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 Gulf of Mexico, trail the wire out the back of the E-6B for an hour or so, and have a leisurely 3-to-4-hour flight back to Offutt.
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
"Uh ... flight, reels. Sir, I cut the wire ... it's still attached."
There was a silent pause as we realized the gravity of the situation unfolding around us. We were at 20,000 feet, trailing a lot of wire with a 50-pound drogue at the end of it, and we had no way to get rid of it. At that moment we all went from slightly stressed to, "Houston, we have a problem!"
I glanced at our fuel state. We had plenty of fuel to hang out for a couple hours while we tried to figure this out. I told my 2P and 3P to run bingo numbers for Tinker and Navy Corpus. My FE and I went back to the reel station to see what we were working with. In short, it wasn't good. The reel operator tried to trace the wire back as far aft in the aircraft as he could to find where it had jammed. He determined that it had to be jammed somewhere on the drogue arm itself, external to the aircraft. There was no way to get to it in flight. The only way that wire was going to release was if some external force physically ripped it from the aircraft.
Fortunately, we had fuel, which gave us time to brainstorm. We also had good comms with home base, so I called Tinker on the "bat phone" and passed them our situation. I told them to gather all the pilots, flight engineers (FEs), and reel operators they could find and come up with some bright ideas. We also needed some options to land away from populated places in case nothing worked.
We thought we could shake the wire loose by deploying the speedbrakes, which produce substantial airframe buffet, or by rapidly rolling back and forth. Another option was to snap it off by inducing negative then rapid positive G's to whip out the jam. The think tank back at Tinker suggested that we repeatedly open and close the drogue-arm doors, which might fray or weaken the wire enough for it to snap. They also suggested either Kingsville or Navy Corpus as possible places to land with the wire out, as the approach to runway 13R at Corpus keeps you over the water for most of the final approach, and the approaches to 31 at Kingsville are over rural areas.
We decided to try the door-cutting method first. We figured if it didn't weaken the wire enough for it to fall off on its own, we could try the other ideas to help it out. As we desperately tried all possible options, with no success, the thought of landing with the wire still attached became more and more real. I started to visualize what would happen as the drogue first hit the ground. Would it stay attached or would it break off? If it broke off, how would it break off? Would it break at the end of the drogue, leaving the wire still attached to the aircraft, or would it break where the wire attaches to the aircraft? The more I thought about it, the more I realized whatever happened was inevitable. The drogue would hit the ground while the aircraft was still airborne, and would cause significant damage to whatever it hit. My focus shifted to figuring out how we could minimize this damage.
Based on the considerable length of exposed wire and our understanding of how it normally behaves, we calculated the drogue was hanging somewhere between 500 to 800 feet below us, trailing well behind. On a straight-in approach, it would hit a considerable distance short of the runway, just moments before landing. Not the ideal spot.
Then I thought, "I wonder what would happen if we just dragged the wire through the water out here in the ocean?"
There were a lot of unknown variables to this problem, but the one thing we could control was where the drogue would first impact. At first I dismissed this plan as too radical, but the more I thought about it, the more apparent it became that none of our other ideas were going to work; I figured I should at least bring it up to the crew for discussion. The plan was received better than I expected. The fact that there weren't really any other options probably had something to do with that. We discussed all of the possible hazards with this "trolling" maneuver. I'm talking about operational risk management (ORM) like you read about.
What if the wire didn't break off? What if the drogue broke off, but the wire didn't? What if the force from the wire damaged part of the airframe? What might that damage be? How might that affect our flight controls? Don't forget that we'd be flying a heavy 707 only 500 feet over the water. Not that it would be impossible, but the E-6 wasn't exactly designed to do low levels. I brought up this idea to the think tank at Tinker to see what they thought. It took them a little while, but they called us back and agreed that it was a viable option and definitely worth considering. We were getting to the point where if we didn't do something soon we would start burning through our divert options. I made the decision to give our plan a shot. I gave Tinker one last call on the bat phone and told them we were going to try the trolling maneuver.
We decided to fly it like a low approach. We would configure full flaps, keep the gear up and slow to approach speed. We set 500 feet as our go-around point whether the wire had hit or not. I also didn't want to be hanging out with the wire in the water for long, so I briefed we would go-around at the first sign of impact no matter what the altitude. We had planned, briefed and prepared the best we could, and the atmosphere on the flight deck was jovial. It was mostly our way to lighten the mood before we attempted to do something that had never been done before.
We continued the descent to 1,000 feet and configured the jet. From 1,000 feet on we took it nice and slow, 100 feet at a time, no more than 100 feet per min. I was completely focused on my airspeed and radio altimeter, my 2P kept scanning outside for ships, and my FE was focused on wire indication for any signs of impact. Meanwhile, the reel operator was at his station watching the wire from the drogue arm camera. At about 700 feet, the GPWS started going off.
"Terrain. Terrain. Pull up!"
Just then the reel operator shouted over ICS, "It's in the water!"
The drogue was too far behind the aircraft for him to see from the camera, but as it started to skim the surface it made a giant splash, which he could easily see.
As we advanced the throttles and pitched up to climb away, the extra oomph from the engines was enough to break the wire right at the end of the drogue arm.
"Flight, reels. It worked, the wire is gone."
We cleaned up the aircraft and started to climb. I took another look at our fuel. Just as we had planned, we were right at our bingo to Tinker. We contacted Houston Center and picked up our IFR clearance to RTB. The relief we felt was indescribable. We were headed home with a good jet when only moments earlier we were faced with what seemed like an impossible situation, which we were almost certain would lead to a mishap.
We landed at Tinker and found where the wire had jammed. It had knotted itself on the end of the drogue arm. It would have been impossible to remove it in any other way than the way we did.
LT HODGES FLIES WITH VQ-4.
He cautiously increased the pressure until the cutters finally snapped closed, and then, nothing.
BY LT KRISTOPHER HODGES