Not suppose to happen....


Freight Dawg
Having done a similar scenario in the sim while upgrading to Captain on the B757, I can tell you this crew had their hands full.......Nice job to the CAL crew!

By Chuck Bullard

CAL MEC Staff Writer

It was unprecedented. It could never happen. The odds were one in a billion. But Capt. Jim Humphreys was facing the unimaginable - a 30-minute countdown to almost certain catastrophe.

It was almost like a James Bond movie where the villain flips the switch on the time bomb and the intrepid secret agent has 30 minutes to free himself and save the world. In this case, Humphreys had 30 minutes to save his passengers, his crew and himself.

He was flying a Continental B-757 red eye from Anchorage to Seattle on Aug. 12, 2000, and all of the redundant electrical generating systems failed one by one. That's right, all the layers of protection peeled away - the Integrated Drive Generators (IDGs), the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) and the Hydraulic Motor Generator (HMG). It was 3:55 a.m. and for the first time in the history of the 757, one was flying on battery power. Humphreys knew he had 30 minutes to get it on the ground before the juice in the ship's battery was gone - and he was 37,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean about 100 nautical miles south-southwest of Ketchikan.

"It's one of the most serious events that we've had in recent history," said Toby Carroll, Continental Director of Safety Investigations. "If the links in the chain hadn't been broken, we probably would have wound up with an accident."

Although the incident happened months ago, it's important to examine it because of the lessons it can teach.

Humphreys had never landed at Ketchikan, an uncontrolled airfield on a small island surrounded by mountainous terrain, and he had only four standby flight instruments, one dim cockpit light and basic navigational equipment, including a directional gyro, a VOR receiver and one ILS receiver. There was so little electricity available that even the transponder stopped transmitting so Continental Flight 120 disappeared from air traffic control screens in Anchorage.

Even if Humphreys could dead reckon his way to the tiny island in the dark and stay away from the nearby mountains, he had to guide the unlit jetliner with 150 passengers on board through a cloud deck of unknown depth with only the standby artificial horizon to save him from disorientation.

And he had to do it without any help from ATC or autopilots or on-board computers or global positioning satellites or any of the other technology modern pilots depend on but which don't work when there's no electricity.

"This is about the worst you're ever going to face," said Capt. Mike Hynes of the Continental Central Air Safety Committee.

If Flight 120 had not made it, no one would have known what happened because the Flight Data Recorder stopped recording to save precious electrical power. Investigators could have recovered data recorded before the electrical generating systems failed but no data would have been available after the ship's battery took over. The fact that there would have been no record of Flight 120's last moments shows that no one ever contemplated a scenario that included a complete power failure on a 757.

"Statistically, this is never supposed to happen," Hynes said.

That's why Hynes has such high praise for the crew - Capt. Jim Humphreys and First Officer Susan Shaw.

"You couldn't have asked for any better job than they did," said Hynes. "Everything was textbook, everything you would expect out of a professional crew. They really did an excellent job."

Capt. Nancy Novaes, chairwoman of the Pilot Assistance Committee, seconded that praise and was especially complimentary of the job done by Humphreys, so much so that she presented him with a model of a Continental 757 with two batteries taped to it.

"I'm not sure everyone could have done that," Novaes said of the safe diversion to Ketchikan. "A pilot like Jim makes an emergency like that look easy."

Ketchikan is a particularly difficult airport with a tricky approach, especially in the dark for a pilot who has never landed there, said Novaes.

"His performance was about as flawless as it could be," she said. "His cool was such that he was able to carry this off."

So how did Humphreys overcome almost insurmountable odds to save the lives of his passengers and crew? By thinking outside the box. He was not lulled into a false sense of security by modern technology and practiced old-fashioned airmanship on the flight from Anchorage to Seattle, which paid off when all the high-tech gear failed and he had to fly by the seat of his pants.

"The airplane can lead you very easily into becoming a very cavalier aviator," said Humphreys. "The system redundancy is so good and the navigational capabilities are so complete that there is no need to review systems as much as you would have flying a 727 or some of the older model 747s and DC-10s.

