind the pilot, taking a beverage order from the crew when all hell broke loose! All of a sudden it felt like we had come to a sudden stop. It felt as if we had hit a huge airbag, something like going down the freeway at full speed, and locking up the brakes on a car. Sort of like trying to avoid a collision, only there was no sound of screeching tires, nor the smell of burning rubber. However, there were many other noises, and they were not happy sounds!
At this time I saw large and small black chunks of material, which turned out to be fiberglass, flying past the windshield, and going past the side windows as well. I knew we were in deep trouble. I could hear the sounds of this material peppering the fuselage. It sounded like getting hit by ground fire, the aircraft was losing air speed, and the pilot was struggling to maintain altitude. The whole crew got extremely busy immediately; it was poetry in motion, and a few seconds later we lost number three engine. While the pilots were trying to control the aircraft, the flight engineer started calling the "Emergency Procedures Check-List," according to procedures. The pilots responded, executed the commands as called for and got control of the situation in a matter of seconds, although it seemed like an eternity. We were in the air for less than twenty minutes and it couldn't have been more than ten minutes after takeoff, when all of this started.
Those chunks that I had seen were pieces of the radome; -this is the nose cone of the aircraft. The radome houses the radar antenna, speed and other sensors. It had totally disintegrated. We would discover this during our damage assessment inspection after landing. We lost most indications, altitude, air speed and some instrument references. Good thing it was during the day, had it been at night visibility would've been a real problem! We also lost number three engine; it sucked in some fiberglass chunks and caused the turbine to disintegrate, sending several blades into the fuselage at various points. It could've been a disaster of major proportions. Our windshield took some big hits and shattered right on the pilot's side. (The windshield is made of plastic layers over one inch thick, and is designed to take a great deal of abuse.) The crew performed flawlessly, and we took the aircraft back to Clark Air Base. Fortunately, no one was injured.
After landing, we pulled off the active runway and onto a taxiway, we immediately shutdown the remaining engines, set the brakes and evacuated the aircraft; just like you see in the movies. We were met by an assortment of emergency equipment: fire-trucks, security police, ambulances and many other emergency vehicles. Even the wing and base commanders were there; we were the six o'clock news.
A medical crew, as a mater of formality, checked us at the aircraft and since no one was hurt; they allowed us to continue with our duties. I remember seeing the right wing; it looked as if it had been beaten with a giant ball-peen hammer by a crazed crew chief. Almost all the forward-facing surfaces had this type of damage; including the aileron and the tail.
After maintenance checked the aircraft thoroughly, we were given the opportunity to assess the damage for ourselves before we were taken in for debriefing. Upon closer inspection, we saw that it was far worse than we had thought. The aircraft was quite a sight; there were some pretty big gashes on the fuselage and the wheel well areas on the right side. The wheel well pod looked like it had barely escaped from a demolition derby marathon; it was all beat up like you wouldn't believe! There were cuts in the wheel well pod area, which houses the landing gear. Some of those gashes were over two feet long, and some were as wide as six inches, caused by the shattered turbine blades slicing through the fuselage and into the cargo compartment. Some pieces of turbine blades were found imbedded in the cargo, if someone had been sitting in that area; they could've been severely injured or worse. We were extremely lucky; we could've been killed.
Most of the damage was just inches forward of the Troop Oxygen system. This alone could have spelled disaster and a fire would've been a distinct possibility. If this had happened, we would have had seconds, not minutes, to correct the problem. It still gets my attention every time I think about it.
The accident/incident investigation team took each one of us separately into Base Operations for questioning. This is standard procedure for this type of situation. Part of this is to determine culpability and to take appropriate steps so the situation will not repeat itself. Another function of this procedure is to identify possible faulty equipment or procedures, so that this information can be passed on to everyone in the system as quickly as possible. I had to write my version of the incident, from beginning to end to the best of my recollection. Everyone else had to do the same.
When I was interviewed, I was asked what I perceived as incriminating questions. I got the impression that they were trying to blame the pilot, Capt. Kidd and I didn't think it was right. I stuck with my version of the incident; I was not going to lie just to pacify these people. I told them that from my point of view, the pilot did everything right. He didn't panic at all and if it were not for him and his efforts, we would've been plastered all over the countryside. I also told them that I was willing to go to hell and back with my crew, as long as the pilot, Captain Kidd was at the controls. My interview lasted for a couple of hours and about six hours later, we were all released to crew-rest. The following day we continued our mission, heading for Okinawa and then home, Norton AFB.
This was a day to remember. Fortunately the rest of my flying career was a pretty uneventful and enjoyable experience. I went on to accumulate well over 7,000 hours in the C-141 aircraft. Some missions were pretty good, and some not so good. Very few were less than desirable, but overall, my whole career was a very enjoyable learning experience.
Several months later, while flying over the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and McChord AFB in Washington state, we got hit by lightning. After landing we went to inspect the damage, the radome looked like a giant colander; it had millions of tiny holes in it. It looked like someone had poked the skin with a pencil. The radome could've shattered like the one before, and being a non-swimmer, I hate to consider the outcome.
After much investigating, we discovered that this aircraft, (Tail Number 50265) had been the same one I have just been telling you about. That goes to show you ... flying is an inherently dangerous profession, but some times you just get lucky. I did ... and I loved it. Lucky me!