The following is an excerpt from Hamfist Out.
March 12, 1978
Nancy was shaking me. I smiled and opened my eyes, expecting to see the pleasant Flight Attendant offering me another round of food, or perhaps a refill on my coffee. She looked scared.
“Are you a pilot, Mr. Hancock?”
“Yes,” I responded, unconsciously touching the wings on the left chest of my Class-A uniform. I was fully awake now, and could see the terror in her eyes.
“You’re needed at the flight deck, now!”
I unbuckled my seat belt and followed her to the cramped cockpit. As soon as she opened the door, I was overcome by the sickening smell of vomit. The Captain and First Officer were in their seats, slumped forward, held in their positions by their seat belts and shoulder harnesses. They appeared to be totally unconscious. They each were covered with vomit, as was the center instrument pedestal.
“The Captain called me a few minutes ago and said they were both getting violently ill,” Nancy said. “When I came back up with some club soda, I found them like this. Can you fly this airplane?”
“I guess I can,” I replied, “what kind of airplane is this, and where are we?”
“It’s a 737-200,” she had a stern look, “I announced that during the safety briefing. We’re somewhere over western Kansas. About fifteen minutes ago the Captain told me we would be starting our descent soon. Then this.”
“Okay. Help me get these guys out of their seats, and then stay up here with me.”
Since the airplane was still flying along smoothly, it was clear we were on autopilot. I’d never used an autopilot before, and I had no idea how to operate it or disconnect it to hand-fly.
First things first. We needed to get these guys out of their seats. I started with the First Officer, since he looked to be the lightest. I reached around and tried to unlock his shoulder harness and seat belt, which were fastened together in a large round buckle at his waist. I couldn’t find any kind of release lever or button.
“Twist the center to release it,” Nancy suggested.
I grabbed the hub of the buckle and turned it, first to the right. It didn’t move. Then I turned it to the left and the harness and seat belt released. I needed to lift him out of the seat, but I couldn’t stand up straight, and it was very awkward trying to lift from this angle. I tensed my core muscles and reached under his arms. As I lifted, to try to move him out of the seat, the left arm rest was blocking my way.
Nancy reached around me and raised the arm rest out of the way.
I dragged the First Officer out of his seat, pulling rather than lifting, and moved him to the galley area outside the cockpit. As I went back to get the Captain, I glanced back and saw the terrified looks of the First Class passengers. No time for explanations, I headed back up to the cockpit to get the Captain.
Nancy helped me with the Captain, and then brought up some towels to try to wipe the mess off the controls.
I sat down in the Captain’s seat and looked around. This shouldn’t be so difficult. An airplane is an airplane is an airplane. The instruments all were familiar, the same cluster we had in the T-39. The throttles were in the same place as in the T-39. Okay, there was the gear handle, right where it should be. I looked outside, and was relieved to see it was a clear day. Things were looking up. But I had to find out where we were, and figure out how to disconnect the autopilot.
The speaker in the overhead panel crackled, “WorldJet Airways 338, Denver, descend at pilot discretion to one-five thousand feet. Altimeter two niner niner four.”
I looked at the Flight Attendant. “Is that us?”
“Yes, we’re WorldJet Flight 338.”
I looked around to find a headset or microphone. The headset was hanging on a hook just above the left side window. That explained why the cockpit speaker was turned on. Apparently, the crew was using a hand microphone and cockpit speaker while at cruising altitude.
“WorldJet Airways 338, acknowledge.”
I put on the headset and felt around the horns of the control yoke to find the Transmit switch. There it was, on the front of the left horn of the yoke.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” I transmitted, “This is WorldJet 338 declaring an emergency. Both pilots are totally incapacitated, and I’m one of the passengers at the controls.”
The controller came back immediately, sounding totally professional, as though he’d handled this a thousand times.
“Roger WorldJet 338. Have you ever flown an aircraft before?”
“That’s affirmative,” I replied, “I’m an Air Force pilot.”
“Well I guess this is our lucky day,” he commented. He sounded really relieved. “Do you have any experience in large aircraft?”
“I’ve flown the T-29, and the F-4. Both have a gross weight of approximately 50,000 pounds.”
