A PERILOUS PATH - Pilot has to glide T-6 in for landing after engine power shuts down

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Maj. Kent Currie woke up in a good mood for a Wednesday morning. Sometimes rolling out of bed at 6:30 a.m. in the middle of a workweek can be a drag. But on March 5, Currie would be flying the T-6 Texan II. And like most Air Force pilots, the major felt any day spent flying is a good day.

Kerry, the major's wife of three years, sat at the kitchen table studying for an upcoming nursing exam. She'd had a rough night. Nearly three months pregnant with their first child, she often experienced the dreaded "morning sickness." Currie poured himself a bowl of Mini-Wheats, and the couple tossed around a few more possible baby names ... a conversation habit they'd fallen into ever since they'd found out she was expecting.

Currie finished his breakfast, kissed his wife good-bye, and stepped outside to feel the warmth under a sunny, cloudless San Antonio sky.

"What a perfect day for flying," he thought.

Little did he know that this ideal setting was about to take a turn for the worse.

Today's mission? A little "show and tell" in the Texan II. He'd been tasked to take his squadron's boss -- Maj. Gen. Erwin F. Lessel III -- on an indoctrination flight in the T-6, and was more than enthusiastic for the opportunity.

Currie had been flying the T-6 for more than seven years and has nearly 4,000 flying hours in the T-6, T-37, T-38 and C-130 combined. As the director of operations in the Air Education and Training Command Studies and Analysis Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, one of the numerous things his unit does is test and evaluate the Texan II. Since his boss, who is director of AETC Plans, Programs, Requirements and Assessments, writes the checks for all the systems they test on the aircraft, Currie wanted to show him some of its issues.

The general had been a T-37 instructor pilot in his career and was looking forward to seeing the replacement for the venerable Tweet first hand.

Ground ops, take off and flying into the military operating area all went smoothly. Currie demonstrated maneuvers, and the general repeated them. They each did a spin to compare the T-6 to the old Tweet. Next they set up for some aerobatics.

This plan never happened.

As the general accelerated in max power, the aircraft, suddenly and with no warning, decelerated.

Currie scanned the engine instruments to see if he could determine the exact problem, and he had a sinking feeling.

"What happened?" the general asked.

Then he heard words no one ever wants to hear from a pilot.

"We're in trouble," Currie said.

The propeller speed was decreasing, the torque increasing, and the aircraft was decelerating, all the while making a noise like it was in pain.

"No way is this happening," Currie thought. "Not with the boss on board."

If they lost all power, gravity would soon do its job.

When an engine malfunction occurs in a single-engine aircraft like the T-6, one of the first steps is to turn toward an airfield. They had one nearby, but it was a short 4,000-foot private airfield. The minimum runway for normal operations in the T-6 is 4,000 feet, but without engine power, there is very little margin for error.

For Currie, the 8,300-foot runway back at Randolph seemed the better idea ... if they could make it.

Though still nearly 30 miles out, he felt the aircraft had just enough energy to return home safely.

The real wild card now proved to be the winds. Fortunately, they didn't face a significant headwind to impede their progress. Instead a strong tailwind aided their "mad dash" to the base.

In handling the emergency, the roles were clear for both men. This was the general's first flight in a T-6, and Currie is one of the most experienced Texan II pilots in the Air Force. So in this case, the major had the responsibility as the instructor pilot in command of the aircraft. The general served as his "wingman," assisting where he could by flying the aircraft back to the airfield, confirming checklist actions and providing a second set of eyes as a safety observer.

Part of the emergency procedure was to pull a circuit breaker. Although Currie had done this in the simulator many times, it proved to be a little more difficult strapped to the seat wearing a bulky helmet and gloves. He located and pulled the circuit breaker, hoping to fix the problem. But he had an uneasy feeling it wouldn't work.

The next few seconds would reveal that suspicion as correct.

Engine malfunction lights illuminated and warning alarms sounded as the engine began to vibrate.

Ironically, Currie had helped develop the checklist for this type of malfunction. Perhaps fittingly, he'd be the first one to use it in a real life emergency.

