Dire, Dire, Planes on Fire?

I had never seen an airplane on fire. The old Fairchild C-119 glided down the final toward runway 35, trailing a long tongue of flame from one engine. Five miles out. Would this thing explode into a larger fireball or would the wing simply burn away, sending this ole' "flying boxcar" into the Atlantic Ocean? The Tower at Oceanside Air Force Base had done all it could. Emergency equipment lined the runway, the traffic pattern had been cleared of other flights and a rescue helicopter hovered nearby. We stood at our control positions, transfixed by the spectacle.

Now only a mile or so from the runway, the night sky South of the airfield glowed orange. Treetops and other surface features were illuminated by the descending fire. Beyond a brief acknowledgment of the landing clearance, no word came from the flight crew as their aircraft burned away. I was already envisioning the worst case scenario; waiting for the nearly certain tragedy to unfold.

Another decade, another airdrome and another airplane on fire.  Or was it?

I was now well into my years with the FAA and we were well into our morning departure push at the "Big Time Tower" where I worked. Though I was now able to view my Air Force career in retrospect; I was not able to view the rather large airport right in front of me. An impenetrable fog covered the field, shielding the long line of waiting departures from view. Due to heavy enroute traffic volume, the Center was releasing flights; one at a tediously long time. The departure queue grew by the minute while other flight crews, hoping for a pushback clearance, grumbled at their gates.

A United Airlines DC-10 (UAL90) sat at the head of the departure lineup...cobwebs now connecting its main gear to the taxiway. Waiting just behind the United flight were two US Airways DC-9s (Flights 190 and 25). Because of the long delays, USA190's number 2 engine was shut down. This in accordance with applicable fuel conservation procedures. When UAL90 was finally released by the Center and cleared for takeoff, we advised USA190 to start the other engine and be prepared to depart. Transmitting into 3/8 mile visibility, we could only imagine what was happening out there on the taxiways.

Flight 190 started the second engine but it "torched" and emitted a flame past the tail cone. The crew of the second US Airways flight (USA25) saw the flame and issued a fateful warning. What we heard on the tower frequency was simply "Ninety, your right engine's on fire." Poor timing for a "clipped" or incomplete transmission as UAL90 was already rolling briskly down the runway, nose wheel off the ground and about to become airborne. Hearing only the number "Ninety" along with a fire warning; the Captain of the United flight chose to abort takeoff, even though there was no cockpit indication of an engine fire. What ensued could probably be reworked into a comedy routine worthy of Abbott & Costello.

Moments passed. The tower controller watched his radar display, expecting to see the United flight's target moving away from the airport. Not seeing this he called the TRACON departure sector and asked if they were already working the United flight. They were not. The tower then called UAL90. "Say your position." United responded with "we're off the runway." The tower called the departure controller once again and relayed this message; saying he's off the runway and should be visible on radar. As there was still no trace of a radar target, the tower controller asked the pilot again to state his position. Only then did we learn of what we could not see. UAL90 was indeed off the runway...about 200 feet off the runway but still on the ground.

At the confluence of lengthy departure delays, a blind tower cab, good intentions and a bad decision you'll find a momentarily missing DC10. It is resting at the end of three long furrows; carved into the mud by its landing gear. My awareness of the consequences stemming from clipped transmissions was raised forever.

That burning boxcar? Oh, it landed quite elegantly and the fire was immediately extinguished by a waiting crash crew.

Anticipating the worst can give you an edge, even if the worst never happens. The thing is...with UAL90, I never imagined the situation would deteriorate to the extent it did. It happened too fast and the "engine's on fire" transmission was perfectly timed to coincide with that point when that DC-10 could no longer safely abort the takeoff.

© NLA Factor, 2010

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