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"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Swan 23"

Story by Randy Grathen

WC-130E Weather Reconnaissance Planes

One of the best jobs I had in the Air Force was flying typhoon missions. Laurie and I were assigned to Andersen Air Force Base on the Island of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Our sister organization, the more famous 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aka "Hurricane Hunters" fly from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS.

The 54th Reconnaissance Squadron or "Typhoon Chasers" flew missions down to the Equator some 930 miles south of Guam, 2,500 miles west to the Philippines, 1,500 mile north to Okinawa and nearly 4,000 miles east as far as Hawaii. Approximately 9.72 million square miles of open ocean with very little land to speak of in between.

I was not a pilot but because we had specialized weather equipment used on only 12 aircraft in the entire Air Force, (that has changed significantly since I was on active duty) several maintenance technicians flew as crew members with every mission. If the plane did not return to Guam, landing at some other base as we chased the storm, we had everything and everyone we needed to repair or replace any of the equipment before the next mission.

Our designated Call-sign for the duration of this typhoon mission would be Swan 23. We took off from Guam and flew our first 12-hour mission during which time we developed a fuel problem with our plane. We were unable to transfer fuel from a 500-gallon auxiliary tank mounted in the cargo area which enabled us to extend our range and flight time. When we finished flying the storm we were closer to the Philippines rather than Guam so we landed there and the repairs were completed overnight. The next morning, we took off with a full load of fuel and headed back out to the storm.

When flying a typhoon mission, we always depart with a full load of 4,600 gallons or 15.5 tons of fuel because we never knew how long we would be flying or whether we were going to land back where we started or divert to another island.

As we began our climb, the cargo area suddenly began to reek of the smell of jet fuel. We had a leak somewhere and the fumes were filling the airplane. Unlike a car, you can’t just roll down the windows if somebody farted because we were several thousand feet up going 180 mph.

All the flight control surfaces, rudder, flaps, and ailerons, cargo ramp and landing gear are hydraulically actuated using electric motors to run the hydraulic pumps. The Co-pilot, Flight Engineer and the Crew Chief started pulling circuit breakers shutting down all non-essential electrical systems while the pilot declared an in-flight emergency and turned back to the Philippines. After descending to a breathable altitude, the Crew Chief opened the rear cargo ramp to vent the fumes.

The cockpit

Pilot on the right, Copilot left

& Flight Engineer center

About 100 miles out we started preparing the aircraft for landing. With no hydraulic pumps the flaps and landing gear had to be pumped down manually just like pumping a hydraulic car jack. A long metal handle fit into the pump and by positioning a selector valve the hydraulic fluid could be pumped to different parts of the plane. We all lined up and manned the pump handle in turn as the Crew Chief watched through a window until the flaps were fully extended. He then switched the valve to pump open the landing gear doors and lower the landing gear.

As we circled the field lining up for our final approach, we could see the firetrucks waiting for us at the end of the runway. With everybody strapped in the pilot set the 155,000 lb. (77.5 ton) airplane on the runway at 100 mph with limited braking and no reverse thrust available. We used up 9,165 ft. (1.75 miles) of the 10,500 ft. runway before we came to a halt.

Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline knows when the plane touches down. You can hear it and feel it. Maybe it bounces a little, or wobbles as the pilot gets centered on the runway. The sound of the engines going into reverse thrust and feeling the deceleration as you slow to taxi speed.

Military pilots typically come down a little steeper, faster and land a little harder. We had none of that. Our pilot that day was a female captain. She was one of the best. When we touched down, I didn’t even know we had wheels on the ground until I felt her apply the brakes. There has never been a smoother landing made with a fully loaded plane. We coasted to a stop, threw open the hatches, jumped out and were staring up at a half dozen water cannons on the fire trucks pointed directly at us. Ok, they were pointed at the airplane, but those barrels are intimidating no matter what direction they're pointed!

The incident investigation found that the fuel guys forgot to reinstall the O-rings in the fuel line attached to the spare tank. As the plane depressurized during our ascent the fumes seeped out. It could have been worse. If the flight engineer had turned on the fuel transfer pump to pull fuel from that tank, we could have had JP-4 jet fuel squirting out of the line and all over the cargo compartment where we were sitting. Only by the grace of God and one of the most outstanding pilots I’ve ever flown with, this ended up being just another day, and another typhoon mission.


This particular typhoon was one of longest running storms we ever tracked. We flew dozens of 12-hour missions making eight penetrations each time in and out of the storm from two different altitudes sometimes as low as 500 ft. and the four points of the compass.

Flying from Guam, 2,500 miles west to the Philippines, then 1,000 miles from the Philippines to Okinawa we followed the storm for nearly two weeks. Typical storm missions lasted about a week. Finally, we flew 1,500 miles south from Okinawa back to Guam.

Upon our return the plane went in for scheduled periodic maintenance. Every access panel is removed to facilitate inspecting every inch of the hidden spaces of the plane, making any repairs, modifications, and doing corrosion abatement as needed. On a tropical island corrosion is always a big problem. When the maintenance team removed the access panels over the wings, exposing where the wings are bolted to the fuselage, they found a three inch open gap where there should be none! When our pilot greased the smoothest landing in the history of landings ever, because of all the fuel weigh in the wings on touchdown, the wings bent down and stayed there. If she had made a typical, “drop it on the runway, throw it in reverse and slam on the brakes,” type landing, she probably would have knocked the wings off the plane spilling jet fuel everywhere ending in a fireball.

We flew many more missions in and out of the typhoon after the incident in the Philippines not knowing the wings were severely damaged. Anyone one of those flights could have ended in disaster with one or both wings being torn off the plane in the heavy turbulence.

So, by the grace of God and Lockheed Martin who built the planes we affectionately called a “tank with wings,” those WC-130s take a lickin’ and keep on tickin.’

We did find out weeks later that the damage to the wings of the plane was severe enough that plane was given a one-time Airworthiness Certification from the FAA to be flown back to the United States to the Lockheed plant in Marietta, Georgia for extensive repairs.

P.S. A typical missions lasted 12 hours. As we were flying away from the storm after the last penetration of the day, the Navy was on its way to the storm in their P-3 Orion aircraft for their 12-hour mission. There was 24-hour nonstop coverage of the storm until it is either downgraded back to a tropical storm, or it gets too close to China where they looked very unkindly towards us flying into their airspace.

To watch the Hurricane Hunters of Keesler AFB in action - click here

NOAA uses the same P-3 Orion aircraft as the Navy - click here

For more stories from Our High Places website - click here

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