Taxi trials and tribulations in Turkey.
Although both are logistics aircraft, the C-20G is a miraculous machine that can fly nonstop from Hawaii to the District of Columbia at 45,000 feet and 500 knots. With this kind of performance, to steal a line from Jimmy Buffett, latitude and attitude change very quickly when you climb into the cockpit and enjoy the exhilarating shove of 27,700 pounds of thrust from the twin Rolls-Royce turbofan engines.
I was a new aircraft commander in the C-20G international-overwater transport. I felt good as my sleek jet and top-notch crew zoomed toward Istanbul, Turkey, on the first mission of our detachment. Our mission was to pick up a submarine admiral and his aide, take them to Naples, Italy, and return to det homeplate in NAS Sigonella.
We checked the weather and NOTAMS and got our diplomatic clearances. To get a good idea of our fuel burn, we used the fleet numerical's great optimal-path-aircraft-routing program. We also studied the FLIP sections for the Ataturk (Istanbul), Turkey, airfield and the Italian, Greek, and Turkish airspace we would transit. The 1801 international-flight-plans form was completed to cover our day trip. None of the crew had operated from this airport, nor had anyone else in the squadron as far as I knew, so we didn't want any surprises. I had survived a tour as a loop, and I knew admirals and surprises are a volatile mixture.
Not many tactical complexities are involved when you fly logistical or VIP aircraft. However, a crew must know many mundane details to operate the aircraft in a professional, safe and expedient manner. We recognized one such detail: Where would we meet the admiral at the Ataturk field? We queried the ASCOMED and the U.S. Defense Attache Office in Istanbul. We also called the admiral's office and had a cellphone patch directly to his aide. The aide gave a vague idea of the pickup point--the military side of the airfield.
ASCOMED may have known something we didn't because they scheduled two hours, rather than the usual 45 to 60 minutes, for our ground turn in Istanbul. Nonetheless, the pickup point didn't seem like a critical safety-of-flight issue. I figured we would get better info on the ground in Turkey.
We landed, cleared the runway, and requested taxi clearance to the military side of the field. We didn't know exactly where the military side was since it is not marked on the FLIP-airport diagram or in the Jeppesen publications. Nonetheless, we got taxi instructions to park at a spot near a building marked "Base Ops" on the FLIP diagram. That news seemed encouraging until we arrived at the spot, and found no military aircraft or anything to suggest we were on a military installation.
We parked and shut down, hoping to get more info from the handlers. We were relieved to find a guy in civilian clothes, whom we later learned was a USDAO Air Force sergeant who spoke English. He said we were not on the military side, and he would coordinate approval from the Turkish Armed Forces for us to taxi to the correct side. He departed, then relayed a message to us through the Turkish handler to reposition to the military side and to expect a follow-me vehicle.
We felt confident we had overcome this minor hurdle but still did not know our exact destination on the field. After restarting and calling ground control, we requested a progressive taxi to the military side. We were cleared to taxi via mike and cross runway 24. As we approached the hold-short for runway 24, in IMC conditions and with twilight approaching, we spotted two parked vehicles facing us. They were in the center of the taxiway on the other side of 24 with their headlights on. They fit my follow-me vehicle paradigm, so we taxied across 24 and followed the yellow stripe down the somewhat narrower taxiway on the other side.
Feeling good to be clear of an active runway, in darkening IMC conditions, we waited for the vehicles to turn around and lead us to our destination. Our paradigm shattered when the vehicles held their position and flashed their headlights at us. I stopped the aircraft, and my crew chief volunteered to talk to the drivers. He returned and told us a fence was around the next bend in this taxiway, and the Turks in the cars believed the opening in the fence was too narrow for our aircraft. We decided the crew chief would ask for a ride to the fence line to assess the clearance.
The taxiway was too narrow to make a U-turn. I later surmised, from the Turkish-military aircraft parked in the revetments, that this taxiway was for military aircraft with a short wingspan. Unfortunately, wingspan limitations were not detailed in the NOTAMS or the FLIPS. We had two not-so-delectable options: Press forward and attempt to negotiate the narrow space, or shut down. If we shut down, we would get the tow bar from our tail compartment and try to coordinate with the Turkish handler to push us back with ground clearance--on an active runway, in darkening IMC conditions, in a foreign country.
My crew chief returned and said he thought we could make it through the fence line, but not comfortably. I initially decided on the shutdown option, which presumably was the more time-consuming of the two distasteful options.
At the very moment we put this plan into action, the manager of the Turkish handler arrived on-scene and assured us we could make it through the fence line. He would provide wands for our wing-walkers. With a five-man crew, I changed my decision and opted to go forward with a wing-walker on each wing. My crew chief would direct the evolution from outside, and the two pilots would drive. The wing-walkers took position on each wing, with one small detail to note. Each wing-walker had only one lighted wand, rather than two. Our Turkish host had provided two wands, rather than four.
The evolution proceeded smoothly as we approached the bottleneck. Just when I thought we were clear, our right wing-walker waved frantically. I was taxiing from the left seat, the only one from which the C-20G can be taxied. For a brief moment, the cockpit crew was confused. Was the signal from our wing-walker an adrenaline-pumped thumbs up, indicating we were clear? Or, was it an emphatic signal to stop? Our aviation training, common sense, and survival instinct prevailed. We quickly stopped the aircraft, with clearance from an approaching obstacle but not much mental comfort. We were not yet in a predicament where the only direction we could go was backward.
The story ended anti-climactically. We removed the tow bar and used the handler's tow tractor to back us up slightly, reposition the nose gear, and pull us forward and through the obstacle to freedom. We continued our taxi to the military-side pickup point on the southwestern corner of the airfield. This episode delayed us 45 minutes, and the admiral seemed to understand.
My initial and biggest mistake was not to challenge my own paradigm about the vehicle I saw and interpreted to be a follow-me. My second error was allowing myself to be influenced, perhaps by expedience or pressure of the mission, to taxi forward after I had decided to push backward to extricate myself. A third error was allowing the evolution to continue without a full complement of four wands. Last, I dropped my guard a degree in a perceived lower-threat taxi evolution. I should have hashed out my taxi clearance with ground control until I fully understood my route from chocks to chocks.
Flying in the international environment is fraught with new challenges and unexpected traps. Language barriers, inadequate or incomplete information, and non-standard markings are a few of the difficulties that compound the universal aviation hazards of weather and darkness.
On the positive side, my crew exercised good crew-resource management. Introductions to CRM training usually remind us of accident statistics where the human element failed. In this situation, the skills and experience of each member of my hybrid, selected-reserve and TAR crew were brought to bear on the problem and made this non-event a learning experience. We did thorough preflight planning, briefed before the flight, and rebriefed as we faced each hurdle. Each crew member was assertive when he needed to be and was adaptable and flexible to a situation not covered in NATOPS.
As our sleek jet whistled through the Mediterranean night sky, I felt relieved to have this ordeal behind me. Challenge your paradigms, probe and challenge all clearances until they are fully understood, and insist on full sets of equipment for all aircraft movements, regardless of how routine they are.
LCdr. Lowell flies with VR-48.
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|Title Annotation:||personal account of flying a C-20G Gulfstream IV|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2002|
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