“Trust what your instruments are saying.”
“Your body will lie to you; your gauges will not.”
“Believe your instrument panel, not your instincts.”
“Ah, that’s all bull%^&*. Tap the gauge a couple of times; damn things are always going spastic.” Huh? What? From Day One of flight training both Student Naval Aviators and Student Naval Flight Officers have the mantra hammered home, training cycle after training cycle. Trust your instruments, they will always tell you the truth. This is one of the great fundamentals we were taught and is still taught. In general, the instructors are quite right. Until, that is, the Great Truth runs headlong, in my case, with the Great Reality of aging airframes, imperfectly designed systems and long, hard use. Now, the tale I spin happened A While Ago, and while the listing in my Aviators Flight Log Book (OPNAV FORM 3760-31) is naught but a single line, within its bits and pieces lies a lesson worth, I trust, a little of your time.
So it was, good and fine readers, that Your Humble and Obedient Servant found hisself sitting most bleary-eyed in the “I swore I’d never brief this early again” in the too-brightly lit Ready Room at NAS Home Plate, while vastly unpleasant weather that barreled headlong out of the Gulf of Alaska and down the west coast, and promised to make the lure of a sure to be arduous working trip to The Place of Mai-Tai’s, and thence on West, to the Land of Cubi Dogs, cold beers and Warm Beaches; a thing most coveted. The fact was, inasmuch as we Long Range Pathfinder and Aerial Refueling were the Bringers of All Things Go-Juice to our brethren (and sisters, too, by then) without endless and less-than-timely bureaucratic busywork, made us, like certain folks also known to “give it up easily,” quite popular both within the Sea Services and without.
Ah, but to get from “A”, a place that winter’s morning of high winds, driving rains and overall weather known by the forecaster’s term of “dog$%^&” and on to the The Place of Mai-Tai’s, we needed to go forth not singly, but as a pair; for the winds at altitude did blow most vigorously, and into our faces with great force, and would prove to hinder our passage to the West in such a manner as to make our passage, if unassisted, wind up pretty much here:
So, it fell to members of our cohort to leave with us; at least that was the plan, and after A Decent Interval, pointed along with us towards The Land of Mai-Tai’s, top us off and return, sulking no doubt, back into the lousy weather arrival pattern that serviced two major international airports and two Naval Air Stations whenever the weather became obstreperous, which was the case in winter months. Off we went, into the morning’s low light, lashed by rain and wind, each of us forced to depart “backwards” as it were, from the usual direction, and separated by distance, and Air Traffic Control, rather than the usual sprightly “join up and shut up” we were used to when more genteel weather prevailed. Oh, and have I mentioned the weather that morning well and truly sucked? I thought not.
Now given that the Mighty Whales we flew, although mostly the youngest of the pod, were becoming, in airplane years, somewhat geriatric; and given that many of the systems were state-of-the-art when it was designed back in the late 1940′s and updated only when whim and budgets allowed, we had grown more than a wee bit skeptical of certain systems’ warning lights. For example, the engine fire warning system, usually a cause for such choice words as “Holy $%^&!!” and other terms, had a noted tendency to also illuminate when the sensors became wet. Like when the aircraft were washed, for example. This led, in due course, to a three-step initial reaction, not found in the Emergency Procedures Section of NATOPS. It ran something like this:
1. FIRE WARNING LIGHT: ILLUMINATED…..TAP GAUGE
2. IF LIGHT DOES NOT EXTINGUISH….ASK IF PLANE HAS RECENTLY BEEN WASHED
3. IF PLANE DRY….. BECOME CONCERNED
You get the picture. Just because a gauge says it is so, it ain’t necessarily so. We climbed out heading west by southwest, separated by distance and altitude by a Departure Control dedicated, we decided, to making this initial part of the trip about as annoying as possible. Much whining, wheedling and begging on Squadron Common for lead to “give us a few percent” [of engine RPM's, i.e. Slow The Heck Down so we can catch up] and we finally got the regional air traffic control center to let us join up and proceed. A couple of hours out, lead got ready to top us off so he could get the heck home for the rest of his day, and we drank our fill, the winds looking like they would be a pain, but not a problem to ensure a negative pucker factor. One could almost begin to taste the adult beverages waiting for us under moonlit tropical skies.
Lead changed hands and they departed, turning and headed back into the teeth of the winter storm., leaving us the sole masters of our happy fate. The deplored, but necessary HF radio comms were established with Oceanic Radio (“San Francisco Radio, San Francisco Radio, this is Navy November Delta Five Two Three on frequency XXXX, how copy? Hssss, buzzzzzz, crackle, buzzz…”) We motored along, happy in our fate, knowing that soft breezes and fair skies awaited us a few more hours ahead. My pilot, veteran of Vietnam and the airlines, now happily returned to the bosom of Mother Navy after yet-another-furlough as Adult Supervision for us Nasty Boys, and I were discussing the finer aspects of the use of superstition, magic, smoke and mirrors to overcome science and technology, a.k.a. Overwater Navigation, when I saw him lean forward and as the ape did in the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, use his index finger to tap the archaic, not-digital, electro-mechanical oil pressure flip-flop gauge.
