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There I was...: Of close calls and the value of training

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jordan Birt
  • 91st Air Refueling Squadron pilot
There I was on my first deployment as an aircraft commander.

My goal was to keep my head down, fly a lot and do everything I could to not get noticed. I wanted to successfully fly the missions that were assigned to my crew and me, while not bringing attention to myself for being the new guy or the young kid.

I never thought about the flights and situations where one could inevitably become the subject of squadron, group and wing level discussions by a circumstance outside of my control.

Nothing in particular seemed to be different as my crew and I got ready for a mission one day. We were nearly full with gas, with 180,000 pounds of jet fuel to deliver to receivers once we flew into Afghanistan.

My crew and I did our preflight briefings, ground operations, started engines and took the runway for departure. We executed normal static take-off procedures and released the brakes to begin our take-off roll. Upon setting our throttle position, I found it odd that both outboard engines were already in the cautionary range for temperature. While not extremely out of the ordinary, it was different since the temperature hadn't been too hot that day. Following procedure, we continued the take-off despite the cautionary lights.

When we reached 137 knots, about 2 seconds prior to decision speed to abort or continue the take-off, I noticed that my far left was no longer in the cautionary range and was in the failure range. The indications from the gauge indicated that I likely had an internal fire in the engine, and the jet was not suitable to fly due to a lack of thrust.

Simultaneously, the jet lurched left of centerline and assumed a heading that was rapidly taking the plane off of the runway surface. This was due to an asymmetric condition that existed with the failing engine. I knew immediately that this wasn't a jet that we wanted to take into the air, and called for an abort.

I wish I could say that I called the abort with confidence and clarity, but if you ask my crew they would probably tell you that my voice raised a few octaves and my abort call was muddled and confused. I went from doing a typical everyday take-off to being completely occupied trying to steer the jet and putting my all into keeping us on the runway.

Flying with an experienced crew has its benefits, and this day was no exception. My copilot got to the throttles to put them in idle just as I reached for them. Once the throttles were in idle I called for our boom operator to examine our engines gauges, which he was already doing.

With the throttles in idle I was able to gradually steer us back toward a heading that was aligned with the middle of the runway and finish the abort procedures, which require applying the brakes and speed brakes.

Since we were heavy and high speed I knew that stopping the jet on the runway would require braking at maximum effort. It seemed like the jet initially wasn't slowing down, but eventually slowed to a controllable speed. Finally, I knew that we'd be able to keep the jet on the runway and save the asset. We taxied clear of the runway and did a controlled evacuation of the jet. I could tell the stopping distance was grimmer than I had anticipated when my boom operator told me that the brakes were glowing and he could feel the heat coming off them from 30 feet away.

When it was all said and done, the situation was just as our crew had predicted in my split-second decision to abort the take-off. The engine had failed, we had a severe loss of thrust, and the jet wasn't suitable to fly. While nothing could have prepared me for the actual event, it was a situation that I had handled dozens of time in the simulator.

When I think back on the situation, I think about the culmination of all of the great instructors I've had, the training programs I've been through, the evaluations I've endured and the 1,700-plus hours of flying experience that prepared me for a split-second decision and 30 seconds of implementation of those things I am grateful to have learned.

My deployment goal, to keep my head down and go unnoticed, didn't happen. However, it is certainly an experience that I'll never forget and continue to learn from.