Precise Flying

This was sent to me by my Air Force friend….


It happened in Germany in 1965, in Germany.  I was a new brand-new USAF co-pilot . Therefore I thought I knew, everything there was to know . . about ‘ zooming ‘ around in an airplane.

 And I was frustrated by pilots . . like my Aircraft Commander.

     He was one of those by-the-numbers types, no class, no imagination, and no ” feel ” for really zipping around.  A pilot who knows that he’s the ‘ real deal ‘ needs only to be ‘ in tune  ‘ with ‘ that airplane ‘ neath his hands and feet.

     So what if your flight altitude is a little bit off?  So what if the glideslope indicator is showing that you’re off a few hairs from having a picture-perfect relationship with its indices?

 If it feels okay ‘ round your ‘ bones ‘. . hey man . . just do it.

     Every time he let me make an approach, even in VFR conditions, he demanded perfection.  Not the slightest deviation would he allow.  ” If you can’t stick those needles like they’ve been painted on those dials . . when there’s no threat to deal with . . you surely will not be able do it when a ‘ pucker factor situation occurs,” he told me. 

 Then told me again.

 Over . . and over.

      When this Command Pilot  ‘ shot ‘ an instrument approach himself, with me critically staring  at the gauges, it looked as though each instrument reading . . was frozen in place.

  But this man had no ‘ pizazz ‘ and class . . I  [ was less and less able to say ] comment to myself.

 Then ‘ IT ‘ happened . . during a routine flight from the Azores . . to Germany.

     The weather was supposed to be good.  We’d loaded 45,000 pounds of gas.  And along with crew and cargo . . sending the C-124 Globemaster’s total weight up to only 180,000 pounds.

 Hey . . we were 5,000 pounds  BELOW ‘ max ‘ gross weight.

 It would be an easy, routine flight.  And we’d be soon be sitting at the O’Club drinking fine German beer.

     Halfway to Europe’s mainland, the weather below began turning . . absolutely putrid for ‘ eye-balled ‘ landings.

 Then I kept getting weather updates . . but they got worse.

     As we entered France, our destination’s visibility and landing ceiling fell to zero/zero.  On the other hand, we had not just ONE . . but TWO landing alternatives.  Then zip . . zip . . and both of the alternatives degraded to zero/zero.

Then . . ALL weather minimums on France’s longest runways were now violated by heavy low scud and fog.

 On the other hand, this low ‘ goop ‘ had moved in . . eventually it would move on out.

     Betting it might improve, we eased back to less gas-guzzling power settings, reduced RPMs and circled around in a holding pattern over a nav beacon.

 But  the situation ‘ disimproved.’

   Somewhere . . a fighter pilot declared an emergency with minimum fuel. He shot two landing approaches.  But saw nothing at all . . even when he [ probably ] violated IFR minimums.

 After his third try, his single engine fighter flamed out . . and he ‘ punched out .’

 My left seater then decided we would try a precision radar approach in the current ‘ goop.’  Although our landing runway below was intensely obscured.

 As the sun began setting and added significant threat.  And I started to sweat a little. And my pulse picked up. Things got dimmer around us so I turned on the instrument lights. Glancing out toward the right wing tip, I could NOT even make out the bright navigation light.

 Then . . I could barely make out a dull glow from the red hot exhaust stacks.

 As we further reduced power and RPM’s to maximum endurance, even that friendly exhaust glow vanished.

  The left seater asked the flight engineer ‘ where we stood on fuel ‘  The engineer answered : ” I don’t know, Sir.  But . . my readings are so low that the book says . . our current readings are NOT reliable. “

 Next to him, our navigator’s eyes became huge.  Why’s that ? We did NOT carry any parachutes on regular MAC flights.  So we could NOT merely parachute down as that fighter pilot had just done.  Somehow, we had to safely land ‘ Old Shaky.’  Or ‘ auger ‘ this thing in.

 The pilot asked me to find out which nearby fighter base had the widest runway.  And I looked it up as he declared an emergency. Then turned in the direction of the wide runway.

