Holder of the ONA Super Wings Gold Award for magnificent contributions to the ONA Crew Web

US Air Force pilot Lee Waters

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Read Lee Waters thrilling story!



Lee Waters

It Was a Bad Day to Fly!
by Daedalian Member Lee Waters

(An account submitted for the Sun Coast Daedalian 
Flight’s Dobee Award for “The Most Engines Lost 
During a Non-Combat Personnel Airdrop Mission”.)

 Note: To the best of my recollection, the 
following event happened sometime during the summer 
of 1971.  I also believe that the C-141 tail number 
was 38078, although I have been unable to retrieve 
any Form 5 records of the flight.  At the time I 
was assigned to either the 30th or the 6th MAS at 
McGuire AFB, NJ.

The airdrop mission began just like many personnel 
airdrops I had flown previously. At the squadron we 
three crews involved in the formation flight received 
the standard premission briefing.  I was informed 
that my crew and I would be flying position number 
two of a three-ship formation flight flying from 
McGuire to Ft. Bragg, making a personnel airdrop, 
without landing, and then flying back to McGuire 
for landing and mission termination. Each of the 
three aircraft would be dropping a relatively small 
group of Army reserve paratroopers who badly needed 
the parachute drop to maintain their currency and 
not loose their jump pay. 

 

Preflight inspections were normal as was our flight 
planning at Base Operations. Fortunately the weather 
would be "severe clear" all the way around the flight 
planned route with light and variable winds at 
McGuire and at the drop zone.  Piece of cake….

Once at the aircraft I met with the Army paratroops 
we would be dropping. There were an even dozen of 
them.  The Jumpmaster was very experienced with many 
jumps under his belt, but most of the others were 
less experienced.  

I gave the combined aircrew and paratroops the normal 
briefing after which the jumpmaster took me aside and 
told me that they really needed to complete the airdrop 
in order to continue to receive their jump pay. It 
seemed that they had put off scheduling the time away 
from their civilian jobs to do the jump until they were 
close to the last days of their eligibility. I said I 
would do everything I could to ensure they got their 
drop.

Start, taxi, and takeoff were uneventful and, following 
takeoff, our three aircraft joined up during the initial 
stages of the climb out.My aircraft was in the number 
two position as planned.  Our three C-141s had taken 
off to the south from McGuire, so we made a gentle left 
turn to fly over Atlantic City’s VOR to pick up the 
airway for our continued climb to cruise altitude and 
the flight down to Ft. Bragg for our airdrop.   

Passing over the Atlantic City airport’s VOR and 
climbing through about 19,000 feet altitude, I was 
shocked to hear the number three engine begin to 
compressor stall severely!  It was booming and banging 
so hard I had a real concern that the engine would 
either start throwing out turbine or compressor blades 
or fly off the pylon since there were only two big 
bolts attaching the engine to the pylon mounts. The 
whole aircraft was shuddering and vibrating! The 
vertical scale engine instruments for number three 
would drop to zero following a loud BANG! that 
reverberated throughout the aircraft. Then the engine 
would re-light from the continuous ignition and begin 
spooling up to match the throttle’s climb power 
position. Then BANG! and the whole thing would 
repeat itself.  I rapidly performed the emergency 
procedure which directed the throttle to be retarded 
toward the idle position until the engine settled 
down, then to advance the throttle back to power.  
I retarded the throttle, but the only time number 
three would settle down was at idle. The minute I 
began inching the throttle out of idle the severe 
banging would begin again.

Remembering the Jumpmaster’s predicament, I rapidly 
reviewed my options and the regulatory constraints 
that applied.  I basically had two choices:  
1) Return to base and scrub the mission and hope 
the troops could get another drop in a hurry 
(which was a remote possibility) or, 
2) to continue with the drop with three engines at 
normal power and number three engine operating at 
idle.  Technically, I decided, I did have all four 
engines running and the airdrop was important to 
complete.  But the safe thing would be for me to 
swap positions with the number three aircraft so 
if anything further happened during the drop at 
low altitude and airspeed, I wouldn’t have my 
options limited by an aircraft immediately behind 
me, nor have the possibility of me flying right 
behind a steam of parachutists jumping out of 
both sides of number one.  I surely didn’t want 
to fly through the troopers in their ‘chutes if 
the worse happened and I couldn’t hold altitude.  
So I advised Lead of my predicament and suggested 
that number three and my aircraft exchange 
positions and I would continue as tail-end Charlie.

When he asked, I told him I had about 3000 hours 
in the aircraft and that I held an instructor pilot 
qualification level.  Lead was somewhat hesitant to 
allow it, but my plan did eliminate or reduce any 
risk to minimal and I would be technically within 
the regulations, so he agreed.  

All three of us aircraft commanders quickly devised 
a plan.  In changing positions, I would slide out to 
the right until well clear of the formation, then 
number three would move up to the number two position.  
I would then drift back to become level with the 
vacated number three position and subsequently slide 
left into position.  It seemed like a solid plan to 
all of us and our navigators had enough time remaining 
enroute to adjust their lead point and drop timings, 
so Lead directed us to begin.  I briefed my crew on 
intercom and no one had a problem with it.  The 
Loadmaster would bring the Jumpmaster up to date on 
what was happening.

Just as I was beginning my slight right turn out of 
position, number one and two engines started to boom 
and bang just as number three had done not more than 
three minutes before! 
 

BOOM, BANG, SHUDDER!

