Returning crews brave thunderstorms, land safely
KIGALI, Rwanda — It's the stuff from which movies are made: a thunderstorm wall 45,000 feet high; two aircraft, one with limited radar coverage; and 100 miles from the intended course.
Upon off-loading 70 passengers and their cargo at El-Fashir airstrip in Darfur Sept. 30 as part of the African Union missions in Sudan, Air Force Maj. Mike Miller, pilot, took off from the sunny airport with a crew of ten as the lead in a two-ship formation bound for Kigali International Airport. More than 150 U.S. Air Force Airmen from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, had set up operations there to move about 550 AU peacekeepers to help mitigate the severe humanitarian crisis in Darfur, said Air Force 1st Lt. Elizabeth Culbertson, 86th Air Expeditionary Group spokeswoman.
Two and a half hours later, Air Force Capt. Bill Roelker, aircrew navigator, noticed a massive line of thunderclouds on his radar and alerted the pilot.
"The wall of storms was as long as 50 miles," he said. "The screen was covered in black holes; I've never seen anything like it."
With the radar screen functioning at only 25%, the main concern was being able to see around the clouds in order to safely avoid them.
"Thunderstorms build up in front of you, and as you evade them, they build up behind you. So you have to get out of the way," Roelker said.
The only way to fly when there are thunderstorms around is through holes in the clouds, said Air Force Capt. Matt Lockwood, aircraft commander. "The walls on these storms ranged from 18,000 feet to 45,000 feet, and our radar wasn't capable of letting us see what's on the other side of them."
Lockwood radioed the other C-130 to spot the storms and give vectors for him to relay to Roelker and Miller who were devising the best flying options for the co-pilot, Air Force Capt. James Hudson, who was negotiating the aircraft with Miller.
"At the end of the flight, [the navigation path] showed 50 different turns in what normally would have been a straight shot," Roelker said.
While the C-130 snaked its way through the jumble of dark holes, the aircraft engineer, Air Force Master Sgt. John "Red" Smith, monitored aircraft performance and ensured ice from the moisture in the storm didn't build on the aircraft.
"I've been flying with Major Miller since he was a lieutenant in the Pacific, and this was the most unnerving," said Smith, who's been in the Air Force 24 years. "Ice build-up causes deterioration of aircraft performance. The changes in aerodynamics could prove to be catastrophic
"Several times, I had to de-ice the leading edges of the wings and the tail, which pulls heat from the engines and slows the aircraft," he said.
In the back of the aircraft, Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean McCormick, loadmaster, monitored mechanical performance and cared for passenger comfort.
"A couple of times, it was pretty bumpy," he said. "I scanned the aircraft systems in order to notify the flight deck if there were any mechanical problems, and I ensured everyone was seated with their seatbelts on so we could get through without injury."
After more than five hours of dodging thunderclouds, they finally broke clear. But although the airport was in sight, a commercial DC-10 aircraft wasn't.
"We knew generally where he was but not exactly, since we were flying visual," Lockwood said.
They knew the DC-10's location exactly when they pulled through the clouds and were nose to nose with him at slightly different altitudes, Smith said.
In order to avoid collision, the crew implemented evasive techniques.
"We went down and left; it went straight over us to land first," Hudson said.
The C-130 landed one hour later than scheduled but in one piece.
"I've been flying for eight years, and that was the worst I've ever seen," Lockwood said. "Nevertheless, we had a great crew, and all's well that ends well."