Engine indications were confusing since it looked like they should have power but did not. Currie pulled the power back to prevent the motor from over-torquing, and slowly the engine began to indicate near normal.

Despite the distressing grinding, the major hoped the worst was over.

But as the propeller slowed, that alarming clatter escalated rapidly as if someone had dropped a spoon into a garbage disposal.

Again he reduced the power -- this time near idle. Despite high torque readings, the propeller produced little to no thrust, and they were unable to maintain level flight.

Currie declared an emergency with San Antonio approach control. Understanding what an engine failure meant to a T-6, they cleared the pilots direct to Randolph.

The major discussed the situation with the supervisor of flying at the base, and he helped verify that they had run the appropriate checklists. As they got closer to Randolph, Currie began to feel things were under control despite the clanking from the propeller and being involuntarily pulled toward dirt.

They arrived over Randolph with excess altitude and set up an orbit pattern. As they spiraled down, the general backed up Currie with descent rate calculations and wind adjustments.

Then, with an eerie thump, the propeller stopped turning and the grinding ended.

"There it goes!" they said in unison.

The ominous silence from the frozen propeller proved to be even more unsettling than the racket the prop had been making.

"This wasn't quite the show I had in mind for my two-star boss!" Currie thought.

All things considered, the major felt reasonably comfortable with the situation. He had practiced engine out patterns countless times, and they had 8,300 feet of runway available. It was a little unnerving, however, when they heard conversations with the tower instructing aircraft on the ground to get away from the area near the runway.

Since the normal landing gear control didn't work with the engine out, they'd have to use the emergency extension to lower the gear. Currie worried that with so much to think about, he could become distracted and forget that critical step. He made the general aware of this concern, and Lessel assured him that he would not let him forget.

Currie started the last orbit and lowered the gear with the emergency extension. Three green indications told him the system worked, and he then concentrated on flying the engine out pattern correctly, being careful to adjust to the strong winds.

As they came within reach of the runway, the major selected the flaps to help slow them down.

But something else went terribly wrong.

Currie wasn't feeling the normal pitch change sensation from lowering the flaps. He looked back inside the cockpit, and sure enough, the flap gauge hadn't budged.

"Not now!" he thought. "Not after we're so close."

For the third time since their problems began, the general thought back to the ejection seat and parachute training they'd received through life support.

The cold reality? They were running out of options and might have to bail.

Currie quickly realized that he had to abandon the idea of having emergency flaps available to slow them down. He had to figure out another way to get this $4.5 million aircraft on the ground ... and stopped.

For obvious reasons, he also wanted to ensure their flight path didn't take them over a nearby fuel storage facility.

After weighing his options, he decided the best way to slow down was to speed up.

He chose to lower the nose and accelerate to a velocity well above the best glide speed. This move would create additional drag and help them to lose energy.

Going nearly 40 knots too fast for their configuration, the deafening wind rush told them all they needed to know about their speed. And with that speed, the 8,300-foot runway that normally looked so long now appeared awfully short.

Currie waited to set the plane down until he was sure they wouldn't hit the nose gear first, which could cause it to collapse. The tire squeaks on the runway felt good. But after touching down more than 3,000 feet down the runway faster than anyone has ever landed a T-6, they weren't out of the woods yet.

The T-6 has warnings about applying the brakes above 80 knots because of the tendency to lock the brakes and blow the tires. They were doing nearly 50 knots faster than the recommended speed and needed to start braking now!

Currie braked as hard as he felt he safely could, and the aircraft began to decelerate. As they passed the "3,000-foot remaining" marker under 100 knots, he finally started feeling some relief.

He brought the aircraft to a stop with less than 1,000 feet of runway remaining. The two officers egressed the aircraft as firetrucks and other emergency vehicles swarmed the scene.

As the pair moved away from the aircraft, the hair raised on the back of Currie's neck as he contemplated what might have happened had they decided to land at that small 4,000-foot private runway. His thoughts then turned to his pregnant wife, who is due in September.

"Kerry isn't going to like this," he thought.

With that in mind, the major looked up to see his boss holding a camera. "Smile," the general said, as the shutter clicked.

And for the first time since the emergency began, they finally had reason to grin from ear-to-ear.