If you have not done so already, read my previous post, “Professional Pilots Believe Their Instruments” before you read this blog.
In the late 1970’s, I was a rookie co-pilot on a crew that was flying over to RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia, England to support the European Tanker Task Force. We stopped at Pease AFB, New Hampshire, to join up with a four-ship of F-4s who were also deploying to Europe. We were to be their flying gas station for the journey over the frigid North Atlantic.
When I say that we flew over there together. We were very, very close together.
Just consider this. If you are an F-4, the North Atlantic is no place to be all by yourself. You will run out of gas, then you will be forced to eject, then you will land in the cold cold water. And then you will die.
So after take off we joined up and were very close. And we got closer as we headed north and east and the haze turned to dense clouds and visibility declined to almost zero. Think of a duck with her ducklings. We were closer. The F-4s were practically sitting between our engines nestled under our wings.
They did not want to lose their gas station.
But, no worries. We had good communications. Our navigator was keeping us right on track. Our radar was working great so we could see any nasty thunderstorms in time to avoid them…
(A word about thunderstorms. A KC-135 fully loaded with fuel is about 300,000 pounds. A thunderstorm can, and has, grabbed a KC-135 and tossed it thousands of feet up to the top of the storm where it paused at zero airspeed, before gracefully tipping over and down. Pure luck it did not spin. Pure luck it dove away from the thunderstorm. So that crew lived. Or I would not have that story to tell you. We would just have another crashed KC with no clear reason why.)
…and, of course, we had all the cockpit instrumentation needed for safe flight. We had primary and back up airspeed indicators, altimeters, all engines looked good, plenty of fuel. One of the more important instruments, especially in this thick soup, was the ADI, the attitude indicator. It told us we were flat and level. Flying true and straight.
Basically, if you tried to rely on your own senses, you would eventually command the aircraft to a steeper and steeper roll, eventually tumbling into a high speed dive and eventual obscurity beneath the ocean waves.
But no worries. Ours all worked fine. Until they didn’t.
We had just completed the first of our fuel transfers to each of the 4 F-4s in turn. Each F-4 now nestled in for a bit as close to us as they could get. The Boom Operator, having secured the boom pod, came forward and asked if we needed any coffee while he was available to get it for us. We were getting ready to send some standard joke via radio to our F-4 buddies asking if they wanted any. There were many versions of this silliness like asking if they would like to stretch their legs or mentioning that you had just got back to your seat after using the urinal. All of these seem hilarious to the pilot not strapped in a tiny cockpit for 10 hours. And that’s when it happened.
Red flags everywhere. Every ADI in our cockpit showed a red flag indicating they were no longer to be trusted.
The pilot immediately radioed the lead F-4 and told him the situation: “Joe, you are our primary attitude reference now, you copy? We need to know if we start any unannounced roll or pitch.”
The response was terse and controlled: “Roger, copy. We are your primary attitude reference now.” We all knew after he let up on the mike button, he probably let go with a stream of cursing. But there it was, and we needed to figure out what was going wrong. And do it fast before anything else when wrong.
There was no precedence for this. None of the safety magazines had ever mentioned this happening. There was certainly nothing in the tech order warnings, cautions, or even notes. There was no single electrical connection among these instruments. It was designed that way so that this could never, ever happen. Which probably meant that something very unusual and very, very bad was bound to be next.
The pilot turned to me and said: “Figure this out! What’s happening?!”
Some good news, the KC-135 is large enough that we could carry the entire tech order with us. I had already grabbed it and was looking at wiring diagrams and thumbing through with lightning speed from section to section trying to figure this thing out.
Nothing in the book. Nothing in my memory of studying all these systems. I turned to him and said: “There is nothing! THIS IS NOT IN THE BOOK!!” The flop sweat was starting. I had a huge lump in my gut. What to do?
The pilot, managing to be simultaneously urgent, calm, and forcefully demanding turned to me and said: “THEN GET CREATIVE!!”
The bulging eyed stares from the navigator and boom operator only served to tighten my gut more. I took a deep breath and thought to myself:
“It is not in the book. Put the book down. You are an engineer. You have a very good brain. Use it. Think. There is absolutely no connection is there? Really? Where do all those circuits really go. THINK GODDAMN IT! No, sorry. Stay calm. Think.”
A deep breath as the seconds ticked away and the crew started having their doubts about me.
Then I had it. A quick look in the book and a quick look around and I knew I was right.
“Ned”, I said to the pilot. “I got it.” I reached over behind the pilot’s seat and near where the Boom Operator was standing. “All the circuit breaker for the attitude indicators warning system are all together here, on this panel.” And sure enough, the protective cover had come off of its velcro, pushed an entire column of circuit breakers open.
Circuit breakers reset. Warning flags disappeared. Calm restored. Uneventful flight.