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Coming Up Short

Kent Davis

C141 Nav 1972-1991

Our normal landing field length for the C-141 was about 10,000 feet. A few fields we went to were only about 7,000 feet long and required special precautions for takeoff and landing. Any field shorter than that required an instructor pilot and special permission to fly in and out of.

That field for us was Laguna Army Air Field in Southern Arizona, just 20 miles north of Yuma, Arizona. The field was only 4,500 feet long and it was a challenge to get into and out of. We frequently flew there for special parachute drop training with the US Army.

We could neither land nor take off if it was raining, but being as it was Southern Arizona, of course, it hardly ever rained. The other factor that limited our use of the field was the heat; that is when the temperature exceeded 40 degree Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit), which was not unusual for Southern Arizona, we could only take off with a partial load. At those times all we could carry out of there was a minimum load of fuel and five or six thousand pounds of cargo. (A normal load was 20,000 to 40,000 pounds of cargo and a max load was 75,000 pounds with a long runway on a cold day.) If we were taking up a big load on a hot day the Army had to truck the load down to the Yuma Air Field, which was over twice as long as the Laguna Air Field.

Laguna AAF was a place where a pilot had to watch his step in order to keep from going off the end of the runway. When he came in to land the aircraft he needed to be low (just over the top of the power wires prior to the end of the runway), slow (right on approach speed) and plant the aircraft (land firmly/hard) on the numbers (the beginning end of the runway pavement). If this was not the case the other end of the runway could come up a lot faster than one wanted to imagine.

The catch here was that most of our young instructor pilots were trying to prepare themselves for the commercial airlines, where a good pilot does not plant the aircraft on the number, spill the passenger's drinks or rattle his crew's teeth. Therefore as they flew the line and landed at the normal 10,000 foot runways they practiced the technique of floating the aircraft just before the touch down. Thereby landing the plane with a "gentle touch".

And thus we came to Laguna Air Field one bright hot afternoon, on airspeed, altitude and over the numbers but with a pilot not at Laguna but at some 10,000 foot runway, miles away. As the aircraft crossed over the numbers, at 50 feet above the pavement, he pulled back on the yoke to float the aircraft and set her down easy.

As the nose came up 5 degrees I shouted, over the roar of the engines, "Don't float!"

The pilot yanked the throttles back to idle, pushed the nose over and the aircraft dropped onto the runway, then the he put all four engines into reverse and stood on the brakes.

The aircraft came to a stop three feet from the end of the runway. It had not gone into the dirt but the pilot could only see dirt and not the end of the runway. (The front wheels are about six feet behind where the pilot sits in the nose of the aircraft)

The scanner opened a door and went outside on a long intercom cord to walk with the aircraft through a turn back to the taxiway.

Hours and hours of tedious boredom punctuated with minutes of sheer terror. Or should I say, any landing you can walk away from is a good, landing.

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