An Air & Sea Story

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)


4 thoughts on “An Air & Sea Story

  1. Brother George, Enjoyed reading of the successful evolution, and your desire to encourage the crew’s attendance in Church that Sunday morning so long ago. Last month I finally read the novel about VP-9’s ditch with Bruce Foshay as a new Nav/Comm. AWCM Sheppard just passed away this month (he, along, with another individual from the Adak TSC/ASWOC were onboard that night getting flight time.) While we all had some “interesting events” I look back and think, “What if I did’t (or “they” didn’t) put their faith in Christ???” That is the really scary part! I think you should go with the book…. I knew an “old aviator” that I went to Calvary Chapel Oak Harbor with when I was OIC of VP-69. He had an amazing testimony that really connected with men. He told of growing up in the middle of nowhere. He would ride his bike several miles to a small airfield where he was able to wash planes and help pilots for some flight time. Joined the Navy to be an Aviator in the late 40s and one week in flight school when three of his friends all died in separate aircraft accidents dug out the Bible his mother put in his suitcase and his life was never the same again! It was (like your stories) a wonderful testimonial that would connect with others who might not have listened to a different or maybe less conventional story. So sorry we missed our visit but looking forward to trying again soon! Blessings! (Reminds me I have a great joke I’ll send to you that is safe to tell in this political charged time!)

    >

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  2. George,
    I like the suspense that builds throughout. Also the heart pounding happy landing. You are not lucky or fortunate, you are blessed and protected by God

    Liked by 1 person

  3. More thoughts,
    I’m not a writer, but I am a voracious reader of many genres. I especially love to read survival stories, history, and murder mysteries as a break from theology. Rereading your story brought up some questions I ask of each book. The over arching theme I see is God’s sovereign control and protection. You give him the glory and show how He draws the other men to grateful worship. God is the hero of all of our stories. You seem to have the dual role as the narrator and a character in the story. Another character is the plane, which is described in both technical terms (which I don’t really understand) as well as what fails. You could make the plane a fuller character by adding traits that embody the technical terms, such as dependable, sturdy, reliable, or fallible. I see the plane as a good friend who carries you through many tough times and has always been there for you. Next I read for the enemy or evil which threatens the plane. The huge evil I see as the immense expanse of ocean. You end feet from the edge of the massive, hungry waves reaching to engulf the plane. If you had to ditch in the dark, cold grave of the deep (too dramatic) your lives were over. You could enhance the character of the Atlantic ocean at the beginning with the sun sinking beneath the waves, or the color changing from the blue against the pink sands to pitch black at night, or flecked with white capped waves as the plane skimmed over them straining to get home. The plot has unexpected surprises that catch the readers’ attention with the engine fires/failures. Even with the engines shut down, your plane kept you out of the enemy, the ocean. The way you unveil the story with successive events keeps building suspense to the climax of the landing. The men seem to be pawns in the hand of God as He enables you to a safe landing.
    Just some thought,
    Marjorie

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    1. Marjorie, what a wonderful gift are your thoughts/feedback regarding my “air and sea story”. It has always been a challenge for me as to how deep in the spiritual realm I delve for what is mostly a military audience usually. I had to tread carefully while a Navy instructor, but I always tried to interject a spiritual component, and that often led to some further witnessing opportunities, with either staff or students. I’ll incorporate many of your thoughts into a final version. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts!

      Blessings,

      George

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