As pilots, we are mostly focused on our own flying skills but, as time passes, many of us come to realise, while we do have the important flying skills, there are other skills we lack that have been solved by automation. But automation cannot always solve some of the out-of-the-ordinary events that can occasionally happen, especially when external assistance is not available.
There is the old pilot saying that states, “Make sure we don’t have to show our ace-like abilities… just give us an aircraft that doesn’t break.” Such is the value of engineers and support people who make our aircraft serviceable for us to safely go on our way.
But, and it is a big “but,” the technology we now enjoy has done wonders but is it good enough to solve some situations that can result in an accident or incident that can occur requiring other skills we wish we had?
A side effect of technology and automation is the demise of the Flight Engineer. The first exits from the flight decks were the Boeing B767 and B747-400 and other Airbus aircraft. While there are excellent arguments supporting such developments, there were always advantages in having a flight engineer aboard to assist us pilots in “managing” a flight, not just doing the flying.
Such was the situation I experienced when operating a B-727 from Tarawa to Honolulu in the 1980s.
The trip over was routine, passing Howland Island where Amelia Earhart has been thought to have landed and then we flew onto Christmas Island. In those days operations were somewhat primitive: a battery-operated NDB at destination, neither was there Air Traffic Control or a local Air-Ground operator but navigation was good with the on-board INS and Omega backup.
For me, the Pacific was the greatest geography lesson I could ever had wished for. Places like Nuie, Kosrai, Funafuti, Atataki, Wallis Island and, to my surprise, towns named Paris and London on Christmas Island.
Much history has been made on the Christmas Island route during World War II. The departure airport at Kiribati was Tarawa/Batio where many thousands of casualties occurred on both the American and Japanese sides in the fighting. In the four short days, 20–23 November 1943, nearly 10,000 were either killed or wounded.
And of course we will always recall the infamous Japanese raids on Honolulu on 7th December 1941.
The flight to Honolulu was routine; six hours at long-range cruise along the equator from Kiribati; abeam Howland island and on to Christmas Island (Pacific) then to Honolulu for an overnight return.
On this particularly flight, apart from passengers returning to Kiribati, there was the normal freight of baggage and building materials, but a new addition this time was a small truck. The combi B727 was a flexible aircraft: quickly converted to an all freighter configuration, a VIP one, or in this case the forward area was configured for freight, with an all-economy section in the rear. All loading was complete and after I had ascertained there was the required unloading equipment at Christmas Island, I signed the Weight and Balance Load and Trim sheet and we departed.
The first return sector was normal, we duly arrived on time at Christmas Island and all was routine until the ground personnel told us they were unable to unload the truck. That would mean we would need to take it on to another destination where unloading facilities would be available.
The situation was the fork lift machine was not heavy enough to support the load and was toppling when attempting to lift the truck clear of the aircraft’s floor. What’s more, there was danger the forklift would topple into the side of the aircraft and that would have meant some serious explanations.
This was a situation I had experience before during a flight from Auckland to Honiara. The whole cabin was converted to freight – no seats – and a massive carpet was loaded for the Honiara Mendana Hotel. As at Christmas Island, it could not be unloaded so we carried it to Nauru where it was unloaded and sent back to Honiara by ship… a costly exercise for someone.
Meanwhile our Flight Engineer, Jack Reilly, had several suggestions. Jack was an ex-RAAF Flight Engineer and very experienced in ways that few of us pilots knew about. Jack knew the consequences of not unloading the truck and I watched him as he called some of the locals to an on-field conference.
“I want you to get me three things,” he said.
“Firstly, I want the biggest, thickest ship’s hawser you can find and I want it at least 30 feet long. And with the hawser I want six of the heaviest Christmas Islanders you can find… And… I also need team of tug-of-war players, as many as you can get to volunteer.”
I had no idea what he had planned and when I asked he said, “Not a problem. She’ll be right… Just need some muscles.”
Soon the aircraft was surrounded with many locals and amongst them were the biggest, heaviest islanders I have ever seen. Also delivered in a very large semi-trailer was the required hawser… several of them.
Meanwhile Jack had gone to work under the aircraft and proceeded to disconnect the nosewheel steering unit. The unit was always disconnected when the aircraft was to be towed and could fully caster. After a tug operation, a pin was simply re-inserted and steering was then normal.
Next Jack marshalled the tug-of-war team on the opposite side of the cargo opening; then positioned the hawser around the nosewheel and on the count of “three,” commanded a practice pull… sideways!
It worked. The nosewheel castored and the aircraft moved sideways about two feet. But now the real test.
Carefully the fork lift was positioned as close as possible to the aircraft and gently the forks were raised to the bottom of the pallet. Jack positioned the heavy men on top of the fork lift, some sitting in each other’s laps and slowly the fork lift started to raise the truck just two inches high.
Jack shouted “Pull…Pull….Pull,” and slowly the aircraft moved sideways as the truck remained suspended high and clear of the aircraft and then slowly lowered.
“There you go… Where do you want it?” he said.
Such is the value of a Flight Engineer.