Returning crews brave thunderstorms, land safely

Capt. Jennifer Lovett
Kaiserslautern American

KIGALI, Rwanda – It’s the stuff movies are made from: a thunderstorm
wall 45,000 feet high; two aircraft, one with limited radar coverage,
100 miles from intended course.

After off loading 70 passengers and their cargo at El-Fashir airstrip
in Darfur Sept. 30 as part of the African Union Missions in Sudan,
C-130 Hercules pilot Maj. Mike Miller took off from the sunny airport
with a crew of 10 as the lead in a two-ship formation bound for Kigali
International Airport – where more than 150 Ramstein Airmen set up
operations as the 86th Air Expeditionary Group to move approximately
550 AU peacekeepers to help mitigate the severe humanitarian crisis in

Two and a half hours later, Capt. Bill Roelker, aircrew navigator,
noticed a massive line of thunderclouds on his radar and alerted the

“The wall of storms was as long as 50 miles,” he said. “The screen was
covered in black holes; I’ve never seen anything like it.”  

With his radar screen functioning at only 25 percent, the main concern
was being able to see around the clouds in order to safely avoid them.

“Thunderstorms build up in front of you and as you evade them, they
build up behind you. So you have to get out of the way,” he said.

The only way to fly through thunderstorms is to manuever through holes
in the clouds, said Capt. Matt Lockwood, aircraft commander. “The walls
on these storms ranged from 18,000 feet to 45,000 feet and our radar
wasn’t capable of letting us see what’s on the other side of them.”

Captain Lockwood radioed the other Herk to spot the storms and give
vectors for him to relay to Captain Roelker and Major Miller. They were
devising the best flying options for co-pilot, Capt. James Hudson, who
was negotiating the aircraft with Major Miller.

“At the end of the flight, GPS showed 50 different turns in what
normally would have been a straight shot,” Captain Roelker said.

While the Herk snaked its way through the jumble of dark holes, Master
Sgt. John “Red” Smith, aircraft engineer, monitored aircraft
performance and ensured ice from the moisture in the storm did not
build on the Herk.  

“I’ve been flying with Major Miller since he was a lieutenant in the
Pacific, and this was the most unnerving,” said Sergeant Smith, who has
been in the Air Force 24 years. “Ice build-up causes deterioration of
aircraft performance. The changes in aerodynamics could prove to be
catastrophic,” he said. “Several times, I had to de-ice the leading
edges of the wings and the tail, which pulls heat from the engines and
slows the aircraft.”  

In the back of the aircraft Staff Sgt. Sean McCormick, loadmaster, monitored mechanical performance and cared for passengers.

“A couple of times, it was pretty bumpy,” he said. “I scanned the
aircraft systems in order to notify the flight deck if there were any
mechanical problems, and I ensured everyone was seated with their
seatbelts on so we could get through without injury.”

After more than five hours of dodging thunderclouds, they finally broke
clear. With the airport in sight, a commercial DC-10 aircraft was not.

“We knew generally where he was but not exactly, since we were flying visual,” said Captain Lockwood.

They knew the DC-10’s location exactly when they pulled through the
clouds and were nose-to-nose with him at slightly different altitudes,
Sergeant Smith said.

In order to avoid collision, the crew implemented evasive techniques.
The Herk landed one hour later than scheduled, but in one piece.

“I’ve been flying for eight years and that was the worst I’ve ever
seen,” said Captain Lockwood. “Nevertheless, we had a great crew and
all’s well that ends well.”