Over the bayou

Over the bayou

Tom Longo

I should have known we’d have a problem when two reserve O-5s (lieutenant colonels) were scheduled to fly together. It was an innocuous, day-VFR flight from North Carolina to New Orleans. With one very experienced crew chief (gunnery sergeant) and one crew chief under training (lance corporal), we had a total of about 10,000 hours of flight experience. We were to fly the big CH-53E to the commanding general’s change of command.

One gripe led to another, and we left late. Halfway to the first fuel stop, we noticed that the second-stage hydraulic pressure had dropped below its minimum pressure–it was rock steady at 1,000 psi. We troubleshot the problem and decided the gauge was bad. Then the quantity started dropping. Fortunately, our crew chief under training could open cans fast and pump like a fire engine, and he kept the quantity in the green until we could divert. The Air Force folks were kind enough to make a new line and sell us a few gallons of hydraulic fluid, and we were on the road again just before dark.

I fly EMS helicopters on my real job, so I fly unaided every night. For some reason, though, the thought of flying a Marine helicopter without NVGs was unnerving, even though we used to fly that way all the time. We also used to fly without GPS (remember OMEGA?), but I wasn’t too happy about flying with a broken GPS, either.

Right after passing Biloxi, we cut out over the water to save time. We were knocking on the end of our crew day, and we had big plans for Bourbon Street.

Ten miles from NAS New Orleans, at 1,000 feet, we were handed over to Alvin Callender tower. We received landing instructions for runway 32. I told the helicopter-aircraft commander (HAC) to con tower into letting us land on runway 22; it would be straight in for us.

The HAC was flying, and I had the airport diagram. He wasn’t sure of the relationship of the field to us because it just looked like a bunch of lights in the middle of a swamp. I was trying to explain the situation to him when everything went black and kind of quiet.

The nose of the helicopter pitched up and then did the funky chicken. We lost all our electrical power, which means we also lost our automatic-flight-control system (AFCS) and hydraulic-servo assist. That situation makes flying the aircraft like stirring wet cement with a broomstick. I looked outside and thought, “That’s where all the alligators live.” Now I know how Captain Hook felt.

I quickly reached over and reset the generators, and the electricity came back. Then, piff, the lights again went out. After much jiggling, I managed to get the No. 2 generator on line; Nos. 1 and 3 just wouldn’t play.

We had a lot of caution lights illuminated–I never have seen so many. My experienced crew chief said, “We have an accessory-gearbox failure.”

I’ll be damned if the gunny wasn’t right. We lost the Nos. 1 and 3 generators, and the second stage and utility-hydraulics systems. The CH-53E has a big gearbox, driven by the main transmission, which drives most of the accessories. Fortunately, Uncle Igor put one hydraulic system and one generator directly on the main transmission for such situations.

AC electrical failure

* If two generators fail at night, land as soon as possible.

As a good copilot, I immediately slapped the gear handle and squawked emergency.

Utility hyd sys failure

* Landing gear–extend.

* Land as soon as possible.

The HAC declared an emergency, and we prepared to land. Then the gunny said, “The gear is not down.” Right again. Without any utility-hydraulic power, the landing gear won’t lower. I had an opportunity to “blow the gear.” A thousand times, I had checked an emergency gear handle to make sure it was down and shear wired, but I never had used it. So, I gave it a mighty pull, and one, two, down and locked. Our right main-landing gear was stuck in the well.

Tower cleared us to land, but the HAC pulled us into a 100-foot hover while we troubleshot the gear. Landing with one gear stuck usually isn’t a big deal. Plan A would be to land on the good wheel, kick out one of the crew, and have him pull down the gear–that’s why we brought a lance corporal. Without the servos, raising the collective, and moving the cyclic is extremely strenuous. Doing that gets old, fast and after a while, would make precision hovering nearly impossible.

