THAT’S A WET RUNWAY
The Cold Rock had just finished an exhausting, unexciting and completely unsatisfactory two weeks in his airline job. He had read check lists, snatched and extended gear, and raised and lowered flaps at some of the finest airports in the country, all at the whim of his captain. Now he was on the way to his Guard Squadron. He was ready to do some flying himself, make all the decisions, and do it in a machine that would just flat streamline your ears when you plugged in the burners. What it’s all about.
“Yep, pretty lucky,” he thought. And you got paid for it too.” When he checked in with Ops he was told that they had a bird that needed to be replaced at Great Falls. He would ferry one up and then bring the other back to the Squadron for an inspection. Coolstone was pleased. He would get about four hours of flying and that would pretty much take care of the day.
“Look,” said the SOF, “get up to speed on the AIF. It’s been a while since you’ve been around. And be sure you read that new message on not landing the 101 on a wet runway.”
“What do you mean?” said the Rock. “Why can’t you land on a wet runway? That doesn’t make sense at all.”
“I guess there’ve been a couple of accidents and all sorts of hairy incidents since we put three-groove tires on the bird,” said the SOF. “Read the AIF and then we’ll brief. OK? ”
“OK,” said Coolstone and he strolled over to where the Great Book was kept.
The Rock eyeballed all the paper for a moment before he started reading. “More paper makes it safer,” he said to himself. “At least someone must think so.”
Sure enough, as he plowed through all the new no-nos, he ran across the one pertaining to “No 101 landings on wet runways.” He finished and went for a cup of coffee. There in the coffee bar he met Two, his fearless, irrepressible WSO.
“Understand we are headed for Great Falls and back today,” said Two. “I’ve got the Form 70 all filled out. I’ve checked the charts, NOTAMS and weather. Everything seems to be fine. There may be a few scattered showers in the area when we get there but other than that it looks OK.”
Now, while Coolstone was somewhat thankful for the assistance, on the other hand, this was hardly “doing the whole thing himself.” “What about the runway?” he asked two. “Was it wet?”
“Darned if I know,” said Two. “I didn’t check.”
“Well,” said Coolstone with a faintly superior air, “we can’t land on it if it’s wet, you know. New message.”
“You’re right,” said Two. “I remember that now.”
“Come on, both of you,” said the SOF. “Let’s get the mission briefing over with.”
The pair followed him into the briefing room. The briefing was standard until they got to the weather. “Looks like you will have to find an alternate where you know the runway will be dry. Check in before let down at Great Falls and be sure that no water is on the runway there. If there is, divert right then. Have you looked for a good alternate yet?”
“Negative,” said One. . “Two looked at Malmstrom but we don’t have a good feel for an alternate right now.”
“Well,” said the SOF, “find one with good turnaround facilities, like Glasgow or Minot and have a good flight.”
One and Two got the forecaster on the horn and found that Glasgow had rain but Minot would remain loud and clear all day. They determined that it would take about 4,000 pounds from Great Falls, and, with the winds they were given, they should arrive at Malmstrom with over 6,000 pounds. “No sweat.”
Preflight, start and taxi were uneventful. They cleared last chance, and lined up. As the tower released them, One was aware of that small thrill of anticipation always present when he flew fighters and which was completely absent when he was driving “the bus.” He released the brakes, picked up the nose wheel steering and plugged in the burners. “An airplane that takes off like this can’t be all bad,” he grinned to himself.
Two had taken over the navigation chores without being told and kept up a constant chatter on the “how goes it” information. Ground speed, fuel flow consumption was pretty much as planned and this Two pointed out several times since he had accomplished the majority of the flight planning.
When they were about half way to Malmstrom, One decided he had better get a check on Malmstrom weather just to be sure that the runway was still dry. The Center advised him that there was no rain reported in the area and, therefore, the runways would be dry.
As they swung another station Two remarked again, “Right on the old money. Fuel and time. In other times I would have been navigating for Magellan or Columbus.”
“Probably Columbus,” said One. “I understand he got his crew out of the prisons, and didn’t know where he was going or where he was when he got there.”
About 100 miles out of Malmstrom One could see some pretty fair sized buildups ahead – typical thunderstorms, even though they were pretty well isolated. He advised the Center he would hold his altitude for a while and check weather. He set up the Metro frequency, made contact, and requested current Malmstrom weather and runway conditions, and Minot’s weather and runway conditions.
“Thunderstorms south of Malmstrom,” he was told. “No rain at the field and the runway is dry. Glasgow is reporting showers, runway is wet, winds are high and visibility is down in rain.”
Minot was still loud and clear.
He went back to center frequency, started his descent and switched to approach control.
During descent he found himself well embedded in a small thunderstorm, and, when he leveled at 7, he was in what had to be heavy rain.
“Approach control from Coolstone One. Check Malmstrom’s weather for me please and get the runway conditions.”
“Roger, Coolstone. Malmstrom’s weather is 4500 broken, 15 miles, runway dry, thunderstorm south of the field.”
Coolstone pressed on.
At about 2 to 3 miles they broke out. One saw the runway up ahead. It was wet, wet, wet … it glistened in the sun. Got to get out of here, he thought.
“Going around,” he told radar. “Heading for Minot. Requesting flight level 370.
What’s the heading?” he asked Two. “We’re going to Minot.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Two. But, as they passed over the runway he could see it was wet.
