Herc, There I Was...

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  • 61 AS
Fat, dumb, and happy after inhaling Hawaiian chicken-salad sandwiches from Base Z, my crew and I experienced what some might say is one of the "least desired scenarios" smoke and fumes onboard our aircraft. Before I explain the actions we took to handle the situation, let me provide some background information. Our C-130E was on an AMD-directed mission within the CENTCOM AOR to deliver over 50 Army combat personnel to their final location. My crew was on the second to last leg of our standard multi-leg day. As a relatively new Herc aircraft commander (AC) (200 hours in the C-130 and 1,500 hours in the C-21), I was fortunate to have a highly experienced co-pilot (800+ C-130 hours), evaluator navigator (1,700+ hours), superb flight engineer (600+ hours), and two exceptional load masters (1,500+ combined hours). 

After flying as a crew for 2-months, we had experienced our share of EPs, and melded well together to solve any problems we had encountered up to this point. So, let's get back to the scenario. Cruising at FL 210 and halfway between Base X (final destination) and Base Y (intended destination), Loadmaster 1 informs the crew that there is smoke in the aft cargo section that isn't dissipating and is now moving forward. First though, "Oh #^&*!" I thought all my hours of blood and sweat on the "flickerball" field prepared me for this scenario, but add in a combat zone and chaotic communication flow, and the problem becomes a bit more difficult to solve. Fortunately, my highly attuned flight engineer is the first to chime in and directs me to descend immediately. At the same time I'm diving for terra firma, I direct the rest of the crew to immediately go 100% oxygen and check-in. Check-in is uneventful and the loadmasters have already distributed the EPOS to our Army passengers before I direct them to. "Any apparent damage to the aircraft load?" "No damage pilot, just a bunch of smoke." I asked the nav what field we were closest to. Before I could finish my question-"Pilot, doesn't matter; we're halfway between Base X and Base Y." Decision time-press to Base Y and complete the mission or press to Base X where maintenance is available and better medical facilities. Sorry Army dudes, we are diverting where I know we can get the best support, and we'll sort the rest out when we're on the ground. As the flight engineer is finishing up all applicable emergency checklists, he's working with the loadmasters to determine the source of the smoke, as I'm focusing on getting the aircraft on the ground ASAP. The co-pilot and nav are working together and with ATC to determine the best route and altitude to avoid any threats and ROZs, but to also coordinate emergency assistance on the ground. Needless to say, the increased communication is being drowned out by the deep breathing of oxygen and the situation, and it's getting to the point of being counter-productive. At this point, the only thing I could think of was to tell the crew to settle down and keep the communication related to solving our problem and to finish up all the checklists. The loadmasters and flight engineer work together and determine that the source of smoke is pouring out of the cargo air-conditioning unit. The engineer isolates the source, and the situation gets better in the cargo compartment- small victory achieved. It's time to land this aircraft. Although I'm 99% sure we've isolated the source of our smoke, I know that you can never be sure that you've thought of everything. The co-pilot informs ATC that after landing, we'll clear the runway and emergency ground egress. With the knowledge of how crews have masterfully handled EPs in the air but dorked up the ground egress, we review the ground evacuation while we have the time. Although I don't want to be "that guy," more importantly, I don't want someone to be injured departing a perfectly good aircraft. Luckily, I can say that "the crew landed uneventfully," and we successfully ground-evacuated all crew members and passengers. Although our passengers weren't exactly happy to be at Base X, they were sure glad to be on the ground in one piece. So, what's the point of this story? Get back to the basics: fly the plane, figure out/solve the problem, and land. Even though you might be the AC, you might also be the least experienced on the aircraft, so trust your crew. Last, remember that as the AC, you set the tone; how you conduct yourself can have success or failure in the least desirable scenarios. Don't make a bad situation worse.