Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Military Air Travel

I had been home on leave and asked my father (Air Force) if he could line me up with a ride on one of his airplanes back to my home port on the east coast. He had nothing available, but he arranged for me to catch a Marine Corps R5D going that direction.

I should have been prepared for an adventure, since my interactions with the Marine Corps had always tended to be interesting. (For instance...) For their part, the Marines were delighted to be giving a ride to the Navy, instead of the usual vice versa.

The pilot, a lieutenant who looked to be about twelve years old, came back and asked if any of his passengers was less than 21 years old. I asked him if they were going to be serving drinks, which he didn’t think was as funny as I thought it was. Officers frequently didn’t think I was as funny as I thought I was.

Turned out I had sort of stepped on his humor, because his next line, after a couple of guys raised their hands, was, “Well then this airplane is older than you are. I will now instruct you in the proper use of a military parachute.” Real confidence builder. We were not required to put the parachutes on, merely to know how to use them.

The takeoff was uneventful, as was the flight until somebody looked out the window and observed that one of the propellers was not turning. There was a considerable amount of alarmed discussion among the passengers, who were all Marine Corps other than me, until I was able to reassure them that I grew up in the Air Force, knew something about airplanes, and this airplane could do just fine with three engines.

A bit later one of the Marines came over to me and said quietly, so as not to alarm anyone else, that, “One of the engines on this side is smoking. Is that bad?” I allowed that it might be and he wondered if the pilot knew about it. By that time some others had noticed it and, of course another fairly lively discussion ensued. I was not able to be quite as reassuring this time, and finally I was deputized to go forward and check with the pilots.

The pilot, in fact, did not know about it since he was asleep. The copilot was reading a book. I tapped the copilot on the shoulder and told him about the smoking engine and he told me to tell the pilot. I pointed out that the pilot was asleep and he said to wake him up. Enlisted men, even petty officers, hate waking up a sleeping officer, and I wanted to tell him to wake up the pilot himself, but...

The pilot, after he woke up and I told him, asked the copilot if he had seen it, and the copilot said no. So the pilot told the copilot to take a look, since the engine in question was on his side. I was thinking we were in kind of deep shit if these two clowns were all we had to fly the plane.

The copilot half stood as he turned and looked back at the wing, studied it a moment and then sat back down. Then he looked at me for some reason, not the pilot, and said, “That’s not smoke, that’s fuel.” That sounded a little alarming to me, much more so when the pilot said with a distinct note of alarm, “Shit, we’re leaking fuel?”

I asked the copilot, who had confirmed that we were leaking fuel, if that was as bad as it sounded and he replied, “Well, it would be worse if it catches fire.”

That, frankly, had not occurred to me, and the idea sort of freaked me out, but the flight crew appeared to think it was pretty unlikely because they were not doing much of anything other than having a languid conversation about whether or not they should or should not a) shut down the engine and b) hit the engine with the fire extinguisher.

They finally decided to do both which, of course, resulted in a huge cloud of white smoke from the engine. The passengers in back could hardly fail to miss that, and they didn’t, because when I left the flight deck and rejoined them everyone was frantically strapping on parachutes.

I was actually tending to be pretty much as freaked out as they were, but I had seen how unconcerned the pilots were, and I did know that this plane could go a very long distance on two engines. So I wasn’t putting on a parachute.

An officer commented about my lack of parachute and admitted that, while he could not actually order me to put one on, he really thought I should do so. I told him, “Sir, I am getting off of this airplane when it is on the ground, or when the pilot gets out, whichever comes first.” Like most officers, he had no sense of humor and didn’t think that was funny.

After a while the pilot came back to update us, and when he saw everyone (well, almost everyone) wearing parachutes he broke out laughing. “Where are you guys going?” he hooted, “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to Norfolk.”

He went on to tell us that, while the R5D could not take off with two engines, it could easily fly across the country with two. “If we lose another engine,” he told us, “I might start looking for a soft spot to put her down, but as long as we have two turning we can go wherever we want to go.”

Which we did, landing quite safely and (him being a Marine pilot) nose wheel first in Norfolk.

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