I get a lot of e-mail from around the world and do appreciate them all. Craig is an engineer who knew a fallen comrade that I used to fly with in the Boeing 747. He read my coverage of the Airborne Express N827AX accident and reached out.
Aviation is like that. We are all comrades of a sort.
Craig has sent many stories to me since then. Many of these have valuable lessons to teach. I asked for his permission to share some of these and he graciously agreed. So here goes . . .
Photo: Craig Bondy (From a few years ago.)
I just read your review of the Airborne Express DC-8-63 crash (N827AX). I noticed you mentioned having been in the same squadron with the Flight Engineer. I wondered if you ever flew with him? Although I am not a pilot, I have been in aviation technical and engineering positions for a long time. I knew him personally.
His daughter was in the CAP squadron I temporarily led in Wilmington, OH. I remember looking in her eyes at his funeral and wondering what can I possibly say . . . there are no words. Though I also lost fellow airmen on the USAF ARIA (Advanced Range and Instrumentation Aircraft) NKC-135 61-0328 crash over Maryland in May 1981, I did not know any of their family members, only a couple of airmen on the aircraft that day.
I was just curious if our military careers had an intersection with Terry so I sent you this email. In any case I think your website is very informative, especially to someone like me. Though I have a very significant background in aviation, since I am not a pilot I am constantly seeking more knowledge of how pilots assimilate information, decide on a course of action and carry out their tasks in our world of the sky. Your site provides some of that knowledge and I am grateful for your efforts. I only found your site recently, though I wish I had found it sooner. I look forward to reading your website from stem to stern, if you will forgive a nautical term being proffered to an aviator!
I had a friend who flew the ARIA and later moved on to United Airlines. He said it was a challenging airplane because of that bulbous nose, but he also bragged that they spent a lot of time in warm, tropical areas. He joked that they often broke in a lot of nice places. At last, corroboration . . .
Photo: EC-135N ARIA aircraft at Patrick AFB, FL (USAF Photo)
I was in maintenance the first five years of my USAF career, and I always admired the folks who flew the aircraft. Trying to think like a pilot was always a benefit when trying to troubleshoot an issue. I learned very early on that pilots and maintenance folks have a significant difference in how each perceives the systems of the aircraft, and it is vital in my opinion for the maintenance person to understand the perspective of the pilot as much as possible.
My career was 20 years and 10 months. I spent the first five years on Active Duty and then transferred to the Active Reserves (category A, attached to an operational Reserve unit) for the 15 years and 10 months before I retired.
My active duty time was as an Avionics Navigation Specialist. I spent two years with 17th BW, 42nd AD, 8th AF, SAC on the B-52H and KC-135A at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, OH. Then I spent three years in 4950th Test Wing, ASD on a mix of research aircraft (EC-135N ARIA aircraft, NKC-135A/B, NC-141A, and the occasional C-130, HH-53, F-4, T-37, T-38 and so on for various programs). You may recall that the former ARIA aircraft squadron, originally based at Patrick AFB in Florida during the Apollo space missions, was transferred to Wright-Patt for some years before being relocated again to Edwards AFB in CA. It was during those Wright-Patt years that I was with them.
Because our shop handled the APN-59 weather radar, the ARIA program always took someone from our shop on each TDY when they traveled to do missile tracking. It always amazed me when returning from a Pacific mission that we seemed to break down in Hawaii for a few days. We carried a large stockpile of spare units with us due to the time sensitivity of research missile launches. Then one trip it was my turn. One of the officers who represented the Task Force Commander (TFC) approached me after we landed in Hickam and said something along the lines of, “Sgt, we just broke down. We just broke down for an item we do not currently have in our onboard stock pile and will require 3-4 days to receive from the US logistics system. Check out the aircraft and report back to me ASAP to identify the item you have chosen that we need to order, so I can report to the TFC why we are staying at Hickam for the next few days.” So I guess the breakdowns weren’t all that random!
The USAF was very good to me in so many ways. I had a very busy, challenging and pleasant career with USAF. They taught me skills that have served me for several decades in aviation (43 years last July).
Even in the cockpit, the noise level of these KC-135A water injected engines was terrifying. I am sure they violate more than a few OSHA rules today. We used to joke the engine converted fuel to noise; thrust was a byproduct. And perhaps that is true; let's compare it to my trusty G450. Each of the four engines on the latest KC-135A could produced 12,500 pounds of water injected thrust to lift 297,000 pounds of airplane into the air. That makes a thrust to weight ratio of about 1 to 6. The G450 has a maximum takeoff weight 74,600, lifted by two engines capable of producing 13,850 pounds of thrust each. That's a thrust to weight ratio of 1 to 2.69. More than twice the power.
