Folks, we’re going to be a little late…

by William “BBall” Ball

What could I have possibly forgotten? I was flying the crippled aircraft and working the ATC radios while the Captain and Second Officer were going through the Emergency Checklist. Boston Approach Control had cleared the airspace 20 miles east of Logan Airport and their “delaying vectors” were far easier to fly than a standard holding pattern. At our present weight of close to 500,000 lbs, it was going to take quite some time to dump enough fuel to get below our maximum landing weight. Although it all seemed to be under control, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that I had forgotten to do something vitally important.

Gene was in command this night, I was flying as his First Officer, and Greg was “riding the panel” for us as the Flight Engineer. I had flown with both of them before, and while in my domicile of Boston (I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas), I shared a commuter apartment with Greg. They were both ex-Naval aviator types; Gene from the F-9 Panther era while Greg had logged most of his time in the A-7 Corsair. Both had “been there, done that”, but I was willing to bet that this was the first time either one of them had an engine actually catch on fire immediately after take-off… I know it was a first for me.

03 June 1989… My first trip as an F/O on the “10” Boston-Amsterdam, DC-10-40 Ship N1147US

Roughly two and a half hours ago, Gene and I had begun the process of flight planning our McDonnell Douglas DC-10 from Boston to Frankfurt, Germany. The weather was beautiful in both places, and the route this evening would take us on a path that we had seen many times. After departing Boston’s runway 22L, we would proceed to a navigation point just south of Nova Scotia. Shortly after that we would “coast out” over Newfoundland, and after approximately three and a half hours over the cold North Atlantic, we would make landfall just south of Shannon, Ireland. We would wing our way across the United Kingdom and the English Channel, then it would be just a hop and a skip on into Frankfurt. We would be treated to an incredible sunrise somewhere over “ol’ Blightey”, and after a several hour “combat nap” at the hotel in Mainz, the payoff would be a couple of Pilsners at a beer garden on a lovely May afternoon in Deutschland.

The year was 1990; I had been flying for Northwest Airline for seven years and had been flying the behemoth DC-10 for almost one year to the day. I had somewhere in the vicinity of 9600 hours of total flight time, and had logged 73 “crossings” in that amazing three-engined marvel. I thought that this trip across “the pond” that night would pretty much be a no-brainer. Boy was I ever wrong….

The briefing with the cabin personnel was done shortly after we boarded the jet at the gate in Boston, and they had settled into their pre-departure routine to ready the cabin for our customers. On this trip we would have a very experienced cabin crew, many of whom I had flown with before. I can assure you, after things had gotten pear-shaped in the cockpit; we appreciated the fact that they were as seasoned as we were.

The cockpit preflight was finished, the cabin crew had accomplished their duties, the machine was fueled for our 7 1/2 hour flight, the galleys were catered for the planned services and the customers boarded all without a hitch. Gene had loaded the flight plan waypoints into the navigation INS units, and I had diligently checked them as a part of my many cockpit duties before launching from the gate. I now read the Preflight Checklist to both Gene and Greg, and they countered with all the appropriate responses. So far everything was looking splendid.

Northwest N1144US lifting-off from Frankfurt, Germany.

Boston ATC Ground Control was its usual busy self, the rapid-fire clearances would seem overwhelming to a novice…but not to us, we were in our “happy place”. The controller recognized the flight number as one of my airline’s nightly overseas departures, and (using common sense) she gave us a clearance to the longer of the two departure runways. She surmised that we would be fat with fuel, folks, and cargo, and the extra pavement might be required this evening. Turns out she was right. The old aviation axiom; “altitude above you, runway behind you, and airspeed you don’t have… all useless things” would certainly come into play this night. Not an empty seat on the jet: 296 passengers and a crew of 12. Old misters McDonald / Douglas and Pratt & Whitney would certainly be earning their keep tonight.

In our cockpits, we are required to conduct an crew briefing regarding each take-off and landing. This covers the normal departure or arrival info., plus anything out of the ordinary that we might be doing. Things like unusual flap/thrust settings, aborted take-off procedures, departure routings, and weather factors. Everything was covered up to and including what would take place in the event of an emergency or abnormal situation shortly after lift-off. Captain Gene would have made the FAA proud, for his briefing was superb. Example: in the event of a rejected take-off, he would make the decision to abort, perform the maneuver (it was his leg anyway, so his hands would be on the controls), and I was to inform ATC of our intentions. Greg would take notice of our groundspeed at the time of the rejected takeoff (to extract information from the manual regarding how hot our brakes would become… possibly so hot that ground personnel would not be allowed around the wheels for quite some time), and stand by with the appropriate Emergency Checklist. If we were to have a “problem” after liftoff, Gene briefed that he would fly the aircraft to 1000′ AGL, we would “clean it up” (retract the flaps and slats), he would then hand the machine over to me while he and Greg accomplished the checklists. If the problem included a loss of two of our three engines, Greg was to commence dumping fuel without asking for the Captain’s permission. In a situation like that, survival ranks much higher than any cockpit protocol.

