Chaos at 34,000 Feet

On a routine night fight from San Juan, everything suddenly went haywire.

In 2007 the author and crew relied on his 15 years in the DC-8
In 2007 the author and crew relied on his 15 years in the DC-8, and their checklists, to survive a night of mishaps. Many DC-8s still remain in service as freighters.

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This story is a selection from the June/July issue of Air & Space magazine

About a decade ago, I was a DC-8 captain with ASTAR Air Cargo, flying a route between Wilmington, Ohio, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. One of the most challenging episodes of my career happened late into the flight. I had been with the airline for 24 years. I flew seven years as a captain on the Boeing 727 before transitioning to the DC-8 in 1993. Experience, I’m convinced, is what enabled my crew and me to survive a December night flight that I have referred to in the years since as “the ambush.”

It was a beautiful winter evening when we reported to the cargo terminal at Luis Muñoz Marín International, San Juan’s primary airport. The first officer and I went through the usual flight release paperwork including flight plans, weather forecasts, reports of winds at cruising altitude, and other details. The second officer, our flight engineer, handled the cockpit and exterior inspections.

As usual, I hated the thought of yet again leaving the balmy Caribbean city for a gray Ohio winter. But the weather at our Wilmington destination was behaving itself. The forecast was for clear skies, with visibility greater than six miles. The only thing out of the ordinary regarding our dispatch was that our airplane had arrived from its long oceanic flight over-fueled. The flight crew had been told to prepare for bad weather that didn’t materialize. But the weight of the fuel plus our cargo did not exceed our max allowable takeoff weight, so there was no reason to remove the excess fuel.

At 7:30 p.m. we pushed back and took off on Runway 8. I’d always loved the view of San Juan by night, and I took it in again as we climbed over the dark ocean. (I haven’t seen the city since the devastation of Hurricane Maria and hope it can recapture its former beauty.)

After we raised the landing gear, we had an indication that one of our main gear doors was not latched. We radioed our company operations dispatch to advise them of our problem. Because of the latch failure, we would have a max cruise speed of Mach .65, not the normal .80, delaying our arrival. When we completed our climb, we put some meals in the oven and settled in for what we expected would be a five-hour flight. “Captain?”

I turned to look at the second officer.

“We have a main boost pump inoperative light,” he said. “I’m getting out the checklist.”

In some aircraft, the loss of a fuel pump can result in fuel being trapped in a tank. If that engine were to fail, that fuel becomes unusable. It can also create a weight imbalance. Because of the DC-8’s multiple fuel pumps, this was not a serious problem. We knew how to handle minor mechanical problems, and the company did a good job of keeping those old DC-8s airworthy.

As we continued northwest at 34,000 feet, we encountered stiff headwinds that had not been in the forecast. This, too, was of small concern. Our meals were great, an assortment of Caribbean dishes with lots of fresh fruit. After dinner, our warm Caribbean memories began to be overwritten by images of freezing airport parking lots and cars difficult to start in the brutally cold weather. By the time we were ready to begin our descent, the Wilmington visibility had dropped to one and a half miles in mist. This, too, had not been in the forecast.

The unexpected headwinds had left our fuel supply lower than projected, but because we had taken off over-fueled, we were still within legal requirements. We were vectored for the Instrument Landing System approach for Runway Four Left. “Flaps 12,” I said. The first officer selected the 12-degree flap position with the flap handle.

“Flaps 23,” I said as we slowed to the max 23-degree flap speed.

The first officer took the handle with his left hand when it suddenly snapped forward, catching his little finger between the handle and a device called the gate. He winced, but managed to wiggle his hand free without losing the finger. The flaps were stuck between 18 and 23 degrees and had deployed asymmetrically. The autopilot kicked off. I was now hand flying, which was fine, except that it added to the physical and mental workload. Because of the flap problem, the airplane was trying to turn to the right, requiring my constant correction. We could not continue the approach like this. “We’re going to break off from the approach now, recalculate approach speeds, and look at runway lengths,” I told the crew. “Let air traffic control know what we need to do.”

“Captain,” I heard the second officer say, with more alarm than before. I turned. “We’re losing hydraulic fluid,” he said, pointing at the gauge.

We all knew from years of studying National Transportation Safety Board reports that many airplanes have crashed because several individually survivable problems had overloaded their crews. Our fuel situation was becoming borderline, but every other airport in range had reported lowering visibility so there was no point in going elsewhere. We worked the checklists.

At this point, we had four “abnormals”: low fuel, marginal weather, stuck flaps, and a palpable tension starting to seep into the cockpit. I asked the crew, “Are we missing something here? Is there a common fault causing all of these problems?” We couldn’t think of an explanation for our multiple failures.

“Landing gear down,” I ordered. The first officer lowered the gear handle. Three green lights lit up on the panel.

I joined the final approach course for Runway Four Left, the longest runway. I advanced the thrust levers simultaneously to offset the drag from the landing gear extension. To my astonishment, the number-four engine did not accelerate, adding to the turning problem caused by the asymmetrical flaps. Worse, we were now in “manual reversion,” with no hydraulic boost to the flight controls. I was working the yoke hard, sweating and feeling muscle fatigue.

The surprise of another abnormal factor left me almost mute. I shook my head, pointed to the number-four engine gauges, and said “No acceleration.” My voice sounded higher than I thought it should.

In about 12 minutes we had gone from a routine arrival to a cascade of problems that now threatened the safety of the flight. I felt like we were soldiers on a routine patrol, caught in a full-blown ambush. I remember thinking, Is this how it happens? Is this what it looked like to all those other crews in the accident reports who didn’t make it?

At 600 feet, I announced “We have no spoiler pressure.” I told the flight engineer to move the ground spoiler switch to the alternate position, which would redirect hydraulic pressure to the spoilers—if we had any fluid left.

It worked. “Continuing,” I said. The airplane was determined to roll over to the right. My hands were slippery with sweat and the first officer was backing me up on the yoke. I was looking at the runway now, imagining invisible arms and hands extending out through my eyes, clutching the ground, pulling it toward us, willing this flight to be over.

Then it was over. With no reverse thrust and no spoilers, we managed an utterly ordinary-looking landing and rollout, exactly six hours after pushing back from the gate in San Juan.

After a few days, I called maintenance to ask about the status of our aircraft. None of our systems failures were related, they told me. We’d had a run of extraordinarily bad luck. I still ask myself whether 15 more minutes of it might’ve killed us.

A few months later, I recounted the events of that night to a Delta Airlines captain friend of mine. I felt a sudden lump in my throat. The fear I’d kept tamped down that night had finally surfaced. In the more than 1,500 flights I’ve made since, nothing has rattled me like that rapid onslaught of mechanical failures. But our training kept us alive.

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