Photo: KC-135A water injection takeoff (USAF Photo)
I remember one stop (I think it was Guam or maybe Kwajalein) where we had an issue with the #1 engine that after the maintenance was complete, required “trimming” the engine and then testing it with a full power run-up plus a water injection check. Once again I was assisting the crew chief and building brownie points I hoped. As an avionics person with no engine experience, my role was limited to holding any necessary tools and watching the flight line for any people or vehicles that might trespass into the danger area around the run-up pad. Of course I had double hearing protection on, and it was my very first time standing right next to an engine that went to full throttle and then hit water. Engines 2, 3 and 4 were not running and all the landing gear (including the nose wheel, which was not typical for engine runs to idle only) were chocked to make sure that even with only one engine, full power with water would not cause us to jump the chocks. (As an engineer, I am sure you can visualize the rotational moment on the main landing gear when the water injection on that long lever arm kicked in.)
The engine trimming went well and all were safe and happy. What I will never forget about that day is the overwhelming sensation of immense, raw power generated by that engine. Since you and I are from the same generation, I wonder if you remember the football games that were around when we were young? I mean the metal football field with the little vibrator motor underneath? The football player figures had felt on the feet for movement when the motor vibrated. You would set up the two teams at the line of scrimmage and at the simulated kickoff, turn on the motor and watch the figures move randomly due to the vibration. Well, that is what happened to me that day. When that engine hit water while I was standing next to it, the earth vibrated so powerfully that I could feel (and see when I looked down at my combat boots) that I could not stand perfectly still. My body was randomly moving in various directions across the run-up pad. The movement was quite small, but I actually detected it with my eyes. The only other time I could ever remember being so overwhelmed with such an experience of raw power was whenever I would watch a nuke being trundled out to load a B-52H to cock it for alert.
This story resonates with me because I have to remind myself regularly that mechanics are often subject to the same stresses and pressures that we pilots are. There have been a few times when a mechanic has told me a job was done as required "by the book" and, because I thought highly of that mechanic, I left my usual skepticism at the door. The hydraulic bleed procedure, for example, is different on a GIV and G450. If the mechanic has the GIV procedure memorized and fails to look up the G450 procedure, you will have problems. Lesson learned: not every variant of an airplane flies like the others, or is maintained like the others.
Photo: Piper Cheyenne, (USCBP Photo)
The very first time I had a chance to work on a Piper Cheyenne, I learned something the hard way – through embarrassment. This was when I was working with Bendix-King as a technician on their avionics products, based in Dayton, OH very near the Dayton Int’l Airport. The pitch axis servo for the M4D autopilot had been replaced and I had been sent across the field to check it out as the “factory trained specialist” on Bendix-King systems. Well I knew the system and internal theory as well as having a lot of experience repairing and testing the system. But between you and me, not a heck of a lot of time actually checking the systems in a wide variety of aircraft, though I was fairly up to speed on a few types we saw a lot. Fortunately I was alone inside the aircraft, needing only outside power and the MRO person who was there in case I needed help was outside monitoring flight controls for me.
I checked out the autopilot system as best as can be done on the ground and one of my final checks that I liked to do was to run the stabilizer trim stop to stop to make sure that nothing had been done during the servo replacement or during my checkout that could compromise this critical flight control. So I ran the pitch trim full nose up, verified that the indicator indicated full nose up, and the outside person confirmed the horizontal stabilizer traversed to the full nose up position. At that time the person assisting was called to the hanger but I assured him I could check the stabilizer position for nose down before I left as I had often done these type of checks by myself. Note that the aircraft had already been legally returned to service. My job was just to make sure that the customer would be delighted with the product so I was typically dispatched to do a sanity check after the actual mechanics had released the aircraft.
When I ran the trim towards full nose down, it stopped at 2 degrees nose down. It was a hard stop, not like a binding of the cables. Of course my first thought was, “What in the heck have I screwed up?!” I went back to the servo bay and popped the quarter turns in the access panel to take a look but it was not possible to see the actual cabling from the trim motor to the pulleys from that location. Also knowing that the pitch servo which had been changed was connected to the elevator but not the stabilizer confused me. Admittedly in somewhat of a panic, I went inside the hanger (trying not to draw attention to myself as the factory expert who was baffled) and called the real factory genius in our plant in Fort Lauderdale, FL. His name was Ray.
After explaining the details to Ray, he began laughing and snorting, and I had to wait until he could get himself under control to ask why was he laughing? He told me that the Piper Cheyenne could be unstable in a specific flight condition (don’t remember what) and that the certification required that the pitch trim be physically limited to 2 degrees nose down by a cable block. After several seconds of stunned silence on my end, he asked me if I was ok and I said yes, sorry, I was just busy crying with relief! Ray and I had a good laugh over that situation several times in the next few years.
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