Forty-Seven Years In Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 17: The C-123K, Two Retirements And A New Career
The 156th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Lockbourne AFB in Columbus, Ohio -- my final billet as a reservist -- was equipped with a fleet of war-weary C-123Ks, most of them still wearing their jungle camouflage from service in Vietnam. One of the airplanes we inherited from Vietnam served as the personal transport for Lt. General William Westmoreland during his tour as commander of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia in 1964-1968. Based on its solid light-gray paint and the Moby Dick shape of its fuselage, AF 56-4375 became known as the "White Whale." It featured a custom-built room in the cargo compartment intended to provide office space for the general and reduce the noise of two R-2800s and two jets. (The jets were used almost exclusively for takeoff and added a measure of security should one of the recips quit.) If the noise level was indeed lower in the general's airborne office, it was a small decrease ... the C-123K generated 100-plus decibels on takeoff and not a lot less in flight. Ear plugs were required equipment on all C-123s (passengers were issued wads of cotton) but even so, the airplane had to be one of the noisiest in the Air Force inventory. Our missions were a mix of instrument and general flight proficiency for the pilots, cross-country practice for the navigators and occasional trips to points of interest such as Florida, especially in the winter ... all routine training missions, of course. The big drawback to cross-country flights in the C-123 was its low cruise speed; we seldom saw more than 140 knots on the airspeed indicator. Aside from the instrument work, my favorite mission was practice landings on the assault strip adjacent to Lockbourne's 12,000-foot main runway. Only 3400 feet long and 50 feet wide, it was a small target. We were expected to put the rubber on the runway in a very small box at the approach end and come to a complete stop in not more than 1500 feet. The remaining 1900 feet of pavement accommodated the stream of C-123s landing at 15-second intervals when the entire squadron was participating; it was a "land and get off the runway" exercise because there was another Provider close behind. When it came to handling characteristics, the C-123 flew much like the glider it might have been ... a generous amount of rudder was required to counteract the adverse yaw when you rolled into a turn. This was a basic flying technique that called for some refresher training, especially for pilots who had never flown anything but feet-on-the-floor jets. I flew with the 356th until the summer of 1979, when my university obligations once again began to get in the way of Air Force requirements. Knowing I would not be able to maintain both activities for the several years I needed to move up another grade, I retired as a Major in June. I still miss flying big airplanes. In 1981 I was appointed Director of Flight Operations and Training for the Department of Aviation at Ohio State; I now had responsibility for all our student flight training and the university's Air Transportation Service (ATS). With the military commitment off my plate I was able to devote more time to flight training and the duties of a designated pilot examiner, most of which involved students in the Ohio State aviation program. For the next several years I was flying almost every day ... no complaints, although there were days when I didn't really want to fly; but once in the air, the negative thoughts melted away. One of our Piper Aztecs was equipped with a used flight director that was almost state-of-the-art, thanks to a gift from the Sperry Corporation. A group of young Air Force pilots stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, found us in their search for a training facility offering an Airline Transport Pilot course in a light twin with more than bare-bones avionics. We were happy to help them out: I flew nearly 400 hours in the Aztec with these highly motivated students. Can you guess where they were headed when they left the Air Force? The flight training program was operating in administrative and operational grooves worn deep by years of traditional procedures. I incorporated some changes in the program, most of them dealing with flight safety and improved training standards; but in general, I let sleeping dogs lie. The ATS was a different story in 1981 because our equipment was seriously outdated. With corporate-aviation hand-me-downs a thing of the past, the ATS stable had shrunk to a pair of Aztecs and a Piper Navajo ... not the kind of equipment people expected for business travel. Enter a university President who was a pilot and a Vice President who appreciated the value of in-house air transportation; they worked their financial magic and pried loose the funds to revitalize the OSU ATS. We moved into an office in one of the corporate hangars on the airport, leased a Beech C-90 King Air, hired two more pilots and got back into business. The university bought a King Air 200 in 1983, followed somewhat later by another B-200. To help justify the expense of these airplanes and maintain