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Get Home Itis
"With a fingernails-across-the chalkboard screech, the number two propeller struck the power cart in the worst possible place? the fuel tank. Instantly, the tank ruptured and burst into flame, setting the aircraft on fire as well. The ensuing blaze ensured base firefighters earned their pay that day." (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Posted 9/1/2008   Updated 10/25/2008 Email story   Print story


by Lt. Col. Ricard N. Oster

9/1/2008 - Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., -- NOTE: This story was reprinted from the May 1968 issue of Combat Crew Magazine, a Strategic Air Command safety publication. But the lessons learned still apply today, especially with the holiday season approaching and aircrews wanting to get home to spend time with their families.

Crewmembers on the whole are a hale and hearty lot, but they can on occasion suffer from a common disease: "get-home-itis." In the dormant stage, this common crew ailment is an ever present nuisance. In the active state, however, it can be very dangerous.

You won't find the term in any dictionary or medical text. Nonetheless, it is a term that is accepted and widely used. Roughly defined, it means, "An intense and compelling desire to return to home station at the earliest possible time at the expense of aircraft checklist deviations and general disregard of good judgment."

Wanting to get home in time for Christmas is a classic example.

In a well-developed state, get-home-itis will probably kill if you permit it to relax good judgment and proper use of the aircraft checklist. Case in point, a Strategic Air Command accident investigation board documented an advanced case of get-home-itis that resulted in the loss of an aircraft and injuries to crewmembers.

The incident involved the faithful and reliable old C-47 Skytrain. This aircraft and crew were assigned to fly a survey of a proposed low-level bomber/navigation route. Heavy snows had obliterated the objects they were looking for, so the survey was abandoned.

The crew had devoted three days flying back and forth between southern and northern Air Force bases looking at the snow, and had scheduled a takeoff for home on the fourth day.

A check of the weather on the morning of the proposed flight home revealed a front moving in with forecast winds up to and beyond 35 knots, somewhat above safe limits for the C-47. The first tinge of get-home-itis crept in at this time, as takeoff time was moved up a few hours ... or as soon as everyone could be rounded up.

With little difficulty the crew met at base operations just over an hour before takeoff. They were motivated because no one wanted to spend any more time away from their home base and family if it could be avoided.

They whipped up a flight plan, filed a clearance and jumped into a waiting bus that proceeded to take them to the aircraft.

Nine minutes after filing their clearance, the aircraft was on fire!

What went wrong?

The accident investigation board found that weather was not a contributing factor to the mishap. It wasn't, but it certainly contributed to the case of get-home-itis. The board did find that improper checklist procedures were used and attributed the mishap to pilot error. They also found that the pilot had a little help from the ground crew in getting the blaze going.

The crew arrived at the aircraft and began a somewhat hurried pre-flight, making certain omissions and deviations from tech data. Some signal -- not to be found in the regulations -- was exchanged between the transient maintenance man and the pilot, resulting in the chocks being removed prior to moving the C-26 power cart away from the aircraft.

The maintainer was trying to pull the power cart away by hand (the self-drive unit was inoperative), when he heard the engines rev up and saw the Skytrain moving toward him.

He beat a hasty retreat, trying to attract the attention of the
co-pilot, but no one was looking outside.

At this time the crew was preoccupied with low oil temperatures and had decided that it was too low to taxi. Somehow the brakes were released, although break release point had not been reached in the checklist.

With a fingernails-across-the-chalkboard screech, the number two propeller struck the power cart in the worst possible place -- the highly flammable fuel tank.

Instantly, the tank ruptured and burst into flame, setting the aircraft on fire as well.

The ensuing blaze ensured scrambling base firefighters earned their pay that day.

Three navigators and a hitch-hiking passenger in the cargo department had no difficulty getting out of the rear cargo door -- particularly when eight hands grabbed the handle simultaneously. The flight mechanic beat feet not too far behind the passenger and navigators.

However, the two pilots felt trapped inside the burning aircraft.

By the time they shut down the engines and were heading for the rear of the Skytrain, one or more of the Plexiglas windows on the right side of the aircraft burned through, permitting flames to enter the cabin. The pilots thought the entire cabin was on fire, so they attempted to escape out of the forward part of the C-47.

By now, dense black smoke filled the aircraft, making vision and breathing difficult.

The desperate aviators finally attempted to escape via the pilot's left sliding window -- a tight squeeze, to say the least. Ground personnel helped pull the pilot through the tiny window. Meanwhile, the co-pilot had blacked out, and firefighters had to yank the unconscious man through the same small opening.

There's more in the report about the flight mechanic going back into the aircraft looking for the pilots, and the rapid response on the part of the base firefighters who extinguished the flames in less than three minutes. But the primary point is never let get-home-itis interfere with good judgment or use of the aircraft checklist.

In this case, to beat forecast weather and to get home a little earlier, the crew started engines with improper use of the checklist and performed items out of sequence.

Ironically, in their pursuit to get home early, the navigators went home three days late; the pilot and flight mechanic arrived home nine days late; and the co-pilot got home 21 days late after a two-week detour to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

The poor old C-47 never did get home, as it was damaged beyond economical repair.

Needlessly costing the government a serviceable aircraft, the mishap also very nearly took the life of a pilot.

Actually, no one item caused the mishap, but combined "cockpit malfunctions" with "ground crew malfunctions" guaranteed the result. The bottom line, follow checklists and keep yourself well-insulated from the "disease" known as "get-home-itis."

Colonel Oster was a member of the 43rd Bomb Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., in 1968. The 43rd deactivated at Little Rock Jan. 31, 1970, then reactivated in April 1970 at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, where it remained until it deactivated Sept. 30, 1990.

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