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The Jet That Crashed Before Takeoff
Bierne Lay, Jr. Harper’s Magazine, September 1957
A precautionary Tale & A fictional account-based on the record of many military flying accidents-of the tiny mishaps which can lead a pilot into disaster.
JET fighter Number 313 taxied onto the end of the runway, cleared for takeoff. The Pilot, a young major, fastened his safety belt, set his brakes, and ran up 100 per cent rpm on his engine-a huge, long corncob that made up nearly all of his airplane. Then he released his toe brakes. The wheels rolled the first inch. And in that first inch, the Pilot of Number 313 was doomed. In effect, he was already dead.
A mile and a half of smooth, white concrete runway narrowed into the distance in front of the nose of the gleaming, javelin-sleek, swept-wing fighter-8,000 feet of it, more than ample for the (5,700-foot take-off distance calculated in the flight plan.
The weather was good, a clear bright morning with a hot sun beating down on the shimmering California desert. Surface winds were nearly dead calm. The 1-79 engine was in perfect condition and turning up normal thrust. No mechanical defect lurked anywhere within the complex innards of the aircraft. The Pilot was highly experienced and could point to a spotless safety record and superior past performance. The mission, like every mission in the Air Force had been minutely planned: gross weight at take-off figured to the pound; runway temperature, surface-wind velocity, and every other factor to insure the mathematical certainty that the wheels of Number 313 would unstick from the runway after a roll of 6,700 feet. No one connected with the planning or preparation for the mission was guilty of a fatal blunder.
Only one thing was wrong. A series of minor errors, already irrevocably committed, not one of which was fatal in itself, when added together spelled out a stark fact: Number 313 could not possibly get off the 8,000-foot runway safely. She needed 8,100 feet, instead of 6,700 feet.
Why?How could this happen in a precision organization like the United States Air Force, where hundreds of heavily loaded jet aircraft take off every day without incident? The Air Force emphasizes “flying safety” second only to accomplishment of its primary mission and has achieved a consistently lower accident rate each year since World War II.Part of the answer is that each “routine” take-off is not really routine. Rather, it is a kind of triumph, endlessly repeated, over an unseen enemy always lying in wait to prove that an accident is “no accident." It is a triumph, illustrated in reverse, so to speak, by the case of Number 313, which highlights one of the new facts of life in the jet age: a jet take-off is more critical than the familiar take-off in a propeller-driven aircraft. Far more so.
Perhaps the simplest way to visualize the situation that confronted Number 313 is to think of the Pilot’s safety margin-that 1,300-foot surplus between his estimated 6,700-foot take-off distance and the 8,000-foot runway-as money in the bank. As long as he had any or all of those 1,300 feet, he was in the black. But a series of petty thefts could conceivably put him in the red.Number 313 was the victim of four such thefts, plus two other contributing factors.
Theft number one: As the fighter was taxiing out, the control tower reported practically adead calm, a zero wind, as forecast in the flight plan. However, by the time Number 313 actually started her take-off, she had a four-knot tailwind. This was so small a change that the tower operator either did not notice it or did not consider it important enough to relay it to the Pilot. Certainly this was no drastic windshift. But it cost the Pilot 310 feet of added take-off distance required. Unknown to him, it brought his bank balance down to 990 feet. Still plenty of margin.
Theft number two: Take-off had been planned for 11:15 A.M., at which time the run-way temperature was forecast to be, and actually was 97 degrees. But Number 313 had taxied out half an hour late because of a valid delay while the crew chief double-checked a malfunctioning fire-warning light and replaced a bulb. During this delay and later, while the fighterwas taxiing for over a mile from the parking ramp to the end of the runway, the temperature rose slightly to 101 degrees. A prolonged delay, say of an hour, would have automatically necessitated a revised flight plan, but the Pilot followed common procedure, in view of the shorter delay, when he followed his original flight plan. This unforeseen and seemingly negligible rise of four degrees of temperature robbed him of another 190 feet, since hotter air adds to the take-off roll of a jet in two ways. The engine develops less thrust, and the wings need a higher take-off speed in the thinner air. As he released his toe brakes, the Pilot did not know that hisbank balance was now down to 800 feet.
