Providence, Uncle Hugh, and Neal’s sleepless nights

April 29th 2009 No comments yet  

Recently Steve Farrar challenged the Stonebriar congregation to “think of a point when God delivered you from certain death.” I couldn’t help but smile. I have a date, a place, a cast of cohorts, and a context for my deliverance. And can see God’s direct providence as being past, present, and future to the actual incident.

The “present tense” for my deliverance was July 30, 1981 and the time was 4:30 p.m., PDT. The place was 6,000′ down runway from the approach end of Runway 30 at Castle AFB, near Merced, California. The cast of cohorts was Instructor Team 21 (IP Neal Coyle, IRN Roy Williamson, IEW Bob Nicholson, IAG Clay Freeborn) and Student Crew 1115 aboard B-52H tail number 61-1020, and the context was the “go” portion of a planned “touch and go” landing. The incident report stated: “the approach was normal through touch down. At that time, the instructor pilot flying the aircraft raised the airbrakes to “six” [maximum drag] position and advanced throttles to take-off settings. After assuring that all eight engines were providing take-off thrust, the pilot brought the airbrakes to the “zero” setting [no drag]. At that point, the aircraft yawed 15 degrees right of runway heading and departed the hard surface of the runway.” The report goes on to describe the pilot’s actions in order: applying full left rudder, pulling the nose of the aircraft up to get the aircraft off the ground, advancing the throttles on the right side “through the thrust gate” [applying more engine thrust than the wing is designed to handle], and simultaneously pushing the nose down to put the aircraft in “ground effect” [a “pad” of air formed by air passing under the aircraft. This pad provides lift when the aircraft is near the ground.]. The result was that the aircraft achieved flying airspeed, climbed to pattern altitude, and was cleared for and executed an uneventful full stop landing. By the time the aircraft began climbing, the tower had already alerted the crash crew.

Post-flight analysis provided the details of how God delivered “on the spot.” Conversations with the pilot that revealed the “past” aspect of God’s providence, and subsequent events revealed the implications for the future.

The “on the spot” deliverance was dramatic:

1. Maintenance discovered that the center support arm for the inboard spoiler group on the right wing had broken at some point during the flight. When the airbrakes were set to “six”, the broken part of the arm wedged the spoiler group into the “full up” position and did not allow them to be retracted. This failure created massive drag on the right wing, forcing the wing down and the aircraft to turn right. In response, the aircraft veered off the runway.

2. A brake on the right forward landing gear was dragging, both increasing the rightward movement and slowing the aircraft to below “minimum directional airspeed.” Minimum directional airspeed is the speed at which there is enough airflow across the rudder for it to exercise control over the direction of the aircraft. When below this speed, the pilot’s inputs via the rudder have no effect. When the aircraft left the runway, it instantly became 250,000 pounds of uncontrollable metal and fuel.

3. At 250,000 pounds gross weight, the fuel in the wing tanks is at the “maximum slosh” [fluid movement in response to aircraft movement] point. The rightward yaw pushed the fuel in tanks to “slosh” to the left, a shift of 60,000 pounds of liquid momentum.

4. The inboard engine pod avoided the “4,000′ remaining” marker by 6″. Had the pod hit the marker, the aircraft would have “cartwheeled” into a fireball.

Bottom line: when the scenario was presented to the Boeing engineers and subjected to computer re-creation, their verdict was terse: “the aircraft cannot be flown under these conditions. This scenario resulted in a fireball.” Factoring in the pilot’s actions did not change the verdict: “there was insufficient time for the pilot to take action. He had 6/10th of a second to analyze the situation, decide on a course of action, and begin the actions.” [Normal human reaction time when anticipating an action, like pushing a button when a light goes off is .3 to .7 seconds.] The situation was set up in the flight simulator and pilots were given the scenario, what to do, and even when it would occur. Even under these conditions, no pilot was able to safely recover the aircraft.

Miracle? No. God did not suspend any natural law to effect this deliverance. Ours was a case of providence: God enabled the recovery using people. This is providence of the type addressed by the apostle Paul in the shipwreck off Malta (Acts 27). In verses 23-26, Paul reveals that God has promised that everyone on the ship will survive. When (verse 30) some of the sailors try to escape from the ship to save themselves, Paul calls to the centurion and tells him, “Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved.” (Verse 31) Paul presents this as a “both/and” situation: God will deliver and people involved must do their jobs.

Such was the case on Runway 30. God delivered but He used the actions of the pilot, Neal Coyle. This is undeniable. How he brought the pilot to that point provides us with the “past” tense of providence.

