"Cougar 21"

  • Published
  • By Capt Ronald A. Bottoms
  • 40 AS/DOFA
"Cougar 21, confirm you have landed; tower does not have visual." I looked over at the aircraft commander, took a deep breath, and replied "Affirmative."   "OK, take the next taxiway to your left and tell us which one it is; we will send a follow-me out to help you taxi to parking." 

You might be asking, "What was keeping the tower from seeing a C-130 sitting on its runway?" Answer -- the visibility was somewhere between 100 and 150 feet due to early morning fog. A gray C-130 tends to blend in well with gray fog. 

The day started out with a simple mission: carry a maintenance rescue team and another crew from Little Rock AFB, Ark. to Alexandria International, La., wait around for a few hours to see if the MRT could fix the aircraft that was stuck at Alexandria, and then return to Little Rock. Just an easy air land mission, right? Nobody shooting at us, no low-level flying, no need to max-perform the aircraft; just go from point A to point B and return. We didn't even need to refuel once we landed; the round-trip flight was well within the standard fuel load for a C-130. It was a gorgeous night for flying; we could see a million stars as we flew south. What could go wrong? 

We had no problems loading the aircraft, made an on-time takeoff, and landed at Alexandria International uneventfully. After offloading the MRT, we went inside to recheck the weather and NOTAMs and settled down to wait. And wait. And wait some more. After six hours, we had to make a decision on whether to proceed back to Little Rock without the other crew and the MRT. You see, the MRT was unable to duplicate the electrical problem on the other aircraft, described by another crew as a lightning bolt going off underneath the flight deck. The extra crew decided not to fly the other aircraft back at night, so we loaded up everyone and headed back to Little Rock, planning to land right after dawn. Did we miss anything? We had enough fuel to make it back, and we had checked our weather and NOTAMs. Our divert base was Adams Field, only about 15 minutes from the base. No problem, except that it was late fall, we were planning to land right after dawn, we only had about 30 minutes of extra fuel, and our weather forecast was already six hours old when we took off for Little Rock. 

The return trip was uneventful until just before we started our descent, when Little Rock approach asked us what our intentions were. Fog had rolled in, covering the area like one of those thick, fluffy white bath towels your mother always kept for guest use only and yelled at you every time you pulled it out of the hall closet. Adams Field was 0/0; nothing was moving. Approach told us the base weather report was calling for a 200-foot ceiling and ½-mile visibility, but kind of chuckled when he said it. I would have laughed too, except I looked at the fuel gauge and realized that we had no choice; we didn't have enough fuel to divert anywhere else. 

What do you do in a situation like this? Because of some bad decisions earlier in the night, we had no choice: we shot the approach. The AC told me to fly the ILS; he would look for the field. Once he spotted the field, he would take over for the landing. I was supposed to stay on the instruments, in case we had to go missed approach. The flight engineer would back us up on our airspeed and altitude, and the navigator would monitor the approach. The loadmaster?  He just buckled his seat belt really tight. 

Everyone knew their duties, and we were ready to start the approach. There was no wind, and I had that approach shacked. Truthfully, I believe it was the best ILS I'd ever flown. It was a good thing, too. Two hundred feet above decision height -- no airfield.  OK, no big deal, just keep going. One hundred feet above, same thing. I'm a little nervous now. Fifty feet -- nothing. Decision height -- no one says anything. This is not good. Fifty feet below decision height, 150 feet above the field. I can't stand it anymore. As I began to say, "Crew, we're going around," the AC interrupts with, "I have the lights, my aircraft." I looked outside and could just barely make out the flashing sequencer lights. I didn't see the runway itself, until just before we crossed the threshold, about 75 feet AGL. 

The landing was uneventful, as was everything thereafter. The follow-me vehicle found us and led us to parking without incident. Everyone let out a big sigh of relief once we shut down in parking without any bent metal. We managed not to declare emergency fuel, and better yet, we weren't broken into thousands of burning pieces scattered over the Arkansas countryside. 

What lessons can be learned from this experience?  First, checking the weather is not something you just pay lip service to; always get the most current weather possible. Next, really think about your alternate. Some place 15 minutes away works if the runway is shut down for an IFE, but what if the weather shuts down everything within a 300-mile radius? Finally, never get complacent. I mean never get complacent. Aviation is dangerous enough when everything is going right; never give Murphy an edge. He doesn't need it -- you do.