Reading Between the Transmissions

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  • 76th Airlift Squadron
It was the beginning of January and my squadron needed to send a C-130 to the Utah Air National Guard to set up for a senior scout mission starting in February. I volunteered for the mission and headed out with an experienced crew to Salt Lake City, Utah.  

We met with the 169th Intelligence Squadron to lay out the aircraft mod plan. The first few days were reserved for the engineers to load and connect the equipment in the back of the aircraft. This took a day or two longer than expected as they had some difficulty with some power issues blowing out some navigational and communications equipment. This required a maintenance recovery team to fly out and fix the broken equipment.. 

It's not unusual for a C-130 to have maintenance problems, but the frequency and type of issues were unusual. The engineers felt that it was an aircraft issue, while I thought it might be something with the interface to the new equipment. We were behind schedule but could still meet the February deadline. We continued to meet with the engineers and back-end operators to make sure that the aircraft and equipment were ready for flight testing. 

The MRT replaced the broken equipment and parts, while the ANG engineers reconnected the new equipment. This somehow fixed all the weird electrical problems previously experienced. We could finally get airborne and calibrate the equipment. 

Calibration was done at a range north of the airport. We would go up for several hours and the back-end operators would run their test. We had to return to base early during the first two sorties because the equipment needed some calibration by the engineers before further testing could be completed. 

The mission pressed right up to the deadline, with no room for further significant delays. Two sorties were still scheduled, but the engineers took extended ground time to make sure everything was ready. This left us with time for one last test flight, which the back-end operators felt was enough. We would fly the test sortie, land, gas and fly back to Texas. As a crew, we were leaning forward to get this last test flight completed. 

We had an early show and were greeted with some exceptionally cold weather that had moved in during the night. The weather forecast called for a rain-snow mix to move into the area later in the day but wasn't expected to play a factor for the test flight. At step time, there were few clouds around 3,000 feet, with greater than 10 miles vis, and not supposed to drop below a 1,500-foot ceiling with six miles vis. By takeoff, the sun was shining through the clouds, and the slight trace of frost had melted off the aircraft. Since landing weather required an alternate, we decided to use Hill AFB, Utah, which was a short flight north of the field and would allow us the greatest loiter time at the range. 

On climb-out, we quickly passed through the thin cloud layer and had a beautiful sunny day in the Rocky Mountains. The operations check went smoothly, though we required a few more sweeps through the sky before we were cleared to return to Salt Lake City. This put us right above our minimum fuel level to get back and then to our alternate, if needed. 

On the descent into Salt Lake City, the co-pilot pulled up current ATIS to get weather to brief his approach. The ATIS was what we expected, an overcast ceiling of about 2,000 feet and around six miles vis. We were flying the standard STAR arrival for Runway 34 and were sixth or so in sequence. ATC was busy as everyone seemed to be arriving at once. 

Though traffic was a little busy and some weather had moved in, everything was pointing toward a typical IFR letdown and approach. The aircrew was ahead of the jet with takeoff and landing data calculated and briefings complete. For my first off-station AC mission, things seemed to be going well. 

That was when the unexpected happened. ATC passed us off to approach control, who was querying each aircraft for their landing minimums. It took me a second to realize what was happening, but it was the first clue that weather was not as good as ATIS had called. I had expected that we would have the highest minimums, but there was another aircraft in the pattern with a minimum of 300 feet and three-quarter-mile vis. 

I knew this was going to be an approach down to minimums and that the reduced visibility was due to snow. As a new AC, I wasn't comfortable letting the co-pilot fly the ILS, although I was sure he'd do a fine job. The good news was that we had time for the engineer to recalculate TOLD for runway contamination; time for the nav to look at fuel range and possible diverts if we went missed approach; time for the co-pilot to recheck the TOLD and fuel status; and time for me to explain to the crew the situation with the deteriorating weather, with emphasis on a missed approach and landing on a runway with possible snow. By this time, we were at the final approach fix and flying the bars. One hundred feet above and still just blowing snow and clouds. At about 201 feet and just before calling go-around, we saw one of the rabbit lights just to the right of our ground track and then another pass under our nose. The runway environment was in sight, and we continued to land. The runway was covered in about four inches of snow, but we rolled out to the high speed and taxied clear. This was my first time taxiing with so much snow on the taxiway and learned firsthand that it was better to use differential power for steering as opposed to too much nose wheel input. Through good CRM and time management, we got the aircraft back to parking and ready to be refueled. 

I learned a few things that day. First, it isn't always what ATC says that can help keep you ahead of the aircraft, but what they don't say. Asking for landing minimums is not normal and a good indication that weather is getting worse. Second, a qualified and experienced crew helps keep things from snowballing when the unexpected arises and you're pressed for time. But even with inexperienced crew members, know their task saturation limit, and if you need to create more time, you can make time by slowing down or requesting extended vectors. Finally, know your own limits and what you're comfortable with. For noncombat missions like these, it isn't worth it to push the boundaries or let deadlines make you feel you have to get the mission done at all cost. Leave yourself some planning room for unexpected events. 

An unexpected snowstorm met us that day in Salt Lake City. Though we had not planned for it, we were able to adapt and get the mission done. The storm passed quickly, and with a little de-icing fluid, we were soon on our way back to Texas with the senior scout crew.