Multiple engine loss (‘Triple Hush’) over the Eastern Atlantic.
Sqn Ldr (ret’d) Pat Fitzgerald – (C130K Captain – ex LXX Sqn RAF Lyneham)
I wrote this account after I had read a very inaccurate story in a book about a flight on which I had been the captain some 20 years earlier. The author had been in contact with the co-pilot on the crew, but appeared, for whatever reason, to have misconstrued or mis- remembered the information that he had been given. I was incensed that the story was corrupt and contacted the other flight deck members in order to produce an accurate account of what actually happened.
On 9th April 1982 our LXX Squadron crew left Lyneham on our first OP CORPORATE sortie, flying Hercules XV204 to Gibraltar, before joining others in the ‘slip pattern’ on to Dakar (Senegal) and Ascension. We flew with a basic crew, ground engineering support being deployed down the route. The crew consisted of myself Flt Lt Pat Fitzgerald (Capt), Fg Off Chris Tingay (Co-pilot), Sqn Ldr Chris Morris (Nav), Flt Sgt Gordon Hampson (Air Engineer) and Sgt Keith Jones (ALM). The flight was non-standard, as on arrival at the aircraft, the crew were given ‘ground type S6 respirators’, just in case our ‘Wizz Bang’ payload got a little too ‘Wizzy’ or ‘Fizzy’!
The outbound route was fairly uneventful; despite the aircraft being much heavier than usual in that we were now operating to Military Operating Standard (MOS) – Max TOW 175,000 lbs, 20000lbs (almost 9 tons) more than the peacetime limit.
Our next ‘leg’ in the ‘slip pattern’ was with Hercules XV292 from Gibraltar to Dakar for a refuelling stop, en-route to Ascension Island. The Gibraltar runway is fairly short (6,000 ft) with the added difficulty of having to turn left shortly after take-off on Rwy 27
, to avoid infringing Spanish airspace on the other side of Algeciras Bay. Operating to the heavier MOS, the standard ‘Take Off brief’ was modified by adding – ‘that in the event of any significant loss of power, the flight engineer was to initiate fuel dumping immediately’, rather than wait for extensive check lists. In the meantime the nose of the aircraft would have been lowered trying to regain airspeed. A further modification to the Take Off brief was that we would not be turning left until the aircraft was cleaned up and had reached ‘Flaps Up safety speed’. I was not overly concerned about penetrating Spanish airspace, but more concerned with maintaining safe control!
Take off with XV292 from Gibraltar was during the late evening for a night transit down to Dakar. After our heavy exit from Algericas Bay, the long transit to Dakar (Yoff) airfield was fairly uneventful. At the beginning of OP CORPORATE fuel stocks at Gibraltar and at the American base at Ascension were quite low. With impending heavy RAF traffic at Dakar and Ascension, with C-130s every 4 hours, VC10s and civil chartered ex-RAF Shorts Belfasts. RAF crews were required to uplift maximum fuel (full tanks) at Dakar to conserve stocks at Gibraltar and Ascension and minimise uplift. Unfortunately in the middle of the night, parked well away from the civilian terminal (out in the bundocks), we were unaware that certain underground fuel tanks there might contain ‘old’ or contaminated fuel.
Take off from Dakar’s 9,000 ft runway was a little less tense and the transit to Ascension through the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone or Tropical Weather Front) was extremely ‘illuminating’, the lightning being particularly bright and active in the middle of the night. This meant keen use of the weather radar to determine how far to deviate off track to avoid the massive towering Cumulonimbus clouds (which extended from below and way upwards above our level) and plan the best way through and around the huge thunderstorms and to avoid turbulence especially with a heavyweight aircraft. We arrived at Ascension which is just south of the Equator at 08S 15W, shortly after dawn. Finding this very small volcanic island so steeped in Napoleonic history was fascinating. In April 1982 there were no precision runway approach aids (PAR or ILS) at Wideawake Airfield, just a TACAN which was fine for positioning long finals for Runway 14. ‘Bowler Radar’ (RAF detachment) arrived at Ascension several weeks later, mainly for Air Defence.
Our aircraft was offloaded while we ‘daystopped’ and reloaded to the gunnels with palletised empty beer kegs – the beer having been consumed by the Royal Navy on their previous extended exercises in the Med, before being rerouted ‘Down South’. Minimum fuel was uplifted at Ascension for the safe 5 hour return to Dakar.
Once more the aircraft was refuelled to full tanks at Dakar before continuing our next leg to Gibraltar, but little did we know what surprise lay in store. Again the heavyweight Take Off from Dakar and the subsequent climb to the North West were uneventful. But, we were obliged to circumnavigate the Spanish Canary Islands (Argentinian sympathy?).