"The airplane itself will lead you into becoming more and more relaxed about your job and it takes a lot more discipline to keep your charts ready, to think about your alternates. The seemingly unimaginable can happen. It's built by human beings and human beings make errors and there is no fool proof system."

Flight 120 proved that.

"The incident was the result of a combination of unique failures that had the potential of resulting in an accident," said Carroll.

The string of failures turned the routine redeye from Anchorage to Seattle into a nightmare. The right Integrated Drive Generator (IDG) was not operating when the 757 was dispatched. It was placarded for an input bearing failure. But that wasn't a major problem because the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) could provide electricity to power the right side of the plane.

Then at 3:35 a.m., an hour and 27 minutes into the flight, the left IDG failed. There was a brief power interruption while the APU assumed the entire load but power was quickly restored to the flight deck because the APU already was running. Twenty minutes later, while the flight crew still was evaluating alternatives with Continental personnel in Houston, the APU overheated and automatically shutdown.

There was still one line of defense - the Hydraulic Motor Generator (HMG). The HMG is designed to assume the electrical load when the aircraft AC bus is unpowered but it didn't.

The aircraft reverted to ship's battery and the flight data recorder stopped recording, the transponder stopped transmitting and radio contact with Houston ended. The crew was on its own over the Pacific Ocean at night flying on battery power.

"This is the thing that pilots fear the most - being in a remote area like Alaska in a mountainous area unfamiliar to you at night and losing electrical," said Carroll. "This is a pretty scary event."

"The entire airplane went dark," Humphreys recalled. "The autopilot drops off. All the screens go blank. Every instrument other than the standby instruments and one light inside the cockpit go out. So you've got four basic flight instruments in front of you - a standby attitude indicator, a standby airspeed indicator, a standby altimeter and a standby engine instrument. The entire communications system is unplugged. The only one that's left is the number one comm. radio."

His reaction?

"My heart came up into my throat," said Humphreys.

Like the old pro that he is, Humphreys had been maintaining an "ongoing diversion mindset" since he left Seattle to fly to Anchorage and back because the 757's right IDG was inoperative and had been MELed.

"I felt reasonably safe making this trip but I definitely was concerned because it's a non-normal operation," he said.

Humphreys said he was more concerned than he would have been in the lower 48 because he was flying along the rugged coastline of Alaska and western Canada.

"It's a place where you really have to be on your toes," he said.

So all the way to Anchorage and on the abbreviated trip back, he was constantly thinking about what he would do and where he would divert if another problem developed.

"That was the genesis of doing the research on the way up as to where I was going to go [in an emergency]," said Humphreys. "I think that is the mark of us professional pilots is that when we're put in a situation like that, we're aware of the additional risks that are involved."

On the way up, Humphreys and Shaw were treated to a spectacular aurora borealis display.

"That was a particularly entertaining night for northern lights, as wild as I've ever seen it, just absolutely magnificent," Humphreys recalled.

But that didn't stop him from preparing for the worst.

"I reviewed the approaches of the two primary airports - Ketchikan and Juneau - I was looking at as diversion airports, if I had another problem," he said. "I was monitoring the weather. I was getting hourly updates on the weather and I was reading and looking at the approaches and just sizing it up as I was going up.

"Coming back down, I was doing the same thing. You're just running this ongoing diversion mindset."

On the way up, Humphreys also closely monitored the performance of the APU and noticed the oil quantity gauge was flickering back and forth between full and three-quarters full.

"I wrote up the APU for an oil quantity indication," he said.

A contract maintenance technician in Anchorage checked the APU.

"We shut the APU down and he went up there and looked at it," Humphreys recalled. "I believe it took a quart of oil. He was reasonably confident that the APU was going to continue to operate and he assured me of that."

But Humphreys was uneasy and continued to be on guard during the return trip. So he had a snapshot of the Ketchikan approach in his mind when the left IDG quit.

"When the left generator went off line, Ketchikan was about 120 miles off my 9:00 o'clock position," he said. "As we were dealing with this problem, I had that approach in my head. I knew what I had to do and I was sizing up exactly where I was going to fly.