The aircraft felt like it was going to come apart any second! I pulled those two engine throttles back to idle, checked my altitude (passing 21,000 feet) and directed the Flight Engineer to change feeding the engines out of different fuel tanks (in case of bad fuel) and yelled (I am embarrassed to remember) over the interplane radio that two more engines were doing the same thing! I said I was returning to McGuire or going to perform a power-idle glide into Atlantic City’s airport if number four began doing the same thing!! I quickly informed the loadmaster what was happening and as I was telling him, he informed me that the Jumpmaster was running up front to talk with me. I turned back to look at the cockpit entry door and as I did, I saw that the cockpit seemed to be about five times bigger than it actually was!

Adrenalin? Yup; bet on it!

The Jumpmaster hurried up to me and yelled that 
his men wanted to jump out of the airplane!  
(They didn’t care if we would have been 20 miles out 
over the ocean; they just wanted to depart the sick 
aircraft which sounded like it was going to break 
up.) I quickly thought that request through, but 
was confident with the altitude I had and the fact 
that Atlantic City’s airport was under 
us and that McGuire wasn’t too far away, I could 
get them back without them having to walk a long 
way back to civilization for rescue. I also wasn’t 
about to compound my control problems by increasing 
drag on the aircraft that slowing down to drop speed 
and opening a door for them to jump out of would have 
caused.  


Atlantic City Airport, Pomona, NJ

So I promised him I would get them back to a safe 
landing either at Atlantic City’s airport or McGuire 
and told him to return to his seat.

After leveling off and declaring an emergency with 
our departure controllers, I told the controller of 
my intentions to attempt to return directly to 
McGuire essentially under a powered glide.  
We were cleared direct, given a heading to pick up 
and an altitude to descend to. I told the controller 
I would prefer to keep as much altitude as I could 
until I was sure of the landing at McGuire.

With the three ailing engines at idle, number four 
at climb power and the aircraft trimmed up, I still 
couldn’t maintain altitude.  The best I could do was 
a 300 feet per minute slow descent.  I didn’t want 
to retry any of the three bad engines because the 
compressor stalls had been so severe my crew and I 
believed serious or catastrophic damage would 
happen if I tried to increase the power. I planned 
to use the sick engines only if it became evident 
that we wouldn’t make the field safely.  Thank God 
the weather was clear with about 10 miles 
visibility.

Our controller handed us off to the McGuire approach 
controller who must not have been briefed very well 
because he immediately told us to descend and 
maintain 1500 feet altitude.  I told him what the 
situation was and to just give us headings to the 
runway.  I requested a reverse direction landing to 
the north so we wouldn’t have to maneuver around.  
He told me the winds would allow for a landing to 
the north and would set it up.  During the descent, 
I made a radio call to advise our Command Post of 
what had happened and our intentions.  The CP 
controller said they’d all go outside and watch our 
(hopefully) successful landing.  I didn’t appreciate 
the levity, I can tell you.

Since my engines were still rotating with enough 
RPMs to allow for normal configuration, I briefed the 
crew that I would delay configuring the aircraft for 
landing until we had the field made and then do a 
hurried gear lowering and an approach flap landing 
so as to reduce the drag on the aircraft until the 
final moments.  We would perform as much of the 
applicable checklists as possible but keep the gear 
and flaps up until we were assured of making the 
field.  I told them I was planning to execute a 
higher than normal VFR final approach to runway 36.  
I briefed each crew member what I wanted him to do 
in addition to his normal checklists.  I asked the 
Scanner, who had very few duties during the final 
approach, to be my flaps and gear monitor and to 
call out if we had omitted lowering them within 5 
miles from the runway.  The Navigator was to be his 
gear monitoring backup.  

Final approach to the field was uneventful.  But in 
spite of the higher than normal altitude of my 
approach, the C-141 ran out of altitude just a little 
beyond the threshold.  



Goose Bay Royal Canadian Air Base

Roll out and taxi to parking procedures were normal with no further problems being encountered. I can tell you that my flight suit was drenched with sweat by the time we shut down the engines. The Jumpmaster and his entire group made a special effort to thank my crew and me for the successful landing before they departed the aircraft. I never did find out if they got another jump before their currency period expired. I also never found out exactly why those engines failed although an aircraft commander friend of mine (some two weeks later) experienced the same problem with all four engines when they were at cruise altitude and about half an hour past the Canadian coastline enroute on an Atlantic Ocean crossing. He said that if he had been five minutes further along the route he didn’t believe he could have made it back to Goose Bay Royal Canadian Air Base. Based on these two incidents happening so close together, when the command post at Goose informed the MAC command post of what was happening, the MAC Deputy Commander for Operations (DCO) immediately directed that all McGuire C-141 crews in the air world-wide be contacted and issued an order to find the nearest airfield and land immediately until the cause could be determined. The cause was determined a couple of days later. Algae had been able to survive and even grow in the JP-4 fuel storage tanks at McGuire. No one could believe that anything alive could survive in such an extreme environment, but it so happened that the algae could and did. As I heard it, when the fuel pumps within the aircraft's tanks got somewhat clogged they would begin cavitating and starve the engines of fuel which would cause compressor stalls. Since we had 10 tanks on the C-141, not all engines would experience the problem at the same time unless all engines were fed out of the same tank at the same time which was a rarity. The fuels folks at McGuire and on all MAC bases throughout the world had their work cut out for them. Before any aircraft out of McGuire could fly, the fuel folks had to drain, inspect and clean all fuel tanks (both storage and aircraft) plus verify all their tanker trucks and fueling hoses were free of contaminants. Fortunately, I heard that some sort of fuel additive was available that would kill the algae and ensure a stop to the algae problem once all the fuels were passed through some big filters. I heard that the fuels folks also had to back-track where the fuel had come from and inform officials there of the situation and recommend that they check their tanks and transport systems. © 2006 Dudley F. Waters





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