Major "Flak" Tower, our Squadron Operations Officer, had appeared angry that morning when he finished his conversation on the field phone and jammed the receiver back into its leather bag. He angrily announced, "Group Headquarters wants an airborne weather check." I'm sure he looked straight at me when he asked for a volunteer. A formidable German ground force, backed by tanks and heavy armor, had begun a major counter offensive a few days earlier. The brunt of the attack was near a Belgium town named Bastogne, which had unnerved Allied Command Headquarters. The Germans took advantage of the fact that our Air Forces probably would not be able to furnish air support for the hard pressed United States ground troops. Eventually, this attack became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Colonel John B. Henry, our 339th Fighter Group Commander, entered the control tower when I took off for the weather check. I know he went there to give me all the support he could. Henry, an outstanding officer and one of the youngest colonels in the Army Air Corps, pinned the eagles on his shirt collar at the age of 28. His rank and age reflected the high pilot attrition rate we suffered early on in the battle against the Third Reich. Henry surely watched with anxiety as my P-51 disappeared into the fog and freezing drizzle after take-off. He called me on the radio to remind me of the twin, 200-foot radio towers just south of the airfield. The towers, shrouded in the low level clouds and fog, posed another hazard to avoid while maneuvering at low altitude near the airfield. Ice began to form on the aircraft surfaces as soon as I had the wheels in the well, but I emerged from the top of the cloud layer within a couple of minutes and the ice buildup rapidly disappeared. I didn't know the altitude of the cloud tops when I took off, but surprise and delight greeted me as I broke out into the bright sunshine at 3,000 feet.
Brilliant sunlight surrounded me as I popped through the top of the cloud layer, and I immediately felt the warm rays that penetrated the Plexiglas canopy of my P-51 Mustang. Ascending from the dark interior of the clouds into the glare of the sun blinded me temporarily. I couldn't spot a cloud anywhere above my present altitude. Below, all the way to the ground, the low level scud hid the earth from view in all directions. In pilot jargon, it was really socked in. During climb-out, a coating of ice had formed on the leading edge of the wings and other surfaces of the airplane. Characteristically, the ice began to evaporate when I reached the clear air and sunlight, but began to accumulate each time that I entered the clouds, and evaporate once I entered clear air again as I skimmed over the cloud tops.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that the weather check flight had been ordered to prove to higher command that we could not fly our assigned missions without placing the aircraft and pilots at excessive risk. Uneasiness crept into my mind as I began to ponder the seriousness of my predicament, and I began to think I had been pretty stupid when I volunteered for the flight. In a combat situation against enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire you can usually take evasive action or fight back. Fighting bad weather with no low approach landing aids seemed almost futile.
I passed the weather report to the tower and then configured my Mustang for landing by running a routine cockpit check: fuel tanks, fuel mixture control full rich, propeller control forward, pilot tube heater switch on. I was unable to locate the airfield on my first descent back into the clouds and climbed back into the sunlight above 3,000 feet. The tower identified a homing device operated from a radio shack located near the airfield. Simply explained, the homing device was nothing more than a radio used in conjunction with a loop antenna. Aircraft position could be determined within a 360-degree radius of the airfield; provided you were within radio voice range. When the radio operator on the ground received voice transmissions from the pilot, such as a slow count from one to 10, he determined the bearing of the aircraft from the radio station and gave the pilot a reverse compass heading or "steer" to the airfield. It usually worked pretty well, but could be time consuming. After climbing back into the sunlight after my second attempt to find the airfield, the tower advised me that they did not see the aircraft but heard the engine noise. I contacted the radio operator at the field and obtained a steer to the field prior in preparation for my third landing attempt.
Before descending, I ran another cockpit check to configure the fuel tanks, mixture, propeller pitch, and pitot tube heat. Once again I left the open blue sky and the bright sunshine and descended into the dark cocoon, realizing the termination of the flight would come soon. The rate of the icing buildup appeared to have diminished somewhat, but remained a problem as long as I was in the clouds and I wondered for a moment what the outcome of this attempt would be.
I asked our weather shop, code named "Gas Pump," for the latest ground level weather report. They reported continuing poor conditions with intermittent freezing drizzle, one half-mile visibility in fog and an obscured cloud base. I leveled off in the soup at 300 feet and slowed the aircraft to 150 miles per hour to lower the landing gear.
I had set my altimeter on zero before take-off and Gas Pump advised that the barometric pressure had not changed. It was then that I realized why "Flak" Tower had sent me to the Link Instrument Flight trainer a week prior. "Watch your needle, ball, and airspeed ... trim the aircraft controls and keep it level" was all I could think as I brought the Mustang lower.
The Control Tower called me on the radio and shot flares as I passed over the airfield at 300 feet, on a northeast heading. I did not see the flares. I knew I had to stay close to the airfield and seek some visual contact with the ground, so I held my heading for about 10 seconds and began a slow descent.