"When the APU quit, we just brought the power back and threw the speed brakes out and did this diving turn down to the approach and it worked out really well."

During the 20 minutes between the failure of the IDG and the failure of the APU, Humphreys and Shaw ran checklists but weren't able to bring the generator back online. So they asked Continental experts in Houston for help.

"The APU quit as I was talking to the company," said Humphreys. "That's when the adventure started. I said some expletive like where the bleep is the HDG. I don't know how long I waited for it, less than a minute. I'm physically holding the yoke, keeping the airplane level on standby instruments, waiting for the HDG to kick in. But I didn't hear anything, feel anything, sense anything. It was just dark."

So Humphreys began issuing instructions to Shaw.

"I said, 'Declare an emergency. Tell them we're diverting into Ketchikan.' She said that and then she said, 'We'd like a vector to Ketchikan.' Anchorage Center's response was, 'We've lost radar contact.' We disappeared off Anchorage Center's radar screen so they couldn't give us a vector. They couldn't give us anything but moral support."

But Humphreys had a pretty good idea where they were in relation to Ketchikan.

"I had been watching it keenly as we were going through this 20 minutes and I knew where it was and I was fortunate to have kept it in my mind's eye," he said. "I deployed the speed brakes and made a turn over towards the direction where I knew the airport was."

He also knew the Ketchikan airport was unmanned and he knew it would be very difficult to land there ("Nobody wants to land on an island in the Pacific at night uncontrolled without any training") but Humphreys rejected the idea of trying to make it to Vancouver where he would have had ATC and emergency equipment.

Vancouver was more than 500 miles away, he said, and "that was just way too long to go on battery power."

No one really knows what would happen to a 757 if the ship's battery went dead. Would it continue to fly and, if it did, would a pilot be able to land it with no instruments and no communications and navigational equipment.

"It wasn't something I wanted to explore, that's for sure," said Humphreys.

He wanted to land ASAP and he knew Ketchikan was about 30 minutes away, assuming he could find his way there in the dark with only basic navigational aids and land on the first try.

"It was time to get the airplane on the ground," he said. "It was a no-brainer at that point."

After getting over the initial shock, Humphreys was calm. His heart didn't race. His adrenaline didn't surge.

"I'm not saying I've got ice water running through my veins but I wasn't having any problem thinking clearly," he recalled. "I knew what I had to do. It was really obvious where I needed to put the airplane, how I had to get it there and that time was of the essence. I knew I had 30 minutes to get the airplane on the ground."

Despite all the bad luck, Humphreys said it was fortunate the APU shut down when it did because "if it had quit halfway between Ketchikan and Vancouver, the outcome would have been different."

With only 30 minutes of battery power, Humphreys knew he had no margin for error. If he couldn't find the airport in the dark or if he missed the approach and had to go around, the battery could go dead.

So Humphreys thought outside the box. He knew the APU had its own battery but he knew trying to restart the APU could drain that battery and possibly drain the ship's battery, too. However, he knew a working APU would provide enough electricity to power the 757's glass cockpit and give him more time to land safely.

So he decided to take the risk.

"He felt that he had nothing to lose and the situation was of such urgency that he felt that he would try it," said Carroll. "He did what had to be done and you can't argue with success."

Humphreys said he knew he was taking a chance when he tried to restart the APU.

"At that point, it was a risk I wanted to take," he said. "It was a gamble I took. Fortunately, it started, thank God."

Humphreys felt like he'd won the lottery.

"It just energized me," he said.

At 4:04 a.m., the Flight Data Recorder resumed operation, indicating restoration of power to the main aircraft AC busses. Nine long minutes had elapsed and Flight 120 had descended to 17,000 feet.

"Everything came right back up almost the way it was," said Humphreys. "With minimal switching, we were able to bring the airplane right back to where it was."

The first thing Humphreys and Shaw did was confirm their position.

"When we got the airplane's power back up, we were able to access the FMC to get the information out," said Humphreys. "The arrival to Ketchikan is in there. We pulled it up and put Ketchikan as the destination for the aircraft."