 The pilot began our emergency briefing : “This will be for real. There will be NO MISSED APPROACH !

 We have to land NOW.

 We are going to use the base’s Instrument Landing System.  But are also going to listen to precision radar . . to keep us honest. “

 ” Copilot, don’t give me full flaps . . only 20 degrees. That will put our deck angle almost level . . and we will have a bit less nose up change . . during the landing flare.”

 Why hadn’t I thought of that ? Now where was my cocky ” feelings.  And ” this man’s not classy ” opinions ?

 His emergency briefing continued :

      “I’m going to ‘ lock ‘ my eyes on the instrument gauges. And you are going to be ready to take over to finish this landing . . if you see the runway – so we won’t get caught transitioning to visual flying . . just before touchdown.”

 Hey . .  he’s even taking me into his plans. The man’s not that ‘ rigid ‘ after all.

 ” On the way down final, I want you to call out each 100 feet of descent to the runway.  But when we get down to 100 feet, I want you to switch to the radar altimeter for more precise numbers.  Then start calling off every 25 feet . . But at the same time, I need you to keep me honest on our airspeed.

    ” Now Engineer . . listen up. When we touch down, I am going to cut off  all engines’ fuel mixtures with the master shut off.  When that happens . . I need you to ‘ cut off ‘ all the magneto switches . . to kill the ignition on all engines.

 ” There any questions? No ?

 ‘ Okay let’s go! “

 All of a sudden, this left seat ‘ numbers robot ‘ . . was making lots of sense. It looks like he’s the professional . .  I need to know more about flying airplanes.

 To reduce gasoline waste, we made a tailored turn . . then the ‘ Radar guys directed us to outer marker for the wide runway I’d found.

     We flew over to the outer marker . . turned toward the runway.  And during the next half a mile, we carefully read out loud,  each item on checklist . . wheels down and locked, flaps 20 degrees . . as the ILS course deviation indicator was ‘ painted ‘ in place.  And the glide slope marker began its almost hydraulic trip down.

 The pilot asked for a slight power reduction.  The nose lowered slightly, as all of the instruments, except for the slowly unwinding altimeter . . were ‘ acid-etched . . in place .

 Amazingly ! It was gorgeous !

 This man indeed had a feel for that airplane ! When his brain touched all relevant problems . . 135,000 pounds of ‘ Old Shaky ‘ instantly responded to the quality of this man’s thinking . . he could have been a brain surgeon.

 ” Five hundred feet ” I called out.  Then 400 feet . . 300 feet . . MATS minimums at 200 feet . .100 feet,

 Now I’m switching to the radar altimeter . . nothing visual while it shows 75 feet . . 50 feet with nothing

. . 25 feet and still nothing.

 Airspeed’s showing 100 knots.”

 The airplane’s bulbous nose rotated up a couple of degrees . . to further diminish forward speed and began a landing flare.

 There was nothing for us to see outside.

    The pilot then casually but clearly said : ” Hang on, we’re landing . . showing 90 knots . . easing down through 10 feet.


     Without taking his eyes off the instruments, the left-seater’s right hand reached up and shut off all of the fuel mixtures. And ordered the engineer to cut all the engines’ magnetos to reduce chances of fire.

 I could barely feel anything.  It was one of the smoothest and best landings I have ever experienced . . a massive parasite drag must have started the tires spinning.   And during that magnificent moment . .  I couldn’t even tell if we were on the runway . . except I saw runway lights . . blurring by.

 “Copilot, verify hydraulic booster is on for brakes and for steering.” I complied saying : ” Hydraulic boost pump on . . pressure is up.”

 The brakes were applied slowly—none of us wanted to broad-side skid this huge beast . . inside the thick cloud lying on the runway.

     I glanced left. The pilot was still flying on instruments . . and precisely steering us down the runway through the thick ‘ goop. ‘

” Airspeed, 50 knots.” We might make it yet. “Airspeed, 25 knots.” We’re going make it unless we drop into a ravine . . off the end.

 I now hear a strange set of sounds . . the whirl of gyros winding down, the buzz of the inverters clicking off.  And a low frequency thumping inside my chest.