“Uh-oh.” I don’t like “uh-oh.” “Uh-oh” is Not A Good Thing. Whaddya mean, “uh-oh?!?!”
“Hmm,” he remarked. “Looks like we’re losing pressure in the left engine.” “Come on, really?” “No, seriously, lean over and take a look.”
“You know, it’s probably the gauge,” I half-pleaded, knowing exactly what was coming next. “Yeah,” he allowed, “and nothing else shows any secondary indication that there’s anything wrong with the engine at all.” Our Crew Chief/Plane Captain, who had settled himself down for a fine winter’s nap in the seat facing aft behind the pilot looked out at the nacelle. “You know, sir,” he said, “doesn’t look like there’s any oil coming out of the nacelle anywhere. It’s got to be the gauge.” Yeah. The airplane is old. Stuff breaks. It’s been known to happen a lot and often. But…
“We better head back. Give Oceanic a call and have them arrange a turn around flight plan that’ll keep us out of the face of outbound traffic,” which was a Good Idea as the charted airways leading to and from the west coast and The Land of Mai-Tai’s are one-way streets, as it were. Radio calls made, charts reworked, courses and headings figured out and, to be honest, magic boxes quickly reprogrammed so they could do most of the heavy brain work in figuring out a way home. Most importantly, we decided that while the gauge was no doubt a lying POS, we couldn’t just ignore it, and we brought back the left throttle and quickly became a swept-winged, not-so-high-altitude, single-engined Navy bomber. More sobering, I started to look up and plug in the numbers to figure out how long we were going to take to get back on only one engine. A lot longer than it took for us to get to where we were turning around.
The mood on the way back was not so buoyant. We knew, I mean we really knew that we had been betrayed by a craptastic and old gauge who’s design had probably been arrived at shortly after the Wright Brothers. In short, this sucked. But we also knew that Home Is Where The Parts Are, and we headed back, aided a little by what were now tailwinds. Eventually we were close enough to get regular radio communications with ATC and began to let down into the highest reaches of the storm system that had managed to plant itself over all of northern California. This made things even a bit more sporting, as it afforded us little choice than to plan on making an Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) with a final approach that took us just a little over the eastern, cantilever section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
So, let’s review: A lying gauge, single-engine, bad weather, a radar controlled approach, over one of the busiest bridges in North America to land the opposite way on our normal runway. In the rain and wind and stuff. Boy, oh boy, were we having fun now!
Where we were going:
Kind of what we were worried it was going to look like on final:
Since, of course, we knew the gauge was lying, we decided we’d restart the engine once were being vectored downwind, before we started the turn onto final, just to be on the safe side. Because, after all, this whole thing was simply an act of reasonableness and prudence. Heck, we hadn’t even really declared an emergency, it was simply a precautionary shutdown. We were fine, albeit pretty pissed off that we were going to be at least a day late.
When you have good people, doing good jobs, things that may seem a bit dramatic actually have very little drama. We did what we were supposed to, restarting the engine, my pilot showing that, in all honesty, he was one of the very best guys I flew with back then. Bay Area Approach did what they were supposed to, and got us easily vectored and turned over to our final controller. Our ground-based GCA controller really did what he was supposed to, and, both engines turning sweetly, we broke out over the Bay Bridge, looking right down the runway. Given the fickle nature of the A-3′s notorious narrow track and fickle anti-skid system, my pilot eased her on, letting energy dissipate before pulling the handle to release the drag chute. Off at the end and we taxied back into the line, to be greeted by a perplexed maintenance department who had been preparing, after out tanker had returned, to call it a day early until we called them on common with a “not so fast, we’re headed back” radio call.
Off came the Nav bags, the personal bags, all the “stuff” we carried. We trooped across the hangar from the Maintenance Control desk, up the stairs to the Ready Room, to wait and hear, politely, from the trouble shooters, that we were a bunch of dumb@$$es. Because we knew, just knew, there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with the engine.
About a half hour later, we were having coffee, out of all our flight gear, laughing and scratching in the Ready Room. We heard a knock at the door and turned and saw one of the maintenance Petty Officers standing there with a glass quart jar. It was about half-full with a dark, almost black viscous fluid. In point of fact, it was about as dark as his face was white, the color drained.
“Hey there, Petty Officer, what’cha got there?”
“It’s the oil we just drained from the left engine, sir.”
“”Yeah, so it appears. What about it?”
“It’s the engine oil, sir. All of the oil. This is all that was left in your engine, out of 8 1/2 gallons, sir. A bearing seal busted and all the oil was draining straight out the tailpipe. Sir, you were about to shit an engine, big time.”
Silently, we looked at each other, then back at the jar.
Not a lot was said after that. We got our bags, heading home to pleasantly surprised wives and families. To give it a go the next day. My logbook shows a total elapsed flight time of 4.8 hours for the stormy winter’s day. I sometimes have wondered if we would have made 4.9. I guess that no matter what, sometimes the gauges don’t lie.
(My pilot that day may read this story, and maybe he’ll remember it different. But who’s tellin’ it, huh? )