Copyright 2016 Scott B. Laughlin
Being a member of the launch team at Ramey AFB, supporting the 72nd Bomb Wing was no different from the same duty on other bases at which I’d served. Without question, it was a boring and time-consuming job on the flight line. Two hours prior to all scheduled launches a van bearing people capable of performing quick repairs to safety-of-flight systems were required to be on the ramp. The van is a cumbersome thing, similar to those used by UPS. Wooden benches occupied each side. And here we are, people skilled in the functions of aircraft engines, bombing navigation, flight navigation, autopilot, electronic countermeasures, radio, and fire control. Were it not for Platter, an engine man with a slow, southern drawl, we would soon be stark raving mad. I’m pleased to find him playing the part of a roving reporter, sticking a non-existent microphone in our faces, asking man-on-the-street questions.
“How long have you been doing this kind of work?’ asks Platter of the Autopilot man, Hendricks.
“Man, It’s been too long. I ought to be in Aqudilla, partyin’. You know what I mean?”
“I see,” mutters Platter, “what do…”
At that instant, the radio came alive. It is a voice from the command post calling for an engine man. The B-52 we were supporting has aborted its take off and is sitting at the end of the runway, nearly two miles away. It takes time to get there, and the high command is growing impatient by the time we arrive.
Platter pushes open the door and leaps out onto the tarmac, his pockets bulging with tools he might need.
“Hey! You forgot your book,” I shout, my voice hardly audible against the sound of the screaming engines. I am referring to the Technical Order, a publication of authorized procedures that are required to be in our possession anytime we are working on an aircraft.
“Piss on the book!” he shouts, running toward the aircraft to learn which engine was loafing. He knows what he has to do. We know, and watch as he goes through a series of hand signals with the pilot.
Platter unbuckles the engine cowling on number three engine and swings it aside. On his signal, the engine thrust is increased, and then the water injection system activated. The engine jerks, and bawls. The wing flexes. Our truck shudders while Platter “trims the engine” with a screwdriver. And all the while his feet are in constant motion. After a short time he steps away, and more hand signals are exchanged. We watch him echo a thumbs up, then swing the cowling back, and fasten it.
The aircraft commander heads for the high-speed taxiway and proceeds back to the starting point for another try. We follow at a distance. By the time we reach the far end he is rolling. As he switches on the water injection the black smoke emerges, and the ground shakes, and we are anxious to see him gone.
But he shut it down a second time. Someone in the command post is calling for an engine man, and again we race to the waiting airplane. Platter runs to the bomber and goes through the same routine.
Because of the weight and speed, the aircraft tires are too hot for a third try. Experience tells me the launch schedule will be changed, allowing two hours for the tires to cool. So, we wait for an update.
“Platter, don’t you think the job would be much easier if you kept your feet still?” I ask.
“No doubt, but I’m scared of those engines.”
No one said anything, and for a moment it seemed he would leave us wondering, but then he begins explaining:
“Three years ago, in England, trimming an engine on a B-66. It was at the end of the runway, just like today. I’d taken my Tech Order with me, as the rules dictate I should, and dropped it on the tarmac. After the engine was trimmed I’d stepped back to get a signal from the pilot. He gave me thumbs up and chopped the throttle. That’s when the engine came off the wing. It hit the ground, and hauled ass. Somehow, the Tech Order was in its path and evidently exploded. Pages came flying into my face, only I didn’t know they were pages, I thought engine had come apart and impeller blades were cutting me to shreds.
“So, now when the engine comes up to thrust and the wing twists, a part of me wants to leave, but another part says I have to stay until the job’s done.” He paused, and I could see he has relived the incident. The color in his face told me his story was no fabrication.
“So, why don’t you cross train into something else?”
“I tried, but they won’t let me.”
“Hey, look at that,” someone shouted. “I thought he was going to stand down for two hours.”
We all turned just as the water injection began, and conversation was impossible. Seconds later, as he lifted off, we saw both tires on the forward left gear explode. Nobody said a word.
The training missions that were not already airborne proceeded as scheduled as the damaged aircraft flew a pattern. Launch duty was soon finished, and everyone went back to their respective shops. Our radar navigation shop shared space with the radio shop. Having a first hand account of what took place was never a problem for us. In minutes we had two mockups working, one radio monitoring the command post while the other was tuned to the tower frequency.
“I’m declaring an emergency” came a voice over the command post frequency, and we knew before he said more that it was coming from the doomed bomber. “We’re heading off shore and making preparation for ditching the aircraft. Out.”
“Who’s in charge up there? Over.”
“Captain Higgins. Over.”
“Higgins, this is the wing commander. Everyone will stay aboard the aircraft, and take your orders from the command post. Is that clear. Over”
“Yes sir. Out.”
An elliptical flight pattern was initiated. Every ten minutes the aircraft would fly over the runway. . The landing gears were still extended, and everyone who was anybody had field glasses, assessing the damage. Someone reported that Boeing engineers were working on the problem in both Seattle and Wichita.
Each fly-over was the same as the one before, black smoke trailing from the engines because of its reduced air speed and low altitude. And we waited for some magic answer.
Several hours passed, and there was no change. The pilot reported he was running low on fuel, so a tanker was sent aloft to buy more time. After the refueling was complete, and the bomber resumed its flight pattern, a different voice was heard from the command post frequency
“Captain,” can you read me? Over.”
“Yes sir, you are loud and clear. Over.”
“Good. My name is Pruett. I’m an engineer at Boeing in Seattle. Your people have patched me through on radio so you and I can talk directly. There is a way, it seems to me, to retract one landing gear at a time, but I don’t think it’s ever been tried. Here’s how I think it can be done.”
The procedure was complicated, so the engineer walked the Captain through the steps, waiting for him to complete each task before moving on to the next one. After they’d finished, Pruett said: “How about it?”
“The gear seems to be retracted. Over.”
“Good. Fine job, Captain. I’ll help you transfer fuel so as to alter the weight and balance, because the wing tip wheel will be carrying a greater load. But for the moment I’ll standby until someone can get a visual to make certain the gear is stowed.”
After someone established the gear was indeed up Pruett was on the radio again. When the fuel transfer was complete, and he was satisfied, he wished the flight crew luck, and he was gone.
After the emergency equipment had assembled near where the aircraft would touch down, I heard the Captain announce he was making his final approach. Our shop was adjacent to the runway, so I left the shop and stood outside to witness the outcome. The Captain’s future rested on how well he performed these last few minutes. I was glad it was him and not me.
The bomber lumbered into view, a long trail of smoke behind. The flaps were fully extended and air speed was reduced. I held my breath, wondering if Pruett’s theory would work in a real live situation, or if this thing was going to end in a ball of orange fire.
The Captain brought the plane down as though he were bringing home his mother’s china. Fire trucks followed. The chute was deployed and bellowed out behind. It was obvious, by the distance he was rolling, that he was gentle with the brakes. And when he came to a halt in front of hanger five it seemed to lurch forward, sagging heavily to one side, like a bird with a broken wing.
It was over. The Captain had done a fine job. His aircraft would live to fly another day.
The Captain? Well, there would be an investigation. I doubted he would command another aircraft. Most likely he would command of a large gray desk where his moments of poor judgment wouldn’t do any great harm.