“But it’s not raining now,” he told One.
“You know what the message said,” answered One. “What’s the heading?”
“OK,” said Two. “Try 060 for a starter and I’ll get you a more exact one in a minute.”
One established a mil climb on 060 and saw they had about 5,800 pounds remaining.
The Center called. “Coolstone One from Great Falls Center. Level at flight level 240. You will be given a higher altitude in about 60 miles. There’s an airspace reservation for refueling and it’s active at the present time.”
“Roger,” said One, “but I need a higher altitude ASAP. Requesting 420 when I can get it.”
“How’s that heading?” he asked Two “060 about right?”
“Roger,” said Two. “I’m measuring it right now. 060 looks pretty good though.”
After what seemed like an eternity, and with that little thrill of anticipation now developed nicely towards pure panic, Coolstone finally received clearance to climb to flight level 420.
“How’s the fuel?” said Two. “It’s going to be pretty close isn’t it? I figured that 4,000 pounds without a descent and climb.”
“I won’t know until we get level,” said One. “And get a ground speed check and the fuel flow.”
He leveled at 420 and set power. Fuel flow was 4,500, fuel on board 4,500, fuel required 4,500.
“It is going to be close,” said One to Two. “The way I figure it, we will flame out on the runway … if we’re lucky.”
“That’s pretty close,” said Two.
“Let’s see if we can find something closer.” said One. “Check the charts.”
“Roger,” said Two and he immediately had a problem. Southwest – right side up, northwest – upside down. Southwest – upside down, northwest – right side up. Let’s see, Two said to himself, we’re about here. We could go to… no, too far. Ah-h-h, how about… no that’s too far. “Now that we’ve come this far,” he told One, “Minot is about as good as anything.”
One had been going through the same exercise with the charts. When he finally did get on the right side, right side up, he couldn’t see a thing that looked like it might work as an 101 airport. “In fact,” he thought to himself, “if I were trying to pick the most isolated spot in the United States for airports, it would be in this area.” But the fuel was low – so why not Minot!
He checked the fuel again. It was going down at an extremely alarming rate.
“Hello, Great Falls Center. This is Coolstone One. I’ll have emergency fuel when I arrive at Minot. “I hope,” he added to himself. “I’ll need a straight in and will have to land first crack.”
“Roger, Tombstone One, from Great Falls. Understand you are declaring an emergency for fuel. Is that correct?”
“That’s Coolstone One, Center, not Tombstone One, and, no, I’m not declaring an emergency.” Then he checked his fuel again. He couldn’t believe the rate it was going down.
“Center from Tomb … er, Coolstone One. I am declaring an emergency for fuel.”
“Roger, Tomb … er, Coolstone. Descend at your own discretion. Minot is 85 miles, 065 your position. We have advised the tower of your difficulties.”
As the fuel quantity passed through 1,000 pounds, One pulled off the power and started down. He saw that he was still using about 2,400 pounds per hour.
“Not going to make it.” he mumbled to Two who had become extremely quiet .. . except for his breathing. “Going to stopcock one,” he said.
“Roger,” said Two weakly.
The fuel quantity seemed to hold at about 800 pounds. One convinced himself that it was right and was just playing catch-up because it had been going down too fast up to the point they had started to descend.
“Look,” he said to Two. “Check pins out, tighten your harness, and run through your ejection procedures. If the engine quits, go. Don’t wait for me to tell you, because when it quits we are going to be right out there on final.”
“Roger,” said Two, “but I’d rather land with the bird, on the runway, if it’s just the same with you,” trying a weak little joke.
One checked his pins out, tightened his straps, and glanced quickly down to insure that nothing loose was going to get in the way of an ejection. “Boy,” he thought to himself, “the way I have screwed this one up, if I do eject, the chute probably won’t open and I don’t even have a will.”
Center turned him over to the tower and the Rock checked in.
“Minot from Coolstone One, about 10 out on final, will be coming straight in. Please keep the active clear. I won’t be able to take it around.”
“Roger, Tombstone One. You are cleared straight in and do you want the emergency equipment standing by?”
“If I get that close, I won’t need them,” said the Rock with ersatz bravado.
It was coming up on decision time. First, when to put the gear out. Second, when to really start descending for the actual landing. He had leveled at about 300 feet. He had the whole thing to himself now. Two was very quiet. He was approaching field boundary and he started down again. He glanced at his fuel. It was still 800 pounds, but that had to be wrong. He dropped the gear and, through habit, dropped the flaps also. He was horrified. He had to bring the power in – all the way – before he got the flaps back up. He was over the overrun, now he dumped the flaps, flared and landed. He got the chute out and looked at the fuel gauge. It was reading flat zero. He turned off the runway and his last engine flamed out. He rolled to a stop and sat there for a minute before he had nerve enough to try his voice.
“Tower, this is Tombstone One, flamed out. Would you send someone out to put the pins in and tow us to the ramp?”
“Roger, Tombstone,” said the Tower. “Transient alert is on it’s way.” Then the Rock had a horrible thought. The nose gear will collapse; you aren’t supposed to shut down before the pins are in.
He remained fully tense until the transient alert people finally got the nose pin installed. Then he and Two just sat in the cockpit for a few minutes. They enjoyed the sunshine and the beautiful view of Minot Air Force Base. With his adrenalin level slowly subsiding One thought to himself. “That 727 is looking better all the time.”