By his own admission, Neal was not a “stick”, a “natural born,” intuitive pilot. Every skill he possessed was the result of diligent training. Every decision or action he took was presaged and mediated by a thorough knowledge of aerodynamics and the flight characteristics of the B-52. He first knew his stuff, analyzed the situation, and then acted. Bob, Clay, and I as the other members of the instructor team knew this and appreciated that God made Neal this way.

After landing, debriefing, and filling out the incident reports, Neal, Bob, and I went to the base chapel where our squadron commander was leading a “Marriage Encounter” group. We took him aside and briefed him regarding the incident ““ even though at that point we could not say why the aircraft did what it did. He was reassuring and expressed his relief that all turned out well.

Before the three of us left the chapel, Bob and I ushered Neal into a side room and presented him with the burning question on our minds: “We know that you could have ejected and saved yourself, the co-pilot, and possibly two other crewmembers. Why didn’t you?” He answered, “Let me tell you about my checkout as an aircraft commander.”

“The last step in the process of upgrading from co-pilot to aircraft commander involved a simulator ride. And like all simulators, it focused on emergency procedures, with multiple problems, with a deteriorating flight situation. The scenario called for things to deteriorate to the point where, in accordance with the book, I ordered the crew to “˜Bail out!’ and initiated ejection myself. The instructor shut down the simulator and we moved on to debriefing. His words were, “˜You have performed all procedures flawlessly. You did everything by the book and at the right time. You are an excellent pilot.’

“Then he added, “˜But this is your aircraft commander checkout simulator. What was the flight envelope when you ordered the crew to bail out?’ That is when it hit me, and he confirmed, “˜Your navigator and radar navigator are dead ““ they could not safely eject. Everyone in instructor positions and the tenth man are dead ““ they could not escape the aircraft. Their wives are widows and their kids are fatherless. Procedurally you will be exonerated. Can you live with that? That’s what it means to be an aircraft commander rather than just a pilot.'”

Neal told us that he did not sleep for three days, as the faces of fellow “crew dogs” and their families haunted him. “I did right and they died!” was the recurring nightmare. Peace finally came when he resolved, “I will be the last one to leave the aircraft. Their lives are more important than mine.” He added, “And I’ve never looked back.”

So his mind was not cluttered with any thoughts of personal survival. His singular focus was flying the aircraft out of a bad situation and saving our lives. In providence, God honored the self-sacrificing commitment he made to his fellow crewmembers. Had God not chosen to do so, the evidence that would have exonerated him from any fault ““ the broken support arm ““ would have been burned up in the fireball and the accident would have been charged off to “pilot error.” His widow and their unborn son would have carried the stigma of ten deaths for the rest of their lives. God as the God of truth insured that the truth ““ that Neal was a noble man and a hero ““ came forth. [The Air Force Academy recognized this fact by awarding him the 1983 Jabara Award for demonstrated courage while engaged in aerial flight.]

His actions reflected another aspect of the providence of God: he was the right person to deal with the situation. As a “non-intuitive” pilot, Neal did not rely on his instincts, but immediately reverted to his training and knowledge. Instincts prompted him to apply full left rudder when the aircraft veered right. That failed, so training told him there were other ways to counter the movement, and his knowledge of the aircraft told him there was additional thrust and lift available by advancing the right side engines “through the thrust gate.”

When the aircraft “hit the dirt”, his instincts told him to pull the nose up to get the aircraft landing gear off the ground. Training prompted him to then push the nose back down to place the aircraft in “ground effect.” As Neal laughingly told me later, “As soon as I pulled up on the nose, I heard “˜Uncle Hugh’ Smith hollering in my ear, “˜Put that pig’s nose in the dirt!’ I heard it from him so many times in instructor school that I just had to comply.” “Uncle Hugh” was God’s providence with a human face, a voice, and a colorful way of making a point.

So God put seemingly unrelated things together to deliver 10 souls out of a flaming crash. It took only two weeks after the incident to reveal the first aspect of God’s providence toward the future. On August 13, 2001 our son Tom was born with serious heart defects. He spent his entire 31 day sojourn on this earth in three different hospitals, with Sally and I shuttling between the two we had at home and hospitals in San Francisco and Travis AFB. Bolstering us through this bleak period were Neal and Bob, who I would have shared a grave with, and Kathy and Patti, who would have joined Sally as widows.

And there would be five boys who have proven themselves to be good men who would have grown up without a father in the home, and four additional good men who would never have existed.

We often look for miracles ““ for God to suspend the laws nature or (more often) the laws of cause and effect as a sign of His love for us. He on the other hand has promised only that He will provide. Twenty-eight years of life after being 6/10ths of a second from death, I can fully testify that He does.


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