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Alaska Gas

Dick Reichelt

August, 1964. I'm back stateside from a rollicking 3-year tour in Wiesbaden, Germany and going to Tinker AFB. With orders in hand, the question was; "What's a C-141?" I had been flying KC97 tankers for 5 years and then a cargo 97 in Europe for 3 years. C-141's here I come. I was a 15-year veteran with 8000 hours accumulated. Had always had a cockpit job, but hadn't had to learn a new aircraft in 8 years much less a 1st line AF Jet beauty. Ground school started in earnest but it would be 40-60 days before getting into the seat and flying this awesome airplane. Ground school was not my cup of tea. I passed all the tests but my hair was falling out from all the book learning. I was impressed, kindled, and invigorated. I took pictures and wandered the flight line in my spare time. .

One day I went to nearby Guthrie airport and met a congenial farmer with a J-3 cub. I have no idea why I impressed him or why he took a liking to me but he offered the J-3 for my use. "Anytime it's here, take 'er up and enjoy yourself." Wow! But as it turned out the J-3 was too unreliable. It was always quitting and required dead sticking. If I was gliding in all the time, I might as well go to the sailplane school I noticed at Guthrie. The sailplane nationals had been held there the year before. They had nice equipment so I went for the 10-hour training for the license. At least I was in a cockpit again. Off I went in a Schwietzer 2-23. I soloed to a less expensive 1-26 fully acrobatic single place. What a sport! I was a natural at this powerless stuff. Now I could wait for the flight portion of C-141 training.

Fast forward to 1968. With 1000 hours in the C-141 I was now stationed at McGuire AFB in NJ. One fine day I was flying a trip to Elmendorf AFB Alaska. No additional crew members (ACM's) were aboard, just the standard basic crew. Six of us in the same "boat". This, the first leg out, we watched the sun go down as we went over Duluth, then cut up into the wilds of Canada.

The hours passed and I became alert for my very existence! My being. The landing! I loooooved making the landing. I got to do all of them if the copilot wasn't qualified. I wasn't stingy, mind you. If they were qualified, we split the legs. As a "landing" pilot, I considered snow covered or wet runways to be "good" because you could "grease" in a landing. The C-141 didn't have any landing quirks or stopping problems so my romance with her continued. These "roll-ons" were my nirvana.

We always started our descent over Gulcana, 150 mi out of Elmendorf. My second fantasy was believing I could "sneak" the airplane down so that no one aboard would even know we were descending for a landing until the noisy flaps came down. Outboards were slowly retarded, then the inboards. Even though no one EVER came to the cockpit after landing and said, "Ha, you really sneaked us down…." Where did I develop the rules for that silly game?

Landing weather at Elmendorf was poor, 1/2 mile and fog. Been there. Done that. Down we came. We always filed Eilson as the alternate as a matter of expediency. Never had to use it. Never missed an approach with the 141's super flight director system.

Down we come. What a gorgeous clear night descending. We are cutting into the black starlit sky, colorful northern lights shimmering and moving. You'd swear you could hear them go "swish". Everything was normal. We were in the clear over what looked like a thick cottony pillow of low altitude fog. Gear and flaps down, we came flying down final. We could see a glow but no rabbit, no strobes - nothing. One half mile reported. Okay here we go, poof into the schmootz!

Copilot called out "100 above minimums!"

"MINIMUMS!" "What do you mean minimums? There is no runway! Crew! Going around". I poured the coals to the 141; positive rate, gear up. The 141 gave me what she had and we popped back up and out.

On downwind. Now the big question. Do we try that again? It was answered by a few things. First the radio said, visibility ZERO. Field's closed. GO AWAY.

Next, the engineer said "AC/Engineer: We're down to 15,000 lbs fuel."

I said, "15,000 lbs! We can't make Eilson on that!"

The radio said "What are your intentions?" That 1,2,3 sequence saw my flying career pass in front of my eyes. I had three fears: jet plane high altitude "upset"; being the first C-141 to have to jettison cargo; and running out of gas (O.O.G.).

Of course as a pilot, I don't like surprises. What had happened to our fuel? I'd made this trip before. Same fuel, similar load and no problems. But…I had never made an approach and missed it. Reg. 55-1: fuel reserves were predicated on coming to Anchorage at altitude and staying at altitude and departing for your alternate at altitude. We had spent our fuel on the drag-it-all-in approach.

We climbed up to 20,000 feet where fuel economy was best.

"AC/Engineer: 10,000 lbs fuel." Sacre' bleu! (Canadian North Woods talk for "Oh Shit!"). We were advised that the closest runway was at King Salmon, 300 miles to the west, clear and 15.

"Navigator/AC, need an ETA to King Salmon."

"AC/Nav: 30 minutes".

"AC/Engineer: 8000 lbs".

"AC/Nav: the winds are on our nose. New ETA is 34 minutes".

The whole crew congregated in the cockpit. Parkas were being donned. The engineers were putting on extra socks. Everyone was preparing for the worst. I'm pulling the power back just enough to fly, throwing "long-range" cruise numbers and ETAs out the window.

"AC/Nav: 23 minutes to King Salmon".

About then Center says "Anchorage International. is open, 1/2 mile". Decision time! Suddenly, King Salmon beacon flashes and flashes again. Hallelujah!

"No thanks, Center. We're going to King Salmon". I had declared an emergency so everyone was paying attention to us.

Now, not only did I have upset, jettison cargo, run out of gas on my mind, but added a new one. It became personal. Would I earn the title of, "first pilot to crash-land a 141 in the artic"?

"King Salmon tower please turn the runway lights to bright." My memory now clouds a bit remembering how far out I started down from 20,000 feet. I do remember I pulled the engines to idle and made like an excellent glider pilot. Thank you Lord for the nudge to get sailplane experience. ETA and fuel were no longer as important as was gliding to the runway, and that's what we did. Short final, flaps 1/4 Gear down. Flaps 1/2, and very short final. Full flaps and swish - smooth. Spoiler, reverse - taxing off.

"AC/Engineer:2800 lbs".

That was the second experience in my career that my feet played the rudder pedal "mambo". God was our ACM that night and the Starlifter did its part.

Notes: If the weather at King Salmon had not been clear, or an instrument approach required, we would not have been able to land safely. A major Air Carrier opted for the approach into Anchorage that was offered to us. They missed the approach and went around, proceeding to their alternate.

Passing over that route we flew on subsequent trips, revealed fearsome, rocky terrain below.


Richard (Dick) Reichelt      richreichelt@msn.com

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