A bit of a departure from my usual blog entry, below is an excerpt from an upcoming book for which I would greatly value your unvarnished criticism/feedback. I’m trying to judge general interest, including non-aviators. Thanks in advance!
It was at the height of the Cold War back in the late 1970s. We were a VP-16 detachment P-3C aircrew flying out of Bermuda. I was the Tactical Coordinator (TACCO)/Mission Commander. Our mission that night was to regain contact on a Soviet Yankee class ballistic missile submarine as it transited South through the North Atlantic Ocean to the Southeast of Greenland. We had just dropped from high altitude the final sonobuoy of our acoustic barrier when we got a fire warning indication on our number 1 engine. The P-3 aircraft has four turboprop (essentially jet engines with variable pitch propellers attached) engines. We E-handled the engine, discharging the HRD fire suppressant into the engine thereby shutting it down. Immediately we headed to the Southwest for the 650 nautical miles and 2 to 3 hour transit back to NAS Bermuda.
En route an hour later, we had a fire warning indication on our number 2 engine. Following a shutdown of that engine we no longer had lift on the port side of the aircraft. Remaining engines numbers 3 and 4 on the starboard side of the aircraft produced barely sufficient power to keep our aircraft airborne, but it required dumping fuel and jettisoning our sonobuoy load in order to arrest our slow descent at an altitude of 1,500 feet. Because of the unlikely circumstance of two adjacent engines catching fire within an hour’s time, there was discussion of a common cause factor such as a fuel leak or small fire contained within the airframe. No fire indications were visible externally.
We prepared the crew for a possible nighttime ditching at sea. Unfortunately, our best altitude of 1,500 feet put us in a scud cloud layer for most of the transit back which precluded a visual of the sea conditions below. We had everyone don the bulky anti-exposure suits, unzipped but ready in preparation for what might be an immediate ditching into the cold waters of the North Atlantic. I reviewed each aircrew member’s ditching responsibilities with them individually during our slow transit and did my best to reassure everyone (myself included) of our positive chances for survival. Once that was done, there was plenty of time remaining for deep thoughts while gazing out my TACCO’s observation window. It was eerily quiet on my side of the aircraft, quite conducive for thoughtful reflection.
Utilizing maximum right rudder input, the flight station set up for a landing on Bermuda’s longest runway, knowing that it would be a challenging one shot overspeed landing attempt with no go-around capability given the limited power and asymmetric flight dynamics from our lopsided power configuration. As we descended slightly, I recall seeing the twinkling lights from Bermuda on the horizon as we made a very shallow (perhaps 10 degrees) angle of bank and lengthy left turn toward the runway. As we flew quickly over the approach end threshold, the runway length remaining numbers quickly passed by as we floated at a fast 160 knots and 30 feet above the asphalt. The obvious aerodynamic tension was between aircraft lateral controllability and the lift required to remain airborne. With around 4000 feet remaining we chopped power to the remaining engines and the aircraft settled softly on the runway. With maximum reverse thrust now on the number 3 and 4 engines, the aircraft slid somewhat sideways to the runway’s end. We stopped with aircraft brakes on fire as the runway over-run lights glared in the port side windows, with a close-up view of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean splashing on the rocks a few feet from our wing tip.
After a moment’s pause, relief and a prayerful thank you, we quickly lowered the ladder and even more quickly departed the aircraft while the air station fire department extinguished the small fire on the brakes beneath the main mounts. I briefly recalled something from training about the possibility of exploding bakes or tires, but that seemed a very minor consideration at that point. Being an hour before dawn on Sunday morning, I suggested our attendance at the early church service and was pleased to share a pew with many of the crew.
After action note: This is the only asymmetric two engine emergency landing of a P-3 aircraft that we are aware of. Our experience was apparently later written up in a Naval Aviation Approach magazine issue, but I was never able to obtain a copy. I do recall some “Monday morning quarterback” discussion of the possibility of our restarting an engine somewhere on final. That would’ve had it’s own set of unpredictable possible results. But you can’t argue with success. I personally thought the flight station did a superb job of professional pilotage. And by the way, while I don’t necessarily recommend it, wearing those bulky anti exposure suits is a remarkably effective way to quickly shed 5-10 pounds of water weight. One final note of interest… Post flight inspection by squadron maintenance discovered evidence of a hot air leak and crack on one engine, but no readily discernible cause for the second engine’s fire warning indication. It was also discovered that the explosive squibs for the HRD fire extinguishing agents had not discharged. The squibs had been incorrectly installed.
On the rare occasions when, as an instructor, I recounted this story to students at VP-30, I was usually met by kind of a stunned but attentive silence. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I had more than one personal tale of nearly meeting my Maker on a flight. I had determined that sharing those “I’ve been there” sea stories was far more instructive and memorable than simply going over the often dry, academic procedures. Students would recall the “sea stories” long after forgetting the procedures or my name. Near the end of training one flight officer class, after my retelling of this incident, one student raised his hand and said, “Mr. Currie, I’m not sure I’d want to go flying with you.” A bit taken back, I asked him why he thought that. He replied that after hearing all of my near miss sea stories, he felt I was unlucky. I pondered that a few moments and replied that “Quite the opposite, I had always felt very fortunate and blessed, and that you’d probably be safer flying with me than ‘most anyone else!” Everyone laughed, but I did see his point. Hopefully there is value in living to tell the tale and paying it forward. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)