It was not a dark and stormy night—rather a dreary, overcast day, late morning; call it ceiling 1200 ft. and 5 miles viz with a temperature-dewpoint spread of two degrees. It could easily burn off in an hour or go down to 200 and 1/2 in fog. Typical January in Fairfield, CA, at Travis AFB (SUU). January 1976 actually. I was the Instructor Pilot (IP) for the 301st Military Airlift Squadron (AF Reserve) on this transition (approach and landing practice) local flight. Each pilot was required to make two approaches and two landings (2&2) every 30 days to maintain landing currency in the C-5A. We were flying 69-00012 which today rests in area 22 in the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ. I plan to visit her one of these days.
On our fourth ILS approach to runway 21L, we completed our fourth touch and go landing and were climbing out to prepare for a pilot change and more approaches and landings. We retracted gear and flaps and just before entering the overcast we slammed into a flight of Canada Geese, in classic “V” formation I assume—we never saw them. We sucked several of the large, 12-15 pound birds into the engines. Number one fire handle illuminated red. Numbers two and three engines began vibrating violently with rpm fluctuating 500-1000 revolutions.
Butch Hollins was in the left seat, having just completed his two-and-two for the month. Butch was a 10,000-hour furloughed Pan Am First Officer. Most of our Air Force Reserve Squadron pilots were furloughed, highly-experienced airline pilots. “That’s not good,” said Butch, reaching for the fire handle and waiting for my nod to pull it and discharge the extinguishing agent. “Shall we pull back two and three?”
“Yes,” I said. “You stay in the seat and keep flying. Declare an emergency with approach control. Ask for vectors for another ILS with no left turns! I’ll deal with the engines. Jump Seat (third seat occupant), you call the Command Post. Tell them we’re shutting down engines one and two after a bird strike and landing ASAP. Tell them we’re IMC. Give them souls on board and three hours fuel!”
I pulled both number two and three engines back close to idle until the vibration stopped, or almost stopped. Then I pushed number two back up slowly until the vibrations started again. Back to idle. Number three came up to nearly 40 percent before serious vibration was evident. I left it there. Engines number four and three would be our source of thrust. The Jump Seat said, “The Command Post is calling Lockheed and wants us to fly an extended pattern ‘til they get back to us!” That didn’t sound very likely to me.
I had never pulled Command Post duty but a close friend had while recovering from eye surgery. He described it as hours of near catatonic boredom interspersed with brief moments of stark terror—a lot like overwater flying. He said there were times when they were talking with Ramstein (Germany), Lod (Israel), Yokota (Japan), and Diego Garcia (Indian Ocean) all at the same time about the same issue. The duty he described sounded like a series of career make-or-break decision challenges. Someone had to make tough decisions to keep the cargo moving and departures and arrivals happening on time. When you got it right your OER (Officer Efficiency Report) had you walking on water. When you got it wrong, well… you didn’t. There was a huge responsibility when handling in-flight emergencies even though final authority rested with the PIC. You didn’t want to be the Command Post weenie who told the Aircraft Commander to take off with a failed hydraulic pump if it later proved crucial to the mission.
Butch was flying the Galaxy well. He had solved the asymmetric thrust problem with the rudder trim and a touch of aileron trim and the airplane was actually quite stable flying in the very slightest of skids. Engine number four was likely undamaged, lucky for us, and number three at 40 percent was helping, too. We were fortunate to be at a gross weight of less than 450,000 pounds, pretty standard for the local training flights. It would be an entirely different story at 650,000 or even 700,000 pounds—more typical mission gross weights. The Flight Engineer placed wing/engine watchers on both sides of the airplane to report smoke, fire, debris—whatever—coming out of the engines. The flight controls all felt normal.
As fate would have it I had just completed required annual simulator training a month prior. We finished early and the instructor said, “Anything you want to try? It’s your nickel!”
“How about two engines out on one side?” I suggested. “Is the simulator set up for that?”
