Memoirs of a SOLVE C-141 Transit to Sweden
- OR -
Hell Really Does Freeze Over:
A True Story of Science Run Amok
Photo by Paul Newman
February 2, 2000
SUNDAY, January 9, 2000
The first clue came that Sunday when the C-141 cargo flight took off and headed West. Since we were hoping to get from California to Massachusetts that day, most of us took this as a very bad sign. As project manager for the transit of the SOLVE ER-2 and C-141 flights to Kiruna, Sweden, I knew just before we taxied that things had turned ugly. The pilots told me that there was a hydraulic leak and the best thing to do would be to fly to March AFB, home base for the C-141, to get it fixed. I said OK. What else could I say, as at that point we were all packed up with our 54,000 lbs of cargo and 30 passengers? So off we went. Landing at March only 25 minutes later, we boarded a bus - the first of many - and were driven 200 yards to a terminal waiting area. About two hours later, we took the bus back 200 yards to the plane, re-boarded, and took off for Westover AFB near Chicopee, Massachusetts. We landed at Westover just a few hours late. We then unloaded the three "last-minute pallets" (so named because they contain equipment needed for ER-2 support, and are loaded/unloaded at the last minute at each stopping point). Those cursed pallets. If we had only known at that time how many times we were destined to load and unload them...but sometimes, it's better not to know. We finally wrapped up work in the hangar at about 23:30 Sunday, and checked into the hotel. The cursed hotel... If we had only known...
MONDAY, January 10, 2000
The next day, we went to work at the hangar. This was a fairly easy day, spent mostly at the hangar with various groups working on their instruments. A little calm before the storm.
TUESDAY, January 11, 2000
Tuesday was the day we were to transit to Kiruna. We arrived at the hangar at 3 am, for a 3-6-8 schedule. Everything went well at first. The ER-2 instrument upload was smooth and the pallets loaded quickly (we were already getting fairly experienced at loading the damn things). The ER-2 took off on time. The C-141 took off on time. At this point it seemed that we were home free. Ha. Ninety minutes after take off, I was
called to the cockpit; the pilots thought that the ER-2 was turning around and were struggling to communicate with Jan. They wanted to know if I had written down the coordination frequency. I had it in my notebook in the back of the plane so I ran back there. As I was heading back up to the cockpit for the second time, I saw a few of the experimenters peering over the tops of their seats, giving me a "what the hell?" look - a look I would come to know extremely well over the next few days.
Back in the cockpit, I gave the frequency to the C-141 crew. After a few minutes, my heart sank when I saw that we were turning. Back. To Westover.
In the passenger area, the alert ones had noticed that we were turning and were told what was happening. The rest were sleeping in blessed ignorance. I shuffled back to my seat, a mild depression setting in. It was then that I noticed a throbbing had begun in my right temple. Always prone to headaches, I had a new bottle of aspirin in my pocket. I opened it up with a little mental ceremony, as though it were a bottle of champagne, and downed three of them with a nod to my sleeping comrades. Throb.
Throb. As we started our descent into Westover, I happened to look around behind me to see a few of the C-141 crewmen decked out head-to-toe in mukluks, fur hats, heavy parkas, etc. I thought that the weather at Westover
must have taken an awfully nasty turn in the last three hours. As it turned out, these crewmen had been asleep the whole flight and were victims of a trick by the rest of the crew. They had been told we were about to land in Iceland and that it was brutally cold there. On the advice of their co-workers, they donned more and more arctic gear. By the time we landed back at Westover, they were all swaddled up and looking like huge army-green zombies. When the door opened at Westover, these poor guys descended the ladder, and stood out on the tarmac in bewilderment. I think it was only when they heard the laughter back on board that at last the truth sank in. It was a funny moment.
But on to more sober events. The ER-2 had turned around because of a problem with the VOR, a piece of navigational equipment required for landing at Kiruna. As of Tuesday morning it wasn't clear what had caused the problem. We unloaded the people and the @#%! pallets, checked back into the hotel, and settled back into the hangar for another day of troubleshooting and instrument work.
WEDNESDAY, January 12, 2000
On Wednesday, we arrived at the hangar at 3am for a 3-5-7 ER-2 upload/takeoff schedule. The upload was smooth. Once again, we built the pallets and loaded them back on the C-141 - for the third time in four days.
