Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Mighty C-5: A Story

I came across this video of a C-5 transport aircraft in a public affairs video making the rounds on YouTube. It's interesting because the airplane is from Travis AFB, my old base in northern Cali. I've even flown this particular aircraft on more than a few occasions. It sports tail number 60016, affectionately known as "Balls One Six", a B model aircraft if I remember correctly.

The flight takes off from Travis and then heads north over lake Berryessa, our old water ski lake. Lots of memories there. It then passes over Mt Lassen and on to the coast to fly past Mendocino and Pt. Reyes. The flight finishes as the plane passes over Vacaville and the fields of the central valley to land on runway 21R back at Travis. 

About midway through the flight is a demonstration of anti-missile flares. These are to be fired if an on-board system detects a missile launch. The heat in the flares is supposed to distract the heat-seeking missile into following them and not the heat from the aircraft engines. Smart engineers, though, can program the latest missiles to distinguish between the heat signatures of flares and that of the engines rendering the flares useless. Or if a radar guided missile is fired, there is no defense. 

The flare display does look pretty cool though, and it's been said in certain aviation circles that it's better to die than to look bad. Here's to looking good.

Notably in view on final approach is the Vacaville Sanitary Landfill, otherwise known as the dump. Besides having taken loads of refuse there, the dump is haven for thousands of seagulls and other birds. I'm guessing that the base, there since WWII, predates the dump. Birds and planes are uneasy partners in the sky and thousands of them nesting at a dump under final approach seems unwise though I never personally hit one.

After a few minutes of this video, boredom will probably set in for those not familiar with or emotionally attached to this airplane. After all it doesn't really do any tricks like a fighter. The real trick to this airplane though is its size. One of the largest aircraft ever built, it can carry objects as large as the M-1 battle tank weighing in at about 150,000 lbs or the Navy's DSRV rescue submarine clocking in at about 200,000 lbs.

I've carried both of those things and it is the loading and unloading that really boggles the imagination. Imagine a snake eating a bullfrog. You don't think it'll fit, but it does.

Flying the C-5

Flying Fred (our informal name for the C-5) was a real kick simply because it's so stinking big. Imagine driving a machine around that weighs nearly 3/4 of a million pounds. Those guys driving the gargantuan digging machines in strip mines might have a similar feeling but they're moving at several miles per hour while we were scooting around at .78 Mach.

The C-5 was a very forgiving aircraft to fly with it's relatively light wing loading and 25 degree wing sweep. A three axis stabilization system kept the airplane from wallowing around, and 24 main landing gear tires make setting this beast down gently a breeze.

For years, the Air Force wouldn't let pilots fresh out of pilot training be assigned to the aircraft for their first assignment. Only more seasoned second assignment pilots could get that job. The first pilot to get the C-5 right out of school was Frank P, who eventually became our commander at the 312th Airlift Squadron (USAF Reserve). Frank went on to do well in the USAF pinning on two stars as a general before retiring. American Airlines was probably wondering if he'd ever come back to fly for them.

The old girl did refuse, though, to be taken for granted and would take her revenge if not treated right. With a normal landing weight in the 600,000 lb range, quick adjustments on short final were not an option. Like an ocean liner, this aircraft does not turn on a dime and should a landing not be setting up just right, the best option was a go-around rather than wrestling with a lot of momentum 50 feet above the ground.

With the main landing gear hundreds of feet behind and below your seat, being the slightest bit low on approach could have disastrous results as several unlucky aviators discovered over the years. On at least two occasions, one in Oklahoma, and one on a remote island in the Aleutians, the aircraft landed just short of the runway and had a landing gear or two ripped from the fuselage. The Oklahoma accident resulted in the smash country hit "I lost my bogie in Muskogee"

Keeping Her in the Air

Systems-wise the aircraft was a plumbing nightmare. With four separate hydraulic systems, two APUs, both forward and aft opening cargo doors, six landing gear, 28 tires and brakes, optical and nitrogen fire detection and suppression systems, and checklists with titles like "Emergency Bogie Rotation (Normal Hydraulic Pressure Not Available)", keeping the beast in the air could be a real chore at times should things go wrong. Which they routinely did.

There was, however, only one "bold face" or emergency action item that was needed to be committed to memory for any system problem. That was to swing around in your seat and say "Engineer?"

