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Almost a fatal lift.

As a C-130T loadmaster with seven years and 3,800 hours of experience, I was preparing for just another seven-day NALO mission. A week earlier, I had received the lift message: Pick up cargo at NAS Roosevelt Roads, continue to Andros Island, Bahamas, to pick up passengers, and return to NAS Pt Mugu, Calif. The message listed only the weight of the cargo, but during mission planning, I discovered our load was 10 AQM-37 target drones, which had "rocket motors with hypergolic liquids."

We don't carry rockets everyday, and I quickly had to get smart on them. Using the loadmaster's hazmat bible, the NAVSUP PUB 505 (known to us simply as the "505"), I learned these rockets contained two chemicals: inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA) and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (hydrazine)--both extremely dangerous.

These two chemicals are so dangerous the 505 has a special section dedicated to transporting any rockets containing them. As a rule, each rocket has to be stored in its own container with a small disk indicator that alerts to chemical leaks. The disk indicators are normally white or off-white and turn yellow with an IRFNA leak or black with a hydrazine leak. What really alerted me this was nasty stuff is the dedicated emergency checklist in case of a leak. Also, transporting passengers is strictly prohibited when carrying rockets.

Before our arrival, I briefed the crew of the contents and reviewed the procedures. After we arrived at the air station, my trainee and I inspected the 10 rocket containers and reviewed the paperwork. The next morning, we loaded the rockets on the plane and carefully inspected each of the sight gauges one last time. With all the rockets on board, it wasn't until right before we started to taxi that I smelled rotten fish.

When I rechecked the disk indicators, two appeared blotchy. The disk indicators in the direct sunlight had looked white, but now in the closed aircraft, they looked almost yellow. I immediately stopped the aircrew from taxiing, informed the aircraft commander, and asked our flight engineer to come back and verify what I had smelled. The engineer confirmed the smell, and as a crew, we called for an emergency shutdown, evacuated, and waited for the fire department and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD).

After opening up the aircraft and performing a sniff check, EOD declared we were all clear and OK to proceed on our mission. The base personnel concurred, and they began to pressure us to get the rockets off the station; I still had a bad feeling about the situation. The crew respected my instincts, used ORM, and made the decision that an extra night in Rosey Roads was a small inconvenience when it came to our safety. We requested the rockets be removed from our aircraft and inspected, while we headed to medical for a checkup. We weren't too popular with station weapons.

While at medical, the ambulance was dispatched to station weapons for possible leak symptoms with weapons personnel. Of the four people brought back to medical, one was dizzy, two had headaches, and the fourth was sick to his stomach. All were held overnight.

During the evening, we received a call from the station medical officer, saying we were all down for 72 hours, and to report to medical first thing in the morning for a complete evaluation. We then received a second call from station EOD saying that, after a complete inspection, two of the rockets had verified leaks.

We monitored one another for the next 72 hours, as symptoms of exposure to IRFNA can be delayed. The doctor at the clinic told us if we had taken off with these rockets, the fumes in the pressurized aircraft might have killed us in 20 to 30 minutes from pulmonary edema, which is when the lungs no longer can put oxygen into the bloodstream. We were all granted a clean bill of health and soon headed home--minus the rockets.

Looking back, I'm glad this situation did not happen early in my career. An inexperienced loadmaster would have been tempted to take this lift. The paperwork was perfect, nothing in the 505 stated the indication of a leak is a rotten fish smell, EOD initially gave an "all clear," and the decision to remove and inspect the rockets caused extra work for everyone.

I used my experience and trusted my instincts that day. Equally as important, my crew used effective ORM and CRM to make a decision that was unpopular with others, but it was the right decision.

AT1 (AW/NAC) Witucki flies with VR-55.

By AT1 (AW/NAC) Randy Witucki
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Author:Witucki, Randy
Article Type:Personal account
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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