We listened with the usual level of attention; since this was something we had heard many times. Over the years, we had all experienced many abnormal and/or emergency situations in the simulators at our Training Center, for we are required to be checked in these contraptions on a regular basis. These visits usually include fun things like low visibility take-offs and landings, engine problems, wind shear events, hydraulic failures, electrical failures… and pretty much everything in between. We of course, all felt confident in our knowledge and abilities to handle anything that might be tossed our way (show me an airline pilot that doesn’t believe that, and I’ll show you someone who should be doing something else for a living).

So what does one think when you’re sitting in an airliner that weighs a half a million pounds, you’ve just lifted off the runway and the engine fire bell starts to ring? If memory serves me, listening to our cockpit voice recorder would’ve yielded yours truly uttering verbal brilliance on the order of:

Second Officer Greg: “Thrust set”

Me: “80 kts”

Captain Gene: “checks”

Me: “100, 120, 130, 140, V1, rotate… positive rate”

Gene: “gear up”

As the gear is retracting, insert sound of number three fire bell ringing loudly (also accompanied by several associated RED fire warning lights).

Me: “WHAT THE HELL?!”

See what I mean? I possess total command of the English language.

At cruise altitude somewhere over the North Atlantic. Captain Bob, S/O Spence and (yes) my piece of pound cake on the throttle quadrant.

At cruise altitude somewhere over the North Atlantic. Captain Bob, S/O Spence and (yes) my piece of pound cake on the throttle quadrant.

About one second into the bell ringing, my astute roommate Greg, makes his required Second Officer call out, “ENGINE FIRE NUMBER 3!!” The only issue was the fact that his vocal cords were not uttering the words, his adrenal glands were. The volumetric level of his voice shocked me more than the fire bell, and to this day, I am convinced that EVERYONE in the first class cabin also heard him. From this moment on, our training kicked in, and we began to earn our keep. Captain Gene was controlling our climb superbly (the yaw was rather pronounced since he had reduced the thrust to idle on the number three engine, but his application of opposite rudder was keeping us perfectly on track); he glanced at me and spoke three words no pilot ever wants to say, “Declare an emergency.” I keyed the microphone button, tried to lower my voice and octave or two, and did the deed…“Boston tower, Northwest 52 declaring an emergency.”

Now the fun began. ATC immediately started doing what they do best… control aircraft. I’m guessing that if I could crawl into the brain of the ATC dude, I would hear something on the order of: “O.K., time to push tin and open a path for these fellows. Gotta get them out over the ocean where they can save the day (or make a mess of things), but they will NOT be doing it over my beloved city of Boston”.

As briefed, Gene leveled the jet at 1000 ft, called for flaps to the 1 position, then flaps up. He trimmed the rudder a bit, then handed the beast over to me (I was still “flying the radios”). He and Greg were now in their own little world of the Emergency Checklist. In a three pilot crew, during any emergency, we teach that one pilot JUST FLYS THE AIRPLANE, keeping casual track of what is going on with the other two. As with many things in aviation, the reason for this is written in blood.

A very famous accident in the Florida Everglades years ago was the direct result of all three pilots being wrapped up in a landing gear annunciation problem (that’s fancy aviation speak for a light bulb being burned out), and subsequently, no one was minding the store. The L-1011’s autopilot was accidentally disconnected, and the bird began a shallow descent to a dark, swampy grave. No one noticed until it was too late, and hundreds of people never made it home that night. That would not happen to us. I was completely focused on driving the jet, and had been in constant contact with the ATC folks. I answered their inquiries concerning number of souls on board, amount of fuel remaining, etc., and I also directed them to contact our dispatch office in Minneapolis to inform them of our situation and inform them of our intentions to return to Boston.

A Northwest DC-10-40 landing in Minneapolis / St. Paul

I was pleasantly surprised to find out the real aircraft actually flew better on two engines than did the simulator that I had flown in this “stricken” condition many times. WAY COOL… it wasn’t a racehorse, but it wasn’t a drunken elephant either. The scenes from Hollywood that forever show the crippled airliner BARELY under control by the rattled crew, just doesn’t wash. Apart from the original “Airport” movie with Dean Martin in his Boeing 707, not much from the film world has remotely gotten it right. Oh well.

As Greg read and Gene responded from the various checklists, I was busy piloting this thing out to our area to begin dumping fuel. At some point about now, Captain Gene called the Lead Flight Attendant into the cockpit and briefed him on the situation, and then over the passenger address system informed the customers that we would be returning to Boston. From the sheer volume of Jet A avgas that was to be discarded by Greg, this was to take somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 minutes. It was during that “slack” period that we finally started to relax and contemplate what was happening to us.