Luckily, the airplane was crammed with redundancies and while it broke a lot, one could always hope that it would break in a place near a beach or at least a place with good per diem. We could even occasionally decide where the airplane would break by deciding when and where to enter the "defect" into the logbook thereby requiring a maintenance response. For some inexplicable reason, Hickam AB (Hawaii) probably saw more than its share of maintenance issues from transient aircraft.

General Honeybadger, Phil (the Thrill) and the Trip to Hell

One of my favorite stories is how we drug a beleaguered bird down to Australia and back. Well almost back. It was the wing commander's "finis" or last flight in the C-5 before retiring. The scheduler dangled the word "Aussie" in front of me as bait to take the trip somehow neglecting to mention that the general, his vice commander, a colonel, and an instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Phil (the Thrill) B. would be the crew. That made me, the major, the bag boy.

The plane started falling apart right away. The general, a bona-fide hero having won the medal of honor for valor in Viet Nam, was a real horses' ass. Winning that medal  back in the 70s made his career, guaranteeing him a star, and was also his last action of any significance. He took the landing in Pago Pago and hammered the jet onto the runway so hard that it was a small miracle that the oxygen masks didn't drop. I suspected that they'd been permanently sealed into their containers. Nice landing, sir. Must've been a gust!

So then the rear gear, which are supposed to caster during a turn wouldn't function properly. General Honeybadger didn't care. He just wrenched that thing around for a 180 on the runway as it was bucking like a bronco, the aft gear protesting over being drug sideways.

Next, a fuel gauge quit. No prob. Just watch the matching gauge on the other wing for a good estimate of the tank quantity. We get to Aussie-land and the general announces that he wants to go on with just Phil and himself to the next destination inland and back. So being left in Sydney, the colonel, a Delta captain and a decent sort, an engineer, and I take the general's car and go on a walkabout (okay, driveabout) to an interior national park. One of the perks of travelling with a general: you get a car.

Many hours after their scheduled departure time, we hear the unmistakable growl of Freddy's TF-39 motors as they climbed out of Richmond RAAF base near Sydney. Freddy apparently didn't like the general either.

Phil "Breaks" the Jet

The remainder of the trip was uneventful until we got back to Hickam AB in Hawaii. It was here that Phil decided that the airplane was "broken". OK, fair enough. Being in the Air Force Reserve means that most of us have airline jobs and fly for the Reserves a few times a month on days off. Phil, on the other hand, had no airline job and hence his only source of income was working part time for the Reserves. So by parking the airplane in Hawaii, Phil got to play golf in Honolulu on the government's dime until the jet is "fixed".

Now a few words about Phil. Think of a guy who is about maybe 55 but looks 75, single, smokes, drives a 1978 powder blue F-150 pickup and spends his spare time at the Moose lodge. I had nothing against him as he'd never been a wanker to me. He just personified old and broken down. And flying Freddy around for the reserves was as far as I could tell about all he had going on.

I honestly didn't have a problem with this situation. We would routinely piss away hundreds of thousands of dollars just filling the C-5 up with gas, so I couldn't begrudge the guy the few hundreds of dollars in per diem he might make playing golf. The general and the colonel, both very Busy and Important people with Important things to do, caught the next flight home and so it was just me and Phil left with our broken airplane. Our enlisted engineers and load masters were also happy to hang.

Stranded in Paradise

As was I. We managed to get assigned quarters off base which meant the Outrigger Reef on Waikiki beach. If you ever go, be sure not to miss the wet T-shirt contest held Sunday afternoons but also be aware that the pros always show up to win the pot. It's rigged.

So there we are, hanging in Waikiki, babysitting a broken jet with nothing to do. Phil hit the golf course and was not to be seen again. I, surveying the desolation of Hawaii in summer, spent a little time on the beach, a little time shopping, saw a movie and then spied a bike rental store. What a great idea. Rent a bike and tour the island.

They had a great selection which made it difficult to choose, but I soon picked out a cherry little Fatboy, put on a helmet and I was off. Oahu on a Harley. It was awesome. I rode the entire circumference of the island to include the not so pretty parts on the leeward side of the island where the workers live.

