Sunday, June 28, 2015

‘Then it seized up and died’: Vance pilot describes safely landing his plane after in-flight emergency

Capt. Eric Clements stands next to a T-6A Texan II aircraft on the flight line June 16 at Vance AIr Force Base following an interview about landing his disabled aircraft.

T-1 instructor pilot, Capt. Ben Johnson, gestures as he talks about emergency procedures during an interview Tuesday June 23, 2015

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE — It was April 7, a warm, cloudless early spring day, when Capt. Eric Clements, an instructor pilot with the 8th Flying Training Squadron at Vance Air Force Base, stepped to a T-6A Texan II, tail number 722, for a routine flight.

But the flight turned out to be anything but routine. By the time that day ended, Clements had glided his powerless airplane back to a safe landing at Vance after an engine failure, an incident ultimately resulting in the grounding of Air Education and Training Command’s entire T-6 fleet.

Clements was alone, flying an Individual Development sortie, which instructors are required to fly several of each year to keep up their proficiency.

The Sheridan, Wyo., native took off without incident and flew a few patterns, repeatedly landing and taking off again from Vance, then headed up to Kegelman Air Force Auxiliary Field near the Great Salt Plains. Pilots simply call it, “Dogface.”

After doing a few more landings and takeoffs from Dogface, Clements piloted the single-engine turboprop trainer to the military operations area, or MOA, about 25 miles north of Vance.

It was in the MOA, an area designated by the Federal Aviation Administration for exclusive military use between specified altitudes and during certain hours, where Clements intended to practice some aerobatics.

“That’s where I started having some oil pressure problems,” Clements said.

Clements was practicing putting the aircraft in a spin and recovering.

“Right on my first turn I got a low oil pressure light,” he said.

Clements immediately stopped the maneuver. The aircraft’s oil pressure was fluctuating, so he took immediate action, getting on the radio and declaring an in-flight emergency, climbing to 19,300 feet above sea level and turning back toward Vance. The idea was to get as high as possible as soon as possible, since a stricken T-6 is supposed to be able to glide two miles horizontally for every 1,000 feet of altitude.

“On the way back to Vance my oil pressure continued to drop and went down to pretty much nothing,” Clements said. “Then the engine started damaging itself and then it seized up and died.”

Clements had been through engine failures before in his primary aircraft, KC-135 Stratotankers. But KC-135s have four engines, the T-6 only one.

Suddenly, Clements’ aircraft had become a glider. He’s not sure how close to the airfield he was by then, but he knows he was high enough to make it safely back.

“I was really close to the airfield when it actually died,” Clements said. “I could have gone 36 miles, but I only needed 25.”

Once he reached Vance, Clements guided the aircraft through a 360-degree turn, then executed a spiral pattern before safely landing the stricken aircraft.

“It was beautiful,” he said with a smile. “It was really one of my better ELPs (emergency landing patterns) I had ever done.

“We do ELPs all the time, so in theory we’re pretty good at them. It was kind of nice to have it validated.”

Clements has executed hundreds of emergency landing patterns, but never with a real live dead engine.

Since he teaches students to handle emergencies such as the one he faced, Clements was asked what grade he would give himself for his work that day.

“I would have graded myself an excellent,” he said. “I want to be humble and stuff, but it was actually pretty textbook.”

The book says in the event of an emergency, to climb to a high-enough altitude that “No matter what, if my engine did fail, I could guide it back.

“When the engine did fail, I did all the procedures you are supposed to, and I did really good energy management to get back,” he said, “so it worked out real nice.”

The goal was to be at 4,300 feet above sea level (3,000 feet above the ground) when the powerless aircraft flew back over the airfield.

“If you get to that position, you can just basically roll your flaps and gear and it will all work out just perfectly doing a spiraling pattern down to land,” Clements said.

Besides all the emergency procedures he had learned, and taught, only one thought went through Clements’ head after the engine failed.

“Don’t land short,” he said with a grin. “Because I recognized the low oil pressure problem right away and put myself on a really, really high profile, I had more than enough energy to make it back, so it really wasn’t scary.”

When he returned home that evening, Clements downplayed the excitement of his day for his wife, Amy, and 5-year-old daughter, Morgan.

“I don’t necessarily like to worry my wife or anything, so I just said ‘Hey, had a little engine problem today and did an ELP,’” Clements said. “Then I explained more about it.

“She was in the Air Force, so she completely understands the gravity of the situation after I kind of broke it slowly (to her).”

Story and photo gallery:

Capt. Eric Clements gestures during an interview June 15, 2015 as he talks about landing a disabled T-6 aircraft.

T-38 instructor pilot, Capt. Kyle Rainwaters, talks about emergency procedures during an interview Tuesday June 23, 2015.

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