Shortly before the ER-2 was due to take off, the flight was scrubbed due to a
combination of problems: high winds at Westover, thick fog at Kiruna, and continuing VOR problems. Throbbing in the head. Another off-loading and tearing-down of the pallets. Another check-in at the hotel. Another afternoon dealing with aircraft and instrument issues. By the end of the day, it looked like we were well on the way to solving the VOR problem, and the prospects looked good for Thursday's flights. That was, if you disregarded the weather. As luck would have it, a fairly large snowstorm was barreling in from the West, due to arrive at Westover on Thursday morning. Sigh. I watched the weather channel that night with a familiar sinking feeling. A few more aspirins down the hatch.
THURSDAY, January 13, 2000
Next day, same schedule. At 3am, we were in the hangar, making ready once again. It was at this point that people started simultaneously thinking about the movie "Groundhog Day". I myself, upon waking that day to the sound of the clock radio, flashed on the "I Got You, Babe" scene in the movie. Again, we uploaded the ER-2 instruments and built the pallets, for the fourth time.
That day, we were brought to the very brink. The upload was completed, the crew had finished their pre-flight, and Jan taxied out to the end of the runway. A group of anxious experimenters and I gathered outside the hangar in the bitter cold to watch the takeoff. It was snowing like crazy, and we could just barely see the ER-2, way down at the end of the runway. About all we could really see was a faint blinking light down there, but we knew it was the ER-2. Finally - the takeoff roar. We were pent-up, and at the sound of the engine broke into a cheer, hollering and clapping. Then suddenly: silence. An aborted takeoff. We didn't know the reason at the time, although we would
learn later that it was a very controlled abort, due to an air data computer shutdown. All we were aware of at that moment was the eerie silence out on the runway. We watched, as the aircraft appeared to glide down a long length of runway and come to a rest tipped over on one wing. From where I stood, I couldn't tell whether the aircraft was even on the runway anymore. It was a heart-stopping scene. That night at the hotel, I tried to explain to Jan how all this looked to us from our vantage point outside the hangar, through the snowstorm. The best word for it was "ghostly", I said.
I called Steve Hipskind that morning to relay our latest misfortune. He was sympathetic and wanted to know if we had actually loaded the pallets on the C-141 this time. I told him I didn't really know because when I last saw the pallets they were on the K-loader, disappearing into the snowstorm. And then a little later, they came back. "The snow was so thick I couldn't see the C-141 and couldn't tell if they actually had made it onto the plane or not," I said. Pathetic silence on both ends of the line.
FRIDAY, January 14, 2000
Next day, Groundhog Day again. We uploaded the ER-2 and loaded the @#$% pallets for the fifth time. The night before, it had been reported to me that one of our scientists had been spotted - by several, independent witnesses - cavorting around the Chicopee Comfort Inn in day-glow-turquoise tights. One of the receptionists had been severely traumatized by the sight, and it was not clear whether we would be welcome back at the inn for another night. In addition to the tights incident, two of our most distinguished scientists had shown up at the hangar that morning in weird hats. Seemingly unaware that the word "Mental" was embroidered in large letters at the front of the hats, they were going about their business as usual.
Obviously, it was high time we got out of town. Luckily, the ER-2 took off on schedule. We were happy, but by this time we knew better than to take it too far. We were like puppies that have been whipped once too often: if we'd had tails, they would have been wagging, but weakly and without enthusiasm.
Finally, it was time for us to board the C-141. We took the bus out to the plane, and as we drove up I saw a stand set up next to one of the outboard engines with concerned-looking crew members huddled around. Throb in the head. I tried to ignore the whole scene. The pilots came out and sat on the warm bus with us for a few minutes, while their crew was servicing the C-141 oxygen tank. Every now and then I peeked out the window and still saw the guys huddled around that engine. I clutched my aspirin bottle a little tighter and hoped for the best. Finally we were allowed to board. Of course, the plane had been sitting there in freezing temperatures for days and was completely cold-soaked. We began to learn the full meaning of the saying "freeze your butt off". And that's what we did for the next four hours. The engine was indeed broken, but was eventually fixed. Next, the C-141 pilot's LOx tank was leaking and that had to be fixed. Then, it was determined that one of the thrust reversers had frozen open so they decided to fix it open (and, for the sake of symmetry, one on the other side). Then, there was the de-icing of the wings to sit through.