After a few days of entertaining myself, I began thinking about how I was going to get home. I knew that the jet wouldn't be fixed anytime soon. The particular defect that Phil had written up was the fuel gauge. This meant that a fuel cell team would be needed. None were at Hickam, so they'd have to be flown out from Travis. That took time.

Once the fuel cell team arrived, they'd have to drain the tank (and they are big), repair the fuel sending unit while wearing oxygen because of fumes, re-seal the unit, and then wait several days while the sealant cured. All guaranteed to take a week or more. We'd been in Hawaii for two or three days and I knew all this and assumed that Phil knew it too. I also had to get home to go to work. Real work. My job at the airline.

Really Stranded in Paradise

Being a reservist airline pilot means going to work at the base on days off from the airline. A traditional reservist might just work one weekend a month but when you are in a flying squadron, all the requirements that a full time active duty pilot has to maintain are also fulfilled by reserve pilots. This generally means about 8 to 15 days a month depending on the type aircraft flown. Most of this time can be fit into days off but on occasion, such as a 7 day Australia trip, airline flying has to be given up.

Public law mandates that civilian employers have to give reservists time off for military duty but of course don't have to pay them. I had dropped one airline trip to go on this Australia trip and while I do get paid by the military, it is less than airline pay so it does cost money. This is fine as flying the C-5 was a reward in and of itself and for a nominally good cause.

So I had already lost about 25% of my monthly pay and if I stayed any further in Hawaii, dropping another trip would be another quarter of my paycheck gone or half for the month. Look, I'm as patriotic as the next guy but contributing half my check to subsidize Phil's golf vacation was pushing my limit. So not being able to reach Phil (I had no cell phone in 1998) I simply left a message on his hotel phone and headed for Hickam to catch a ride home on another passing airplane.

Once at Hickam base operations, I located the crew of the jet I was jumping on, introduced myself to the aircraft commander and prepared to get home. Then an urgent message was relayed to me from the command post. Under no circumstances was Major Graves to get on any airplane leaving Hawaii. It was from Phil who would soon earn his moniker the "thrill". 

Frank Punts

Phil was annoyed that I had attempted to leave without contacting him. I refrained from reminding him that had he not broken the jet to play golf in Hawaii that we'd be home and besides, I did attempt to contact him. Nonetheless, I was not to leave until the jet was fixed which I knew would be a week or more. Arguing was futile so I got a room on base and called my commander, Frank, the wunderkind mentioned above.

Frank's a good guy but he's also a company guy. And by company guy, I mean in the tank for the Reserves. That's fine, but as a well known biblical figure once said, you cannot serve two masters. My thinking is that my livelihood and paycheck come from the airline. Being in the Air Force Reserve is a part time gig knowing that if called, it becomes a full time gig. That's the deal. I tried not to confuse the two, taking the time off when necessary, but also careful not to bite the hand that paid my mortgage.

I've never understood the sycophants, yes-men, empire builders, fast-burners, and climbers who resign from the active duty, join the Reserves, and then treat their Reserve job as their primary career while forcing their civilian employer under force of law to keep them around while they take massive amounts of time off. It doesn't make sense. Why didn't such people just stay on active duty?

So I call Frank and he tells me that if he lets me come home, he'll lose credibility with the enlisted when they want to come home but are needed. Never mind that they were all happily ensconced on the beach getting paid more than their civilian jobs. Well, other enlisted then. I said it'd be our little secret. No joy. I mentioned that I had to be at work Monday (this was Friday) but to no avail. He then made me a deal to let me come home Monday if the jet wasn't fixed. I knew it wouldn't be but decided to cut my losses, called the airline and gave up another quarter of my pay. For God and Country. Tool.

Fred Finally Makes It Home

All the following week, I called the command post at Travis to inquire whether our jet had made it home. It didn't get home until the following week. A gin-soaked Phil was probably camped at the 9th hole for most of that week but I sincerely hope he improved his handicap.

As for me, I was pretty hot about it all but decided that I wasn't going to let Phil nor Frank determine the trajectory of my Reserve career. I retired from the Reserves in 2002 after 21 years in the Air Force, Frank as I mentioned went on to impress his bosses in Iraq and get a couple of stars for his effort, while for all I know Phil can still be found driving his powder blue F-150 to the Moose lodge for the Saturday night pasta special.



1 comment:

  1. what a great story! I think there's a book coming one day from this blog, Rob.


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