However, some 5 hours after leaving Dakar and 12 hours after leaving Ascension, events took a very different course and became somewhat challenging! At 1113Z (GMT) we were cruising at FL270 (27,000 ft) with an Outside Air Temperature of -38C. At the time I was sitting on the crew rest bunk; ‘enjoying’ my ‘compo’ beef burger sandwich, no civil flight rations on this flight, there was a War ON! Suddenly, Co-Pilot Chris Tingay reported that No3 engine was losing torque (power). My initial reaction / comment was to state that it must be a ‘Torque’ gauge failure. He quickly retorted that he was having to squeeze left rudder to maintain balanced flight. Within a few more seconds No4 was suffering the same loss and I then leapt into my seat, just as No1 engine also hiccupped and joined company! The Emergency Check List and Pilot’s Notes were read at remarkable speed but neither were of any use. Within a few seconds No3 started to indicate that it was producing negative torque, making the situation even worse.
At the time, all 4 engines were being fed from the External Wing tanks, and were in the process of being emptied having flown for 5 hours.
We all have to thank Air Engineer Gordon Hampson for his very quick thinking and that he had now selected the primary direct fuel feed from the main wing tanks to each engine known as ‘Tank to Engine’.
His initiative and swift action ensured that the remaining No2 engine maintained positive power and gave us time to consider our ditching options. Even with that engine functioning at full power, the stabilising altitude for the aeroplane was calculated to be 2,000 ft below sea level.
Without fuel, the propellers on Nos 3, 4 and then No1 had become mega airbrakes and were NTS’ing (negative torqueing) causing jerky reaction in yaw. The indicated airspeed (IAS) was decaying as if on a landing run and I don’t know why – but I chose 180 kts as my target IAS – to be well above the stall and above VMCA2. We commenced our inevitable descent, down towards the Atlantic. We were descending well off the coast of Morocco and Casablanca was our nearest airfield, but we opted to go towards Faro (Portugal) as the most suitable place to land. A Pan (distress) call was initiated.
Loadmaster Keith Jones suggested that we jettison the aircraft payload (our beer barrels) out the back and off the cargo ramp! I replied that if we ended up in the water, then I wanted my personal beer barrel! Co-pilot Chris initially attempted to transmit a Pan call to Faro Approach control but was blocked by two German Sportflieger (light aircraft pilots) cruising along the Portuguese coast. They were enjoying chatting to each other in German on the approach frequency and Chris the Co, couldn’t get a word in. Fortunately Chris the Nav had previously served with the GermanAir Force on Transalls and, in best colloquial Bavarian, told them very firmly, if rather impolitely, to “Go Away”! This enabled our R/T call which by then had become a ‘Mayday’ to Faro Approach. There was confusion with Faro Approach as to how many engines we had lost, taking several attempts to confirm we only had one engine remaining. On descent into warmer air and with the higher pressure ‘Fuel Dump pumps’ also selected, we gradually restored power to engines Nos 1 and 4, No 3 remaining out till the end. At no point did any of us give the slightest thought to our probable demise, because we were far too busy attempting to get around the problems that were presented to us.
After a safe arrival at Faro, we shut down with, admittedly, some relief. The local Shell man came out to the aircraft and we witnessed the water drain checks from the wing tanks. A filthy grey dirty dishwater type fuel soon appeared in the glass receptacle that was atop the pogo stick device. Essentially we had picked up duff fuel, i.e. water contaminated fuel from the lesser used ground storage tanks at Dakar. Water is heavier / more dense than aviation fuel, and thus settles at the bottom of aircraft fuel tanks. The external wing tanks are single skin and thus the fuel within would have been extremely cold (OAT -38C). Which is why on emptying the wing tanks, water contaminated fuel was sucked up; and quickly froze on impact at the engine fuel heater / strainers.
The local handling agents had arranged crew accommodation but as a crew we decided to get the aircraft back to Gibraltar to RAF engineers as there was a war on! Many captains questioned me over that decision but we maintained ‘tank to engine’ feed for the short trip due East to Gibraltar and flew at 5,000 ft in the warm air. The flight through the Straits of Gibraltar and the landing were uneventful and we headed off to the bar for some well-earned beers after a very long 18 hour day. We were keen to get XV292 back to RAF engineers for a full fuel flush and for the crew to get airborne again very soon in a serviceable aircraft – without, we hoped, it turning into a simulator ride!
LXX Sqn 1980- 1983)