As this long scenario was played out, I sat in one of the passenger seats, drifting in and out of sleep and waking only to hear dimly of the next crisis. At one point, I had just fallen asleep again when I was awoken by one of the younger scientists, who pointed worriedly to the ceiling of the aircraft where de-icing fluid was pouring in. Cranky by now, I yelled (it was loud in there): "The C-141's leak like sieves. Nothing to worry about." Big eyes stared back at me. "But it's coming in through the HATCH." I looked up again and saw that he was right, it was coming in pretty fast around the emergency escape hatch overhead.
Someone else offered, "The seal's probably all shot". Yup, I agreed. Huge eyes stared at the two of us. "It's fine," I yelled. "Don't worry." I went back to sleep.
While waiting on the ground at Westover, another interesting thing had come to light. A scientist, who shall henceforward be referred to as Mr. X, had packed a bottle of Canadian Club (hint) in his suitcase, and the bottle had burst, soaking all his clothes in whiskey. Ah, Mr. X. My problem child.
At some point during those long hours of waiting, graffiti had begun to appear on the plywood that lined the pallet in front, facing the seating area. A HOxisaurus Rex appeared. And a cartoon of the C-141 with the label "Habitat for Inhumanity." Someone wrote the slogan "IS... The instrument formerly known as WAS". Then there was the snide, "New cologne, Mr. X?" with a drawing of X clutching a bottle. And, eventually, my personal favorite which emerged after we landed in Iceland: "Our demands: Kiruna by midnight or we hurt her". They meant me.
At last - we took off from Westover. Our plan was to fly to Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, get fuel, and continue on to Sweden. Sometime during this flight I noticed that we were all beginning to look a little ragged. Some of the scientists had taken on a wild, pale, look that I didn't like, and I had to admit to myself that I was getting a little worried. They had been so good and patient so far, but I knew that even this group would reach its breaking point soon. I tried not to dwell on it.
On the ground at Keflavik, the science team was taken by bus to a cafeteria. I went with the aircrew over to base ops. I called Mike Craig in Sweden to let him know of our schedule, which was supposed to be a quick turn over and take off from Iceland in about an hour. I was relieved to hear from Mike that the ER-2 had made it safely to Kiruna. I considered asking him if he could arrange to have a post-traumatic stress counselor on hand to meet us, but decided against it. Then, I went to find the pilots. Craig Andreas was on the phone when I found him and - familiar with all the symptoms by now - I knew instantly by the look on his face and the sound of his voice that something was up. Throbbing in the head. We were to be delayed, but hopefully only for a half-hour or so, because the diplomatic clearance for over flight of Norway had not come through yet. The pilots and I got a ride over to the cafeteria and joined up with the scientists. Some of them were off in a corner, watching "Life is Beautiful" on a laptop DVD player. The title struck me as somewhat ironic, at that particular moment in time.
By now, deep exhaustion had set in and I wandered around the cafeteria in a random fashion. I shuffled along until I bumped into someone or something, changed direction, and wandered some more. Finally, I bumped into a salad bar and Inga, who was just starting to close it up. I begged to be allowed to fill a small dish with what was left over and managed to get some little shreds of lettuce, a few carrots and peppers into a bowl before she overtook me, muttering in a Scandinavian tongue. I walked up to one table just in time to overhear a scientist say that he "knows someone who knows someone" in Norway who could probably apply physical violence at the embassy, so as to get our clearance through in time. No no no. I wandered off in another direction. After awhile I found a table that seemed sane enough and sat down to eat my rotten little salad. But, sadly, by this time the cafeteria was closing so I ended up ditching most of it - and enduring one final scowl from Inga.
SATURDAY January 15
We boarded another bus, which took us back to base ops where there was an extensive waiting area for crews and passengers. At one end of a large hall, I found some scientists noisily playing video games. Then I came upon a haunting scene. Some of the scientists had found the children's playroom, which was filled with brightly colored foam pillows of all shapes and sizes, some as large as four feet on a side. The bodies of four scientists were draped about on the pillows - like Dali's clocks - and others were playing. Playing. It was 1am in Iceland, we were on the verge of
getting stuck there for god only knew how long, and there, with great enthusiasm, was our science team playing with giant blocks. The scene was just surreal, and fearing for my long-term mental health I backed slowly out of the room. Just as I got outside the door, one florescent pink block sailed over the top of the playroom wall. A demented cackling emerged from inside.