“You bet! How about Clark Air Base in the Phillippines, ceiling 200 ft., viz 1/2. Numbers one and two engines shut down for fire?”
“Bring it on!” I said, anticipating the enormous right rudder input required to fly straight with numbers one and two engines both caged. I was shocked. The Galaxy’s good manners were nowhere more in evidence than with engine(s) out. At medium power settings the rudder pressure could be almost totally trimmed out. “That’s Lockheed,” said the simulator IP. “There’s a reason the rudder is as big as Nevada. It’s a pilot’s airplane.” The simulator approach to minimums, hand flown, was totally anticlimactic. The ensuing missed approach was more exciting with lots of rudder needed to compensate for no left wing thrust but the rudder was there, even at near full power on three and four. The memory was still vivid and I knew we could easily bring 00012 back around, land and walk away from it.
“Command Post wants to talk to the IP,” said the jump seat. “They are getting Lockheed on the line!” At precisely that moment we slipped into a break in the clouds—one, two, three seconds in clear skies. Straight down I could see the intersection northeast of the base with the duck club turnoff, the water tank, the little corral—unmistakable! I had driven that road 50 times. As we slipped below the clouds I had a brief second of clarity—rare for me—but never more welcome. I see the ground. I know exactly where I am. I am PIC and know beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt that we can land safely on runway 21 right.
“I have the airplane—copilot has the airplane,” I said, shaking the yoke gently and beginning a gentle descent. I corrected my verbiage for the Cockpit Voice Recorder. “Butch—I know exactly where we are. Cancel IFR with approach, call the the tower, declare the emergency and tell them we are VFR turning a two-mile final for 21 right, two engines out, 12 souls, three hours fuel. Run the Before Landing Checklist—hold the gear until we start down!”
“Roger,” said Butch. “Copilot has the airplane, checklist working. Command Post on two wants to talk to the IP. I told them we’d catch up with them shortly—really busy right now.”
“Excellent. Give me flaps twenty. Loadmaster, ensure everybody’s strapped in and prepped for quick exit if necessary. We’ll clear the runway and turn it over to maintenance on the ramp. Butch—pilot—it’s your airplane on rollout at 50 knots. Check brakes but keep momentum up for the right turn off the runway—we have no thrust on the left side to help you turn.” (Only the pilot has nosewheel steering on the C-5A so taxiing is a left seat activity.)
The landing, rollout, and exit to the ramp were routine. Fire trucks and maintenance were waiting with a marshaller and tug just at the ramp’s edge. We shut down per checklists and exited the airplane with the maintenance book. The crew was checking out the feathers and blood smeared on the TF-39 engine inlets, each big enough to house a Volkswagen Beetle. Maintenance would eventually change three engines and return 00012 to service. She retired to sunny Tucson in 2014 after 45 years hauling cargo worldwide.
The takeaways? Obviously, I had a well-trained crew of professionals operating a machine that performed as advertised in every parameter. There were certainly no heroics by any of us. Tension in our voices? Certainly! Concern that the engine fire could spread? Of course. But the hammered-home procedures in our various checklists covered it all.
As for the PIC aspects, there is perhaps a tendency to seek help when lives are at stake, that maybe someone, somewhere out there is going to have been there before. They’ll have the brilliant idea that solves the problem instantly. I admit to hoping that a Command Post call would generate a, “Hey! I just had that same damn thing happen to me last week! Here’s what I did…” Total fantasy. It’s always good to have outside help and advice—especially experienced help and advice. But in the end the Pilot In Command is the one ultimately responsible for getting the guys (and now lots of gals!) home safely. It’s worth reminding one’s PIC-self while strapping in on every flight: “I gotta get these folks back home safe!”
- Two churnin’ and two burnin’ – who’s the PIC? - June 22, 2021
very interested and detailed account – helpful perspective for a low time GA pilot like me.
