RETIRED CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 ROGER A. UMPHENOUR
(Editor’s note: Army aviators plan their missions in as much detail as possible because they know unexpected events may occur. The same applies when they fly civilian missions such as this one, or even when driving to work every day.)
While working as a Boeing 747-100 co-pilot for Tower Air, I had an assignment to fly a United Nations charter of 400 Bangladeshi soldiers from Paris to Delhi, India, normally an eight-and-a-half-hour flight. The pilot in command and flight engineer were very experienced, with thousands of hours on the 747 airframe. I was the junior crew member with 1,200 hours on the 747. The day started routinely with the aircraft status briefing from the inbound crew and navigation programming. With 20 minutes until departure, all tasks were complete except for fueling.
Our first surprise of the day came when the refueler announced over the intercom that fuel was pouring out of the right wing tank. Thankfully, the aircraft was parked at a remote site and not the terminal. The ensuing aircraft evacuation was swift and without the need to deploy the emergency escapes slides. The problem turned out to be an automatic fuel-shutoff valve that malfunctioned. Maintenance was completed and the problem was blessed with an official airworthiness signoff. We were able to move and reload the aircraft and be on our way after a two-hour delay. With Paris behind us, we settled in to our normal flight routine.
As I was contacting Istanbul radar control, our senior flight attendant told us a Soldier was experiencing chest pains. With no medical personnel, we decided to divert to Ankara, Turkey, to seek medical care for the Soldier. Initially the controller denied our request because he was not too happy about having 400 Soldiers drop in unexpectedly at a major airport, so we declared an emergency to get permission for landing.
Once on the ground, the Turkish military surrounded the aircraft and escorted us to our parking area, just to let us know they didn’t fully trust us. An ambulance rushed the Soldier to the hospital with his major/executive officer and we thought we would resume the flight in two hours. No such luck! First, our Saudi Arabian overflight clearance expired, so we needed more fuel to fly around to the south. Saddam was still in control of Iraq. The flight plan required a maximum fuel load, and I confirmed our takeoff performance was good for runway 18 (remember 18).
Two hours into the unscheduled stop, we received word that the major who accompanied the ill Soldier was hit by a car when he was leaving the hospital. Like a good major should, he bounced. So there was another two-hour delay for his X-rays and return to the aircraft. With him safely aboard, I checked the airport terminal information system and learned the wind was calm, but the runway in use was now 36.
The aircraft was 20,000 pounds too heavy for obstruction clearance on runway 36, so we requested the use of runway 18 and were promptly denied. Air traffic controllers informed my pilot in command that the only way we would get clearance to use runway 18 was to ask the director of Turkish ATC. Since he was in his office, a meeting was scheduled. Without the director’s help, we would end up sleeping on the plane since the Turkish government would not allow the troops to disembark and go to a hotel. With much tea drinking and boot-licking, the PC secured a 10-minute window to use runway 18.
Knowing we were approaching 14 hours of continuous duty, we reminded ourselves to crosscheck each other. Fatigue was now our biggest foe. As we taxied to the runway, I reviewed the takeoff profile and engine-out procedures since luck had not been too kind to us that day. While pushing the power levers to takeoff power, I noticed we had 45 seconds to spare in our 10-minute window.
En route to Delhi, we got our first break when the Saudis let us cross their airspace. That cut about two hours from the flight time. As we neared Indian airspace, evening thunderstorms lit up and actually kept us from falling asleep. The small mistakes we made, due to fatigue, where adding up and culminated in both pilots missing the altimeter transition level. This mistake was corrected by the flight engineer, and the approach was completed with a runway visual range value of 1,800 feet forward visibility.
We taxied to the assigned gate and self parked with no problems, only to realize there was no operator for the jet bridge. The company had failed to tell the operator to report to the airport two hours early, since we had saved time with the shortcut over Saudi airspace. Still, we had arrived safely and our long duty day was done.
Our flight crossed four time zones and took about 24 hours to complete. The main lesson I learned was to never extend a duty day to the point of exhaustion, even with a highly experienced crew.* Also, know your personal signs of fatigue and heed their warnings. Never be too proud to announce to the other crewmembers, “I am tired; watch me closely,” or have the other pilot fly the aircraft. I put these lessons to use 10 months later when I became a PC.
*Author’s note: The flight was conducted under F.A.R. 121, Supplemental Operations, and there are NO duty time limits under these regulations