My first cut at the opening of Comet 21, a story of the cold war and a young tanker pilot. For more on the young pilot, see my first novel: Awol 21.
“Comet 21, cleared for takeoff Runway 6 Right, maintain runway heading , contact Departure Control 269.5 .”
The copilot, 2nd Lieutenant Tom Harter, replied in his best radio voice, trying to sound calmer than he felt, and perhaps more mature than his 22 years allowed, or like he had flown this big bird all his life, instead of just three months.
“Ah, roger, Comet 21 cleared for takeoff, maintain runway heading, departure on 269.5.”
The aircraft commander, Captain Rhett Cooper, eased the four throttles up just enough to get the KC-135A Stratotanker rolling toward the runway, then pulled them to idle as he rolled the nose wheel steering to the right, turning the big jet onto the runway. The jet was loaded to 287,400 pounds, peacetime takeoff maximum, and it seemed to waddle slightly in the turn.
Harter read from the checklist open on his lap. “Throttle brake.”
Cooper checked the position of the throttle friction lever. “Checked.”
“Lights – set.”
Cooper flipped the switches. “Flight start.”
“Water boost pumps – start.”
“Throttles – set TRT”
Cooper took all four throttle levers with his gloved right hand and moved them forward slowly, watching the EPR gauges for each engine.
“Follow me through on the throttles.”
Harter put his left hand behind the throttles. The airplane started rolling down the runway. Cooper pushed the control column full forward.
The two pilots noted the EPR needles jump when the water injection started on each engine; at 2.3 EPR the Cooper took his hand off the throttles and tapped Harter’s hand, which was right behind his, and put both hands on the yoke. Harter pushed each throttle forward separately until each EPR gauge read 2.36, then placed his left hand on the quadrant behind the throttle levers.
The roar of the engines wasn’t as obvious in the cockpit under a helmet and headphones, but to the Supervisor of Flying, parked in a blue pickup truck at the runway’s midpoint, it was thrilling. He felt the disturbed air hitting him in waves of deep vibration. Black smoke poured out of the four J-57 engines and obscured the approach end from his view.
The 11,200 foot long runway sloped downhill at the start of the takeoff run, but at midpoint inclined enough to slow the acceleration, even causing the airspeed to decrease. Harter called the speed on the intercom: “115 Knots, 113, 115, 117.” Harter tapped the airspeed indicator, and Cooper smiled and nodded. At 145 knots Harter called “S-1.” All eyes were forward again as the speed increased and the jet hurtled towards the end of the runway. Finally, with only a thousand feet of runway remaining, the airspeed indicator read 175, and Harter called “Rotate” and Cooper pulled back on the yoke, and the nose rose, the wheels lifted off the runway, and they were airborne, and the end of the runway disappeared behind them.
Cooper responded by raising the big landing gear lever, watching it until lights indicated the wheels were up and locked. He looked down as the runway, then the jungle, then a sandy beach receded below them, and then there was nothing but water ahead. The pilot continued the climb straight ahead, the initial altitude targeted was 1,000 feet above the ocean, where they would level and accelerate to climb speed of 285 knots.
It was a picture perfect takeoff, and the SOF turned his pickup truck around and went back to Base Ops.
Harter saw the red light in the number three engine fire t-handle illuminate. For a second, he wondered if he was imagining it.
“Copilot to crew, fire warning light number 3 engine.”
The aircraft commander responded immediately.
“Pull the #3 engine throttle to idle.”
As Harter retarded the number 3 engine throttle to idle, double checking that he had the correct throttle lever in hand before moving it. Cooper lowered the nose, switched off the rudder autopilot, and pushed on the left rudder as the nose swung slightly to the right.
The light was still illuminated.
“Shut down 3; pull the fire t-handle. Engine fire in flight checklist.”
Harter carefully selected the number 3 throttle, pulled the throttle lever around the detent, and put it in cutoff. He reached up to the t-handle, and then looked at Cooper again for confirmation. Cooper nodded, and he pulled the switch out. The engine fire warning light went out immediately. The engine was showing 10% RPM, wind-milling, shut down. They both relaxed for a moment.
“Declare an emergency. Dump fuel.”
Harter looked up from the checklist in his lap. Cooper pointed to the fuel dump switch. The copilot lifted the switch cover and flipped it up, then turned on the fuel pumps in the main body tanks. He looked back at his checklist again, and then performed the last item, tripping the #3 generator on the control panel on the roof of the cockpit.
“Guam Departure, Comet 21, declaring an emergency, returning to Anderson to land.”
“Roger, Comet 21, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“Number three engine fire, shut down.”
“Roger, Comet 21, turn right for downwind at Anderson.”
