by Dan Sanders [ abridged ] Approach September - October 2006
It was supposed to be a routine logistical flight.
Our six crew members included an active-duty Marine test pilot, four aircrew from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-20, and a Federal flight test engineer.
Our passengers included four maintenance people and a Navy active-duty maintainer. We also carried various maintenance pack-up items and baggage.
Our mission was to reposition a Hercules KC-130T, to the expeditionary airfield at Twenty-Nine Palms for electronic-propeller-control system field testing.
We had flown this Hercules through every imaginable test configuration at NAS Pax River. All that remained was to evaluate system performance at low-level. For several days, we would fly routine missions at low altitude in the desert before returning the ' Herc ' to its parent unit.
About an hour or so after take-off, we were settled into a routine flight at 24M on autopilot. I was in the right seat and just had gotten into a comfortable position . .
. . when the Hercules suddenly pitched up hard while rolling left.
The aircraft commander (A/C) and I simultaneously lurched forward as we pushed our autopilot-disconnects. We both thought the autopilot caused an uncommanded pitch-up and wing drop.
To our further alarm, the C-130 continued its hard G pitch-up and aileron pressure . .
On its own !
Then it continued to roll more harshly to the left.
Both of us were on the controls against the roll. But it over-whelmed our combined strength. When the wings rotating beyond vertical, the Herc's nose sliced through the artificial horizon into a rolling, inverted dive.
The AIrcraft Commander : " MY controls."
I released. Although, I must admit my giving up the control yoke was not easy.
We all watched helplessly as the Hercules rolled completely over on her back, then pitched roughly, straight down.
The Herc accelerated into a rapid spinning dive to the left, as I watched my attitude indicator ' go full brown side ' while rotating like a kid's top.
Our little world suddenly became violent. Our flight engineer was pinned to the cockpit's ceiling. At the wrong time, he had unfastened his seat belt and was leaning far forward to make a fuel adjustment.
During the second diving rotation, as we experienced Negative G's and a snow storm of helmet bags, IFR approach plates, papers, coffee, dirt, dislodged knobs, were joined with a odd flight of a Subway sandwich, floating like a towed banner across my side vision.
Pandemonium reigned in the passenger/cargo area. Not one person had their seat belt on. Or even loosely in place.
Along with intense fear/terror of the unknown, all of the passengers were tossed to the ceiling and were trashed around each other within a swirling storm of loose items Herc had accumulated over its service life.
As the Hercules flew on, out of control, I saw the left seater's attitude indicator was not matching my own. In fact, it was flipping strangely and ratcheting around.
Both airspeed indicators showed 350 knots as the A/C strugged to pull up the Herc's nose. After noticing our high airspeed, I was certain that the throttles were still at cruise power. I pulled the the throttles back to flight idle.
I didn't ask.
As our airspeed began to fall off. I checked my turn and bank indicator, and I saw an uncoordinated ball max'd right, with its turn needle max'd the other direction.
I shouted, "We're spinning,"
The yell shifted the Aircraft Commander's eye balls to his turn and bank. He quickly reacted, as the Herc entered a third rotation.
The Herc's gyrations began to slow. The A/C had stopped the roll rate with rudder, but we were still pointed almost straight down.
As his attitude gyro was flipping around uselessly, he was now focusing on his rate of descent and altimeter, to perceive up from down.
As he tried to move the C-130's nose up to the horizon, I became aware of the incredible whining sound. Previously unnoticed. And over which we had both been shouting, the propellor on # 3 was reading 106% overspeed.
Still in cloud at 5,000 feet we finally got the wings level. We declared an emergency to Indianapolis Center and requested vectors to our nearest runway and also to allow us to descend out of the goop into VMC.
Still uncertain why the Herc departed controlled flight, we began to assess what caused it and check on passenger injuries. We instructed our flight test engineer to go aft. He pulled our loadmaster from under a stack of five folks that had been tossed around like tennis shoes in a clothes dryer. Fortunately, there was just a head wound, broken bones, and larcerations.
Once we descended into visual conditions, we got our first ground reference since the emergency, as we got a visual on the airport ahead.
Then someone then came over the intercom saying we were on fire. We scanned our instruments, nacelles, wings and everything visible to check for a fire. Nothing. With no time to look further, we told Indy Center the aircraft might on fire and we required an immediate landing.
Surveying the Herc's interior scenario, it looked like a bomb had gone off. Debris and passengers were strewn all over the cargo area. The flight deck was now piled with everything, including a set of wheel chocks that had migrated forward from the cargo compartment.
Turning on final approach, we had no approach plates, or checklists. Our navigator frantically grabbed through the debris to find what we needed.
Once we got our hands on the Huntington plate in West Virginia, we made a normal recovery and safe landing. Fearing fire somewhere onboard, we just taxied clear of the runway, shut down and set the brakes. Gathering our injured we evacuated.
No fire, sowe climbed back in to discover what caused our life-threatening odyssey.
The was a 20-man life raft rammed into the Herc's tail feathers.
It had deployed in-flight from its wing-storage and was lodged in left horizontal stabilizer's leading edge.
A visual inspection of the aircraft by the aircrew determined both left wing life rafts had deployed in flight. And one of them had wrapped around the horizontal stabilizer, pushing the elevator full up.
We had ( 1 ) rolled over at least twice, ( 2 ) lost 9,000 feet of altitude ( 3 ) at a maximum descent rate of 29M feet per minute, ( 4 ) probably exceeded three positive and 2 negative G's [ limits = plus 3 and negative 1 ] ( 5 ) with airspeed touching 460 Knots.
The data pallet [along to record flight-test data] captured invaluable performance data and allowed us to reconstruct our flight profile. Then after extensive inspections and repairs, we later flew our aircraft home.
Reflecting on this harrowing experience, I was reminded of our good fortune in having a truly professional air crew, engaged in the important work of testing Navy-aircraft systems.
We not only survived a catastrophic malfunction, but we maintained our resilient sense of humor [ as attested to by my spotting a four-leaf clover, which I still keep in my flight suit.]
Later, a crew member found some money lying on the ground. And we all had a good laugh when one of our group said : " This must be our lucky day."
Dan Sanders is a retired Marine Corps major, employed as a contract pilot with VX-20.
No one is immune to the Blue Threat [ life-threatening equipment failure.] In this instance, the cockpit of the mishap aircraft was chock full of flying experience and expertise. This aircrew did an outstanding job recovering after an uncommanded deployment of life rafts attached to the C130's right wing.
One lesson worth repeating is : every time you fly, remain ' strapped in ' unless you have a need to move about the aircraft [IAW NATOPS.] It would have prevented multiple injuries among both crew and passengers.
The second ' Blue Threat ' is when the crew did not sufficiently recognize, then attempt to mitigate an existing known hazard of uncommanded deployment of life rafts from C-130 aircraft.
There had been ( 6 ) six documented similar instances in the Hercules C-130. Effective safety processes must be promulgated and ' robust ' enough to compel recognization and comprehension of the risks of known operational hazards. Failure to do so puts the aircrew and their passengers at risk.
--Cdr. John Morrison, C-130 analyst, Naval Safety Center [ abridged ]
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