Open Ocean, No Comm, On Fire

August 10, 2016

Open Ocean, No Comm, On Fire


George E. Nolly

On a recent episode of the Airline Pilot Guy podcast, the participants were asked what was the most frightening incident they’ve had in flight. That got me ruminating, and I thought about the many close calls I had during my two tours of duty in Vietnam. But everyone has heart-stopping stories of combat, so I started reviewing my peacetime experiences. I immediately thought about a flight in a T-39 Sabreliner during my second stint in the Air Force.

It was 1985, and I was the Chief of Base Flight at Yokota Air Base, Japan. I had about a dozen assigned pilots in my unit, and about twenty or so “attached” pilots to fly our assigned mission of transporting congressmen, generals and other VIPs all over the Pacific. One of our destinations was Hong Kong, with its challenging IGS approach to runway 13 at Kai Tek airport.

The approach was challenging enough that, as the boss, I determined that we would cycle the primary pilots through Hong Kong on a training mission every quarter. We would fly numerous IGS approaches until fuel required a full-stop landing, then we would need a few days layover in Hong Kong to decompress! The fact that this was the best shopping location on the planet had absolutely nothing to do with my decision – honest!

By 1985, the T-39 Sabreliner was getting rather long in the tooth. It had entered the Air Force inventory in 1962, and at that time was considered a premier executive-transport jet. But now, I was the only pilot in the unit older than the airplanes we flew. To say the birds were tired would be an understatement. We had so many maintenance issues that we routinely carried a flight mechanic with us on our flights, to deal with any service issues that might arise on our high-priority flights.

I was the mission commander and aircraft commander for this trip, which would encompass three legs. The first leg was from Yokota Air Base to Kadena Air Base, in Okinawa, for a refueling stop. The next leg was from Kadena to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where we would refuel and layover. The final leg would occur the next day, from Clark to Hong Kong for multiple approaches. The leg from Yokota to Kadena was uneventful, and all nine of us made a beeline for the snack bar while Transient Alert (TA) fueled our airplane.

Then we took off for our next leg. The route of flight took us from Kadena to a VORTAC located on the small island of Miyako Jima, in the South China Sea, then along the airway that connected Miyako Jima with the Laoag VORTAC on the northiern tip of the Philippine island chain. The distance between Miyako Jima and Laoag is 550 nautical miles, all over open ocean. Since the Service Volume Area – the reliable reception limit – for a VORTAC is 130 miles, there was a considerable time along that leg where we would have no navigation reference. With an airplane with no advanced navigation capability and no autopilot, the way we would fly that portion of the leg was to carefully fly the course and adjust for wind for the first 130 nautical miles while we still had course guidance, then hold our heading until we received the Laoag VORTAC suitable for navigation. Our communication with Air Traffic Control was similarly limited.

About 150 miles past Miyako Jima, as expected, we lost the lock on our VORTAC. We had lost communications with ATC several minutes earlier. Flying with no navigation signal, no radio contact, and blue ocean as far as the eye could see was a lonely feeling. At about that point, someone in the cabin yelled, “We’re on fire!”

I looked back and saw grey smoke emanating from the floor, and quickly donned my oxygen mask. My copilot did likewise, and we established communications on interphone. I immediately knew what the problem was. The T-39 had an electric carpet heater in the floor of the cabin, to help warm the airplane interior when operating at the colder high altitudes. Obviously, there was a short-circuit in the carpet heater system.

By 1985 I already had about 1000 hours in the T-39, since I had flown it for a few years during my first time in the Air Force, and I pretty much knew the circuit breaker panel layout by heart. It was located on the right sidewall, next to the copilot. On interphone, I said to my copilot, “Pull the carpet heater circuit breaker, the furthest outboard on the last row.” At the same time, our flight mechanic was disconnecting the cannon plug for the carpet heater. My copilot pulled the circuit breaker labeled Carpet Heater, and a few minutes later the smoke subsided. There was no major damage to the airplane that we could discern.

But there was a problem with my flight instruments. My attitude indicator had a large OFF flag in view. I had my copilot recycle the captain’s attitude indicator circuit breaker, but it didn’t help. Since my copilot’s instruments were operational, we traded flying duties and it was his leg from that point onward. We landed at Clark and turned the airplane over to TA. I explained to the TA mechanics that we could live without the carpet heater, but would need the captain’s attitude indicator operational for the next day’s flight.

The next morning we arrived at the airplane and TA advised me that everything was fixed. Great! We loadeed up our gear and I got settled in the cockpit. But there was a problem: I still had a large OFF flag on my attitude indicator. It looked like our shopping, I mean training, trip would be a no-go. Then I had a wild thought. I called our flight mech up to the cockpit. “Is the carpet heater cannon plug still disconnected?” “Yes, sir,” he said, “It’s deferred until we get back to Yokota.”

I looked over at my copilot and told him to reset the Carpet Heater circuit breaker. As soon as he did, the OFF flag went away! With an airplane this old, there was no telling how many circuits had been rewired at one time or another, and how many of the circuit breakers actually controlled the circuits their labels indicated. I have no earthly idea what the Captain Attitude Indicator circuit breaker controlled.

With the airplane fixed, we had a great shopping, I mean TRAINING, trip. And that flight still is uppermost in my memory whenever I hear discussions of inflight fire.