C-141 Peak

Posted by Ken Campbell June 15, 2008 0 Comment 1554 views

“MAC 40641 cleared to 5,000 feet.”
“Roger. This is MAC Four Zero Six Four One, leaving ten for five.”

I flew in the Air Force for almost eighteen years. I wasn’t a pilot; I was a loadmaster. I flew in the back of the plane with the cargo and passengers. Flying out of McChord Air Force Base just south of Tacoma, my normal operating area included the long runs of the Pacific, from the US to Japan, the Philippines and points west. Flying times were brutally long, and I remember many occasions where I was literally asleep on my feet, eyes red with fatigue, hands jittery from too much caffeine. At the end of what had probably been a two or three-week overseas mission, I would often have piles of customs paperwork and cargo manifests to organize before landing, making the last part of the final leg a busy time.

Getting back home from Japan involved an 8-hour flight over the top, the Great Northern Circle that often passes above the pole as it arcs from one part of the planet to the other. Descent was usually begun about 120 miles from McChord and the Tatoosh arrival pattern was routed right over the top of Tatoosh Island. Descent would continue as we crossed the peninsula, and on the clear days the jagged peaks below seemed close enough to touch. The areas inside the National Park boundary were especially beautiful and pristine, and I remember many times peering out of the troop door portholes at the valleys beneath my wings, planning my next trip to the Olympics, and the one after that.

Night over the peninsula is black as sin. The wild, soaring mountains are covered by an inky sky. There are very few settlements and towns anywhere in the area and the ones that are around cluster along the coast. The interior is completely obscured by darkness. When the weather is bad, the area is even less inviting from the air. For a flight crew, there is no horizon and no visual evidence of the terrain below.

On March 20th, 1975, a C-141 Starlifter was heading back home to McChord. They were coming from Clark Air Base, in the Philippines and had made stops along the way in Okinawa and Fussa City, just outside Tokyo. There was a crew of 10 on board, with 6 passengers listed on the manifest. The primary loadmaster, SSgt Peter Arnold, would have been ensuring that the passengers were awakened and the cargo was secured, while readying the forms and paperwork he’d need once the aircraft touched down. Up in the cockpit, the pilot had acknowledged clearance from Flight Level 370 (37,000 feet), to 10,000 feet, and the plane was passing over the mountains as it approached Puget Sound. ETA at McChord was a matter of ten or fifteen minutes.

Right about then, an air traffic controller working out of Seattle Center made a mistake. Other mistakes were subsequently made after that one, but the first deadly mistake came when the controller confused the four-engine cargo aircraft for a smaller Navy plane that was en route to Whidbey Island at the same moment. He cleared the cargo jet out of 10,000 feet, down to 5,000. The navigator on the flight deck didn’t catch the obvious error. Neither did the pilots or the engineer at the panel, all of whom would have been monitoring the radios. All of whom were tired, physically and mentally exhausted after what had already been a 20-hour duty day. The loadmaster would not have been listening to the transmissions, as the interphone panel in the cargo compartment was not set up for radio.

Shortly after being cleared to descend to 5000 feet, the lumbering cargo plane smashed into the northwest face of Mount Constance. The impact came at approximately the 6000 foot-level of Warrior Peak, one of several summits in the Constance cirque. Wreckage was strewn all over the mountain as a blizzard raged through the night and into the next day. For those aboard, death would have come instantly, although the inclement weather and rugged conditions would mean that some of the bodies would not be recovered for months.

When I got to McChord, this accident was held up as the example of what can happen when fatigue and complacency meet with error. Because of this mishap, regulations had been put in place to ensure adequate rest for crews, in an effort to avoid situations like this one in the future. We were often reminded to keep our eyes and ears open, that anything anyone said or did could be queried if it didn’t make sense. It was a way for us to check each other, to make sure we weren’t just sleepwalking through the motions.

Crews are smaller now on the military cargo jets. Cutting costs. The planes are bigger though, faster, and the duty day can now go as long as 26-hours. Maximum-length days are much more common. There’s a war on, you know. Crews are usually fatigued, air traffic controllers have more planes to handle at a higher tempo and it is hard to see how much we’ve truly learned.

The Olympic mountains still stretch their frozen summits high into the cold Northwest skies. The same way they did back in 1975. If we refuse to learn from what has come before it is only a matter of time before the lesson will be repeated.

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