the Aviation Department's status as a teaching laboratory, we instituted a program in which the cream of our aviation-student crop served as copilots on the King Airs; we also developed a ground-school course that dealt with the systems and flight-crew procedures of modern turboprop airplanes. Several years after I retired from the university in 1988, the folks in the head shed on campus decided to use a commercial operator to transport OSU personnel and the entire ATS program was deep-sixed. I was very disappointed when these two opportunities for advanced practical aviation training were discontinued. Now I need to turn back the calendar several years. You will recall that my first book -- Instrument Flying -- was published in 1971 and enjoyed a good reception in the general-aviation community. In 1975, I was contacted by an attorney who had read my book and asked if I would be interested in testifying as a pilot expert in a pending aviation-accident case; after considerable discussion with the attorney and a lot of thought regarding the time involved, I agreed to give it a go ... and my third career -- as a part-time consultant -- was launched. After 37 years in that business, I am still active as a consultant and expert witness, having investigated the piloting aspects of 550-plus aircraft accidents. Much of what I learned from pilots' mishaps has been shared over the years with aviation students in flight training and classroom courses at Ohio State, aviation magazine articles, 13 more aviation books and The Pilot's Audio Update, a monthly audio magazine on CDs that began in 1978 and was published continuously for 33 years. Now, fast-forward to October 1987. A letter from the OSU Board of Trustees announced my eligibility to participate in the university's early-retirement incentive program. I was 54 years old, happy with what I was doing and fully expecting to continue working for Ohio State until the customary 65th birthday. The letter included a deadline for applications, so with nothing to lose, I completed the forms and returned them with little interest in following through. But the more I thought about this proposal, the better it looked. After comparing the facts and making income projections for both scenarios, I bit the bullet and decided to hang out my shingle as a consultant. My official retirement from OSU took place in June 1988 after 22 years of faculty service. With all of my working time now available for consulting, I was able to increase my income considerably and continue flying in the bargain. I used light airplanes to travel to jobs all over the country, many times flying directly to small towns not served by airlines. I was fortunate to have a good friend whose A-36 Bonanza was my always-available airplane for several years, followed by his purchase of a Cessna 414, then a King Air C-90. When the King Air was sold, I stepped down a notch to a Piper Seneca that provided my business transportation for the next 10 years. Many investigations required "re-creation" flights, the information from which was used to help juries understand how an accident occurred. These flights frequently involved flying at the edges of the performance envelope in a number of different airplane types, often in the presence of video cameras, strain gauges and other custom instrumentation. Because most light-twin accidents take place following an engine failure, I did a lot of simulated engine-out flying. Every now and then someone asks, "What is your favorite airplane?" Following is a condensation of a story I wrote about that several years ago for IFR magazine, one of the Belvoir group of aviation publications. This used to be a tough call for me. During 47 years and nearly 12,000 hours as a military and civilian pilot, I have experienced the good and the not-so-good features of many different types of aircraft. Choosing a favorite was difficult until one night in January 1986 when I was still working at Ohio State. With one of our student copilots in the right seat, I had flown a passenger from Columbus, Ohio, to Detroit, planning to return a couple of hours later. It was IMC all the way on the northbound leg, and during the approach to Detroit we encountered heavy snow that stopped falling soon after we parked at the terminal. The temperature was well below freezing and none of the snow adhered to the cold-soaked airframe. Our passenger showed up on time (a rare occurrence in the charter business) and we were on the way home shortly thereafter. Detroit to Columbus is at most a 30-minute trip, so I climbed to 15,000 feet, a convenient altitude considering weather, passenger comfort and airplane efficiency. At about the halfway point, flying in clear air between cloud layers, I had just started the descent when the loudest sound I have ever heard in an airplane and a blinding flash of light took place in a split second. I do not use the term "blinding" lightly; my field of vision was completely obscured for perhaps 10 seconds by what I can best characterize as a bright, yellow phosphorescence, then a dark spot appeared in the center and grew slowly until my normal sight returned. There was no bump, no turbulence, no indication that we had hit anything, ergo