Theft number three: The Pilot was executing his first take-off from an unfamiliar air base, having arrived the previous day as a transient. Therefore he was unaware of an optical illusion that confronted him as he stared down the runway at the desert floor, rising gradually from the far end of the runway toward a distant mountain range. To his eyes, the runway appeared to slope slightly downhill in contrast with the rising ground beyond, Actually, there was an imperceptible uphill grade, placing the far end of the runway 260 feet higher than where he sat, and requiring a take-off roll-under existing conditions of a tailwind and high temperature-of an additional 550 feet. Now, unknown to the pilot, his bank balance had shrunk to 250feet. It was still enough, but it was getting close to bankruptcy.
Theft number four: Lack of sleep for the pilot, as a result of an unexpected change inthe weather during the previous night, became a pertinent factor. Confident he would be weathered in for a couple of days until a cold front passed, he had left the base on the evening before to enjoy a night on the town with a clear conscience.
A SHORT SLEEP
His family and his girl lived not far from the air base, and their convivial reunion lasted into the small hours. He was awakened after three and a half hours of sleep by a call from the base notifying him of a break in the weather. Since he was under orders to return to his home base as soon as possible, there was nothing for it but to bolt a cup of black coffee,hustle on out to the base, and start wheeling and dealing.
You don’t just leap into the cockpit of a supersonic jet fighter and take off, unless you are an interceptor pilot on twenty-four-hour alert duty. This was an extended navigational mission requiring careful planning, preflight inspections, and attention to the check lists. And there is where the lack of sufficient rest led to the final withdrawal from the already slim bank accountof Number 313.
The Pilot arrived to find that the Assistant Operations Officer, an old pal, had lent a hand and figured the weight of fuel in the main tanks and the auxiliary wing-tip tanks, based on servicing performed the night before. It had been a cold night-an important factor. In arriving at the correct weight, it is necessary to apply a correction for temperature. This his friend haddone, but inadvertently he had applied the correction the wrong way, subtracting it instead of adding it. A gallon of fuel will weigh more when it is cold and dense than when it is warm and expanded-just a fraction of a pound more, but it adds up when you’re dealing with thousands of pounds of fuel.
The Pilot checked over his friend’s figures. Partly because of confidence, based on past experience, in the other man’s accuracy and conscientiousness, and partly because lack of rest had affected his alertness, the Pilot failed to spot his friend’s slip-up. Thus, when the wheels of Number 313 rolled that first inch, the aircraft weighed slightly more than the Pilot thought she did. Under any other circumstances, it might not have been a costly error, but it was enough in this case to add a disastrous 350 feet to the distance Number 313 must travel before she could become airborne, thereby chipping away the remaining 250 feet still left in the bank and then some.
Now the Pilot was in the red by one hundred feet. Number 313 was bankrupt and prepared to drag down with her a million-dollar fighter and the life of an invaluable combat pilot. Only two hopes of reprieve for this Pilot still lived. First, if it became apparent in the final stage of take-off that he’d never make it, he could jettison his tip tanks and lighten his load by approximately one ton of the extra fuel. Secondly, at a given point down the runway, he would have an opportunity of recognizing that he had not reached a predicted airspeed. Then he could yank the throttles back and abort the take-off in time for a safe stop. But this second safeguard had already been taken out of his hands through an error of omission, committed by someone now far removed from the scene.
The runway originally, had been 7,600 feet long. Recently, 400 feet had been added to the end from which Number 3l3 took off. But the runway markers-large signs placed at. 1,000 foot intervals alongside the runway to enable the pilot to see at a glance during take-off how much runway he still has left were in their original locations scheduled to be moved back 400 feet the next day was just twenty-four hours too late.