“Okay, we’re working on getting a 737 Instructor Pilot on frequency to talk you through what you need to do. It will be a few minutes before he’s up on frequency. You’re well within our service volume area, so we’ll be giving you a single frequency approach and staying with you all the way.”
“Thank you.” I was starting to relax a little now. I had gotten used to the smell of vomit, I was at the controls of an airplane that was starting to feel a little more comfortable, and I had no trouble interpreting the airplane instruments.
Now all I had to do was figure out how to disconnect the damn autopilot.
March 12, 1978
We were cruising at 33,000, Flight Level 330. Clearly, we needed to descend, and soon.
As I surveyed the cockpit, I noticed a panel above the center instrument cluster that was totally unfamiliar to me. There were two flat paddle-like switches, and a small window that currently read “33000”. Obviously, this was an altitude reminder, possibly an altitude reporter.
To the left of the throttles there was a large lever, labeled “Speed Brake”. Okay, I knew what a speed brake was. We used to stuff chaff in the speed brakes of the F-4, and I’d used them when I had tons of overtake during rejoins in the F-4. Nothing new there.
“Denver,” I transmitted, “any luck getting an IP on freq? I’m trying to figure out how to get the autopilot to let go, so I can start a descent.”
“Roger, WorldJet 338. We expect him to be up on frequency any minute. I want you to remain on this frequency, and we’re going to clear everyone else off.”
“Attention all aircraft,” Denver Center transmitted, “all aircraft except WorldJet 338 contact Denver Center on frequency 124.7. Do not acknowledge.” There was a short pause. “Okay, WorldJet, you have my undivided attention, and we will dispense with the call signs.”
A different voice came up on the radio.
“WorldJet 338, this is Captain Fisher. I’m an IP with WorldJet Airways, and I’m going to give you your first lesson in flying the Guppy.”
“The what?” I asked.
“Sorry. We call the 737 the Guppy. Airline humor. Anyway, they tell me you have some experience as a pilot, is that right?”
“Yes, I’m in the Air Force and have 3300 hours. Tactical aircraft, plus T-29s and T-39s.”
“Okay, this should be a piece of cake for you. Consider this a big T-29. But be careful with power management. The engines are under-slung, so the nose will pitch up when you add power, and it will drop when you pull off power.”
“What’s your name, WorldJet?”
“Okay, Hamilton, you can call me Tom. I’m former Air Force also, and I can tell we’re going to get along just fine. First order of business is disconnecting the autopilot and starting you on your descent. Above the center instrument panel is a horizontal panel we call the Mode Control Panel. Do you see it?”
“The one with the paddles and the altitude reminder?”
“That’s the one. First, I want you to dial in 15000 in the Altitude Alerter. Then I’m going to have you disconnect the autopilot and start a hand-flown descent.”
As he was speaking, I dialed in 15000 into the small window.
“The Autopilot Disconnect Switch is a small button on the left horn of your yoke. Do you see it?”
“Yes, Tom, I see it,” I said, as I pressed the button.
“Don’t press it yet, until I warn you…”
Too late! The two paddle switches on the Mode Control Panel snapped down, a loud intermittent siren was repeatedly sounding in the cockpit, and a red light was flashing on the forward instrument panel. I was startled, and Nancy, who had by now taken a position in the First Officer seat, looked terrified.
“I already pressed it!”
“Okay,” he said, “I can hear the horn in the back ground. Press the button again.”
I pressed the button again, and the siren stopped blaring and the light stopped flashing. Now I was flying an airplane. Like Tom said, a big T-29.
“I’m departing Flight Level 330 for one-five thousand,” I transmitted.
Another voice came on the radio, “Descend now to one-one thousand.”
“Roger.” I dialed 11000 into the Altitude Alerter.
“Now Hamilton,” Tom said, I want you to descend at point seven-seven Mach until you reach 270 knots, then continue to descend at 270.”
“Roger, I can do that.” The instruments looked totally familiar to me from my days flying the T-39. Quite different from the instrument cluster on the O-2, but my instrument scan came back quickly. Like riding a bike. I pulled the throttles to Idle and gently extended the Speed Brake. I wanted to get the feel for the airplane as quickly as I could, and I could best do that in the thicker air at lower altitude.
