Stories from My Life, #5: Close encounters with the grim reaper

October 8, 2015 8:35 pm Published by Leave your thoughts


U.S. Navy Lockheed WC-121N Super Constellation; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I can remember two occasions in my lifetime that could have resulted in my early demise. I’ve had other scary incidents, such as red-light runners passing within inches of my car, but they are less memorable.

My first frightening event occurred in 1967 (during a summer trainee program in Colorado) when a burst appendix put me in the hospital for 15 days. The situation was so dire that my parents were called and told to fly immediately (from Pennsylvania) to Colorado; Mom had never been on an airplane. The second incident occurred two years later. I can now laugh at what was nothing more than a harrowing incident. At the time, however, it seemed serious indeed.

In 1968, I began work for the Navy Weather Research Facility in Norfolk, Virginia, my first job after graduating from Penn State. A year later, I had the opportunity to participate in Project Stormfury, a government experiment to seed hurricanes. Without going into technical detail, the goal was to decrease hurricane winds to minimize storm damage. (Afterward, it was determined that the effects from the seeding were far too weak.)

I traveled to the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico where I was trained to be a Radar Advisor. Basically, that meant that I took pictures of the radar screen on the Hurricane Hunter WC-121 aircraft, a four engine propeller-driven plane. This aircraft was a “weather” version of the Navy and Air Force early warning and control radar surveillance aircraft, the EC-121; it featured two powerful radars.

I’ve forgotten how many times we flew during my stay. But I do remember one mission to investigate a tropical disturbance. You must remember that back then we did not have continuous satellite imagery like we have now, and “Hurricane Hunters” were essential observational tools. Flying at around 250 MPH, our aircraft had a range of over 4000 miles. As I recall, this mission was in the 8-10 hours in length.

Long story short, we flew some 1000 miles only to discover that the disturbance had weakened, with not much to look at or take radar pictures of. So, we headed home.

I may have been the first person on the aircraft to notice the smoke. Soon everyone knew, especially the people flying the plane. Fire on an aircraft is not a good thing, and perhaps more worrisome on one first put into service in 1954. From our 10,000-foot cruising altitude, we immediately descended to our “ditching” altitude, 1000 or 500 feet as I recall. I remember thinking that landing in the water some 1000 miles from my hotel room would make me late for dinner. Further, my swimming skills were minimal at best. To compound my fears, one crew member told me that there had never been a successful ditching of that particular aircraft. I couldn’t help but wonder what his definition of “successful” was.

At that point, excitement reigned. One of the pilots rushed back into the aircraft and began tearing away sections of the fuselage, revealing various electrical panels, trying to locate the source of the smoke. Meanwhile, the smoke was still there.

After maybe fifteen minutes of panic (on my part), it was over as quickly as it began. The smoke abated, we returned to our 10,000-foot altitude, and flew home uneventfully. To my knowledge the source of the smoke was never determined.

Please write and let me know about your most memorable close call.

Upcoming: Stories from my Life, #6: To Russia with love

Previous: Stories from my Life, #4: Memories made and memories lost

Categorised in:

This post was written by paulmarktag