Apparently the news was not received with as much trepidation in the cabin as I had expected. As in many tense situations, humor becomes a welcome ally, and within a few minutes of Gene’s cabin announcement, the Lead Fight Attendant once again entered the cockpit. He had messages from two different passengers. Again, we were in a bit of a lull, with “all of our ducks in a row” just dumping fuel, and discussing the approach back into Logan field. The first message was a request for a hockey score, and Gene calmly told the Lead F/A to inform the person that we were a bit too busy to be inquiring about sports scores. It was, however, the second message that could have allowed the tension in this cockpit (of a jet in the midst of an emergency) to temporarily rear its ugly head. Rather than a request like the first message, this person was DEMANDING that the Captain stop dumping fuel into the ocean!

When Gene asked the obvious question…“O.K., why?” The Lead F/A responded that the lady demanded we stop dumping fuel because“it was going to kill the dolphins”! Again, my linguistic skills kicked in….“What the hell did she say?” As only a person with years of experience in all types of aircraft, in every kind of weather imaginable can do, Gene calmly turned to the flight attendant and uttered these historic (for me) words, “Please go tell that person that we can either kill the dolphins or we can swim with them.” With that, he turned and lost himself in thoughts of the pending landing. I remember thinking, “man, when I make Captain someday, I hope I can come up with cool stuff like that to say.”

A Northwest "10" in the new "bowling shoe" paint scheme

As we readied ourselves for the approach, we were both relaxed and extremely alert. Had it all gone that well? Gene and Greg had accomplished the appropriate emergency checklists; extinguishing the engine fire (it turned out to be a ruptured bleed-air line). We had briefed the visual approach to runway 22L, set the approach speeds as dictated for this abnormality, discussed the flap settings, monitored the fuel dump… literally dozens of things we don’t do on a “normal” day at work. I had fulfilled my duties; basically just keeping the blue side up, and responding to the air traffic controllers when needed.

Was this not like the many times we had done this in the simulator? We had practiced and demonstrated this very thing to the FAA, over and over for years. But this was most definitely NOT like being in the simulator. Apart from the fact that we didn’t have the option to just “freeze the box” and discuss something, I was beginning to feel something I had never before felt in a cockpit. It was a nagging feeling that I had forgotten to do something, or say, or suggest something vitally important in the last 45 minutes (I was to find out later from Gene and Greg that they were feeling the same thing). Our years of training had taken over and we had performed in the professional manner that is expected of us (including the cabin crew I might add). We had dealt with the machine, the environment (ATC, weather, etc), and the human factor (dolphins?), and were supremely confident that the end result of our attempt to fly to Europe this night would NOT end as the lead story on CNN. With that said, that nagging feeling remained.

It all ended successfully. After we rolled to a stop on the runway, we were immediately surrounded by about a million vehicles all with flashing lights. Gene was in radio contact with the Fire / Rescue folks, and they confirmed that the engine fire was indeed extinguished (so a cabin evacuation was not in order). After that good news, we taxied to the gate (to the applause of many of the passengers).

Some would argue that we airline pilots lead a life of boredom in the cockpit, and are nothing but glorified drivers of a low Earth orbit version of the city bus. Admittedly, at times it can be a bit boring in the pointy end, but this night was anything but. We had stepped to the plate with everything on the line and only one chance to get it right, and we hit the proverbial home run. That’s exactly what we sign up for as a new hire airline crew member. To perform on the nights that your “pilot happy place” is down around your ankles… not to aviate on those clear, smooth, evenings winging along at FL 350 sipping a cup of our airlines best java. We draw a paycheck to daily perform a complicated thing, in large machines, at busier than hell airports, and in all kinds of weather. On the few occasions when our world in the cockpit gets really ugly, we are tasked to do the job with no second chance to get it right the first time… no exceptions. We simply put on our game faces, buckle down, and get the job done.

In the end, I’m not ashamed to say that when we left the cockpit that night, Gene, Greg and I walked with maybe just a bit more purpose, maybe just a bit taller. We felt we had certainly earned the right.

We did indeed enjoy those Pilsners, albeit a few hours after we had planned. We swapped jets that night, and two hours later found ourselves winging our way toward Germany. To say we were a bit tired after the almost 8 hour flight would be an understatement. Three pairs of eyeballs staring into that bright orange orb during our descent was anything but pleasant. Greg had the cure.

Just before descending through 10,000 feet over Rudesheim, Greg reached over our heads (unbeknownst to us), announcing loudly “adrenalin check” and hit the fire warning bell test switches. The “RIIIIIINNNNG” (with the red lights) launched Gene and I firmly out of our stupor! And yes, Greg did buy the beers that evening…

 


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