Machine kaputt

(translated by Juergen Matthes)


One of the highlights working for Air Traffic Control was the fact that we were entitled to the so called ‘experience flights’, in our jargon called SE-Flug. In regular intervals, about every two years, we were assigned to an SE-flight by our ‘belle etage’. These flights, which you participated as a fully accounted cockpit crew member (without a ticket), were supposed to provide experiences and views into the workload of the flying crew in all imaginable situations. Therefore you participated in a whole rotation together with the crew.

It was logical that these flights were supposed to be provided for the operational staff of ATC only. Unfortunately the ‘belle-etage’ managed time after time to assign members of the administrative staff to one of these flights. Of course the crew noticed the missing operational background of such a person and was, so to speak, not amused!

It was my turn again, I was presented with a rotation Frankfurt – Nuremberg – Frankfurt – Vienna – Frankfurt. The aircraft was a Boeing 727. At that time I was working at Karlsruhe UAC (radar control unit working the upper airspace above 25 000 feet), radio callsign Rhein Control.

Such a rotation comprises everything the cockpit-crew is required to do, including several briefings, that meant getting up early to be on my way for Frankfurt!

First you visit dispatch, get flight-plan data, fuel, weather data. Then the cockpit-briefing takes place, it deals with emergency procedures and also my role in them: I therefore got an introduction to the usage of the oxygen mask, learned to operate the intercom and radio panel and got familiarized with the security belts / harness and the handling of them. All that took place in the terminal.

Then briefing with the cabin crew. Once again emergency procedures, and most important: What’s for lunch! After that taken care of, Lufthansa crew bus took us to the aircraft.

Since the plane had just been through its mandatory check in a hangar, I skipped outside check, I didn’t want to miss how a ‘cold and dark’ airplane was brought back to life.

Our captain was, like you always picture a captain: tall, serious, white streaks in his hair, with a deep, calm voice. Very impressive! The co-pilot (nowadays first officer) was the exact contrary: A tendency to being a bit overweight (I try to be polite), jovial, frankonian dialect, but somehow a bit unpleasantly importunate, a real smart alec. On the 727 there still were flight-engineers, those are always the same type of persons: tall and lean, as you know them from submarine movies!

After the captain had conducted takeoff in Frankfurt, he handed control over to the co, who was supposed to fly the aircraft until Nuremberg including the landing. The crew didn’t show any specific interest in me, except for the flight engineer (FE). I didn’t mind though, since I liked to watch, and the FE explained quite a few things which were new to me.

About 15 minutes before landing the co, now acting as pilot in command (PIC, nowadays pilot flying) was going through the landing preparations. For that he slid his seat back as far as it went, and then he even cranked down his back rest until it was almost horizontal. Lucky me, I was sitting behind the captain, otherwise I would have been crushed! Then the co leaned back, he almost looked like a first class passenger relaxing and waiting for service. I only thought, he doesn’t have any more outside view, strange.

The two up front were discussing the landing now, I didn’t understand a word, but I have to admit, I didn’t try hard either, because I was curious how one can land an aircraft from such a sitting position!

At 10 miles final we were on the ILS. Since I had ridden up front several times before, I noticed an excessive angle of attack of the aircraft right a way. When I looked back into the cabin (at that time the cockpit door was still supposed to be open), all passengers seemed to be downhill, way below me!

Maintaining this angle of attack we touched down on the runway. The co kept pulling the yoke, more and more, towards himself, this explains his sitting position, and this kept the nose up. When the aircraft couldn’t hold this attitude any more, the nose slammed onto the runway and the bird decelerated using only the brakes, without using the reversers.

We had landed, but how had we landed! How the co could see the runway from his sitting position – remained his secret, I could hardly try for myself how you could see outside from his seat. From the pale faces of the passengers leaving the plane I concluded that they counted that landing as almost a crash.

The crew continued to ignore me, for sure they had had some administrative couch potato along on their last experience flight and were fed up, so I decided to accept the offer of the FE to go along for an outside check. The mickey mice (hearing protection) were put on, then outside! We checked the landing gear, especially the tires, the APU, the leading edges of the wings, the flaps and the sensors.

Then we went back inside via the aft staircase. On both sides, in the tail of the aircraft, were small doors which puzzled me, so I asked the FE. They were to be able to check the engines in the tail, did I want to have a look. Sure I did, when else could you have a look at something like that.

