By: Lt Col Ron Albers, 160th AREFG, Rickenbacker ANGB
(This article was originally printed in the October 1991 edition of “Combat Crew,” the monthly USAF magazine for air crew members of Strategic Air Command)
Editor's note: This article contains techniques which are justified only by the precarious emergency situation in which the author found himself. Don't try these techniques to salvage a bad landing.
Ash Wednesday, 13 February1991. The missions of Desert Storm had been relentless for nearly a month. Our crew, in an aircraft with "nose art" captioned "Hang on Smokey" was returning from a storybook sortie in which everything went as fragged. The weather was clear as could be for the entire mission. The scenery was beautiful as we coasted in over the Persian Gulf, right over the city of Dubai, awaiting vectors for the ILS to runway 21R at Dubai International. At 5000' and midfield downwind, we were cleared for a VFR approach, so I called for landing gear to increase our rate of descent. Just as we heard the familiar "thud" of the gear extending, Lt Stephanie Helgerman screamed over interphone from her navigation station. As I turned to see what was wrong, our boom operator crashed through the cockpit door from the rear of the aircraft. SMSgt Terry Kerr's hair was on fire, and through the door I could see the entire fuselage behind him in flames. Words cannot express the terror a crew member feels when seeing flames of that magnitude (inside the airplane,) especially knowing we still had 55,000 pounds (more than 8000 gallons) of fuel on board. "Fly the airplane!" Whether I said the words aloud or not, the message was loud and clear.
Lt Col Charles Underwood, in the co-pilot's seat, immediately told the crew to go on 100% oxygen. He was not a second too early as the cockpit immediately filled with thick, black smoke. I could no longer see anyone or anything in the cockpit. The smoke was too thick to see the gauges in front of me or Chuck in the seat beside me. Chuck called "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Walleye 21 has a fuselage fire on board and needs to land immediately! The tower calmly cleared us and assured us that fire equipment would be standing by. It was still less than a minute since the explosion. I have always prided myself on my "situational awareness," my ability as an aircraft commander to direct the actions of the other three crew members, or at least to know where they were and what they were doing at all times. Not today! It was all I could do to fly the airplane. I moved the seat forward and stuck my head above the glare shield in order to see out. At best, we'd have one chance to land: but I was certain we'd blow up before we got to the runway. As we turned base to final, I decided to "drag it in" - perhaps if we were close to the ground when the aircraft exploded, we'd have a better chance of surviving. After trying unsuccessfully to open my window, I asked Chuck to depressurize the airplane. He pulled the T-handle (which jettisoned a porthole-sized hatch to depressurize the aircraft and hopefully suck out some of the smoke-filled air,) but it did nothing at all for the cockpit smoke. He then stuck his head under the glare shield, fanned the smoke with his hand, and called out "173 knots."
Airspeed didn't matter to me because I didn't know what we were supposed to be flying. By feel, I did a short final check – boards (speed brakes) down, flaps 50 (degrees,) gear down . . . As we crossed the threshold, I knew we were going too fast; so I got the landing attitude picture, and at about 10 feet above the runway, pulled the speed brakes up. It was a perfect landing! I brought all four engines to full reverse and started looking for a taxiway. Finally, I opened my window as we exited the runway. Before we stopped rolling, I shut all four engines down and set the parking brakes.
Terry tapped me on the shoulder and said the rope was ready. While Chuck was trying to find the battery switch to turn it off (I didn't care about it,) I hopped out and went down the rope right behind Stephanie. We ran well away from the aircraft together and turned to watch all the black smoke billowing out the open windows as Chuck slid down the rope and ran to join us. Terry seemed to take forever, but he finally made it.
The emotions we felt were indescribable. Six fire trucks surrounded the aircraft and did their thing. We laughed and cried and hugged one another. Our knees were shaking so much it was difficult to stand up. I still expected to see the airplane blow up before our eyes, because the foam being sprayed into the pilots' windows could not reach the galley area where the fire was. It was not to happen. SMSgt Terry Kerr was immediately taken by ambulance to a United Arab Emirates hospital in downtown Dubai for treatment of smoke inhalation and burns to his face and scalp. Because Stephanie, Chuck, and I had gone to 100% oxygen so quickly, we had no ill effects at all. We gave statements to the safety officer, were checked by the flight surgeon, and released.
It was not until the next day I learned that Terry was the real hero for saving the airplane. Investigation revealed that an aerosol can of hydraulic fluid (used for wiping the gear struts after landing) was left behind the coffee jugs in the galley. It rested on an exposed electrical connection for the heaters, which burned a hole in the can, releasing all the fluid and propellant. Terry was standing at the galley writing when we lowered the landing gear. Apparently, the aircraft movement at that point, for whatever reason, caused a spark to ignite the vapors released from the can. The explosion blew Terry across the fuselage and onto the floor where he hit his head against the cargo door. He was barely conscious, but Stephanie's scream in his headset brought him to his senses. To escape the flames, he bolted back to the cockpit. Stephanie helped him extinguish the fire in his hair and put on his helmet and oxygen mask.
In shock, in pain, and with zero visibility; Terry felt around for the fire extinguisher until he found it. Because the oxygen hose at the forward boom station was too short, he took a deep breath and disconnected the hose before going back to the galley area to fight the flames. He returned to the cockpit, plugged back into the oxygen system, and repeated the procedure. He emptied the extinguisher, but the smoke was still too thick to see if he had extinguished all the flames. Terry returned to the cockpit again and began planning the aircraft evacuation, readying the rope and making certain he could find the handles to open the crew entry door in the blinding smoke. He had the door open and the rope down in a second when the time came, and he assisted the three other crew members out. Then he went looking for his .38 revolver and ammo, which he brought down the rope with him. He had even thought of the safety of the firemen who might fight the fire!
SMSgt Terry Kerr has had many years service as a trained volunteer fireman and emergency medical technician. His performance during this critical period seems superhuman to me, but to Terry it was simply a chance to use all his training and experience. Those "few seconds of sheer terror" have been discussed by the four of us many times. We all know that we are a team; each of us had to know our job (and emergency procedures!) inside and out. We were thankful that we had preflighted our oxygen and left it readily available. That we had our gloves on - there was no time to don them after the explosion. That the fire extinguisher worked as advertised. That our Nomex worked -- the only part of Terry that burned was his exposed head. His flight suit and gloves were not damaged at all. The Air Force gives us the equipment and training to do our jobs, but the rest is up to us.
You will never forget that day I am sure. Thank goodness Terry wasn't hurt worse. So many things right things happened at the same time to mitigate the wrong ones. Whew.