The single runway at Hill Air Force Base is eleven thousand five hundred feet long by one hundred fifty feet wide. Favoring the prevailing wind, the main approach has a full ILS (Instrument Landing System) and VASI. Qualified pilots may execute approaches down to two hundred foot ceilings and one quarter mile visibility.
It was two in the morning when a very tired Ed Gutt and his new-hire first officer were cleared for the approach with the admonishment by the controller; “Braking action reported fair to poor by a Lockheed Electra,” which meant the braking action was probably poor. The Electra pilot knew if he’d said “poor,” it would close the airport to other inbound traffic. A call of fair-to-poor was a warning to other pilots to attempt a landing at your own risk – be very, very careful.
A combination of light snow and landing lights made a brilliant reflection passing the windshield as the copilot reported, “Outer Marker Inbound.”
“Roger, Logair 9-3-4, R-V-R (Runway Visual Range) is one-six hundred, cleared to land runway one-four”
Ed had just been approved to fly at lower minimums; this was his first real-world low approach. He concentrated on the Flight Director instrument guiding him to the runway; the dazzling snow threatened to upset his equilibrium. “Checklist complete?” he nervously repeated.
“Roger – this looks hairy.”
Concentrating on the instruments he guided the plane through the snow-filled black night to what he knew would be a difficult landing; Ed began to whistle a random tune.
“One thousand feet, on course, a little high on the glide slope, plus ten knots on the speed,” the copilot said as part of the required procedure.
The copilot’s louder voice began reflecting the stress he felt, “Five hundred feet, on course, on glide path, speed, plus ten – approaching minimums.”
Ed continued whistling as he mentally debated whether to ease off on the throttles or take the risk of landing too hot.
“Minimums – I have the approach lights! I HAVE THE RUNWAY – COME LEFT!” the copilot’s raised voice indicated his apprehension.
Ed banked the bird to the left attempting to line up with the center line. Too much and he’d slide off to the other side or get a wing tip. Bringing the throttles to idle he applied rudder. The landing lights reflecting on the snow was making everything look surreal. The plane landed hard on one main gear and bounced over to the other. Runway lights were whizzing by as Ed slammed down the nose gear and pulled hard on the reverser levers while simultaneously pushing harder on both brakes.
The right engine came into reverse ahead of the left, causing the plane to swerve to the right. The anti-skid cycled with a chattering, making the brakes useless. Ed saw the runway swing around through his side window as the nose wheel plowed through the runway lights and off onto the side before collapsing, throwing him and the copilot against their shoulder harnesses.
“9-3-4, are you all right?”
“Negative. Our nose wheel collapsed – we’re off the runway.” Ed answered.
“Roger; equipment is on the way.”
They completed the checklist before exiting the aircraft. One of the items on the list was to pull the circuit breaker on the Cockpit Voice Recorder. The machine operated on a closed loop, recording the last thirty minutes of cockpit conversation. Shutting off the power to the recorder saved what was said prior to the accident.
The plane suffered a million-five in damage; it was a toss-up whether to scrap it or not. Reports were made – hearings held – Ed and his copilot were fired.
A couple of months later several of us were told to report back to the head-shed for some training on new equipment being installed in the aircraft. A secretary delivered a message to the classroom that I was to report to the President’s office immediately following lunch. Since the Hill AFB incident, the President had been calling in all the captains one-by-one; my turn was next.
“Come in Dave, come in – oh, and close the door behind you.”
“I just want to have a little chat with all of you about that awful thing with Captain Gutt. You were classmates weren’t you?”
“Well, was there anything you saw about him that would make you think he was anything less than he should be?”
“No sir; I thought he was an excellent pilot. He flew in the Air Force…”
“That may be true, but the man didn’t understand the gravity of the situation that night. Do you know he was whistling on approach? Whistling, when he should have been concentrating on the task at hand; I found that to be inexcusable!”
“Maybe he was whistling to relieve stress; some people do odd things when faced with difficult problems.”
“Yes I know, but we played the tape back. Both he and the copilot were clowning around in the cockpit before the approach. I don’t think either one realized just how serious the weather was that night; they acted completely clueless.”
“Ed always seemed to me to be on-top of everything in training. I would still wonder if stress hadn’t led them to say things to relieve the tension…”
“Nonsense! When I heard that tape I knew we’d made a mistake in hiring him. It was good riddance to someone who could have later caused the loss of many lives if he’d advanced to the DC-8s.”
“Well, I’m glad we’ve had this talk; I’m sure you want to get back to class. Drop in any time you’re back this way.”
I returned to the classroom having learned two things: While it wasn’t supposed to be used against the crew; the Cockpit Voice Recorder was a tool to get one fired. Therefore, in the event of an incident I would leave the circuit breaker in, thereby erasing the tape – to hell with FAA safety requests. Further, regardless of the minimums; if it doesn’t feel right, go to your alternate – always error on the side of Safety.
Later at the Holiday Inn bar over scotch, one of the captains commented to me; “You know why Gutt got fired? He was whistling ‘Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey’”