He opened the right door and cleared the way. “Look at the fan blades”, he stated, “they must be bent, but consistent”. And there must not be any damages visible”. So I had a look and – yes – they were bent, but by no means consistent.

So I said – “boy, they are bent, but not consistent”. Then I only heard – “WHAT?!” I was shoved aside.

The FE took a long look, but came to the same conclusion: “Yes, they are bent, but crooked”! He ran to the door on the other side and tore it open. Then he shoved me towards it and said “that’s the way they are supposed to look”. I had to confirm, they looked ok. “Doesn’t help”, he said, “the technicians have to go for it”.

So back to the cockpit and report the incident. The captain called the technicians and postponed boarding by 10 minutes. I only thought “what an optimist!”

The technician came, had a look in the back and then only shook his head, someone should get to the engines from the outside with a ladder, have a look and take some measurements. Being friendly, he added an estimate right a way: It would take about half an hour. The captain passed that on to the gate: Delay!

The ladder was brought, a technician climbed it, took some measurements with a gauge, came down again, the ladder was removed. He then came to the cockpit and stated: Flying is tricky, if one of the blades gets torn off he wouldn’t like to be in the aircraft, flying with passengers is impossible.

The crew started discussing. Is there a possibility to get this fixed here at Nuremberg? If not, should we fly empty to Frankfurt? And how do the passengers get to Frankfurt? The captain decided to discuss the problem with the technical department at Frankfurt and then make a decision. So he left us and made a phone-call to Frankfurt from the terminal.

10 minutes later he was back and announced his decision: The passengers are taken to Frankfurt by bus, as well as the cabin crew. Of us four everyone should decide for himself if he wanted to fly or take the bus. He also stated that everyone who would vote for flying, would have to sign a statement that he would do that on own risk, that Lufthansa was freed of all responsibilities. Everyone voted for flying.
Since the technicians checked the other engines, we had time to get a meal from the first class trolley and leisurely enjoy it. “Last Meal!” Gosh, they talked to me, I hardly hadn’t noticed before!

Then we refueled, the doors were closed by the FE, and we prepared for startup. Clearance came from the tower and at the same time from the fire trucks. One on each side, very calming!

The FE calculated our takeoff weight and recommended to use number 3 (the damaged engine) only for takeoff and if needed for landing and otherwise let it idle. This would reduce the risk considerably of a turbine blade been torn off. The captain agreed.

The engines were running now, the FE went to the back to the described door and had a look at the engine. He tried to listen whether he could hear something unusual, but everything sounded normal. So far, so good!

We all were full of respect for the coming flight, you could tell by the lively discussions we were all having. You blabber your fear off!

We decided that I should conduct talking to air traffic control, and to hint to them that we had a “minor” problem.. “Hinting” was important, because if we would encounter a stubborn controller, he could inquire whether we would declare an emergency, if not, we should be handled as any other normal flight. Therefore it was my task to softly point out our problem and request appropriate handling.

Our air traffic control network is astonishingly efficient, because already the ground controller asked how we intended to perform taxi to the runway. So I explained that we could use engine 3 only to a limited extend, taxiing with 2 engines should be no problem, but it would be great if he could pass this information to the following controllers.

We taxied, escorted by the fire brigade, to the runway. The captain had calculated, if No. 3 would run with 80% power-setting, the length of the runway would be more than sufficient. Let’s go! During takeoff roll the FE hung over the thrust levers and paid close attention. Shortly before the end of the runway the captain carefully pulled the nose up, at least we were flying!

At positive climb No. 3 was reduced to idle, which resulted in a drift to the right, but that could be compensated by trim. Flight level 160 allowed a splendid view across the landscape passing underneath us.

Each sector controller handled us like a raw egg, they were superb, even holding (normal to Frankfurt) was not for us this time! They planned us for the southern runway in Frankfurt, we wouldn’t mess up things so much there.

Landing was not so spectacular as at Nuremberg, it was a ‘greaser’! The fire trucks were there also, they reminded us of our defect. We taxied directly to the hangar and learned from the technicians that before the flight to Nuremberg the aircraft had been perfectly ok. Bending of the blades must have happened during the flight to Nuremberg.

The flight to Vienna and back, naturally in a replacement aircraft, went pleasant and uneventful except for the order of the captain “you don’t go out of the aircraft and look at nothing no more!” Since I complained about this order, I got a great meal in first class as a compensation!