“Hamilton, what aircraft are you flying in the Air Force right now?”
“The O-2A. It’s a small aircraft, actually it’s a Cessna 337.”
“I have time in O-2s also,” Tom responded, “I flew them when we first got them in the inventory. I was based at DaNang.”
“Small world. I was at DaNang also, in 1969. What did you say your name was?”
“Tom Fisher… wait a minute! Hamilton, Hamilton …Hamfist! Is that you? This is Fish, your old roomie!”
I had thought the voice sounded familiar. This was Fish Fisher, my room-mate from DaNang!
By this time, Nancy was sitting with her mouth agape, an incredulous look on her face. I couldn’t help myself, I had to say the inside joke Fish and I had used ever since he came back from Australia on R&R.
“Fish,” I transmitted, “was I brought here to die?”
“No, mite,” he replied, “you was brought here yesti’die.”
By this time, Nancy was absolutely dumbfounded. I was laughing hysterically, and was totally relaxed.
“What the fuck is the matter with the two of you?” she demanded, incredulously.
“Inside joke,” I said. Then it occurred to me that there were probably twenty other people still on frequency, and they probably thought the two of us were absolutely crazy.
As if on cue, Fish and I became totally serious, as he talked me through how to maneuver the 737. He had me perform a constant-rate descent using the Instantaneous Vertical Speed Indicator, some turns to headings, and some airspeed variations, managing the effects of power on pitch . Other than the IVSI being much more sensitive and responsive than the Vertical Speed Indicator on the Air Force airplanes I’d flown, it was pretty much a piece of cake.
The proof, of course, would be in the landing.
March 12, 1978
I had been getting vectors from Denver Center, and they handed me off to Denver Approach Control, all on the same frequency. Fish had been giving me flying lessons along the way. At one point, I discovered my feet couldn’t reach the rudder pedals.
“There’s a crank below the instrument panel, right between your legs,” Fish said. “Do you see it?”
I found the crank and turned it, first clockwise, which didn’t help, then counter-clockwise. The rudder pedals moved back to meet me, and my seat was finally adjusted to where it needed to be.
We were now at 8000 feet, 210 knots, heading toward Stapleton Airport.
“Denver Airport at your 12 o’clock seven miles,” Approach Control announced, “Runway 35 Right is the longest, at 12,000 feet. Wind calm. Tower advises you are cleared to land.”
“Airport in sight,” I responded. Approach Control had vectored me onto a long straight-in final approach.
“Okay, Hamfist,” Fish said, “now comes the fun part. I want you to set both fuel flows to 3000.”
I adjusted the throttles until the Fuel Flow Indicators read 3000 pounds per hour.
“Now,” he continued, “I want to let you know, the Guppy has JT-8-D engines. They don’t have the instantaneous response you’re used to. You really need to stay on top of airspeed control. The quicker you make a response, the smaller it can be.”
“I want you to select Flaps One. First, press the Horn Silence button at the back of the throttle quadrant.”
I found the Horn Silence button and pressed it. “Nancy,” I said, gesturing toward the Flap Lever, “give me Flaps One.”
“It won’t move,” she said, as she wiggled the handle.
I tried to move it, and it appeared stuck.
“The flap handle won’t move,” I transmitted.
“You have to lift it. Try lifting it, then move it into the Flaps One detent.”
Nancy pulled up on the handle, and then moved it to the Flaps One detent. The aircraft pitched over slightly, and I gave a few clicks of nose-up trim. Fish had earlier alerted me to the surprising noise of the large trim wheel that loudly rotated with every click of the trim button.
“Okay,” Fish transmitted, “the airspeed should stabilize around 190.”
We were at 193 knots.
“Roger that,” I replied.
“Now,” Fish said, “go to Flaps Five.”
Nancy selected Flaps Five.
“Do you see the VASI?” Fish asked.
The Visual Approach Slope Indicator is a set of lights alongside the runway that indicate the airplane’?s position on a visual glide path.
“Affirmative. Right now it’s red over pink”.
“Okay, go gear down and Flaps Fifteen now. When you get red over white, go to Flaps Thirty and lower your nose three degrees. Use a base fuel flow of 3000, make small throttle movements, and stay in trim.”
