Night Flight to NorwayPosted: June 18, 2011
By CDR Jim Tritten USN (Ret.)
“Jimmy, how you doing?” Jack shook my hand in the hotel meeting room that would serve as our reunion headquarters for the next three days. Whenever I hear Jack come into sight, he always says the same thing: “Jimmy, how you doing?” Now no one else that I know ever calls me Jimmy, but Jack always uses that specific diminutive for some reason. Not that I mind it – after all that is what most people called me through high school. I cannot see Jack or hear his familiar voice call me Jimmy without me thinking about one night in September 1972 that is seared into the hard drive memory of my brain forever.
We both sit down, I give Jack a bottle of cold beer, and I go through the old ritual of getting out my old dark blue Navy pilot’s flight log book and thumbing through the yellowing pages. We do this every reunion. There it is, September 26. The line entry in the logbook is written in red ink. S-2G Buno 152811, 5.8 hours total flight time, 4 hours of night time, 4 hours of actual instrument conditions, and an actual radar approach and landing in Bodø, Norway. And it shows that Jack and I flew together on that dark and stormy evening. Suddenly, I am no longer in a Reno hotel room but instead north of the Arctic Circle over the Norwegian Sea in our aircraft.
“Jimmy, let’s climb up and get some altitude.” As soon as I advanced the throttles, there was a series of loud bangs and milder pops. Then the cockpit filled with the smell of burned aviation gasoline, oil, and white smoke.
Something was wrong. I looked at the red lit gauges in the dark cockpit and saw that the port engine tachometer showed it was not developing full power. I instinctively throttled back until the popping stopped and turned the aircraft east towards the nearest land and a safe long runway ashore.
Jack, sitting in the right seat as co-pilot, was senior in rank to me and actually pilot in command of the flight. Both of us were fully qualified aircraft commanders and we had been scheduled together so that Jack could conduct my annual instrument check. So I was sitting in the left seat and performing first pilot duties.
Jack meanwhile radioed USS Intrepid (CVS-11) that we had a rough running engine and were headed east towards the beach. After a slight pause, the controller replied with instructions to return to the ship for a landing. Despite my instincts, I turned back in the rain and dark towards the west and the nearby carrier.
We were given radar vectors to hold until the deck was cleared for landings. Without any actions by either of us, we heard new loud bangs and pops and once again the cockpit filled with acrid smells and smoke. The clamor grew progressively louder until one tremendous bang caused the whole aircraft to shudder. I looked to my left and saw the remnants of yellow and red flames shooting out the front of the port engine. I felt the aircraft pitch down and yaw to the left as engine sounds and blue exhaust flames died and our speed slowed. I increased rudder pressure on the right pedal as the aircraft’s remaining good engine responded to my instructions to generate more power and keep us in the air.
“Jack, we’ve lost number one and I have to feather it.”
Since Jack was legally in charge, I did not automatically feather the propeller but informed him that is what we needed to do awaiting his concurrence. Now making a decision to feather a windmilling propeller attached to a dead engine was a no brainer. Without reducing the drag caused by the useless propeller, we would descend and eventually hit the water. Jack and I both agreed on which of the two engines was causing the problem and I pushed the correct [left] red feather button causing the propeller to move into a more streamlined position that allowed us to maintain altitude.
“Jack, I think we ought to go to the beach.”
I turned the yoke to bank the aircraft again the second time towards the east. We had taken off from the ship a little over an hour before and when we were catapulted into the air, the 872 foot long gray aircraft carrier had been pitching and rolling with white foam coming over the bow with spray hitting the aircraft parked behind the island in the middle. After we had taken off, the sun had fully set and a cold front had moved in further agitating the ocean while steady rain fully obscured the moon and stars.
