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"Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire in the Galley!".

That was the call that rang out over the aircraft communication systems as a six-foot inferno erupted from the highly-pressurized, liquid oxygen system during takeoff, engulfing the entire tail section of the aircraft in smoke and flame. The day was 30 April 2015, and I was the Aircraft Commander (AC) of SNOOP 71, an RC135V RIVET JOINT, or "RJ", departing from Offutt AFB with 27 aircrew to support a CONUS exercise. Fourteen seconds after brake release and at approximately 50 knots, the crew members closest to the fire called out the emergency, and I immediately aborted the takeoff. Once the jet was completely stopped, I directed the aircrew to egress. While the copilot and I completed the checklists to secure the aircraft, the Navigator installed the crew entry chute ladder, allowing all 27 aircrew to egress without injury. Less than three minutes after stopping the aircraft, the entire crew of SNOOP 71 had egressed to safety and formed up for accountability. While I prioritized those personnel potentially needing medical attention, the fire burned through the aircraft skin and a 15-foot flame shot out of the aircraft tail like a flame-thrower. We watched in awe as three airfield firetrucks, who had arrived on scene an eye-watering 69 seconds after being notified, drenched the inferno for five minutes but were unable to stifle the flames. Eventually the fire exhausted itself once the entire liquid oxygen system was depleted but not before causing over $63 million in damages resulting in a Class-A Mishap.

Two years later, the mishap continues to offer lessons not only for the RJ community but for all crewed aircraft. The Accident Investigation Board (AIB) praised the crew's actions that day. Still, the safety report and mishap crew debrief highlighted areas for improvement both in training and practice, and the area most identified: Crew Resource Management (CRM). While individual crew members followed emergency procedures to the letter that day (which, in my opinion, saved the crew), the simultaneous emergency call-outs and ensuing interphone coordination became muddled as a highly excited aircrew in the aft of the fuselage attempted to communicate the severity of the situation while the flight deck sought to understand what was happening. As a result, the cockpit was unable to decipher the initial call-outs.

Another CRM critique from the crew debrief and the AIB: the lack of communication amongst the crew after the initial emergency call-outs. This failure of CRM meant that the flight deck did not know how the EP was progressing, highlighting the importance of constant, deliberate communication throughout an emergency, not just in the beginning. In general, the farther you were away from the fire, the less you understood about the situation. While I was in the cockpit, all that I knew about the fire was that it existed and where it was located, and I had determined the fire was serious based on the tone and inflection of the initial callouts. I made the decision to secure the aircraft and initiated the egress based solely on the initial callouts and the stress in my crew's voices. On one hand, the Tactical Coordinator (Electronic Warfare Officer charged with the EP updates in such a scenario) recognized that the copilot and myself were busy securing the aircraft, but on the other hand, I had no idea the current status or spread of the fire. Making matters worse, the majority of the crew unplugged their headsets to egress as directed, which quickly eroded CRM even further. If I had to do it over again, I would have queried the TC about the status of the fire before and after the removal of aircraft power by any means necessary, especially while I was waiting for the remaining aircrew to egress. With a crew as large as 36 airmen, CRM is especially vital to safe, sound decision-making, and communication between crewmembers needs to remain clear, concise, and timely.