Black smoke pouring from her tail pipe, Number 313 rolled forward, gathering momentum slowly, the thunder of her departure ricocheting off the buildings along the flight line. When the Pilot passed the first 1,000-foot marker, he was really 1,400 feet down the runway. The same misinformation was waiting to mislead him at the 2,000-foot and the 3,000-foot markers, depriving him of his last chance to judge whether or not his take-off was proceeding according to plan.
He reached his maximum refusal speed of 106 knots at the 4,000-foot marker. Had his airspeed been appreciably below the briefed speed at this juncture, here is where he couldand undoubtedly would-have refused take-off. But he saw that his airspeed was indicating within two knots of the desired speed. He continued. What he didn’t know, because of the,hidden extra 400 feet he had covered, was that he should have been going eight knots faster at the critical moment of decision.
Now the end of that once endless-looking ribbon of white concrete began to unreel alarmingly fast. It was too late to stop. The Pilot pressed the release button to jettison his tip tanks. Nothing happened. Malfunction in the circuit. Consuming precious seconds, he resorted to hand operation of the manual release. The tanks dropped clear.
But Number 313 was still solidly on the runway, still below the minimum take-off speedof her stubby, razor-blade wings as the last foot of the concrete blurred in under the nose. Reacting out of automatic desperation, the Pilot pulled back on the controls. Number 313 staggered a few feet into the air. Instantly he retracted the landing gear, fighting to reduce the drag and gain that two or three knots of airspeed that might still spell the difference. Quivering right at her stalling speed, the heavy fighter squashed back onto the rough, rising terrain beyond the runway, plowing ahead at 140 knots. Seconds later came the explosion.
For Number 313, time and distance had run out. And for her Pilot, in that master ledger where no mistakes in the ultimate arithmetic of cause and effect are permitted to occur, the account was now forever closed.
Shortened Runway and Taxiway Configuration - 12/26/2017
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Federal Aviation Administration
Santa Monica Tower
3300 Donald Douglas Loop North
Santa Monica, CA 84116
Subject: Shortened Runway and Taxiway ConfigurationCancellation: 12/21/2018 1200 (UTC)
Pilots are advised that Santa Monica Municipal Airport Runway 03/21 is shortened from 4,973 feet to 3,500 feet.
Distance remaining signage will be located at 1000 foot increments, south of runway 21.
Pilots should expect to exit the runway at a designated taxiway only.
- A1/B1— New taxiway location
- A2/B2— Existing taxiways
- A3/B3— New taxiway location
- A4/B4— Existing taxiways, new name
- A5/B5— New taxiways, new name
Do not exit the runway between marked exits, use the taxiways.
Pilot should also expect new hold areas on Alfa and Bravo in the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest corners of the airport under IFR weather conditions.
Temporarily, the run up areas on the east side of the airport will be other than as noted on published charts. The old South East run up area will remain in affect. Pilots can expect to get taxi clearance to the old South East run up area and THEN a separate taxi clearance to the runway once the run up is complete.
On the west side of the airport, run up areas are cut outs in the infield area between A3 & A2 and B3 & B2
When the new run up areas are constructed, they will be abeam A5 and B5. These will be movement areas.
Due to the shortened runway, from December 23, 2017 until February 1, 2018, only the VOR-A and visual approaches will be available. All RNAV departures are available.
Pilots are encouraged to ask SMO ATC for clarification or help at any time they are uncertain or think they need additional assistance.
Pilots should review NOTAM's prior to operating at Santa Monica Airport.
Air Traffic Manager, Santa Monica Tower
Notice To Pilots for the duration of the runway shortening project!
While tenants and business operators may not be able to take-off during airport closure, the City, via e-mail from Airport Operations Analyst, Diana Hernandez, explains that you can land......in jail, that is! Airport tenants and business operators are reminded that areas of the airport normally off-limits, will remain off-limits during the time that the airport is closed to aircraft flight operations.
