Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pure velvet

It is very hot today, so I got to thinking of old and colder times.

Flying is often described as hours and hours of boredom followed by a few moments of stark terror.

It was 53 years ago on New Year’s Day.

We had had a nice crew New Year’s Eve party; hosted by the Patrol Plane Commander, PPC, and early on the 1st we dragged our miserable selves out to the aircraft. The mission was a routine patrol looking for Soviet subs and the Soviet ships that were registered as merchants but had more antennas on them than a porcupine has quills. The weather was terrible. Cold with rain and sleet mixed but it had warmed up a bit so there was no need to de-ice the plane but the eyelets used to secure the tie down ropes were filled with ice  so thick a crash ax’s pick was needed to clear them to get the ropes pulled out.

The only nice thing was that instead of coming back we were going on to Bermuda. Not that Bermuda is all that great in January but temperatures in the low 70’s and high 60’s is a heck of a lot better than 20’s, 30’s and low 40’s. Besides, we could bring back some cheap booze and Bermuda was a foreign place and thus strange and exciting to us twenty something’s.

We had a nice visit. Stayed at a nice hotel, met some nice people and departed for CONUS around 9AM local.  Local weather clear. Forecast called for a cold front to be about 150 miles off the East coast complete with rain showers but nothing serious. Probably the same front that had dumped sleet and rain on us two days before. The Radar operator kicked back and went to sleep. I was on the Electrical panel and Radio position. Every hour I reported our position to New York Control. Boredom quickly set in.

About 3 hours out the pilot had the radar operator woke up and told him to fire up the radar and take a look.

The radar was the APS-44 S band high powered search radar. Great for finding aircraft carriers and mountain ranges. Not so good for submarine snorkels and weather. I stood up and looked over my shoulder. The static on the radio was getting progressively worse and the last time I tried to raise New York on voice I couldn’t and had to send our position to the squadron’s radio station at Norfolk in Morse code and request they relay it to New York. I couldn’t see what was on the screen but I watched the Radar operator wave the Navigator over for a long look.

The news was as expected. The weather line appeared to be about fifty miles in front of us.  It was heavier to the south, looked weaker to the north. The pilot pulled the nose around to starboard a bit and the navigator sent me back a message with our current position to send to the squadron that we would penetrate ADIZ north of the filed flight plan and we would then go VFR for a straight in approach to Hampton Roads and ask for clearance to land at NAS Norfolk at that time.  I added a request they relay our position and intent to New York Control.

After I had sent the message I notified the pilot we needed to pull in the trailing wire antenna.  I did and then switched to the fixed wire antenna, retuned the HF radio, a WWII vintage ART-13, to the ATC frequency and checked that it was loaded properly. A quick radio check gave me signal strength of 5 but the static was so bad that if I hadn’t have known what the message was I couldn’t have figured it out. I would have loved to have kept the long tailing wire antenna out but it also acted as a neat lightening rod and we were going into bad weather. Yeah, lightening isn’t supposed to hurt but avoidance is the best part of valor.

So we droned on. We were at 4,000 feet with some light intermittent chop.  I waved my relief Radio operator to take over and I went aft, relieved myself and grabbed a cup of coffee from the pot in the galley.  I went back to the aft racks and woke up the Ordnanceman and told him we had some bad weather in front of us. As I went back forward he and the Metalsmith was checking the Sonobouy load to be sure they were secure. I got back in my seat, strapped myself in and then it hit.

Or we hit. There was a shudder and the plane seemed like it was trying to bank to the port while climbing. Suddenly we started dropping like a rock. I had grabbed the coffee cup and watched the coffee float out of it just as we hit bottom.  The coffee splashed out on the impact I felt like I had just dropped 10’ on my butt. The plane shuddered and the PPC who was flying co-pilot to give the young co-pilot some yoke time yelled “Get the nose over,” as the air speed dropped us into a stall but immediately we started up as if we were in an elevator for what was probably thirty seconds but seemed like hours.  

Then we started down again with negative G’s and hit bottom again. The props went out of synch and the AC generators popped out of parallel. The question being, would a single generator carry the load? I tried to hit the APU start button but I had to stand up and reach it but I kept getting knocked down. On the third or fourth cycle of up and down I managed to hit the start button and amazingly it started up and I put in standby in case one of the generators kicked off. The DC generators, which ran the flight controls, looked good.

At some point the hail hit. If you’ve ever been inside a commercial flight that flew into hail you know what it sounds like. A very loud roar that comes and goes as you fly through waves of it. Water started coming in around the hatch besides the ladder next to the radio position and I realized the deck was wet. The aircraft kept going up and down like a ping pong ball inside a can and every time it came down and bottomed out I could a crack and a pop as the airframe was stressed and twisted.

The pilot called back and told me to issue a May Day message using the last position we had. I kept calling May Day giving our BUNO and position but I could see the HF transmitter wasn’t loaded right and it wouldn’t load.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this we were hit by lightening. There was a very loud pop and a blue flash. A few minutes later several circuit breakers popped on the Ordnance control panel and I thought I could spell smoke. The relief Radio operator was setting on the floor trying to hold on and he tried to get up and take a look but he kept getting knocked down. A few minutes later another pop sizzle and blue flash announced the second hit. The turbulence continued and continued and continued.
And then we fell like a rock, hit bottom and popped out. One minute we were in severe turbulence and the next we were around 2000 feet in clear air. About fifteen minutes had elapsed.

The PPC told the Navigator to prepare a message for ATC advising them of extreme turbulence at our position and new altitude. He did and passed it back to me but the HF radio wouldn’t load. We later discovered that the fixed wire antenna was missing. I re-deployed the trailing wire antenna and got the message out. ATC didn’t ask for additional information. They had never heard my May Day.

The Plane Captain and First Mechanic went around looking at everything. The Sonobouys had not broken loose in the aft but our luggage was scattered. The tripped circuit breakers on the Ordnance control panel wouldn’t reset but I could detect no fire and since we weren’t planning on dropping any mines or bombs no one was concerned. A motor was later found to have shorted out probably because of the water coming into the bomb bay.

So we limped along. No one said much of anything. The world seemed grainy and very quiet. The landing was routine.

For the first time in my short life I understood the expression, “From this time on everything will be pure velvet.”

"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them." - Karl Popper

 “It’s the presumption that Obama knows how all these industries ought to be operating better than people who have spent their lives in those industries, and a general cockiness going back to before he was president, and the fact that he has no experience whatever in managing anything. Only someone who has never had the responsibility for managing anything could believe he could manage just about everything.” - Thomas Sowell in Reason Magazine