"Now we were able to see where we were and, after going 100 miles, we were 4 1/2 miles off to the west of the initial approach segment. With a 5-degree course change, we got right on course."

When Humphreys and Shaw confirmed their position, they were 4 1/2 miles from the VOR on Annette Island.

"It's a downwind approach," Humphreys recalled. "You go from the VOR on top of Annette Island, which is to the southwest, and you would fly out 35 miles or so from this VOR and, at that point, you make a very sharp right 90-degree turn and descend down on the glide slope onto the island."

But there was one more hurdle. The airport was dark. In the dim cockpit, Humphreys and Shaw had missed the note that said the airport lighting was pilot controlled.

"I don't think there's an airport that I've flown to as a commercial airline pilot that I've ever used pilot-controlled lighting," Humphreys said. "We would have broken out of the clouds and there would have been no airport. Fortunately enough, Anchorage Center said, 'Oh, by the way, be sure to turn the airport lights on.'"

When Flight 120 exited the clouds at 3,500 feet, Humphreys and Shaw could see the brightly lit airfield surrounded by a sea of darkness. The lights of Ketchikan are hidden behind a mountain so the airport really stands out.

"It was a very welcome sight," said Humphreys.

But he remained hyper vigilant because of the nearby mountains.

"I didn't feel real comfortable," he said, "until we were on the ground."

Humphreys said the actual landing was "absolutely normal" but the airport was deserted. The control tower and terminal were dark. No emergency vehicles met them.

It was 4:25 a.m. - exactly 30 minutes after the APU shut down.

"There's nobody there," Humphreys recalled. "I come to a stop with all the aircraft lights on and there's not a soul, nobody, nothing, pitch black outside. So we just sat there and finally a guy came out on the Unicom frequency and said, 'How are you guys doing? I'm the guy down in the pickup truck below you. What brings you here?' So we talked with him until 5:15 a.m. when the first ferry came over and the lights started going on in the terminal."

During the emergency, there was no time to address the passengers so Humphreys updated them after he parked the 757. This was before Sept. 11 so he opened the cockpit door before speaking and an almost magical scene unfolded.

"I turn around and I look and just about every head all the way back down the aisle is looking at me and I'm looking back at them and I wave and they all wave at me but no one says anything," Humphreys reported. "It was almost kind of a surreal thing."

"Then I pick the PA up and I say, 'Welcome to Ketchikan. We had an electrical anomaly and we thought it was prudent to put the airplane on the ground until we figure out what it is and now that I'm down here on the ground, I'm glad I'm here because it's something that needs to be fixed before the airplane can go anywhere. We're all safe. We're on an island. This is Ketchikan. I've got a guy out here in a pickup truck I'm talking to and he tells me the ferry is going to be here in 45 minutes so let's just all sit back and relax and as soon as they get here, we'll figure out how we're going to get you out of the airplane.'"

The passengers were calm because they had no idea anything was wrong other than the fact the in-flight movie stopped and the cabin lights went out except for the emergency exit lights and the aisle path lights, which have their own batteries. To them, everything seemed normal other than the darkened cabin.

"There was no sense of what the danger was," said Humphreys. "There was no radical movement of the airplane at all. The autopilot clicked off cleanly. We didn't have any problem maintaining control. The airplane handled beautifully.

"I focused on keeping the platform as absolutely stable as possible. In retrospect, I think that helped because they never felt the airplane do anything at all. We just made a left turn and then a right turn and put the gear out and landed. From their viewpoint, it took no longer than a normal arrival. It usually takes 30 minutes to get the airplane down from altitude no matter if you're landing in Seattle or Ketchikan."

"There was a little bump and the lights started to flicker a little bit," Timothy Fallen, a passenger from Puyallup, Washington, told the Ketchikan Daily News. "The video screens went up and down. Later, the lights went off and the emergency lights came on."

"We really didn't know what was going on," Hayne Hamilton, a passenger from Eagle River, Alaska, told the newspaper.

However, Hamilton said it was "really calm" on board Flight 120 and the landing was smooth.

