" Medical experts I've read say that we have a thirty-minute grace period. We'll feel no pain for a half-hour following a trauma. The concept is correct, but I'm not sure about the amount of time.
It was the 13th of January, just past the witching hour. I'm not the superstitious type, but I'm glad it was not a Friday. Small island with a military presence, western end of the Aleutian chain--dark, foreboding and known for nasty weather. Snow, sloppy runway clearing procedures, and failure to provide information to the aircrew combined to produce an inescapable circumstance. I became a passenger in a plane I was responsible for flying.
The ceiling was reasonable, but a stiff and gusty crosswind made the landing difficult. I put the bird on the runway and went through the normal procedures: speed brakes up, hand on the nose wheel steering, control column full forward and feet on the wheel brakes.
I couldn't put my finger on it, but I knew there was a problem. By midfield I committed us to the landing and shut down the two inboard engines to reduce the landing roll. Just as quickly, I knew we wouldn't be able to stop on the runway. I used the nose wheel steering to move to the right. At the bottom of the hill past the end of the runway, the terrain sloped downward from right to left. If we went off the centerline of the runway we'd be impaled on the twin row of telephone poles that supported the approach lights. Slush, hydroplaning, runway-remaining markers flying by.
The nose wheel steering was useless as was the anti-skid braking system. The tires were not in contact with the runway; they were skimming over it on a thin sheet of slushy water. The fact that the runway was covered with slush was not transmitted to me in the air. That placed the cause of the crash on the operational staff rather than being a crew error.
I used the ailerons and successfully "bicycled" the nose toward the right. At least we'll miss the phone poles. Now, all we have to contend with is the cliff. Runway markers continued to fly by: 3000--2000--1000--the end of the runway.
In retrospect, I found it amazing and amusing the inane thoughts that occur in the midst of an emergency. Sliding toward the forty foot cliff at the end of the runway, in a sixty-million dollar, one-of-a-kind airplane, I noticed that we would run over and break a couple of $50 runway marker lights.
Just prior to the end of the runway, I cut the two remaining engines and rang the alarm bell--one long sustained ring--prepare for impact. As the engines wound down, the generators tripped and the lights went out. We hurtled off the cliff into the dark void that surrounded us. Since it was pitch black, I didn't brace for the impact; I never saw it coming.
Crunch--crunch--and a final grinding screech. The gut wrenching impact ripped landing gear and one engine from the airframe, and it broke her back. The fuselage had a gap large enough for at least one crew member to use as an emergency exit.
After we scraped to a halt, I released my seat belt and shoulder harness and looked down for the flashlight I kept on the cockpit floor near my right boot. It was easy to find. The impact was kind enough to turn it on for me.
I started for the rear of the aircraft. I needed to assure myself that everyone was out. I swung the beam of light from side-to-side, calling out--all the while thinking: this son-of-a-bitch is going to blow up any minute. We had landed with nearly eight thousand gallons of fuel onboard. I could picture it spilling and leaking from broken lines, broken tanks and seeping toward some hot piece of metal.
I saw no one during this trip through hell. At the aft hatch, I found the escape rope dangling through the open hatch. I'd left my copilot up front struggling to free a boot pinned by twisted metal. I dreaded the trip back through that dark tunnel; I was still sure the damn thing would erupt into a flaming inferno. But, again I needed to know whether he had escaped.
Saved. Through that open hatch, I heard my copilot calling to me from outside. I grabbed the rope and slowly slid down the fifteen feet to the ground.
My crew was out. Two other team leaders confirmed to me that they had a full head count. All eighteen of us survived and were huddling in the chilly night air, upwind from the wreckage. I zipped up my light weight flight jacket, lit a cigarette, and nearly collapsed. My legs sagged and it took two people to support me. They helped me into a vehicle for the ride to the infirmary. Verdict: severe lower back sprain from whiplash. It was a week before I could get out of bed without sliding from the bed on my belly, putting my knees on the floor and then lifting my body with my arms.
I did have a grace period of pain-free activity. One long enough to do what I felt I had to do. My best guess is that it was less than half the allotted time the experts forecast. But, it was long enough.
The airplane? They salvaged one of the four engines and several thousand pounds of electronics. They hauled the carcass to the base dump. All that damage, but no fire, no explosion. Eighteen walked away with only a few minor injuries. Well, seventeen walked and I was carried.
That model plane had a jump-seat that was a folding affair and poorly anchored. Since it wasn't stressed for impacts or accidents, it was reserved for instructors and evaluators. In the past, I'd stretched the regulations about other crew members occupying the seat on landing. That night, no one asked. Had they asked, I may well have allowed them to ride the jump-seat for landing. And if I had, I have no doubt they would have been seriously injured or killed. Though it was empty and stowed … I've always believed that someone was riding the jump seat that night."
© John Achor, 2000