“Yeah, we’re dumping fuel, got to get rid of lots of this fuel before we can land.”
“Guam Departure, advise when you’re ready to land.”
The jet was now 2,000 feet above the water, leaving a trail of JP-4 jet fuel behind as it flew a big circle around to line up with the runway. Harter wondered if the fuel would evaporate before hitting the water. Then he saw another light on the instrument panel illuminated.
“Copilot to crew, number 4 engine low oil pressure warning light is on.” He taps the number 4 oil pressure gauge, separate from the warning light. It indicates good pressure, but the warning light remained on. Two engines out on one sided? Dicey!
“God damn it!” The AC shakes his head. “Boom, you on?”
“Get that zebra up here and put him in the jump seat.” Cooper shook his head. “God damn it!”
The boom operator checked off and went to the back of the airplane, where 33 aircraft mechanics sat along both of the cargo compartment on uncomfortable fabric bench seats. In the center of the cargo area two huge J-57 engines were strapped down. The boom operator found the senior NCO, his fatigue shirt sleeves almost covered with chevrons, earning him the nickname “Zebra.”
In a minute, Chief Master Sergeant Ronald Kelsoe sat in the jump-seat, folded down between the pilot seats just aft of the center console.
The pilot turned to look at the Chief briefly, and then pointed to the #3 engine instruments, including the illuminated low oil pressure light, which had been coming on intermittently during the trip to Guam.
“We got 3 shut down, and then 4 oil low pressure light comes on. This makes me very nervous. Does it make you nervous?”
The Chief, not sure what to say, nodded in agreement. Cooper turned his attention back to the horizon ahead of them.
“Stop dumping fuel. We’re ok.”
Harter nodded and turned off the fuel dump switch. He checked the fuel totalizer; they had started with 165,000 pounds of fuel, now they are down to just over 100,000.
Landing weight of 207,000. Should be ok. Harter looked over at Cooper. Pretty fucking calm. Like he does three engine landings all the time.
They turned right and could see the runway a few miles ahead.
“Before landing checklist.”
“RGA Power and Speed Deviation switches, on.”
“Hold off, I’ll let you know. Max will be 30 degrees.”
“Roger.” “Guam Departure, Comet 21 turning final.”
“Comet 21, cleared to land Runway 6 Right. Crash trucks in position.”
“21.” Gonna get chased down the runway by the fire trucks!
The SOF, alerted to the emergency by Tower, pulled back onto the midpoint taxiway. As he stopped, an Air Force Blue ambulance pulled up behind him and the corpsman in the passenger seat got out.
“What’s up, boss?”
“Engine fire on takeoff, they’re coming in on three.”
The both turned to the left, where they could now see the tanker on a three mile final approach.
“They going to be OK?”
The SOF nodded. “Yeah. They’ll be OK. Cakewalk.” The corpsman went back to the ambulance.
Let’s hope so, anyway.
The jet touched down and rolled to a stop two thirds of the way down the runway, crash truck on either side, the ambulance, and the SOF. A tug from maintenance followed a blue pickup down the taxiway toward them.
Harter quickly ran through the After Landing and Engine Shutdown checklists as Sandy opened the crew entry hatch and put the ladder in place. Soon, the crew gathered around the number 3 engine, inboard on the right wing, and looked up at a six inch hole burned through the engine cowling.
Cooper stood with his hands on his hips. “Well, damn! There you go. Damned fire after all.”
The mechanics streamed out of the jet as the crew climbed into the SOF pickup for the ride to Base Ops.
“Back to the friggin BOQ. I wonder if they saved our rooms for us this time.” Cooper pulled a cigarette out of a pack in his left sleeve pocket.
“You got the hard luck bird, or the hangar queen, or what?” The SOF turned to look at Cooper, who just shook his head.
“First, we couldn’t get number 4 started. Then the main accumulator is leaking like a sieve. Now this.” He nodded to the back seat of the pickup. “My nav’s kinda spooked. And that’s not to mention the Dutch Roll out of Hickam.”
“You did a Dutch Roll?”
“Yeah, you should’ve seen it. Pretty wild. Totally fucking out of control. Climbing out of Hickam, four in a five ship. Eighteen thousand feet. It’s a wonder the troops in the back were willing to get back in the airplane.”
“I’d hate to be your DCM. I imagine he’s on the phone with Offut about now, getting his ass reamed.”
Cooper rolled the side window down and lit his cigarette. “Well, at least my copilot’s getting some good experience. He’s the FNG in the squadron.” He turned toward Harter, also in the back seat. “How much time you got in the 135, Tom?”
“Sixty hours. More or less. You mean it isn’t always like this?”
They all laughed, and the pickup pulled to a stop in front of a door marked “Maintenance Debriefing.”