Final Turn in the Azores I Learned About Flying From That
Chris Hope, published in Flying Magazine December 2020)

A lot has been written over the past few years about pilots relying on electronics to fly the plane to the detriment of actual hands-on-the stick piloting skills.  I have long been baffled by pilots' reliance on the autopilot to fly the plane.  I always thought we flew airplanes to, well, fly the plane.  But perhaps this attitude comes from my early-on Air Force training, and particularly from a black, black night, at low altitude, over the Atlantic Ocean.  Let me set the scene, because like so often happens in these stories, it is the background that drives the crisis.

In October 1973, the war in Viet Nam was winding to a close.  For the previous three years or so I had been flying the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter to Southeast Asia, and all over the Pacific Ocean, supporting the US missions in that part of the world. Now, a new crisis.  Israel had once again been attacked by Egypt.  And the Air Force was tasked with supplying arms to Israel.

From its birth as a modern nation in 1948, Israel has fought its neighbors for its survival.  In 1967, in the famous Six-Day War, Israel had soundly defeated all of its neighbors in one week.  Now, six years later, on the holy celebration of Yom Kippur, it was happening again.  But this time it was against a slightly different background.  The oil-rich countries of the Middle East announced that they would cut off all oil shipments to any country that supported Israel in this conflict.  This included any nation that aided in the resupply of any materiel.  And that meant that if the United States wanted to support Israel, she would have to do it without her air bases outside of her own borders


The Lockheed C-141 was the Air Force's second largest cargo aircraft.  Its four jet engines allowed it to cruise at just under .8 Mach with a range of 5,000 miles.  It weighed about seventy-five tons empty, and more than twice that fully loaded.  It was the perfect aircraft for the mission.  So here was the plan. 

The USAF Military Air Command would pick up bombs and small arms ammunition from supply depots in the states, fly to Lajes Air Base in the Portuguese Azores (where we still had landing rights) and then to Tel Aviv. Air crews would crew rest at Lajes; the airplanes would keep moving.  This was a normal operation, but there would be two new wrinkles that nearly put me and my crew into the Atlantic.  First, we were not allowed to fly over any other country's airspace, nor land in any other country enroute.  Second, under no circumstances, would we leave an airplane on the ground at Tel Aviv.  The Air Force did not want to see a burning USAF aircraft at Tel Aviv on the CBS nightly news.


My log book entries from that time show that my crew and I picked up loads in Indiana and Arkansas, then flew eight hours or so to Lajes to crew rest, then picked up an incoming plane and flew it for seven to eight hours to Tel Aviv, and then the same distance back to Lajes for a beer and bed.  We flew two uneventful trips from Lajes to Tel Aviv and back.  We flew over the Rock of Gibraltar, and then straddled various airspace boundaries as we made our way east across the Mediterranean Ocean.  About 150 miles west of Israel, a pair of Israeli F-4 Phantoms showed up off our wingtip and escorted us nearly to touchdown.

As we taxied in, we opened the cargo doors so that we could begin off-loading as soon as we came to stop.  The refueling truck slid in next to us as we stopped, and while we sat with the engines running, we received a weather briefing, filed our flight plan for the leg back west, unloaded our cargo, and filled with fuel.  Then, it was call for taxi, and head back west for another eight hours.  Not one extra minute on the ground.

The third trip, on October 28, was different.  The first four hours of our flight east was uneventful.  Then, the Master Warning Light illuminated, along with the small warning light that indicated that the Elevator Artificial Feel System had failed.


While small aircraft have cables running from the yoke to the elevator, large aircraft do not.  Movement of the yoke on large aircraft causes hydraulic valves to open and close, which, in turn, moves the elevator.  The pilot gets no sensory feedback from this movement of hydraulic fluid.  So, to give the pilot the sense of aerodynamic feel that we are all accustomed to, the good engineers at Lockheed included the Elevator Artificial Feel System.  This was a system of springs that sensed the aircraft airspeed from the Central Air Data Computer and adjusted the amount of pressure that the pilot would feel from movement on the yoke.  And just as in smaller aircraft, the greater the airspeed, the harder it is to pull back on the yoke.  Great system, and it worked almost all the time.

When the system failed, it generally failed in the mode that required more backpressure on the yoke than expected.  There was an in-flight reset procedure, but if that did not work, the system had to be reset on the ground by the maintenance folks.  So, in our case, the system failed, and when we disengaged the autopilot, the nose of the plane fell – NOW, HARD.  The copilot and I regained control of the plane, re-engaged the autopilot, and had a long chat with the flight engineer and the books about our approach and landing.  The plan we devised was that we would fly an ILS approach with the autopilot engaged, and then we would disengage just as we needed to flare.  At that time the copilot and I would jointly haul back on the yoke and get the nose wheel up just high enough to land.  And that worked ok.