Jack notified the ship that we had lost the port engine and were headed towards the beach. I jettisoned the aircraft’s sonobuoys to lighten the load and calculated roughly how long it was going to take us to get to the closest divert airfield Bodø, Norway – about two and a half hours east. The ship then radioed a “request” that we not go to the beach but rather come back aboard for a landing. I knew that we were scheduled to finish the exercise in the morning and the ship was due in England the following evening. Having a broken plane stuck in Norway would prove to be a bit of a logistical and maintenance problem with the rest of the air wing a thousand miles away.
As Jack told me to turn around again and head west towards the Intrepid, we began to debate how tough it was going to be to land our plane with only one working engine onboard a heaving deck, in a storm, and in the pitch dark. “Jimmy, I really want to get back aboard tonight.” On the other hand, I was skeptical and actually flying the plane. “Jack, if you really want to land this broke ass plane aboard the ship at night, you should get into the left seat and do it yourself.” Before he could reply, I asked the ship to put on the radio one of the landing signal officers (LSOs).
To my relief, one of my fellow junior officers and good friends came on the radio and I asked him directly:
“Paddles, how is the deck?” I knew I could count on him to describe the actual conditions of the sea and the pitching and rolling of the deck at that moment.
There was an abnormally long pause before Paddles very crisp monotone answer “Smooth as glass.”
“Jimmy you are right, let’s go to the beach. There is no way that ship is not rocking and rolling.”
Despite frequent continued calls from the ship’s controllers, our squadron commander, and a number of other “heavies” to please come and at least try to land on the ship, we kept flying east and we were picked up by Norwegian radar and got a steer to Bodø.
On our final approach, the tower informed us that the field had rainstorms in all quadrants and that the winds were gusting and from variable directions but generally they would be behind us and to the left on landing. A quick calculation revealed that the cross wind was outside the design specifications of our Stoof for a safe single engine landing. Nor would I be able to generate sufficient thrust with just one engine to get airborne again once we had touched down or generate the muscle strength needed to manhandle the asymmetry of one good engine struggling to permit us to climb and fly around the airfield to land more directly into the wind. It was going to be a straight shot in from the sea to our one chance at bringing this crippled bird down in one piece.
As I lined up on final approach with our landing light shining ahead through the rain and I could see the green runway threshold lights and the white striping at the approach end. The wheels touched down one at a time on the dark pavement but the white lights on either side flashed by much too fast. I throttled back to idle on the one good engine but red overrun lights at the far side of the field were rapidly approaching.
A sudden gust caught the tail and the next thing I knew the plane cocked violently to the left. We were going down the wet runway with the wheels hydroplaning on the water but not rolling in the direction of our travel. As we skidded off the runway, I began to see blue taxiway lights and the blackness.
“J-I-I-I-M-M-M-Y-Y-Y, you got this aircraft under control?”
I did not reply. I was too busy stomping on the brakes and bracing for a crash. Fortunately it was not our time or we had cashed in on some good karma. After leaving the runway, the plane rolled over dirt and wet grass, we finally slowed to a welcome stop.
At first I just sat there immobile and speechless. We exited the aircraft on not too steady legs. We quickly sat on the wet ground under the wing and sucked in the welcome clean cold Norwegian mist. The sound of the crash trucks grew louder as they closed to our position with red lights flashing. I looked around. There was a SAS jetliner on the tarmac only a few hundred feet away from where we had ungracefully ceased moving but on a direct path ahead.
The boarding ramp on the SAS plane was still down and its engines did not appear to be running. I got up, trotted over to the airliner and walked up the ramp. Five minutes later I slowly walked back to our broken down aircraft grinning widely with eight frosty cold bottles of Tuborg beer.
“Well Jack, is that the way you remember it?” Jack shakes his head and says, “Jimmy, we only made the one turn back to the ship and I always wanted to go to the beach.”
“Bullshit Jack,” I insisted as we both laughed and drank a nice cold bottle of Tuborg to the memory of our LSO who had decided to tell us, without actually saying the words, that there was no way in hell that we were going to safely get aboard the ship that night.