something must have hit us. Lightning? Now wait a minute ... lightning doesn't strike airplanes flying in clear air in the middle of winter over central Ohio ... or does it? I thought first of the engines because of the bad history of turbines vs. lightning strikes; no problem there, those two PT-6s were humming along as advertised. A quick, visual scan outside showed no apparent structural damage, nor was there any vibration or abnormal flight characteristics. The autopilot was still engaged and was holding the airplane steady in the descent. The flight instruments and the electrical system showed no indications of trouble, no lights had gone out, no circuit breakers had popped and the three of us appeared to have no problems. (I looked back to see if our passenger was OK; he gave me a thumbs-up, although I'm sure he was more than a little concerned.) At this point we were only 10 or 15 minutes from landing; the airplane and all its systems appeared to be working normally and I decided to continue the descent for home -- in the dark of night, that seemed the best option. The copilot cancelled IFR and advised approach control we had taken a lightning strike and would land on Runway 27 from a right base-leg. The wing flaps extended as they should, the landing gear came down and locked, the engines and props responded properly ... the only abnormality I noticed was some extra pressure required to move the ailerons when I rolled into and out of the turn from base to final. A completely normal landing followed and, not knowing what damage the airplane might have suffered, I was very glad to be on the ground. I've read a lot about lightning strikes and experienced another one many years ago in the Air Force. Airplanes are designed to shed most of the energy from a strike and the damage is usually minor -- pitted metal, maybe a few small holes in the skin, avionics sometimes fried -- but this strike was industrial strength. The after-accident inspection showed a couple of dime-sized holes burned in the underside of the left nacelle, the apparent entry point of the lightning bolt. From there we were able to trace the energy path through the left engine mounts, through the prop blades as they passed close to the fuselage, around the radome to the right prop blades, then through the right engine and right wing to the exit point on the right wingtip. The damage there was so severe I had our chief mechanic cut off the outboard twelve inches of the right aileron, a memento I keep in my office as a reminder of the event. Notice the large round hole, which is obviously entry damage. The lightning charge probably sought out and destroyed the static wick then plunged back into the aileron structure and blew out the corner.
The amount of energy dissipated at the exit point is evident in this end view of the aileron -- probably the source of the loud bang that occurred when the strike took place. When the flight control system was checked, the mechanics discovered the bearings in the aileron pulleys had been welded by the surge of electricity and the cables were being dragged around the pulleys instead of turning them ... no wonder the ailerons felt heavy. Without a doubt, the most significant bullet we dodged that night was failure of the prop reduction-gears in both engines. The 30,000 RPM of the power section is reduced to the prop speed of 1900-2200 RPM by a multi-tooth gear system. Every time the teeth engage and disengage in the presence of a strong electrical field (such as a lightning strike), high-voltage arcing takes place and particles of gear metal are blown away, resulting eventually in a gear case full of loose metal and a prop system guaranteed to fail sooner or later. In this case, it was estimated that the reduction gears would probably have gone belly-up within 20 minutes or so after the lightning strike ... we didn't get on the ground a moment too soon. Needless to say, the mechanics went through the entire airplane, checking and testing for subtle damage. The airplane was out of service for four months and the bill for repairs, replacements and repainting was nearly $100,000. Ever since, I've had no problem coming up with an unequivocal answer to the question "What's your favorite airplane?" Considering crew and passenger comfort, handling qualities and overall performance, the King Air B-200 was already near the top of my list of favorite airplanes. But all that praise takes a back seat to the King Air's stamina that night in 1986; how could I not select as my all-time favorite airplane the one that saved three lives by taking a huge hit and holding together long enough to get us on the ground safely? Thank you, Walter Beech. On that positive note, I bring this memoir of 47 years in aviation to a close. Nine years after I gave up flying because of a malfunctioning heart valve, I had the offending part repaired and the surgeon told me the fix might extend my life expectancy 10 years. If the doc speaks the truth, I plan to spend some of that extra time recalling memories -- nearly all of them good, a few of them forgettable -- and should I get involved in hangar-flying sessions with other elderly eagles, I'll bide my time, because the first liar doesn't stand a chance.