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Mon, Mar 14, 2005

In-Flight Shutdown - Almost Routine

Hognose Investigates The Engine-Out Passenger Experience

By Senior Correspondent Kevin "Hognose" O'Brien

I recently had an argument with another aviator about some recent news stories that hyperventilated over a couple of recent incidents wherein 747-400 operators, notably British Airways, secured a misbehaving engine and continued on to their destination rather than turning back or finding an alternate. He more or less agreed with the news stories, and was willing to hang the captains by their thumbs (which hasn't happened).

I countered with the facts as I understood them: a single engine out on the 747-400 not only didn't compromise any systems, it doesn't even compromise the redundancy of any systems. A 747 can even go around on ONE engine. And for a number of reasons it can be safer to continue on than land -- depending of course, on why you shut the engine down.

If it turned into a parts-spewing turbo-grenade, that's one thing. If you had a surge, high EGT, or low oil indication, that's another.

Most lines' ops manuals cover three-engine operations of the big jumbo as routine, not even considering them emergency operations. There are three-engine performance charts in there. Part 121 says it's the captain's call --he can land or continue at his option.

"Well, if you were a passenger, how would you feel?" I wasn't that interested in answering his question. How would I feel? Beats me. Given the rarity of engine-out incidents, I didn't expect I'd ever be in such a such a situation.

Fast forward about two weeks.

I had an ideal Guard weekend ahead. It was about to snow in western Massachusetts -- a perpetuation of the ongoing white-out that has been the Northeast most of this winter -- and we were taking an extra day to make sure the mission was a success. We were to fly to Key West, FL, conduct a parachute jump into the warm caress of the Caribbean Sea, and swim around and play with boats and kayaks for a couple of days. For the first time in months, we packed sunscreen (being from western Massachusetts, most of us had to order it online).

The first indication that things would not go well is when the CO cornered me. "Did you get that surgery yet?"

"Er, ah, well..."

"You know what the doc said. You get the surgery before you jump again," he told me. That was just before he scratched me off the jump manifest. I could still do the playing with boats stuff.

Okay only one of us gets to be Boss, and it's him, and I'm cool with that, even though I wanted to jump.

Then we walked out to our plane and boarded. The aircraft was an MC-130P Combat Shadow from Eglin AFB and its green skin looked out of place next to our mountains of snow. But soon we would be in its native environment, Florida. We felt sappily happy. I was also reassured by the spotless condition of the plane inside. Somebody -- or a lot of somebodies -- clearly took pride in this machine(the Combat Shadow is a C-130, mechanically similar to the E model, but it has some special fitments to make it suitable for its main mission, refueling Air Force special operations helicopters).

The euphoria lasted about forty-five minutes. And then we heard a sound we'd often heard before. The difference is, every time we'd heard the sound of an Allison T56 spooling down before, we were on the ground AFTER the flight. And that sound had never been accompanied by a palpable deceleration before.

The word was quickly passed. "We've lost an engine, we're going to land." But after a time we didn't do that, and the crew seemed pretty calm about it. I talked to one of the crew members. The number two engine had suddenly seemed to lose a large quantity of oil, and the crew had preemptively shut it down.

The decision on where to take the plane hinged on what was safe, legal, and best for accomplishing the mission. While continuing to Key West was feasible and safe, the plane would then be stuck in a place with no local C-130 parts or experience, and an unknown engine problem. Since flying with three engines is legal, but taking off with three isn't, it looked like a longer-than-forecast Key West vacation.

It turns out the guy I talked to was the right guy to talk aviation with -- he not only was qualified in a couple different positions on the 130, but in his civilian life was a flight engineer on cargo 747-200s. He had a couple of good engine-out stories, including an uncontained fan disk failure on takeoff at Guayaquil, Ecuador -- a much hairier situation that the precautionary shut-down we endured.

The crew finally chewed over not one, but a couple of alternatives: Pope AFB in Fayetteville, NC, and Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania. At Pope, the engine could certainly be fixed, but there was a major con to go with that pro: Pope is a major "flagpole" command. Harrisburg is the home of the 193rd Special Operations Wing which flies EC-130 Commando Solo airborne psychological warfare aircraft; they are in the process of converting to new C-130Js, but their remaining C-130Es had similar engines to our MC-130 so they would have mechanics and spares also, and less bureaucracy and hassle than Pope.

In the end, though, Harrisburg won out. I haven't talked to the aircraft commander so I don't know what factored into his decision. (The EC-130J unit is probably worth a story of its own in the future. During the war in Afghanistan, the information their Commando Solo craft broadcast from its onboard radio and TV transmitters was essential to getting the Coalition message across to the Afghans).

As soon as we were on the ground, the troublesome number two engine was being swarmed by a team of mechanics. As we walked out of the back of the plane, they had already erected an engine repair stand and gone to work. The American taxpayers might not be getting their money worth from my unit this weekend, but they sure have a right to be proud of their part-time Air Force men and women -- they are working awfully hard while we hang around and await The Word.

The mission for the day was scrubbed. The Air Force, God bless them, put us up in a decent hotel, from which I'm filing this story, while their mechanics pulled the propeller and the engine. They arranged to have another engine flown in, and we will likely continue in the plane that brings the engine, and try to recover what training value we can out of our interrupted drill, depending entirely on timing.

So... how did I feel? Well, I was not too excited. Some of the other guys were -- not all paratroopers are as confident about airplanes as you might think -- but they calmed down pretty quickly and soon were joking and cutting up as usual. I realize that we're probably a more phlegmatic bunch than the average 747-load of babies and grannies and everything in between, but from my standpoint an engine shutdown remains no big deal.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

And Now... The Rest Of The Story

It turns out that the oil leak wasn't a simple external line, but would require a teardown. So they were looking at an engine swap to get the plane back to its home field, Eglin AFB. By the time they got another C-130 to bring an engine in, it was 1530 the day after the incident.

The good news is that there were more and better windows on the new craft than even on the MC-130P (which has larger windows than ordinary 130s, because of the refueling mission) -- and that was the extent of the good news. The bad news was that the replacement took us home --the Key West mission aborted -- into the teeth of a snowstorm, and did it at what seemed like a whopping zero feet AGL.

FMI: www.af.mil

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