Nevermore by Cdr. Dave DeLance


Freight Dawg
Nevermore by Cdr. Dave DeLance

Anyone who has spent time at NAF Atsugi, Japan knows all about the ravens.
Thousands of them, caw loudly and raucously, from the golf course to the
flight line. They wake you every morning and are still at it every evening.
Early last month, I could have sworn I heard one whisper "Nevermore."

I'm a Navy C-9 pilot, a 20-year commander in the Navy Reserve who also
flies as a captain for an airline. My time is nearly equally split between
my civilian and military jobs. I spend months each year in Japan or Italy,
flying passengers and cargo for the Navy.

Last month, we were tasked to fly from Atsugi to Phuket, Thailand, stay
overnight, fly a leg to pick up a SEAL platoon, bring them back to Phuket,
spend another night, and then return them to their forward
deployed home base in Guam. This was an unusual but not unheard-of
mission for a C-9.

The entire mission went fine all the way back to Phuket on the second night.
Gas started to become an issue when we had both of the SEAL det crews and
their combat cargo on board. That extra weight limited the amount of fuel we
could carry to about 30,000 pounds-four and a half to five hours' worth.

Three tropical depressions were beginning to stir things up in the Far
East. One was up north, to the west of Korea; it wasn't a factor. But one
was sitting just to the west of the Philippines and slowly drifting east
toward Manila. The third, named Samoi, was spinning up to the northeast of
Guam and sliding northwest. Its projected track would keep it 200 miles
north of the island. It would soon accelerate, unforecasted, to super
typhoon status.

Phuket, Thailand, is an international resort (where the movie "The Beach"
was filmed), so while overseas communication was expensive, it wasn't
impossible. Worried about the weather, I made several long-distance calls
to our scheduler and various weather agencies around the area. We
managed to identify an alternate airport for Manila and decided to
press on with the mission. We would beat the first typhoon into Manila
with a day to spare.

With the SEAL team on board, we departed Phuket airport early that morning.
About 200 miles into the flight, the first thunderstorms started to appear,
and we switched on the weather radar. It didn't work. It had tested fine on
the ground, and it had tested fine in the air, but it wouldn't show us the
storms. We made the only decision we could and turned around to get it
fixed. We carry our own mechanics with us, and an hour and a half later,
back on the ground in Phuket, we found the broken wire... Again we fueled
the aircraft and started off, now more than two hours late.

The weather into Manila was dicey but manageable. We used the radar to skirt
the worst of the storms on our way in from the west, and we found clearer
weather as we approached the field. The leg took three hours and 40 minutes,
and we landed with 6,500 pounds of fuel, just above the legal planning limit
of 6,000 pounds.

Again we refueled. We were losing daylight by flying east and it was now
dusk in the Philippines. Again, I hauled out my credit card and called to
recheck the weather. There was a chance of light rain later that evening in
Guam, but we should have no real problems. The next leg was projected to
last three hours and 20 minutes, so we were confident we'd have fuel to
spare. There are two major airports on Guam, even though it is a small
island. This is important for a C-9, because almost every time we fly to an
island, we don't have enough fuel to go anywhere else. That was certainly
true this night. This leg was business as usual, legal by every naval
aviation regulation. I would have flown it with my family in the back.

We took off in the deepening twilight, maneuvering to avoid the storms that
the radar picked up with increasing frequency. A commercial pilot talked to
us on an air-to-air common radio frequency; told us he had just taken off
from Guam and that we should have no problems. We pressed on, oblivious
to the havoc Samoi would soon unleash.

We approached Guam at 10 p.m. There was no ATIS (automatic weather
broadcast)--the field had closed because of the worsening weather. Approach
control was still up and running. We arrived overhead with 7,500 pounds of
gas, about what we had expected but certainly not enough to go anywhere

Typhoon Samoi had slowed and moved south. Counterclockwise, swirling
bands of severe thunderstorms had begun to fill in on its backside. Though
the storm center was 150 miles to the north, the typhoon encompassed an
area 600 miles across and 1,200 miles long.

Both airports in Guam have long, dual runways that run from northeast to
southwest. The wind that came roaring in with those backfilling storms was
almost straight out of the west, at times reaching 80 knots. Those
winds kept us from shooting an ILS approach. A precision approach would
have placed us well outside the tailwind limits for the aircraft.

We set up for the TACAN 24, non-precision approach to Anderson Air Force
Base. It comes in over the ocean, crosses a cliff several hundred feet high
and touches down on the runway atop the cliff, less than a half-mile from
the edge. On a clear day, it can be an eye-opener. On a night like this, it
can kill you. One windshear downdraft at the wrong time and not only will
you not clear the cliff, you might never see it coming...

If you've ever had to pull your car to the side of the road during a heavy
downpour you can relate to the conditions that night. Now imagine yourself
moving at 150 miles an hour and not being given the luxury of stopping. The
rain was horizontal. We could not see three feet ahead let alone the
half-mile that is required to land from that speed. On the first approach,
an 80-knot windshear took our speed from 150 to 230 knots in two seconds.
A go-around was mandatory.

The second approach featured a little less windshear. The radar was now
showing nothing but red on the 30-mile scale. We don't even fly through red
normally, let alone land in it. According to Approach Control, we had been
over the end of the runway both times, but we never saw a thing. Fuel was
now 5,000 pounds.