"It was like flying on a glider," she said. " The landing was like a feather."

The Daily News reported the passengers applauded when the plane touched down.

Getting the passengers off the 757 was another matter. The largest planes that land at Ketchikan are Alaska Airlines B-737s so the jetways and steps were too low for the 757.

Alaska Airlines personnel had to fabricate extra steps and use cargo straps to secure them to the top of some portable 737 stairs so the 150 passengers could deplane.

The Alaska Airlines employees made the Continental passengers comfortable and coordinated the Continental rescue flight from Seattle. Then they shifted cargo out of one of their 737 combi aircraft and installed seats to airlift the rest of the Continental passengers to Seattle. The next day, they pumped 6,800 gallons of fuel into the 757 while standing on a forklift.

"The people at Alaska Airlines were marvelous," he said.

Humphreys had nothing but praise for the Alaska Airlines workers and wrote a glowing letter of thanks to the airline.

"From the very first moment I contacted your operations that morning, we were treated as if we were part of your company," he wrote. "Your company helped us when we were truly in need, and provided Continental Airlines, our crew, and our passengers the means to work through a very serious situation. Thank you."

All of the Continental passengers reached Seattle later the same day but Humphreys and Shaw stayed behind while the 757 was being repaired.

"The next day, I had this unusual sense of calm," Humphreys remembered. "It was clear in my mind that I didn't do anything to contribute to the initial problem and didn't muck anything up that had kept us from being safe in the outcome."

"I had this enormous sense of calm come over me that I haven't experienced since then. It was a feeling of supreme gratitude to be alive. It was a really wonderful feeling."

Despite being named Continental's pilot of the quarter and receiving a recognition plaque and tickets to a hockey game, Humphreys said he doesn't feel deserving of special recognition.

"I don't feel I'm a hero because this was just a matter of managing a really uncomfortable situation to a safe outcome," he said.

During the emergency, he thought back to his days as a primary flight instructor in small planes with limited instrumentation.

"I just kind of deferred back to those times and assured myself that the outcome could be safe and that there was definitely hope and there was a place to get down to and it was just a matter of getting the airplane down through the overcast. I didn't consider it to be as big a deal during the process."

Humphreys added: "I consider myself a professional and that's what we do. What I was doing is what they pay me to do. We're trained to do this and handle situations like this. I did what I hope all of the other professional pilots would do in the situation."

Because he had been involved in a critical incident, Humphreys was contacted by a SAFE (Support Assistance for Employees) volunteer, Capt. Jim Owen, a Continental pilot trained to debrief fellow pilots who have experienced close calls. Owen also is trained to help his fellow pilots deal with the psychological and physiological aftermath of critical incidents.

Humphreys said talking to a peer with Critical Incident Response Program training was therapeutic.

"I found it effective to share that with somebody," he said. "It didn't even occur to me until I was talking to him how potentially dangerous it could have been. So it was good to go through that process with him."

Despite the psychological first aid from a trained peer, reliving the incident still can dredge up the powerful emotions Humphreys experienced at the time. When Capt. Nancy Novaes presented him with the 757 model at a party at her home, Humphreys told the assembled pilots about the incident.

"That was the first time I had really told the story in public and it was, for me, very emotional because of just the gratitude I have of having pushed through it," he said.

There were some tears shed, he admits, "tears of gratitude, absolute tears of gratitude."
WOW, that was certainly a job well done! Just out of interst if the battery had died would they lost hydraulic pressure i.e the ability to control the airplane? Or would it have just been cockpit instruments?
Very good story!

Thanks for sharing A300..
Just out of interst if the battery had died would they lost hydraulic pressure i.e the ability to control the airplane? Or would it have just been cockpit instruments?

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The B757 has 3 hyd systems. The left and right systems have one engine driven pump and one electric pump while the smaller, center system is controlled only by 2 AC electric pumps. Obviously, they would have lost the center big deal.

The left and right engine pumps would have continued to operate as those pumps are "fail safe" meaning they require electrical power to depressurize or turn off.

