THE URGE TO K ILL

Normally I have a great deal of respect, or at least, tolerance for Air Force maintenance personnel. Actually, anyone who is skilled with his or her hands has my respect, being "dumb from the neck down" myself. For the most part, they are young enlisted troops expected to do the job of someone wearing several stripes more. There aren't enough of them mainly because they only get paid a fraction of their civilian counterparts, so they usually work 12 hours or more a shift. Often they are called upon to maintain aircraft that would make the Confederate Air Force look like "Buck Rogers." (No offense intended to the CAF.)

However, there is one time I lost my cool. It's a good thing that I was separated from the maintenance supervisor who signed off the last inspection by 1500 miles of ocean. Otherwise I'd be a permanent resident of Ft. Leavenworth. I'm not sure I'd even like to drive through the town.

Anyway, it all happened on an exercise where we were shuttling Marines and supplies from Agana, Guam to Tinian (just north of Guam). In fact we were landing on the very runway used by the "Enola Gay." The emphasis of the exercise was to complete as many shuttles as possible. The flying time between the two islands was only 20 minutes. The key to the whole exercise was to have a rapid unload at Tinian to keep aircraft from "stacking up". Aircraft were launched from Guam every 20 minutes.

There's not much that's still usable at the airfield at Tinian. All that's still remains clear of the encroaching jungle is the runway itself and part of the taxiway at the end.

We were the third aircraft in. Aircraft #1 brought in two forklifts, some portable radios, some Air Force ALCE personnel and some Marines. Aircraft #2 brought in some more Marines, more vehicles, and other "general supplies." Our airplane was strictly cargo on pallets. (Pay attention, this will begin to take on the proportions of the farmer - goat - wolf - cabbage problem).

All was normal, as I had approached the airfield. The second aircraft was already airborne and turning out of traffic as I "entered" the pattern. During my tour in the South Pacific I practiced a lot of "unconventional" traffic patterns.

I've done everything from making one 360 degree turn from 16,000 feet while staying within 1 mile of the airfield to a 150 mile straight in. When you fly over water, and the traffic consists of one or two aircraft a week, you can get away with such stuff. (Big Iron on a VFR Flight Plan). In this case, I did a descending 45-degree entry in the direction of traffic to a point where downwind should have met base causing me to execute a sweeping 135-degree turn to final.

Except for hitting a pothole on the runway, landing was normal, as was the rollout. Due to the angle at which the taxiway met the runway, I had to do slightly more than a 90 degree turn to get to the taxiway. About halfway into the turn, I hear a "clunk", the nose wheel steering is wrenched from my hand, and I sustained a bruise on my hand from the "suicide knob" as the steering wheel whipped around. However, that wasn't my immediate concern. I momentarily lost control of the aircraft, as it was swinging right rather rapidly. I put the brakes on and stopped in mid turn. According to the flight manual, this is a definite no-no. In C-130's, you can pound the gear as much as you want up and down, but never, never, put sidewards stress on them.

I was doing about 2 or 3 knots at the time. Luckily I wasn't doing a high speed turn off. Luckier still, I wasn't on landing rollout. Ground looping a C-130 and high speed taxiing through the jungle are two items also not recommended by the flight manual. I put the engines into "whisper prop mode" (low speed ground idle) and sent the engineer out to take a look. He was back in within seconds screaming, "Shut the system off! Shut the system off!". Before I could ask "What system?" he was climbing up the co-pilot's back and swatting at hydraulic switches.

When he had gotten to the nose wheel well, he noticed what looked like a lot of dust hanging in the air. Before he got close enough to really get a look at it, he recognized it for what it was. It was vaporized hydraulic fluid. Vaporized hydraulic fluid is explosive, caustic, and toxic (fatal if inhaled). It also means that somewhere in the wheel well, there was a ruptured line pushing a pin holed sized stream of 300-degrees centigrade hydraulic fluid under 3000+ PSI. It's not exactly a laser beam, but close. I agreed with the engineer's decision to "Shut the system off".

Once the dust (or hydraulic fluid) settled, the engineer was able to get in to take a closer look. It seems that there are two "plates" for the nose wheel steering that are supposed to be bolted together. They weren't. Furthermore, there was no evidence that they ever were bolted together. It seems we made our taxi out at Agana on "friction" holding the pieces together. Apparently hitting the pothole was enough to "break loose the rust". The over travel allowed by the broken plates crimped a hydraulic line. Before you condemn the engineer, these plates are not on his checklist. Furthermore, unless pulled asunder, they aren't likely to be noticed. Nonetheless, I will bet that's one engineer who will go out of his way to check them on all of his future preflight inspections; checklist or no.

It was nice to have such a rapid diagnosis of the problem, however, I still had a crippled airplane on the runway with another C-130 now about 15 minutes out and more stacking up out of Agana.

What we decided to do was unload the aircraft on the runway to reduce the weight as much as possible. We then attached one end of a tiedown strap to the lower portion of the nose wheel steering yoke. The other end was attached to 15 Marines. By pulling on the strap, they could manually position the nose wheel, and steer the C-130 from outside. In an effort that resembled Pharaoh's troops building the pyramids, we managed to get the aircraft off the runway. I saw a photograph of the event showing a C-130 with a bunch of guys "towing" it. The aircraft was moving under its own power but it doesn't look that way from the picture. My squadron mates gave me good ribbing about my unique approach to energy conservation.

With the runway clear, the exercise continued on schedule. We hopped the next aircraft back home, closed the flight plan, and left the derelict there. I don't know what happened to it. I assume that contrary to my commander's original orders, "Push the @ &%#& thing into the ocean," another aircrew eventually retrieved it.