We had no maintenance support at Tel Aviv, and the Flight Engineer was not able to reset the system.  On another day, we would have left the plane for the maintenance folks, but that was not an option.  I knew that I could have refused to fly the plane, but I also knew that plane was going to be moved by somebody, immediately.  And I felt that it was not fair to put someone else into this situation, not knowing how to react.  At least we knew what to expect and how to handle it.  Our takeoff briefing was normal, with one addition.  At rotate, both the copilot and I would pull back on the yoke, and as soon as we got the aircraft into the climbout pitch position, we would engage the autopilot.

Another eight hours back, and we had time for a lot of conversation.  The aircraft was certified for Category III landing operations, meaning that if we had the proper ground equipment we could let the autopilot capture the localizer and glideslope, we could engage the auto-throttle system to hold the airspeed, and we could allow the auto-land system bring the nose up at fifty feet agl and set the plane on the centerline.  What could go wrong?

It is now near midnight, on a moonless night.  The only lights are those on the island, about twenty miles away. We descend to about 2,000' recheck all frequencies and switch settings and prepare to watch the autopilot do its thing.  Although I have never done this in an aircraft, I have been doing it over and over in the simulator.

Flaps are set at the approach setting, landing gear is down, and airspeed is established for the approach.  We are on a 45-degree intercept to the final approach course for runway 15, about fifteen miles out.  The localizer needle starts to move off the edge of the case and the aircraft begins a left turn to intercept the final approach course to runway 15.  As the plane begins to roll out of the turn, we realize that there is a problem with our plan.  We just do not know what.

We are all set for some type of downward runaway pitch excursion.  Both the copilot and I are set to pull back on the yoke if necessary.  However, as the plane started to roll out of the turn, the plane begins a smooth but rapid nose-up movement.  Simultaneously, the airspeed begins decreasing toward stall speed.  And we already have gear and flaps deployed, exactly the worst position to be in with the plane moving toward a stall.  This is where training just kicks in.

I don't remember what I said.  But I remember simultaneously disengaging the autopilot and auto-throttles, rolling into a steep turn to the left and smoothly shoving all four throttles forward.  And staring hard the attitude indicator as I did so.  As soon as the nose moved up, the lights of the island went out of sight - there was no horizon to be seen.  And to the left as we turned there was nothing but black. No ocean, no sky, just black.  Aircraft attitude and airspeed were all that mattered.


The copilot and I performed an instrument steep turn, not much different from the instrument steep turns that instrument students still practice. All that training kicked in without thinking.  Fly the plane. Attitude, airspeed, altitude, roll out on a heading of 150.  Re-intercept the localizer.  The autopilot worked on the earlier approach into Tel Aviv – try it again - carefully.    The only thing we did different this time from our earlier approach into Tel Aviv was the auto-throttle use.  So, skip the auto-throttle.  We will fly this approach exactly like the approach we flew eight hours ago.  Except of course, it is night, and we have the lack of visual cues that nighttime brings on landing. This entire event, from pitch-up to rollout back on final took less than two minutes – the time it takes to make a 360 steep turn.

Landing was otherwise uneventful, except that our adrenalin levels were sky high. It all went quickly.  The rest of the crew did not know how close we came to putting the plane into the ocean.  It was just us two pilots that were shaking.

We were met, as was normal, by the maintenance crew.  We pilots and the flight engineer described what had happened as best we could, the maintenance crew said, "hmm" and we all went to bed.

It was quite some time before I realized what had happened.  I was so focused on the Elevator Artificial Feel System malfunction that I did not realize that the aircraft was making the same rookie error that every student pilot makes.  When we roll an aircraft into a bank, we need to increase our lift, because our lift perpendicular to the horizon has decreased.  We do this by increasing the angle of attack, and the only way we can increase the angle of attack and hold altitude and airspeed is to increase power. The airplane did this and added the correct amount of nose-up trim to hold the level turn.  However, it was slow to add power to hold the airspeed. Just like a student pilot.

A failure to increase power will result in either a loss of airspeed or altitude.  This is true in Cessna 172 or in a Boeing 777.  Or in the Starlifter.  In our case, the aircraft was calling for more power because the altitude was fixed and the turn to final was causing the airspeed to dissipate.  But just like a beginning student learning steep turns, the auto-throttle system was behind.  It was trying to add power but was late.  When the plane rolled out on final, the plane was low on airspeed, and the only thing it knew to do was to increase the pitch to hold altitude, which just caused the airspeed to drop more.  Bad cycle.  The solution for any impending stall is to decrease the angle of attack, while following up with increased power.  I have always thanked Lockheed for giving us an aircraft with an abundance of power.


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updated August, 2020