Aviation Week & Space Technology 01/09/2006
Geraldo W. Knippling
In the late 1950s, Brazil's Varig Airlines was competing successfully with Pan American on the Rio de Janeiro (RIO)-to-New York route--in spite of Varig's new Lockheed "Super-Constellation G" and its complicated, unreliable, turbo-compound engines.
We departed RIO on Aug. 16, 1957, bound for Belem, then Santo Domingo (it was called Ciudad Trujillo at the time) and, ultimately, New York City. Flight 850 droned over the Brazilian jungle, on schedule and uneventful, aimed at the weak Belem automatic direction finding (ADF) beacon. To ensure the rudimentary navigation aid was available to its crews, the company had to pay a local radio-broadcast station to stay on the air through the night, giving us a signal to home on.
SEVERAL FOG BANKS surrounded the Belem airport, so we made an ADF approach over the black forest, descending to our weather minimums. There were no approach-guidance lights, but we spotted the airport's weak runway-boundary lights and were able to make a routine landing.
Fog continued to build, thanks to the tropical humidity. Consequently, we quickly refueled and departed with a full load of passengers at 2 a.m. We climbed through thickening fog, then prepared to settle in for a long, 7-hr. flight to Ciudad Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic.
At about 5,000 ft. over Marajo Island, we lost power on engine No. 2--an internal failure of some kind. We quickly shut No. 2 down and feathered its propeller, but the fog over Belem precluded turning back and landing. None of the other airports along our route was outfitted with an instrument landing system, either, so I decided to proceed on three engines, either to Trinidad or to Ciudad Trujillo, depending on conditions en route. We also turned off the wing lights; no sense alarming passengers with the sight of a feathered propeller.
Early in the morning, we passed Port-of-Spain on Trinidad. Good weather prompted my decision to continue to Ciudad Trujillo where the company had maintenance facilities.
After an uneventful landing, mechanics said the dead No. 2 engine would have to be replaced. Unfortunately, only one spare engine normally was kept on-station, and that one had been used the week before on another disabled Constellation. That meant we had two choices: sit on the ground 4-5 days, until a new engine arrived on a C-46 cargo plane. Or, in accordance with approved airline Operations Dept. practices, we could make a three-engine ferry flight to New York--without passengers, of course. At the time, this was an accepted procedure, and crews were trained accordingly. We opted for the ferry flight.
At 11 a.m., with a standard flight-deck crew and two cabin attendants, we made a maximum-weight, three-engine takeoff. We initially could only use full power on two engines--one on each side--then gradually applied power on the third as increased speed gave us adequate rudder power to maintain directional control. As a result, it was a very long takeoff run.
We slowly climbed across the island, then over the ocean, to our 12,000-ft. cruise altitude. Everything was running smoothly, and good weather was forecast in New York. Time to sit back and enjoy . . . .
SUDDENLY, A LOUD whine indicated we had lost control of the propeller on engine No. 4; it was in a runaway state, stuck in flat pitch. That was serious; we definitely were in trouble. A failed governor could no longer control the speed of that prop, which was soon screaming at 5,000-7,000 rpm. At such high speeds, the blades' centrifugal force was too high for the feathering pump to counteract. Even reducing airspeed to near-stall had no effect. I declared an emergency and turned around, hoping we could make it to Ciudad Trujillo.
Our prospects were dim, at best. At such high prop speeds, lubrication of the primary shaft was insufficient. Sooner or later, that shaft would break, and we'd be playing Russian roulette. When--not "if"--the shaft sheared off, the propeller would go one of two ways: slice into the aircraft's fuselage, with fatal results, or, if we were lucky, cartwheel into the ocean below. We maintained minimum airspeed, depressurized the cabin, and hoped for the best. The noise of that runaway prop was unbearable.
A sudden loud bang was followed by tremendous vibration and a fire alarm on engine No. 4 as the propeller ripped off, taking part of the engine with it. What remained of No. 4 was now on fire. Worse, the released blades also had hit the No. 3 prop, causing enough damage to throw it out of balance.
We activated a fire extinguisher on No. 4, and the flames finally extinguished. Attempts to feather the No. 3 propeller were unsuccessful. Airframe vibration was so extreme that we couldn't read the instruments, and the control wheel's hammering soon numbed my hands. Fearing the aircraft would disintegrate, I reduced airspeed until we hung on the verge of stalling.
Lockheed's Super Constellation, with three vertical tail fins, tip tanks and four Wright turbo-compound radial engines, was used for long-distance passenger service in the 1950s and '60s. Credit: LOCKHEED MARTIN
Finally, we managed to feather the unbalanced No. 3 prop. But we were still in serious trouble--over the ocean, struggling to stay aloft on a single outboard engine turning at maximum-continuous power. There was no way we'd reach land, but at least the airplane was still flying.