"Good morning Tenants, 12/14/2017
This email is a reminder that although the Airport is currently NOTAM closed tenants are not allowed to drive or walk on the runway or taxiways. These areas are restricted to authorized personnel only; therefore, tenants please continue to drive on the vehicle service road.
The Santa Monica Municipal Code - Article 10 Airport Regulations stipulates the following:
SMMC 10.04.06.160 (c) Motor Vehicles: “No person shall operate a motor vehicle on, upon, or across any portion of the Airport except along or upon roadways designated for travel by motor vehicles or those portions of the Airport set aside by the Airport Director for automobile parking purposes.”
SMMC 10.04.06.170 Pedestrians: “No pedestrians shall be upon any taxiway or landing area of the Airport without first obtaining a signed permit from the Airport Director…”
Please be informed that the City will prosecute violators to the full extent of the law, including taking action against your tenancy on this Airport. If you have any questions, please contact the Airport Administration at 310-458-8591.
Thank you for your cooperation.
Diana Hernandez, Airport Operations Analyst"
New 2017 Tie Down and Hangar Leases
The City is demanding a new lease for tie down and hangar tenants with what is one of the sloppiest and carelessly written documents we have seen in years. We believe the ruse of calling these agreements "licenses" instead of leases in no way relieves the City of its duties to tenants under State and Federal law, and are physically unenforceable with respect to a 24hr. notice to quit. For the time being until this gets sorted, we suggest that when you sign the new agreement, that you append the Tie down Cover Letter from the "Documents" section of this website (under the "About" heading). You may also get a copy of this from the Pilot Outfitters Supply in the Barker Hangar.
Hangar Rent Discrepancies and Remedy Posted 3/31/16
It has come to our attention that the hangar rents charged by the City of Santa Monica in several instances are based on a faulty estimate of the square footage occupied by the hangars. If you believe you are being charged for more space than you occupy, there are steps you can take to get compensation. First measure the actual interior square footage of your leasehold as accurately as possible. Compare this with the amount you are being charged. If you are being charged for more space than you should be, you may file a claim against the city on this form:
File this with the City Clerk's office, & copy:
Ivan Campbell at the City Attorney's office and Stelios Makrides at the Airport Manager's office.
Calculate the difference in area and derive the amount of over-charge monthly and then multiply by the number of months since you began paying the new rate. File for this amount of compensation.
Airport staff would like to remind us that the integrity of the secure airport flight line environment depends in a large part on each us remaining vigilant when entering and exiting through the automobile gates. Wait until the gate closes before proceeding into or out of, the airport secure areas.
Let's be great pilots and neighbors
Here are the Santa Monica Airport's published guides for operating in and out of SMO, in addition to the noise abatement procedures for fixed wing, rotorcraft and jet operations.
What Programs have been implemented at SMO to help reduce noise?
- SMO 2013 Fixed-Wing Pilot's Guide
- Fixed-Wing Noise Abatement Procedures
- Helicopter Noise Abatement Procedures
- Jet Noise Abatement Procedures
Don't Mach your neighbors
Strive to be a better pilot neighbor and learn the “sweet spot” for propeller efficiency and noise reduction
To produce maximum thrust at full power your tip speed should fall between .88 and .92 mach. To move between .88 and .92 mach usually takes a change of about 110 to 120 RPM. This of course varies depending on your particular propeller and the temperature.
If your tip speed is less than .88 mach you should increase RPM to achieve maximum thrust. If your tip speed is greater than .92 mach you should reduce RPM to achieve maximum thrust. Do not exceed the published operating limitations of your engine or propeller.
Over .92 mach the airflow begins to detach from the propeller which decreases efficiency and dramatically increases noise. To improve performance and public relations you should consider reducing RPM so as to fall within the .88 to .92 mach range. Your propeller will be producing maximum thrust which is good for you, and less noise which is good for all of us.