|By Hodges, Kristopher|
It was the beginning of another deployment, and the flight was our crew's first wire-out mission. Our flight profile was standard: Take off from Offutt AFB, fly about four hours to the operatJ J area in the
When we arrived at the operating area at 20,000 feet the weather was perfect, so I sat this one out and let my 3P and 2P run the mission. Even though I had complete confidence in their abilities, I listened on ICS from the crew-rest area, just in case they ran into any issues. It wasn't long before I noticed an out-of-place silence. Just as I started to think something might be wrong, my flight engineer dropped the bomb.
"We're gonna have to cut it," he called.
I got up to see what had happened. Before I could get to the flight deck, my flight engineer met me on his way back to the reel operator's station, which is located in the back of the airplane. I asked him how bad it was, but all he could do was shake his head. When we got to the reel station there was no question we had a problem. It looked like the wire had jammed up somewhere, and the reel continued to unspool. It created a bird's nest of messy, mangled and knotted metal wire. We had a lot of wire extended, and with the reel as screwed up as it was, there was no way we could get it back in the aircraft. It was unanimous that we would have to cut it.
As disappointing as it was from an operational standpoint to lose the wire and scrub the remainder of the mission, we weren't too worried. Normally, losing a wire means writing a things-falling-off-aircraft (TFOA) report and a trip back to Tinker to get fixed. The aircraft's reel system is equipped with an automatic and a manual cutter system for situations like this.
I went to the flight deck, jumped in the left seat, and we started running through the checklist to cut the wire. We made a thorough surface sweep with the weather radar for any oil rigs or tankers, found an open area, and told the reel operator to cut it. My 2P, FE and I all stared at the wire indications, expecting to see the length or tension go to zero.
"Reels, flight. What's going on back there?"
"Flight, reels. The cutters didn't fire, let me try again ... it's not working, try your panel."
I tried the cutter panel by the pilot's seat - nothing. My 2P tried his panel - nothing.
"Reels, flight. It's not working. Try the T-handle."
The reel operator tried the manual cutter T-handle and, of course, nothing happened.
We were quickly running out of options, but after some discussion, I decided to let the reel operator go "old school" on the wire. This meant he'd use bolt cutters from the tool box - essentially our last resort. Even though our stress levels were starting to rise, we were confident it would work. I was mostly concerned for the reel operator's safety, because we've all seen what happens when tightly stretched wire or rope suddenly snaps. The ends could whip around and seriously injure him or damage the aircraft.
I was on the flight deck when he tried to cut the wire, so I could only imagine the look on his face: His head turned away, one eye squinted shut, and his face grimaced in anticipation of the force about to be released. He cautiously increased the pressure until the cutters finally snapped closed, and then, nothing. There was no violent sound of wire whipping on metal, no grinding or scraping as the frayed end is pulled by the airstream through the back of the aircraft, just two ends of a newly cut wire laying loosely on the deck, as if they weren't under any tension, which they weren't