I increased speed to make sure the rudder remained effective enough to maintain straight-ahead flight. We were drifting down, though. I estimated we'd hit the sea in about 15 min. Plenty of time to transmit our position via HF [high-frequency] radio. We had no provisions or time to dump fuel, so we simply opened over-the-wing emergency hatches and prepared for the inevitable: we were ditching.
Nearing the ocean, we observed swells and waves from different directions. That could only mean low-level, strong winds. We had to land into that wind--but not into the ocean's swells. What to do? I chose an in-between heading, with swells abeam and the nose pointed about 45 deg. into the waves and wind.
The flight deck became very busy. Gear up; flaps full down; pull the overstressed No. 4 engine to idle. We touched down over a swell, as I'd hoped. Still, the aircraft dug in violently, decelerating very quickly, then sliding to the side. When we came to a standstill, the nose was submerged, but popped back up, level with the water. Then silence. Total, complete silence.
I soon heard water gurgling, as it began to stream into the fuselage. In a strange way, after all the horrendous noise, vibration and stress of the previous few minutes, that gurgling noise seemed relaxing. But we had no time to lose; the Connie was sinking. When I left the cockpit, water was already up to my knees.
Ducking into the cabin, I was shocked to see the entire tail had broken off, thanks to high sideforces during the post-landing deceleration. A flight attendant who had been sitting in that section was gone, the crash's only fatality.
Waves were washing over the wings as I stepped through the emergency exit. The Super Constellation had four life rafts installed inside the wings. By pulling a lever on an emergency-exit door, those rafts were designed to eject and inflate, ready for boarding by evacuating passengers.
Unfortunately, the engineers who created the system had no idea what really would happen during an actual ditching. The flaps had been ripped off upon impact, and the jagged exposed structure had punctured every life raft.
We chose the one that seemed to be in the best shape, loaded everybody and pushed off. With real sorrow, we watched our proud Super-Connie sink below the waves, its departure marked only by pools of oil on the ocean's surface. Our emotions swung from the heartbreak of losing a colleague to relief that the rest of us were safe.
SOME SURVIVORS jammed their hands against the raft's holes, while others bailed water with a rubber bucket. Thankfully, water temperatures were mild, almost inviting, but we were far from land. Fortunately, a strong wind was pushing us toward the Dominican Republic's north shore.
Within about 2 hr., we spotted a Coast Guard/Grumman amphibian aircraft coming our way. A radio operator in San Juan had probably dispatched it in response to our Mayday. The amphib skimmed the water, but wouldn't touch down; high waves and strong winds made landing too dangerous. Its crew saw we were having trouble with our life raft, and dropped a new one before departing. However, the raft missed its target zone, landing downwind of our position. Even rowing desperately with our hands, we couldn't reach it. Again, we were left alone in a proverbial leaky boat, without a paddle.
Gradually, the wind pushed us steadily toward land. We spotted people on the shore, probably fishermen, but no one paid any attention to our frantic waving. Finally, as we pulled ourselves onto the beach, hordes of people ran to greet us.
"Why didn't you pick us up?" we asked irritably.
In perfect Spanish, they cried, "Oh no! Here nobody goes in the water! Too many sharks!"
Geraldo W. Knippling, a retired captain, flew for 40 years with Varig. This Contrails story is a condensed and translated excerpt from his book, Talking About Airplanes, which was published in Portuguese.
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That reminds me of my father recounting that ~1970, IAF #6 Sqn (flying Super-Constellation) based at AFS Lohegaon on monthly trip to Car-Nicobar once lost (IIRC) two engines on return leg from Car-Nicobar (to Dumdum). The aircraft was slowly sinking. These flight were very popular for families of aircrews (kids like me) becuse in these trips most aircrew carried heavy baggage ( many gunnybags of coconuts that were bought at cheap barter trade from islanders). Apart from fabulous corals picked up from pristine beaches. During this emergency the captain ordered to bail all stuff except very personal items. Out went all the gunnybags of coconuts. with that the Super-Constellation barely maintained altitude yet reached safely Calcutta.
On another occasion (~1973) his flight had emergency with an engine fire but landed safely back to base. While de-planing all aircrew got a decent sprinking of the special fire-extinguisher used to fight oil based fire. His aircrew overall carried the most offensive stench for many weeks inspite of many rounds of washing. Anyone knows what chemical was used those days and if they use the same chemical today?