I don’t think I could have handled that emergency with my limited experience in the C-5! Hats off to you and to Fred Bok who lost two engines on the same side to a flock of geese at Dover at around 800,000 lbs gross weight and managed to land safely. Superior airmanship!
I remember the incident at Dover. I was the officer in charge of Dover Air Force Base Air Traffic Control at the time and was involved in the investigation. Found it hard to believe a C-5 could fly with that much damage. Shortly thereafter we developed a bird watch radar system to detect birds around the airfield to alert the aircrews of bird activity around the airfield.Hats off to all that fly.
Too bad they didn’t have that system in NYC when Sully was flying. The FAA should require it where a lot of geese activity happens.
The machine did the work, Dan. Thanks for reading.
Great article; great memories
I spent 31/2 years at Charleston on active duty 69-72. My primary assignment was to bring the C-5 on line from a maintenance viewpoint. Wonderful job. Your article makes those days come alive. There were problems yet the plane did the job it was designed for. Sure hate to think of any in the storage yard.
Also owned two Bellanca Vikings and flew a friend’s Cruisemaster. What great flying airplanes.
Thanks for the article.
There were many more problems on the ground than flying the C-5A. Once you were past 10,000 feet the missions were smooth as silk. Thanks for reading.
Amen. PIC, In Command. Every situation has a good idea cutoff date, some of those occur before takeoff.
Well said, Rich! Thanks for reading.
appreciate you guys getting us there when we had to ride in the tube…I did admire the C-5’s ability to break only in good liberty ports! One of my first installs in my non-glass cockpit was an 8 day clock to wind at the right time.
Holy crow, I thought single engine in a Beech Duchess was hard. No way. Great pilots!
David–single engine in a Duchess, Duke, Baron, Apache, Comanche, 310, etc, etc. is ALL riskier flying than a C-5A, I assure you. Thanks for reading it.
Jake! Terrific story. Thank you!
Thank you, Allen. All part of aviation’s historical quilt, of which you own many squares. Please share when you feel so inspired. K&J
T-38 instructor at Reese when you were there. Friend Jimmy Smith also there in T-37 instructor.
Sounds like your crew did it right.
Hi, Vern–I had to dig out the old Reese 68-C yearbook! We were well-taught for sure. Remember the tragic T-38/Sandhill Crane accident? Thanks for checking in!
A great story well told, J. D!
Thanks, Jerry. I’m pleased you enjoyed the read!
Jake, it has been a few moons since we chatted. Last time Barb and I saw Kathy and you was out at Castle, just after UPT when you guys won the “Who can find the cheapest hosing rental” contest! We visited your actually charming abode and Kathy showed us the Buffalo rug that you had.Great times, huh? And after tankers we both got 0-2’s, you to Naked Fanny, and me “in-country” to Phu Cat, RVN. Let’s catch up! Send me your email or phone, if you will. Still have the orchard?
Ps. I wrote an article for Air Facts also — “Put Down the Budweiser” which in the archives here — about an 0-2 mission.
Our very best to you both. Gerry Hawes
Outstanding example of teamwork and critical decision making. Thanks for sharing JD
I will use this story in my high school aviation program as an example of training for the unexpected and being skilled enough to handle the issue.
Thank you, John. I’ll bet yours is a popular program. We need aviators!
Outstanding article JD. I first saw the C-5 at Altus AFB as a kid in the mid-80s. Later in life while I was a P-3 pilot on deployment to the Westpac, my wife and the wife of a squadron buddy hopped a “Space-A” flight from Hickam to Anderson to visit us while we were on a det.
On the return flight, the story they described to us was light on details, but essentially was that after takeoff, there was a quick level off with an announcement of RTB. They landed uneventfully and learned it was due to an engine failure. They got back to Hawaii a few days later after a lovely stay in transient quarters. :)
Kudos to you and the legacy of the C-5 Galaxy and her aircrews. It was a remarkable aircraft.