Later, we made our bovine way out onto yet another bus and went back to the plane, stupidly clinging to the hope that we would continue on to Sweden that day. A reporter was out on the C-141 and took our picture.
Photograph taken by the reporter in Iceland. At this point, we were still hoping to get to Sweden that day. The grafitti-plywood can be seen in the background.
While talking with the reporter, I was interrupted by a call to the flight deck. Once again my heart sank, and of course they told me we were staying in Iceland for the night. The crew had run out of time in their duty day while waiting for the dip clearance. Ok.
After a bit of discussion, we decided to leave all the baggage on the plane. At this point in the catastrophe, clean underwear was not at the top of our list of needs. As we were preparing to leave the plane, I was informed by the infamous Mr. X that his heart medicine was in his suitcase, which was buried somewhere in the 12,000 lbs of cargo on the pallets we'd loaded that morning. I said to Mr. X "You'd better NOT be joking." He wasn't. But he did tell me that he thought he probably wouldn't have an actual heart attack right away and that he could most likely hold out until we reached Kiruna. Throbbing in the head. "OK, fine. Sounds like a reasonable plan." We boarded the bus that took us to the BOQ at Keflavik.
On the bus, someone came up with the idea that if only we could get Mr. X's suitcase off the plane, we'd be in good shape. It was not the heart medication they were after, it was the clothes. They figured if we could get to his clothes, we could slice them up into swatches and everyone could have a piece to suck.
SATURDAY, January 15, 2000
At the BOQ, I took stock of my supplies. In addition to my briefcase, which contained a computer, notebooks and wallet, I had a small bag of food and a bunch of stuff in my pockets. Emptying out the pockets onto the bed, I found: the now-half-empty bottle of aspirin; three sets of foam earplugs, two used and one new; one lipstick; one sticky Swiss cough drop; and a crumpled-up receipt from Radio Shack in Chicopee. Not much to work with. Happily, I found most of the things one needs for an overnight stay, in a little basket in the bathroom. Joy. One thing I didn't find was a comb or brush. This became a problem the next morning, when I emerged from the shower with my hair dripping wet. I scrounged around but the closest thing I could find was a small plastic fork in the bottom of my food bag, with bits of Cracker Barrel cheese sticking to it. I rinsed it off and went to work on my hair, with the blow-dryer and the fork. The results were quite interesting and I noticed a few sidelong looks from some of the scientists when I bumped into them in the lobby later. I was grateful when they didn't say anything. In fact, I noticed that they looked kind of worried. I had probably developed a touch of the wild, pale look by then.
Mercifully, we were nearing the end of our little adventure. Things were looking pretty good for a takeoff that afternoon, if you ignored the 40-knot howling winds at Keflavik. We hardly batted an eye. Some of us walked (were blown, actually) over to the Base Exchange, where I came across a Viking charm pendant with special powers. Naturally, I bought it. Out on the plane just before takeoff, we held a small ceremony at which I enumerated the powers of the charm, including: the ability to bring success to those entering into battle, the power to give strength in the most difficult and hopeless of circumstances, and – most importantly – the power to ward off the Evil Eye. We passed it around, and everyone touched the charm.
As luck (and the Viking charm) would have it, we took off from Keflavik as planned, late that afternoon. At some point during the flight, I noticed that my headache seemed to finally be letting up. I even slept a bit. We touched down at Kiruna at around 9pm that night, and taxied to a stop outside Arena Arctica. A group of our colleagues had gathered to meet us, and were a welcome sight. We had a happy reunion. One of my last recollections from the whole affair was the sight of Mr. X, rooting through the piles of luggage on the hangar floor to find his suitcase and the heart medicine. Way to hang in there, buddy. Skoal!
The author works at NASA Ames Research Center, and has recently returned from Sweden to her home in Mountain View, CA. She is busy thinking up ways to avoid future field missions and looks forward to an early retirement.
Photo by Paul Newman