I was ready to start bending the rules because I had to get closer to the
ground to have any chance to land. I opted for a downwind ILS, landing in
the opposite direction. We began the approach with the autopilot locked
on ILS despite the out-of-limit winds. The GPS showed a 40-knot tailwind
(the limit is 10), but I was out of ideas. At around 250 feet, we got the
that always gets you in the simulator: the minus 40-knot windshear. You
instantly lose the airflow over the wings that keeps you airborne. The
aircraft can stall and fall and there is nothing you can do about it. Our
airspeed went to around 100 knots. We would have died if it had
reached 95. I clicked off the autopilot and shoved the throttles to the
stops, trying to initiate the textbook windshear recovery on the edge of
control. I actually saw runway lights at one point. But we couldn't land
with that combination of airspeed, windshear, and visibility. We would
have crashed on the runway. We went around again.

I got clearance to Guam International, 20 miles away. The fuel was now
4,400. We declared minimum fuel. Approach asked for "souls on board,"
and we knew that was so they could tell the rescue teams how many
bodies to look for. The controller said his radar showed the weather
getting worse.

We were cleared for our fourth approach, a VOR/TACAN 24 (another non
precision approach) to Guam International. So far, all the approaches had
been backed up by the copilot using homemade GPS approaches, and
he was calling out centerline deviations. I had been flying real
not computer-generated ones. Approach called the position of the actual
terrain obstructions (to our left) and gave us unofficial help for
although he did not actually have "precision radar" and could not "legally"
do it. I recognized his calls for what they were and started cheating 50 to
100 feet on the minimum descent altitudes. We still couldn't see anything
forward. We went around again.

The TACAN (DME) went out of service sometime during the go-around, so we
were cleared for the NDB (at best approximate) approach to runway 24, the
only one left for us to use... The fuel gauge read 2,800 pounds. Going
around is not recommended below 1,500 pounds in the C-9 because the deck
angle may cause the engines to flame out. We turned on all the fuel-tank
pumps, even in the empty tanks, and opened the fuel cross-feed. We had been
over the end of runway every time, we just hadn't been able to see. We went
around for the fifth time...

We had enough gas for one or two more tries. I tried to decide what to say
in the voice recorder right before we crashed.

As we asked for early turn-in vectors to the NDB, the crew chief (whose
birthday was that day) asked, " OK guys, what are we going to do now?" I
decided to couple up the NDB approach on the GPS computer with the
autopilot--an unauthorized, untested technique that allows the computer to
fly the aircraft without outside reference. I flew to 100 feet below the
approved minimums on autopilot-altitude hold. This allowed me to look
outside without concentrating on the instruments. We drove in and caught
our first break, a gap in the waves of thunderstorm cells rolling across the
island. We saw the ground, and, for the first time, saw the runway at
three-quarters of a mile.

I immediately clicked off the autopilot and dove to 100 feet to avoid any
possibility of going back into the clouds. We were still in moderate rain.
In close, I pushed it over. We picked up a 40-knot windshear 30 or 40 feet
from the end of the runway. I continued to push the nose down, willing to
have it hit if I had to, but I managed to level out at five feet and,
ended up with a smooth touchdown. The antiskid released several times
as we hydroplaned on the rain-soaked runway.

We stopped on centerline with 3,000 feet remaining. We sat there for a
minute. Then the torrential rain closed back in, and I could not see
to taxi. The fuel was 2,000 pounds. Riotous applause erupted from the back.
They had known we were in trouble, but only the three of us in the front
knew we only had enough gas left for one more pass.

Thirteen civilian airliners had received the same weather report as we did
that night. They all started out expecting to land at Guam, and they all
carried enough fuel to divert to Tokyo, Manila or Okinawa. In other words,
they had an extra 30,000 pounds of gas. That's what we had started with.
All 13 diverted to their alternates, some before an approach and some after.
We were the only aircraft who made it in that night (or the next 24 hours).

Around midnight, as we pulled into the gate, our crew chief looked around
the cockpit and said, flatly, "Well, it looks like I survived another

We parked with 1,700 pounds of fuel. The APU flamed out 4-5minutes later.
We actually had less than 500 pounds of usable fuel remaining on touchdown.

Will I ever fly around the Far East with the Navy again? Absolutely. Will I
ever fly to an island destination that has a tropical depression nearby?
Not on your life. Sometimes even your best isn't good enough.

Three days later, we made our way back to Atsugi. As we shut down and
walked away from the aircraft, I turned around. Sitting all by himself, up
on the
tail, was a big, old black raven. I could swear he winked at me and
whispered, "Nevermore".
Awsome Post!
Thanks for sharing.
Great story!!

On a different, completely retarded note:
Phuket, Thailand

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I wanna have my picture taken next to that sign......
Yeah good story! Thanks.

Isn't that whole raven 'Nevermore' thing from an Edgar Allan Poe story?
Come on Ed!!!! Didnt you study American Literature in high school??

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Or at least catch the Simpson's halloween special that had "The Raven" in it?!
Another great post, A300. This is exactly the kind of stuff that fascinates me- not necessarily danger or high drama, but pilots putting their flying skills and problem solving smarts to work. If anyone, at any level, has stories of that kind I would be all ears... or eyes, I guess.