Down to the wire.
After orbiting for two hours during a tactically task-saturated portion of the mission, our starboard observer noticed that the high-frequency (HF-2) wire had detached and wrapped around the horizontal stabilizer. The aircraft commander (AC) was notified and started to assess the damage. Power was secured to HF-2, and the NATOPS manuals were consulted. The tactical aspect of the mission was put on hold, and all attention was focused toward the safety of the aircraft and aircrew.
After making sure we had no controllability concerns with the current clean configuration, the flight station decided to abort the mission in accordance with NATOPS. We would return to homeplate, Kadena Air Base, the nearest suitable field. Observers were posted, and we climbed to FL250 for our return transit.
The flight-station discussed when to configure for our controllability check and where this would take place. After checking NATOPS, it was decided to conduct this check 30 miles from the field and 6,000 feet over water to make sure any debris would not fall over land.
Once established in holding, we set approach flaps and lowered the landing gear. We tapered airspeed to the predetermined approach-flap landing speed of 138 knots. As we slowed through 140 knots, we felt a light buffet. The HF-2 wire had lodged itself between the starboard horizontal-stabilizer trim tab and force link tab, a control surface unique to the Orion airframe and located on the inboard trailing edge of each elevator. It's designed to increase the longitudinal stability of the aircraft. With 12,100 feet of runway available, a favorable headwind and no significant weather in the area, the AC decided to fly an approach-flap landing. The landing ground roll distance was calculated to be 4,700 feet.
The AC briefed that on landing rollout, the No. 2 and 3 power levers would not be retarded beyond the GROUND START position, and reversal would be accomplished using the No. 1 and 4 power levers. The copilot was briefed to call speed below 135 knots on the landing rollout. During approach the copilot told tower of the detached HF-2 wire and the possibility of leaving a debris trail on the runway.
After landing, we taxied clear of the active. Tower told us to hold position pending a runway and aircraft FOD inspection. No FOD was found, and we were cleared to taxi. Postflight inspection revealed no additional damage to our aircraft.
This experience reinforced the importance of always relying upon established NATOPS procedures. We worked together as a crew to make sure that what began as a relatively benign malfunction didn't materialize into something more significant.
LT. HERNANDEZ FLIES WITH VQ-1.