Charleston aircrew thinks fast during combat-zone emergency

CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- C-17 aircrews on departure from Iraqi airfields are accustomed to being on the lookout for threats to the aircraft, but one Charleston AFB crew from the 16th Airlift Squadron had to wrestle with a threat from within the aircraft on a recent flight out of Northern Iraq.

The Globemaster III was loaded with two AH-64H Apache helicopters and 27 soldiers who cheered enthusiastically on lift-off out of Mosul on their way home after a year in Iraq.

Pilot 1st Lt. Harold Cramer was in the left seat, Capt. Bill Buckingham, aircraft commander, the senior member of the crew at age 31, was in the right. Pilot 1st Lt. Karen Courington was acting as the third set of eyes for the nighttime departure from the hostile area.

"We'd been joking just the day before about things you didn't want to hear over the intercom," Captain Buckingham recalls. "Things like, 'Oh no,' followed by a long pause."

They soon added another 'don't want to hear' to their list.

"Do you smell that?" came over the intercom from loadmaster Airman 1st Class Todd Perkins, as he looked for confirmation from fellow loadmaster Airman 1st Class Thomas Elsworth that something was amiss in the cargo hold.

"That" was a strong odor of fuel. "I could tell from having flown with [the loadmasters] for over a week that there was something wrong," Captain Buckingham said.

He left the flight deck to investigate, and Lieutenant Courington took the right seat to assist Lieutenant Cramer at the controls.

Airmen Perkins and Elsworth quickly found the source of the odor: fuel was pouring out of the forward-most helicopter onto the cargo deck. Airman Elsworth grabbed pads from the protective clothing kit designed for fuel spills and went to work trying to soak up the fuel, but there was too much.

"The first thing I saw when I went down the stairs was the Army troops up on their seats," to stay clear of the fuel, Captain Buckingham said. As he went further down, he saw the leak, which the captain said "looked like a waterfall."

"The only thing that ran through my mind was passenger safety, everything else was second nature," Airman Perkins said.

The loadmasters quickly turned off the floor heat and activated the emergency oxygen system for the passengers as a precautionary measure.

"One of the first things that came to my mind was 'don't look nervous for the passengers,'" said Airman Elsworth, who has been on active duty for just over a year.

Apparently a year in Iraq changes one's perspective: "For the most part the passengers were calm," said Captain Buckingham. "I think they were more worried that we were going back."

Going back was not without risk, but with his priority to get the plane safely on the ground and passengers evacuated, Captain Buckingham went back to the flight deck and quickly made the decision to divert back to Mosul.

"My first thought was to press on versus go back to the [area of responsibility] with bad guys, but the main goal was to get off the airplane," Captain Buckingham said.

With the C-17 highly volatile from fumes and oxygen, the crew flew a night vision goggle approach. To facilitate the NVG approach, Airman Perkins figured out a way to jury-rig a circuit breaker to dim the white lights that accompany the emergency oxygen system.

The aircraft landed without incident, and the crew evacuated the passengers, some of whom still seemed reluctant to leave their "freedom bird," Captain Buckingham said.

"When we evacuated, I was counting heads of the passengers, and one of the passengers said, 'That was so cool,'" added Lieutenant Courington. "I thought if the passengers think it's good, we must have done something right."

On the ground at Mosul, Apache maintenance personnel replaced a valve and secured the leak, and ground crews cleaned the residual fuel off the C-17. The flying crew chief, fire chief and aircrew agreed that after allowing the fuel to drain from the bottom of the fuselage, the best course of action was to get the aircraft back to Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany.

Three and a half hours after its unscheduled landing, the relieved Army troops loaded up again, and the aircraft returned uneventfully to the sky for the trip to Germany.

"We had a very experienced aircraft commander," Lieutenant Courington said. "He takes each mission very seriously, and we had an extremely professional crew that worked well together."

"I credit the crew response to being mentally prepared to face anything, especially the catastrophic events," Captain Buckingham said. "For having such a young crew, especially our loadmasters, they impressed me beyond words."

The 437th Operations Group deputy commander added his praise for the entire crew.

"Even with far less experience than some crews, this crew drew on their training and used perfect teamwork to get the jet back on the ground safely," Col. Chris Coley said. "The bottom line is they protected the lives of 27 passengers and more than $400 million in Department of Defense assets. They took advantage of their training to accomplish the mission safely. That's what we're all about."