Above & Beyond: Mission Unaccomplished
Memorable flights, and other adventures.
- By William Campenni
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 2 of 3)
I also remembered my checkout training, just six months earlier, in which the instructor pointed out that the C-97 was a "good" ditching airplane, averaging 11 minutes of float time. That was marginally comforting. After a Pan Am Stratocruiser—the commercial version of the C-97—ditched at Ocean Station November in 1956, all passengers were rescued, but that was in daylight and on calm seas. Then I recalled the instructor also said a C-97 that had ditched off the Azores floated for 10 days until it was deliberately sunk as a hazard to shipping. It wasn't rocket science to compute that 10 days factored into that 11-minute average meant those other C-97s must have sunk like stones.
We rendezvoused with the Hercules about 500 miles out. At least now we would have company, and somebody would know where we went in. Then a weather update added a new issue. From the coast inland, the San Francisco Bay area had an 800-foot overcast, and the shortest path from the Farallon Islands—27 miles off the coast—to San Francisco would go right past the city's 900-feet-tall Twin Peaks, their tops penetrating the overcast, and we still weren't in a position to climb. We decided to head for the Golden Gate Bridge. We could see its lights under the coastal clouds, and could break it out on the radar. After that it was a right turn down the bay to San Francisco. Ditching now would be no harder than breaking out of Alcatraz.
After getting clearance from San Francisco tower for any approach, a look eastward across the bay revealed the lights of Travis Air Force Base in the clear, with an inviting straight-in approach to an 11,000-foot runway. We proceeded to Travis with a grateful wave-off to our new Coast Guard friends, and landed, on wheels and tires, nice and dry.
It took two days to replace the number-four engine and repair number two. Then we were ready to try again to make the run to Cam Rahn Bay with fresh cargo, this time with me in the left seat. As I pulled back on the yoke and lifted the nosewheel off, a loud bang and a huge flame erupted from the lower corner of the windscreen, followed by a dazzling electrical arc. We aborted the takeoff.
With the aircraft slowed and under control, we saw that the little phenolic block that was the plug for the window electrical heater had shorted out and melted. It also set on fire the nylon escape rope used to lower yourself out that window in case of fire. Back to the ramp for another repair.
Getting a new windscreen from home station would take days, so we asked a guy from the sheet metal shop if he could make a replacement for the melted plug. We gave him the glob and he looked at it with a somewhat puzzled expression, then said he'd give it a try.
The next morning the sheet metal guy drove up, jumped out of the truck, and proudly handed us the replacement, saying that he was up most of the night making it. It was a perfect copy—not of the original rectangular block, but of the melted blob we had given him. We called it a day and arranged for a new window from home station.
Having now used up most of the two weeks our citizen airmen had taken from their civilian jobs for this trip, we gave up and headed back home to Willow Grove the next day. Somewhere over one of those flat states in the middle of the country we ran into thunderstorms and got struck by lightning. By now such events were anticlimactic. All engines kept running, nothing was on fire, and a whole continent was beneath us. The yellow caution and warning lights blinked off. We yawned and continued home to Pennsylvania.