I will admit up front, this is the most scared I’ve ever been in an airplane!
We were flying a B-1B, non-stop from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. We were heading home after a lengthy deployment; we were all looking forward to family reunions and that Big Hug!
We departed Guam at 2200 local time, along with an accompanying KC-10 “Extender” tanker. We took a quick sip of gas shortly after takeoff, to test our air refueling system, then topped off about two hours later.
It’s roughly 3,300 nm from Guam to Hawaii. The plan was to fill up again northwest of Hawaii; we would then continue to our destination, and the tanker would land back at Hickam AFB on Oahu.
Just past the halfway point, we suddenly got hammered by an extremely pungent odor in the cockpit. Our training kicked in and we immediately went from our “cruise comfort” configuration (regular David Clark headsets with boom mics) to donning our helmets with oxygen masks secured. The smell was so bad, you could almost taste it. Even with our masks on, there was still a faint odor. Without a tight mask seal, it made you gag.
Once everyone was “up” on oxygen, we quickly jumped into completing the Smoke and Fumes Elimination checklist. A key step in that checklist is: Determine source of smoke.
But there was no smoke.
In fact, there were no Master Caution Panel lights, individual system warning lights, or any other indications. All the instruments appeared normal, the engines responded to throttle movements correctly, and all the flight controls functioned properly. All our equipment, including the complex, automated fuel and center of gravity management system (FCGMS), still worked. The B-1B also has an integrated test capability that monitors virtually every system on board the jet, and it showed no malfunctions.
The scariest part: it definitely did not smell “electrical,” and we could not isolate the source. There were no strange sounds, abnormal vibrations, or unusual “seat-of-the-pants” sensations. To my very experienced crew, everything felt normal.
The Bone has several fire, overheat, and pressurization-related emergency procedure checklists. We went through each one, very methodically, several times… of course, we had nothing better to do!
I ordered the crew to also go through our “controlled ejection” and “bailout” checklists.
After completing all these checklists, we realized it’s virtually impossible to fight an invisible enemy. We turned off everything we didn’t need to aviate and navigate with; we shut off all the cockpit lighting to help us see if anything was “glowing” in the dark.
I had one of my weapon systems officers (B-1B crew: 2 pilots, 2 WSOs) unstrap from his ejection seat, and go back into our electronic equipment bay—a small cubicle behind the crew station, to see if he could detect any smoke or flames.
The copilot grabbed our one-and-only fire extinguisher and held it in his lap for the remaining three hours of our flight. The plan was, as soon as we saw any flames, he would discharge the whole bottle; if they went out, we would deal with whatever circumstances we were left with.
If they didn’t go out, we’d eject.
The weather was “tropical” VMC; there were lots of cumulus clouds scattered along our route of flight, and we had maybe half-moon illumination. I was not concerned about maintaining a specific heading, other than to keep pointing at Hawaii, which was our only “land as soon as possible” divert option.
At the relatively low altitudes we cruised at, there was no chance we were going to run into anybody over the middle of the Pacific Ocean at night.
Meanwhile, the tanker became our lifeline. They could climb much higher and serve as a communication link between us, ATC, and any search and rescue assets that might be needed.
They could also keep track of our position, including marking our location if we did eject.
As a last resort, the “smoke and fumes elimination” checklist calls for slowing below 450KIAS, staying below 25,000 ft., and opening a ram air door to vent the fumes. We tried that initially, but it didn’t improve our situation. Since we knew the fire was not associated with the engines, we decided to use our full fuel load to go faster. We did some quick math and figured out that we could afford to push the throttles up to a fuel flow that netted us about .85 Mach, way faster than the .72 Mach we would have used to cruise all the way to South Dakota.
We ended up getting well ahead of the KC-10, but we could still talk to them and they could still follow our progress. The tanker guys were great; they kept checking on us—I think mostly to make sure we hadn’t “succumbed” to whatever was burning—which was not a bad idea. (They also tried to keep the mood light by entertaining us with some jokes… yeah, not so much!)
So, on we flew in the dark, still committed to finding the source, but to no avail. I handled all the driving; the copilot kept up his vigil with the fire extinguisher; the WSOs maintained verbal contact with the tanker, monitored our position, kept track of our systems status, and kept us updated on Hawaiian airport and enroute weather conditions. They also made sure that in our laser-like focus to avoid a night swim in the Pacific, we didn’t miss the Big Picture stuff, like half-hourly station checks, or the descent, approach, and landing checklists.
We all kept a constant watch on our fuel situation. To make sure fatigue and stress hadn’t taken a toll on our cognitive abilities, we each did our own individual calculations, then cross-checked them with each other. We finally determined we had enough to fly supersonic the last half hour or so.
We headed directly towards Hickam and landed without further incident, just as the sun was coming up over Diamond Head. I pulled off the runway, shut down, and we all scrambled out.
The tanker had relayed our emergency status and all our associated vital statistics to the appropriate agencies in Hawaii. We had both Hickam AFB and civilian Honolulu International Airport emergency crews waiting for us. The smell was still so bad that when the USAF crash team went up into the plane after we shut down, they also gagged on it.
My home unit ended up sending some B-1B specialists from Ellsworth out to investigate. After tearing out a lot of the jet’s interior, they discovered the source was an environmental control unit, basically an air conditioner, that’s isolated in a space under the pilot’s seat.
It had essentially eaten itself alive. It’s got a blower that spins at about a zillion RPM; its internals had failed, which caused prolonged metal-on-metal contact, turning it into a smoldering pile of molten junk.
Knowing that we probably weren’t in danger of exploding, or burning to death, at night, over 10,000 ft-deep water, after all, doesn’t change the fact that it’s an experience I’d rather not repeat. What’s that old saying? “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I don’t think there were any in our B-1B that night either.
Out of the many, many lessons learned that generated from that mission, my top four are often repeated, but proved pertinent in this case:
- Always expect the unexpected.
- Always have a Plan B… and a C… and a D… (and having a tanker is nice, too).
- Crew Resource Management isn’t just another catch phrase, buzz word, or annoying acronym the FAA wants us to memorize. The most valuable asset you can have in an emergency, like in combat, is a professional, disciplined, well-trained crew: mine was phenomenal.
- The concept of CRM (and Single-pilot Resource Management) includes using invaluable help from resources outside your own fuselage. My biggest regret from this experience was that I didn’t get to buy the crew of my KC-10 “wingman” a round at the O Club.