Now that we've discussed the general narrative and some lessons learned, let me tell my personal account of this mishap. Sitting in the left seat as the AC that day, I flew the takeoff, and it began like any other. Once cleared, I stood up the throttles, scanned the engines instruments to verify no abnormal indications, and released the brakes to begin the departure ... my first as a newly qualified AC. A few seconds later, I heard what sounded like very loud voices and chatter over GUARD frequencies. As a result, I immediately disregarded that "noise" to focus on the takeoff. Another second passed by before I recognized that these voices were callouts from my own crew shouting "FIRE!" The indicated airspeed read 50 knots, so I immediately made the decision to abort the takeoff. At the time of this decision, I did not know the degree or size of the fire (that information was never communicated to me), but I did know the situation was serious due to the tone and inflection of my aircrew's callouts. Airmen were yelling, adrenaline was pumping and training took over. After I stopped the jet, I immediately called for the ground evacuation checklist knowing that if I needed to escalate that command by ordering the crew to abandon the aircraft, I could always do so. As I have been trained, an order to egress through the crew entry chute can always be escalated to an order of abandoning the aircraft via any means, but the abandon order can never be retracted once given. After the copilot and I had completed our emergency checklists, we waited for what seemed like hours (actually less than 2 minutes in real time) while the remaining crew members egressed via the crew entry chute. As the last few crew members came forward, I noticed they had trouble seeing, their eyes were bloodshot, and they were coughing from smoke and fume exposure. I observed no other injuries. I wanted to hurry them along, but thought twice once I saw their symptoms. I quickly re-evaluated the situation and EP status, and I determined my previous decision-making to be sound; we would press on with the egress, painfully wait for our turn down the chute, and not give the order to abandon the aircraft. We safely completed the egress with four crewmembers requiring medical attention for smoke and fume inhalation.

Today, people ask me, "If you could do it all over again, would you have abandoned the aircraft?" For those who don't know, the order to "abandon the aircraft" is the last resort command an aircraft commander possesses to get the crew off the jet as fast as possible via any means available, i.e., through any hatch, window, opening, tear in the aircraft skin, drop-off, etc. The benefit to this procedure is a potentially faster egress (especially if the fire would have been blocking the crew entry chute during our EP), and the disadvantage is the natural chaos that ensues potentially resulting in increased danger to the aircrew. The possibility for injury during an abandon can arguably be just as dangerous as (or even more so than) ground egress. My quick and short answer to the abandon question usually sounds something like this: "No. Given that all aircrew escaped the aircraft without injury via the ground egress procedures, there are very few things I would have done differently."

And then there are the inevitable what-ifs. People also ask me, "What would you have done if the fire had erupted only 60 seconds later?" "What if you would have been at altitude?" "What if you would have just taken-off?" As aircrew, we can drive ourselves insane thinking about the "what-if" scenarios after a mishap like this, but as professionals, we should push ourselves to study, debrief, and share each situation with our fellow aviators to become even better aircrew. Right after takeoff, I would have pulled closed into the VFR pattern (or asked for short ATC vectors if in the weather) and landed at my current heavy gross weight. If I were at altitude, I would have done an emergency descent as smooth as possible (keeping in mind my teammates would be standing up in the back without restraints while fighting the fire) into the nearest and most suitable airfield before my aircraft rapidly decompressed and the tail burned and separated from the fuselage.

After reflecting on this incident, I honestly do not consider myself to be a hero; just a pilot who did the job I was trained to do. And let's be honest, this incident, although terrifying, was still just a low-speed abort. That all being said, I think the old African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child" truly applies here. It sounds corny, but the reason there are 27 storytellers today instead of 27 corpses is due to the excellent training, discipline, and teamwork embodied throughout the 55th Wing. In my mind, the true heroes of that day are those members of my crew and within my community who went above and beyond the call of duty. People like CMSgt Michael Rager, who was the crewmember closest to the fire and the first one to callout the EP status and location. He also cleared the aircraft of personnel during egress and opened an over-wing hatch to further prepare the aircraft in case I gave the order to immediately abandon the jet. Other heroes are the fire fighters, who arrived on scene 69 seconds after they had been notified and went into the inferno after we had vacated it. Still other heroes are my instructors over the years (military and civilian), especially Mr. Tony Belford, Mr. Mike Shannon, Mr. Brian Tingstad, Mr. Andy Bowder, and Mr. Scotty Dowell, who had spent countless hours above the required syllabus in the simulator and classroom verifying that every EP in the T.O. was covered and understood by my thick-headed self. Every crewmember executed procedure to the letter that day, and I'm sure if any of them were writing this article, they would be saying the same: "It truly takes a village!

BY CAPT. CHAD VANDERHORST
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Author:Vanderhorst, Chad
Publication:Combat Edge
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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