I was straining to make out any familiar landmarks as I leveled off at 200 feet above the ground. The local farmland was all practically the same elevation, and I knew the area surrounding the airfield and the local English countryside topography quite well, but even at 200 feet, I still had no forward visibility. Eventually I could make out the dim outline of the treetops directly below, and realized it was the tree line just west of the airfield. I felt a strong urge to stare at the treetops but realized such a tactic probably meant vertigo and disaster at this extremely low altitude. Normal instrument flight procedures while maneuvering close to the ground demanded a pilot's full attention, and I had to try to remain in control. After several more seconds, I left the tree area behind, made a left turn to the southwest runway heading, and began a slow descent.
As I approached within a few feet of the ground, it suddenly occurred to me, I was left of the landing area--heading straight for the Squadron Operations shack. I had no other choice but to thrust the throttle forward and start a goaround. The 1,600 horsepower, 12-cylinder engine responded without hesitation and I felt the welcome pressure of being pressed against the padded parachute backpack. The low pitch setting of the four bladed propeller allowed the engine to accelerate smoothly to 3,000 rotations per minute. I needed all the oomph I could get to clear the roof of the operations building. The maneuver scared me because I almost wiped out a large portion of the squadron in one big splash--at least the guys wouldn't forget me. Even though I came close to killing them, they probably didn't want to trade places with me. After all, they were safe and secure on the ground. SAFE? Such a "buzz job" under most other circumstances would have been rewarded with court martial proceedings. I left the landing gear down and after clearing the roof of the Operation's shack, raised the wing flaps, and leveled off.
I caught sight of the Fowlmere Church steeple just off the right wing. I had forgotten the church steeple until it suddenly appeared. The "Old Man," Colonel Henry, still in the control tower, must have forgotten about the church also, because he never mentioned it to me on the radio. With that reassuring sight, I began to have hope for a successful landing, as I planned to use the church steeple as a reference point to help line up with the landing strip. My confidence increased when I sighted the church steeple, but in my excitement, I forgot to lower the wing flaps. When I made visual contact with the ground, I realized that by doing a flaps-up approach, I would land at least half way down the field, but I didn't intend to go around for another try.
I touched down long, and soon discovered the pierced steel planking landing surface was very slippery. Still on roll-out, I unlocked the canopy and rolled it back to keep it from jamming closed if I went off the runway. I closed the fuel mixture control to shut down the engine and started turning off switches. After my forward speed diminished somewhat, I moved the control stick forward to unlock the tail wheel and attempted to ground loop the aircraft. I managed to turn the nose of the P-51 about 45 degrees to the left, but continued to slide straight ahead on the pierced steel planking. The red and white checkered nosed Mustang stopped abruptly off the end of the airfield, collapsing the right landing gear and buckling the wing as the aircraft piled into a shallow ditch filled with rocks. My body slammed against the right side of the cockpit hard enough to knock the wind out of me. The strong smell of gasoline penetrated my nostrils and prompted me to immediately evacuate the aircraft.
I slid off the leading edge of the wing and collapsed to the ground, gasping for air. I regained near-normal breathing after a short while, and considered myself in pretty good condition except for my pride. I waited in the cold silence for what seemed an eternity. I never felt so alone in my life, but it felt good to have my feet firmly planted on solid ground again. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching through the fog.
"GEEZ!" was all I heard from "Flak" Tower and the Squadron Commander as they pulled up in a jeep. I promised myself I would never volunteer for ANYTHING again. Besides, wasn't any landing you could walk away from a good one? "Flak" put his arm around my shoulder and helped me into the Jeep, and never said a thing about the broken airplane.
Editor's Note: It can be said that there was a war on then, and modern technological advances in weather observation and prediction make this story non-applicable to the current times. Satellites, computers, and Doppler radar systems have tremendous capabilities; but like the weather forecasters of 1944, they are tools and interpreters to aid commanders in the decision making process, they are not the sole decision makers. This is a leadership issue, and had the Squadron Commander and "Flak" Tower used Operational Risk Management (ORM), this weather flight scenario would have played out very differently.
Decisions made on the flight line and throughout the Air Force today affect the safety of people we might never have the opportunity to meet. ORM supports better decision making, saving lives and resources. Risk management decisions are not always black and white, but the principles of ORM are straightforward and apply to every situation:
* Don't accept unnecessary risk.
* Make risk acceptance decisions at the appropriate level.
* Accept risk when benefit outweighs the cost.
* Integrate risk management into all levels of activity.
We continue to learn from past mishaps, and in the case of the airborne weather check, it violated all four ORM principles. A combination of better instrumentation, better approach aids, and strict adherence to weather minimums would make it easier for today's pilots to make the call not to fly. Like-wise, informed commanders would never force the decision down to the crewmember's level. Supervisors at all levels must understand the level of risk they can accept, and in turn ensure their subordinates know the amount of risk they can accept at their level of responsibility. When decision makers at all levels understand what constitutes unnecessary risk, ORM is truly integrated at all levels of the operation. Finally, there is no reason to risk losing an aircraft or pilot simply to satisfy a supervisor's curiosity, or provide proof that a mission is too risky to complete in the first place.
By Maj Cecil Byrd, Retired
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|Title Annotation:||p-51 Mustang|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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