Above & Beyond: Mission Unaccomplished

Memorable flights, and other adventures

(David Clark)
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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.

While I was changing clothes in the pilots' locker room for my drive home, the training officer popped in and asked if I was still interested in the simulator emergency procedures refresher I had put in for the following week. "Never mind," I told him, "I just completed the long course." The next year I transitioned from many-motors to single-engine fighters. It seemed a lot safer. At least I wouldn't have to worry about losing two engines again.

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