“There I was…inverted with my air medals hanging in my face…” is the way Army aviators start a war story. There are few rules other than that teller of the story gets to be the hero of the story (if he/she so choose) and the facts need to be as accurate as the memory allows. My memories of the events, once vivid, have sadly begun to fade a bit. But, for the sake of storytelling, I will do my best to be accurate. Embarrassingly, I am almost never the hero of my stories but generally the sidekick and even more often than that, the buffoon. Be gentle in your judgement. Enjoy the story. Stop and share one of your own, if you are brave enough.
While I will never admit to having been inverted, I intend to stick with Army aviator tradition and tell the story as I remember it.
There I was…a hot spring day in southern Iraq, number two in a flight of six. This wasn’t my first time in Iraq, but it was the first time I was flying north out of Kuwait with no plans to return. We attempted to bring everything but the kitchen sink. Someone probably tried to pack one of those in a hell hole, too. It was hot, and our aircraft were heavy. We were in a war zone with a tank of gas, a map, bullets, food, bedding, and possibly a kitchen sink. It was HOT. I don’t mean Florida hot or high noon in July on the beach hot. I mean so freaking hot it was hard to believe that life would continue at this temperature. Now, I remember spring time hot fondly, as I had no real idea what hot was.
Any aviator reading this, would by now deduced the high temperatures combined with a heavy packing list have degraded the aircraft maneuverability which would be of concern in an emergency. I was flying left seat with CW2 Phil Johnson. As we continued northward, we performed standard fuel checks with normal results. At first, the situation wasn’t obvious, a minor split in the fuel levels between tank one and tank two. But as we left civilization (I use the term loosely) farther and farther behind, the split in fuel tank levels was becoming increasingly more significant. Mathematically, we had plenty of fuel to make it to the first planned fuel point at an airfield still an hour away. But, visually, tank one was holding steady while tank two was in the yellow. We attempted precautionary procedures to switch the fuel handles, so that the fuel would draw from tank one and even us out a bit. Despite the switch, the indicator in tank two continued to approach the red.
Could we limp in 40 more minutes to the airfield with what gas remained? With one, almost full tank, it seemed like we could. The last thing we wanted to do was land in a war zone with no commo and try to flag someone down for help. Phil made the called. Pilots and crews of five other aircraft were ticked that we were declaring a precautionary landing for a possible maintenance issue while we were amid a ground war.
Phil and I landed safely in the desert, a highway just over the berm to the east. Within seconds of landing, engine two failed. Seconds later, engine one failed. Had Phil not made the decision to put the aircraft on the ground when he did, gravity would have made the decision for us seconds later. We had been flying too low, too fast, with too much weight to safely autorotate. We would have balled up our aircraft, crew, and kitchen sink in the desert of Iraq before we even had a chance to join the fight.
By this time, we were all a bit curious as to the cause of our near doom. An inspection of the log book revealed the fuel system had recently been repaired. Dismantling the repair, we discovered that a valve had been placed backwards and refused to allow fuel to flow out of tank one. We had literally run the engines out of gas seconds after we landed.
The repair was made, gas was delivered by truck, and we moved on to fight the war. Phil and I didn’t like each other very much, but we flew together often. Ultimately, he would not return from war with us, but that is a very sad story for another day.
Written By: Katie Bigelow