There We Were....10 Days Later!

  • Published
  • 98th Flying Training Squadron
In April 2008 I was deployed as a newly certified aircraft commander flying the KC-10. Like most pilots in my squadron, I deployed almost immediately after I was declared mission-ready. The crew consisted of an experienced instructor flight engineer, a new co-pilot and boom operator. We turned out to be an outstanding crew which was challenged very early on.

Our trip to the desert was a cargo mission with stops in Spain and Italy before proceeding to the AOR. We had two full crews on our aircraft and were going to swap out with two crews who were waiting to return home. The additional crew on this mission was more experienced than our own, with instructors at each crew position except co-pilot. We were also traveling with two flying crew chiefs. Our second crew was flying the jet to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy when they noticed that the oxygen gauge had failed during descent. According to the minimum equipment list, we were required to have a functioning oxygen gauge and couldn't take off without it. The crew chiefs coordinated to have a new gauge flown to Sigonella.

We felt bad for the two crews who were stuck in the desert; their deployment prolonged while we waited in Sicily for our jet to get fixed. It was definitely a good deal for us. When our part arrived and the aircraft was FMC again, we showed up and agreed that my crew would fly the leg out of Sigonella. The runway at Sigonella is 7,000 feet by 147 feet, which is as short and narrow as the KC-10 can legally use. With all of the cargo on board and enough fuel for the long flight, our critical field length was just under the runway length.

I decided to do the takeoff from the left seat. The preflight and before-takeoff items were normal on a beautiful VMC day. When we were cleared for takeoff, I taxied onto the runway, set flight idle, and called for takeoff power. I knew everything would happen quickly because of the short runway. As we were going down the runway, the co-pilot called "80 knots," and the engineer announced that the power was set. I glanced at my own airspeed indicator to verify the airspeed; it checked.

A few seconds later, the co-pilot called "V1," which is the go/no-go speed. I didn't say anything because we were going so fast down the runway with little time in between required calls. But my first thought was, "Silly co-pilot, we're not at V1 yet." Next, the co-pilot announced, "Rotate," and I thought, "NOW, we're at V1." The co-pilot continued to yell, "Rotate, Rotate, ROTATE!" I glanced to the right and noticed that one of the airspeed indicators was wrong. I didn't have time to figure out which one, but I knew I would rather rotate using my own airspeed indicator and risk going too fast than risk rotating when we were too slow. Also, we were already past our decision speed, and I knew this was a small enough problem for which I wouldn't abort the takeoff.

I looked out the window and decided that I had enough runway remaining to keep the aircraft on the ground until my airspeed indicator showed rotation speed. I said that we were not at rotate yet, and the flight engineer announced that one of the airspeed indicators was broken. I rotated when the airspeed on my side checked, and the co-pilot raised the landing gear. While I was flying, the co-pilot and the flight engineer compared the two primary airspeed indicators with the standby airspeed indicator and determined that my indicator was malfunctioning. We transferred aircraft control and raised the flaps and slats using the retraction speeds from the co-pilot's indicator.

While the co-pilot continued to fly the standard instrument departure, the flight engineer and I ran the flight instrument malfunction/failure checklist. The checklist allowed us to duplicate the co-pilot's airspeed information to my side, giving me correct indications on all instruments. Next, we called the instructor pilot from the back of the aircraft and briefed him on the actions we had taken and discussed our options for the rest of the flight. We also talked to the crew chiefs on the aircraft to see if there was a way to fix the problem.  While the cargo was important and the crews waiting in the desert were growing impatient, we decided to return to Sigonella to have the equipment repaired. If we had continued, we would have had to fly many hours with only one reliable airspeed indicator. Since the co-pilot's instrument information (including altitude) was being duplicated to my side, we no longer had the two primary altitude indicators required for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum airspace.

We accomplished all normal checklists before our uneventful return to Sigonella. After making the timecritical decision to continue the heavyweight takeoff on a short runway, the crew displayed outstanding crew resource management by epitomizing the "aviate, navigate, communicate" principal. Additionally, it was helpful to use the other crew members who were onboard the aircraft to make an informed decision.  Also, we immediately accomplished time-critical items to get the aircraft away from the ground and into a safe configuration. Afterward, we took our time, ensuring that we covered all our bases and completed all checklist items. This allowed for a smooth and safe landing.

Upon completion of our very short sortie, we had the unfortunate job of notifying the crews waiting for us in the desert that we would not be arriving. They had to wait patiently, eating chow hall food and sleeping in dorms. We enjoyed several more beautiful spring days in Sicily. When we finally arrived for our deployment, we got a lot of grief from the other crews. We had to explain numerous times why it took 10 days to resolve all maintenance problems before we could safely fly the final leg of our mission. During the rest of our deployment, my crew performed in the same outstanding manner, and we used our lesson in communication and CRM to continue making safe decisions.