The problem is that if you are down to just the battery power, and keep in mind, you have to lose multiple layers of electrical backups before getting there, you're then down to only 4 small buses (Batt, hot batt, standby AC/standby DC). All these require at least battery power at that point to operate.

If you now lose the battery (after approx 30 minutes if you're lucky), you lose all power to the last 4 buses. The eng hyd pumps will continue to operate as long as the engines are running and thus primary flight controls are powered. The engines are now suction feeding (engine fuel pumps are inop) and the FADEC's EECs are being powered by dedicated permanent alternators which are completely independent of normal ship's power.

The crew would have no instruments/radios to guide them if the battery depleted. Not even the emergency standby instruments. If you could get the gear/ flaps down you would have no indications of their position.

BTW, many domestic B757's don't have HDGs (hyd driven generators) that automatically kick in, assuming you have hyd power, in the event of a complete AC power source failure.

Bottom line...had the crew not been able to re-start the APU and get it's generator online and continued flying around on a slowly dying battery, they would have eventually lost everything. Also remember that everytime they attempted to start the APU it required more precious battery power which they couldn't afford to give up at that point.

Probably more info than you wanted.
What exactly is an HDG? I'm assuming that it generates power from the engine driven hydraulic pumps. Is that was they use on the 757 instead of a RAT?
The HDG is found mostly in twin engine aircraft used for ETOPS. It's a 4th power source for AC/DC power in the event you lose the engine/APU driven generators. It basically works like an internal RAT using hydraulic power to turn and usually powers such things as the Captain's instruments, FMC, IRS's and it's operation is normally fully automatic.

The RAT on the B757 is designed to deploy automatically in the event of a dual engine failure inflight and it only provides hydraulic pressure to the flight controls.
Seeing as dumb questions are my special province, I'm going to ask one. Had they not been able to re-start the APU, would this landing have been possible on stand-by instruments? I'm thinking no, because I believe they didn't have any navigation instruments left, and ATC didn't know where they were.
Anyway, thanks for the story A300- you consistently have some of the most interesting posts on this site.

Not a dumb question at all but you have to know a little about the B757's systems. There is one ILS radio head which tunes 3 ILS receivers (left, Center and Right). The center ILS receiver is for the Loc/GS indications on the standby ADI. The Capt's RDMI (heading) is also powered by the standby buses.

The crew has a standby ADI (with ILS indications), an RMI for heading info, standby airspeed and altimeter as well as standby engine indications that are battery powered along with VHF #1 for communications.

So, the crew would/could be able to fly an ILS approach using just the standby instruments. The problem is that the Capt is now hand flying, what was moments ago, a highly automated aircraft with moving maps, IRS's, autothrottles and autopilots and now he's relying on a very small package of analog backup instruments. This is not something that is trained for alot and basic airmanship skills do become rusty over time with the ever increasing reliance on automation.
Thanks for the info! There was a point in the article when the captain stated that he had four standby instruments (altitude, attitude, speed and some engine stuff) and one radio, and I took that to mean that there wasn't any ILS or radio direction findy stuff (believe me when I say I don't know much). I also made the assumption that since the airport was uncontrolled that the runway was not an ILS runway. Of course it could also be that I don't really understand what an ILS runway is. Anyway, see what happens when you assume...

Thanks again for your time!
Am I correct in assuming that if they were in a "fly by wire" airplane then their problems would have been even greater? Is there a backup to the backup to the backup for that system?

I hope so.

I also made the assumption that since the airport was uncontrolled that the runway was not an ILS runway. Of course it could also be that I don't really understand what an ILS runway is.

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Being uncontrolled simply means there was no control tower operating at that time and really has nothing to do with instrument approach navaids available that airport. There are many more uncontrolled airports than controlled with ILS capability and pilot controlled lighting.

Am I correct in assuming that if they were in a "fly by wire" airplane then their problems would have been even greater? Is there a backup to the backup to the backup for that system?

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I've never flown a fully FBW aircraft so I'll leave that to someone who has. They do have multiple backups and probably even have some sort of hyd/elec RAT that drops down.