Thank you, Ben. The pax used to say the 70+ seats in the upper deck were “almost airline.” It rewrote the book on Space-A travel. I’m glad the ladies made it back safely.
Is there any particular reason you requested no left turns with the ILS approach on the initial emergency call?
Can’t speak to the C-5 procedure, but in the KC-135R and other big jets with two engines out on the same side you wanted to avoid turning into the dead engines because the asymmetric thrust would be trying to screw you into the ground.
Hi, Garrett–Google/DuckDuck “yaw, roll and asymmetric thrust.” When you turn properly one wing goes down, the other goes up. Without thrust available to raise the down wing it has a tendency to keep going down. You can see where this might lead. In twin engine training it is known as turning into the “dead” engine and to be avoided whenever possible. Thanks for checking in.
Awesome, Thanks J.D.
J.D., thanks for a story. Your lesson that you were the A.C. and not command post was right on! I was walking with my wife the night Ralph Oats hit all the snow geese at Dover. I think he was in the 326th. I was in the 3rd at the time. As I recall, they were about 680,000 with a two engine ceiling below sea level. They dumped a bunch of gas and Ralph flew a CAT 1 ILS to RWY 1 at DOV. I think the weather was below CAT 1 mins, but he had to land. My recollection is that he got the DFC for that mission. Geese not good even in a TF-39. p.s. I was a Reese guy also, Class 76-10.
Thanks for your comments, John. Ralph and crew had no options and played their hand flawlessly–a good lesson for all of us.
Great story, my FW exper mostly twins such as Caribou, C-12’s, U-21,s etc, most all RW in helo gunships, lot of cmbt missions on the DMZ, VN, loved both types, My caribou now at the Army aviation museum, so U can guess my age! Tom
Thank you, Tom for reading and for your service. It is a bit scary when one’s old birds start showing up in museums and the boneyard!
Hats off to you and the other crews that have fought the battles with cripple aircraft and won! Also, appreciate your service!
Thank you, Mike. The machine did the work!
Great writing, perfect accounting!
Excellent. I was crew chief of 690011 at the time, at Travis. Retired from 21AF, LRC.
Thanks, Ed. I wonder if 0011 and 0012 are side by side in Tucson?
Good story, but if you want to visit go soon as they’re breaking
up the older C5s.
Thanks for the heads-up, Dirk. I like Tucson, though Nov-Mar seems friendliest. Maybe 0012 will still be intact.
Lost a good friend CFI many years ago in a Piper Apache when on a training flight the student pilot pulled power on the wrong engine.
on base leg while simulating single engine flight. Resultant crash killed them both. So unnecessary…..I still don’t care for twins!!
My crew and I hit a flock of birds during takeoff rotation at 788,000 lbs. gross weight. We were on a waiver to go to emergency war weights. #1 and #2 suffered uncontained blade failures and shot shrapnel all over the flaps and into the wings and fuselage. 3 and 4 were not damaged. #2 indicated an overheat shortly after. We retarded it to idle, but unlike in the simulator, the light in the handle stayed on. The book says to shut it down, but we elected to keep it running in case we lost #1. We knew we had no 2 engine out capability. We performed an 80/260 over the water (to keep our ditching option open) and made it back to the runway for a tailwind landing. No time to dump fuel or run any checklists. We never moved the flaps because of the damage (per the book) so we landed with takeoff flaps and no reverse thrust (it had to be applied symmetrically, per the book). We got it stopped with 2000 feet remaining with just brakes and spoilers. We cleared the runway, evacuated crew and pax, ran until we felt stupid, then turned around, got our phones out to record it, and watched the ensuing brake fire. The Air Force Association gave us the award for outstanding airmanship in 2014. The Air Force then created a video using our CVR and flight data recorder info to use for CRM training in 2014. Here is the Air Force Association video: https://youtu.be/9GYVSNT3FjE