Plan B would be to lower the rescue hoist to ground the aircraft. A CH-53E builds about 6,000 volts of static electricity. The amps are low, but still it’s going to hurt like hell. We then would hold a higher hover and have a rescue worker pull down the gear. We had a former crew chief from our squadron waiting at base ops who could do it. Base ops said he was running late, and, unfortunately, the rescue hoist wouldn’t work–plan B had some problems.

The HAC was getting tired, so I took the controls. I was weary of our situation and decided to practice one-wheel landings. My attempts didn’t look good, and we went back to our 50-foot hold.

The next trick is to land on a pile of mattresses. This technique is dicey because every try at landing looks like an oak leaf falling to the ground. We asked tower to find some mattresses. Most 53 squadrons keep a pile of mattresses in the hangar for such an occasion. NAS New Orleans doesn’t have any 53 squadrons, and the Huey and Cobra squadrons stationed there only use mattresses for sleeping.

Then tower said, “We can’t find any mattresses, but we just had a hurricane, and we have a bunch of sandbags.”

“Get ’em,” we quickly replied.

About this time, our first low-fuel light came on. The clock was ticking; if we did not find a solution, one would be made for us.

We reviewed the option of raising the gear and landing on the flat belly, but, once again, with no utility pressure, the good gear would not go up.

While the rescue crew ran off to get sand bags, we evaluated the situation.

Accessory gear-box failure

* Land as soon as possible.

We were trying to do that.

I suggested we look at the endless pages in NATOPS for landing-gear emergencies. I really wanted to take the aircraft for a turn around the pattern and pull some G’s. No one else was thrilled about leaving the relative comfort of a lighted runway to take a lap around the bayou.

Utility pressure not available to lower gear.

* Activate landing-gear emergency-release handle.

If all gear unlock, but one does not fully extend, do this.

* At 80 to 100 knots, execute a steady-state turn to exert G forces on helicopter, or hover and have ground personnel move gear to down-and-locked position.

We already had tried the ground-personnel option, so we had to do my G thing.

Warning: Do not attempt to execute G-force maneuver with loss of utility-system pressure.

OK. No G thing. What’s next?

Landing with all gear retracted or improperly lowered.

* APP-start

Auxiliary-power-plant start, that’s the ticket! The intent of the procedure is to have power after you crash land and secure the engines, but the APP also drives the accessory gearbox. What if the accessory-gearbox drive shaft (from the main gearbox to the accessory) shears? Then all we have to do is fire off the APP, and (Bob’s your uncle) we get full control and lower the gear or gently land. Although NATOPS doesn’t cover this emergency, we had heard of it happening before. I say, “Ready ape.”

The HAC had concerns about half a drive shaft suddenly flailing about and destroying one of the few systems still working.

I ORMed the situation. Lighting the APP couldn’t be worse than landing on a pile of sandbags with the AFCS and servos off. After much conversation and systems discussion, we, as a crew, elected to try APP.

With a gentle whir, the APP came on line–and nothing exploded. Second stage and utility pressures came up to their proper levels, and the right main-landing gear clicked into place. We reset all the generators. There was much backslapping and self adulation.

I said, “Turn on the servos.” The cheering continued.

I added, “Do you see me working over here? How about a little help with the servos?” The HAC turned on the servos, and the CH-53E once again was the gentle giant.

We still needed to land. We looked at the adjacent taxiway and saw the crash crew throwing the last sandbag on a giant mound. While we were worrying about us, they feverishly raced about the airport collecting sand bags, sped back, and unloaded a pickup truck worth of them. Did I mention how hot and humid that evening was?

“Tower. We’ve fixed our problem. We’d like to back taxi because this taxi way is clobbered.”

We had two main debrief items from this flight. One was ORM, and the other was CRM. This flight was completed successfully because everyone helped diagnose the problem. Every course of action we evaluated had multiple ramifications. We chose the actions with the least risk.

LtCol. Longo flies with HMH-772.

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Naval Safety Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group