“In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Psalm 56:11
Some have defined flying as long hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Flash back with me to the summer of 1963.
I was stationed at Harmon AFB in Stevenville, Newfoundland, assigned as a navigator on KC-97’s with the 396th Air Refueling Squadron. Our unit’s mission every week was to refuel B-47’s going back and forth to Europe on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On this particular day our crew was part of a four ship flight to refuel three B-47’s heading to England. As we waited our turn at the end of the runway, the crew had finished our pre-take off check list and I had a few moments to think about the flight.
I had been involved in enough in-flight emergencies to know that there were few routine flights. The KC-97 was usually flown at weights above what it was designed to carry and today’s mission was no different. It had a reputation of being a very forgiving aircraft, meaning much could go wrong and it would still stay in the air. It had four big Pratt and Whitney engines but it was nicknamed the “Boeing Tri-motor” because of the frequency of it’s returning with only three engines turning. It was a piston engined airplane trying to refuel jet bombers and the heavy weights and long periods of high power settings were hard on engines. I loved flying but I was never fully comfortable with it. Takeoff’s were the most dangerous part of the flight. As we sat on the ramp waiting our turn, I asked God once again to watch over us.
When the control tower called and said we were cleared for take-off, the co-pilot acknowledged and said we would be making what we called a rolling start to our take-off run. Everything looked good while we lumbered down the runway. As the pilot pulled back on the yoke to rotate the nose of the aircraft up, there was a muffled explosion from the right side as the main landing gear lifted off the runway. At first I thought it was a tire blowing, but almost immediately I heard the flight engineer call out that we were losing power on the #3 engine. The worst case scenario possible was happening to us, the one incident that every crew feared; engine failure at ground level at barely flight speed with a heavy load. The results were seldom good.
The engine had swallowed a valve and blew an exhaust manifold, severed fuel lines and was on fire. While the co-pilot feathered #3 and activated the fire suppression system, the flight engineer was already dumping fuel out the refueling boom at over 600 gpm. Add to this the commotion of fire warning lights flashing, low altitude horn sounding off, both pilots and flight engineer calling out instructions and updates and check list requirements. It may appear to the uninitiated to be chaos, but it is all choreographed through hours and hours of practice in simulators and actual flights for just these kind of situations.
The pilots fought to keep some altitude and not lose any air speed. When we cleared the sand dunes at the end of the runway, the pilots eased the nose of the airplane over just a tad to pick up some additional speed as we headed out over St. George’s Bay. I can remember straining against my seat belts to see out the front cockpit window and seeing mostly water and very little horizon, wondering if this was going to be my last flight and how bad was this going to hurt if we hit the water.
The next two minutes seemed like an eternity. We flew over the water at about 50 ft. dumping fuel as fast as we could. As the airplane got lighter we slowly gained enough airspeed to where the pilots felt they could start trying to gain some altitude. After about 5 min., we finally had enough altitude where we could turn and head back to the base and land.
Ground personal later told us that they watched us disappear behind the buildings on the base and waited for the sounds of us hitting the water as they were sure we would. We were so close to the water my flight suit got a little wet. Wait, maybe that wasn’t sea water.
The purpose of this story is to question where and in what we place our trust. Every time I climbed aboard that airplane I placed myself in the trust of four other crew members, a crew chief and an airplane. My crew members and I had to trust that everyone would do their job the best they could and that the crew chief had properly prepared the airplane. People are fallible and can make mistakes and fall short of our expectations.
But on that day in 1963, there were only two of us on that plane that were also trusting in the Lord God to guard and protect us. The co-pilot on that crew was Floyd White and he also was a Christian. I praise God every day for watching over us that particular day, and many flights after that, until I finally figured that I had had enough excitement for one lifetime and returned to civilian life. But I never quit trusting in God who is infallible and does not fall short in our expectations.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” 1st Peter 5: 6 & 7.