 The thumping was . . my heart pounding.

 Understandably . . there was total silence from each human in that cavernous cockpit.

 The airplane was standing still.

 Forever a competent professional, the left-seater said :  “Now read that After-landing Checklist. And turn off all those electric motors, radar .  And turn off all unnecessary radios off before we kill our batteries.

 Copilot, radio the Tower that we’ve arrived.  And have them send a ‘ follow me ‘ truck . . because I can’t even see the edge of this runway.”

 The Tower guys didn’t believe we were sitting out there. They’d gone outside . . but they couldn’t hear or see a thing. We assured them . . we were sitting out there . . somewhere on their runway’s localizer centerline.  And we parked . . straight ahead.

 We waited about 20 minutes for the ‘ follow me ‘  truck.  And we paused to allow adrenalin-charged hearts . . to ease down from our throats.

 Then I felt something bump into us.

 It felt like our nose wheels had just run over taxiway bump. But we weren’t moving. I asked the loadmaster to

check to see what happened. He dropped open the heavy belly door and it struck something . . made a loud, metallic bang.

     He came on the interphone : ” Sir, you’ll never believe this. In this fog, the ‘ follow-me ‘ truck guy couldn’t see us. So he ran smack into our nose tire . . the truck bounced off . . and nothing’s hurt on our airplane.”

 The pilot then told Tower that we were going to park . . right where it was.  And we would come by straddling their ‘ follow me ‘ truck.

     I climbed down to assist ‘ buttoning up ‘. . I was startled to see Old Shakey’s nose tires parked on each side of the now closed runway’s centerline. We had not even needed to use that wide runway.

 Our total damage was [ 1 ] a dent in the ‘ follow me ‘ truck’s hood and [ 2 ] the driver’s down-cast embarrassment

. . knowing everyone on base would know about his folly before he’d slid into his bed that night.

 And I finally began to understand.  Being a great pilot isn’t all ‘ seat-of-the-pants flying ‘ . . and glory.  It’s professional self- discipline . . cunning analysis . . and a dedicated life-time of precise flying.

     Like that Command Pilot said : ” If you can’t stick the gauges when everything’s fine . . how can you possibly do it when your back’s up against . . an unforgiving wall ‘ ?




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8 responses to “Precise Flying

  1. Old AF Sarge

    Outstanding story Bill. Thank your buddy for me will ya?

  2. Of course that no class AC was right on the button, and not just on the landing.

  3. Flugelman

    Great story, Bill. Did you spend any time at Tachikawa with the 124? I loved the sound of those mighty 4360s on the 6000 ft Tachi runway. I was always amazed that they made it into the air as they seemed so slow. Something to do with the massive size and perspective I guess.

    • Bill Brandt

      Never spent any time with the 124. Something about a powerful radial engine on start up, isn’t there?

      I was a docent to an aircraft museum, and among the displays was a 4360 – part of the crankcase was cut away to show the internals. I mentioned to one of the visitors about the complexity of doing an overhaul on that 28 cylinder monster, and he replied that he used to do just that.

      Would have each cylinder out on a bench, which its associated parts all around it.

      He said that a friend once played a rather nasty joke on him – left an (extra) part on the bench once he had assembled the engine – that was almost a capital offense.

    • Flugelman

      “This was sent to me by my Air Force friend….”

      Reading comprehension, duh…
      Guess I can blame it my advancing age, not much else works.

  4. Mannan Thomason

    Forwarded this to a friend. Saw him today. He said that he had read this same story in “The Airman” magazine, an Air Force Publication in the “70’s”. The major difference was that the story happened in Alaska!
    I guess “creative” writing is alive and well! Good story if true! The principle applies, regardless.
    Mannan Thomason
    Msgt. USAF Ret.

    • Bill Brandt

      Others have remembered reading this story 40 years ago too, Mannan – and in Navy Journals, Air Force Journals….I am just trying to imagine how that crew felt until they saw the taxiway lights!

  5. Great, Bill. And all the while I was thinking, Lex was trying to do this solo, but at a little over double the approach/ landing speed. :-/

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