“Gear down,” I said to Nancy, “and Flaps Fifteen.” Nancy dutifully put the gear handle to the Down position and lowered the flaps another notch. I kept trimming to hold the airplane in level flight.
Finally, the VASI showed red over white, the “on glide slope” indication.
“Flaps Thirty.” I lowered the nose three degrees and trimmed.
“You want to maintain 130 knots,” fish said, “but a few knots plus or minus is okay. It’s more important for you to stay on the glide path. Your ground speed will be about 140, so I want you to descend at half your ground speed times ten. Shoot for 700 feet per minute down.”
“Now,” Fish continued, “do you see the Radio Altimeter? It’s next to the Altimeter.”
I hadn’t noticed it until now, probably because it only indicated radio altitudes of less than 1000 feet, and the needle was not yet in view.
“Okay, Hamfist, I’m going to talk you through a mechanical way to land the Guppy. When the Radio Altimeter reads 30 feet, I want you to gently flare the airplane, looking at the far end of the runway.”
“All right, but I may have some trouble looking outside and also looking at the Radio Altimeter.”
“You said you had the Flight Attendant in the cockpit, is that right?”
“Have her call the 30 feet for you.”
I glanced over at Nancy, and pointed at the Radio Altimeter.
“Do you think you can handle that, Nancy? Just call out the altitudes as we get close to the ground.”
“I think I can do it,” she replied.
“Okay,” I transmitted, “we have a handle on it.”
“Last thing,” Fish said. “After you land, just stop straight ahead on the runway. Raise the Reverser Levers after you land, and use your wheel brakes. Don’t try to taxi clear. You don’t have complete steering authority with the rudder pedals. We use the tiller to steer, and it’s really sensitive. So just stop wherever you can, and we’ll have stairs ready to meet the airplane. The parking brake is set with the small lever just to the left of the throttle quadrant. To set the parking brake, just step on the brakes and raise that lever.”
We were now on final approach. I gave a last glance inside the airplane and checked my airspeed. It was steady at 130 knots.
We passed over the approach lights, and I was precisely on the VASI. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Radio Altimeter pass through 100 feet.
“Talk to me, Nancy.”
“Eighty,” she replied, “seventy, sixty, fifty, forty, thirty…”
I gently flared the aircraft, looking at the far end of the runway, as I pulled the throttles to Idle. The wheels gave a short chirp as the airplane landed. A cheer erupted from the back of the airplane as I brought it to a stop.
“Great job, Hamfist!” Fish yelled, “Now pull the Fuel Control Levers, below the throttles, to Cut-Off. I’ll meet you planeside.”
I positioned the Fuel Control Levers to Cut-Off, and heard the engines winding down. Then all of the instruments died and the aircraft suddenly became strangely quiet, the only sound the whirring of the gyros as they spun down.
We were safe on the runway, and I could see emergency response vehicles approaching us. Nancy was crying now, and unstrapped from the First Officer seat and hugged me tightly.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“You’re welcome, Nancy. I couldn’t have done it without your help.”
She blinked back tears, straightened her uniform and turned toward the cockpit door. She appeared a little embarrassed.
“I need to go disarm the slide at Door One Left.”
Mobile stairs had been positioned at the front entry door, and medics rushed aboard as soon as the door was opened. They immediately inserted IV drips into the Captain and First Officer, stabilized their condition, and removed them to the waiting ambulance.
Nancy had made a PA announcement asking the passengers to remain seated until the medics deplaned, and everyone complied. After the medics left, Nancy instructed the passengers to gather their personal belongings, and to exit the airplane through the same door where they had entered. Buses were waiting to transport them to the terminal. At the same time, mechanics were hooking a tow vehicle to the airplane nose wheel.
As the passengers deplaned, almost all of them looked up into the cockpit and thanked me. It was a really satisfying feeling. If I hadn’t been on board, I don’t know what would have happened.
I had an instantaneous flash back to high school Latin class. We had been translating some really difficult passages, and I still remembered the quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca. Fortuna est momentum quo occasionem convenit talentum: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”.
Today I’d had my share of luck.