By Don Mathis, Kinetic Social CEO
Last week, I began a post on how the OODA loop – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act! – played out in an emergency situation faced by my P-3 Orion patrol squadron aircrew. We were over the North Atlantic on a Search & Rescue (SAR) mission, and the irony that we might be the ones needing rescue was not lost on us.
The point at which I broke off the narrative was just as we were pulling out from a dive towards the thundering waves below us. Fighting asymmetric thrust, we had lost an engine at low altitude on the same side of the wing where another engine was already shut down. We were yawing left while in a steeply banked turn, near – or even slightly below – minimum controllable airspeed.
In the moments after we recovered from our fall dive towards the sea, the pilots got engine #1 going, gained altitude, and secured the malfunctioning #2 engine. We all breathed a serious sigh of relief. I remember looking out the bubble window just aft of the flight deck, watching for the now shut-down engine number #2 propeller to wind down to a stop.
But it never did. The enormous four-bladed Hamilton Standard propeller kept on rotating. The plane shuddered with vibrations. The flight deck could not get the prop to “feather”. Feathering is when the prop blades are halted and angled into the wind to reduce drag after shutting down an engine.
There is an old saying among crusty senior Orion Flight Engineers: There are only two things on a P-3 that will kill you and they both start with P: Pilots and Propellers.
The flight deck crew executed all of the emergency procedures outlined in the manual in their attempt to feather the prop. Nothing worked. The propeller RPMs slowly increased as the plane’s very forward motion through the air caused the prop to speed up in its rotation.
So now, with the prop wind-milling freely, we faced the risk of a propeller overspeed. It is one of the most dangerous situations on a turboprop aircraft:
- There is a chance that centrifugal force will wrench the 1,200 pound prop right off the aircraft, which could slice through the fuselage and / or lead to an out-of-control plunge … both catastrophic scenarios.
- Equally concerning, an overspeeding propeller decoupled from the engine’s reduction gear box could lead to a fire. Not a good thing when that engine is attached to a wing with thousands of pounds of fuel. Attached to an aircraft with 10 souls on board.
Without getting too technical, we later learned that the reduction gear box – the component that, in rough terms, connects the engine to the propeller – had experienced a catastrophic failure. It “fodded out” other key components of engine #2. “F.O.D.” is an aviation acronym for Foreign Object Damage; when the reduction gear box failed, it sprayed metal parts at high velocity throughout the engine.
There have been several accidents – in the Navy we call them “mishaps”, in typical military understatement – under very similar circumstances to the ones we now found ourselves in. In 1987, A P-3 in Hawaii faced a prop overspeed that, after two hours of flight time home, eventually led to the propeller separating from the aircraft. The prop took out the engine next to it and nearly led to the loss of the aircraft as it was on final approach.
Worse, a P-3 out of Adak, Alaska had a very similar situation, ending with disastrous results. In that case, the overspeed condition eventually caused a fire. The crew discharged the engine fire extinguishers; it caused a fire again, they extinguished it again; when the overspeed led to a third fire and their extinguishing agent was exhausted, the crew was forced to ditch the aircraft in the heavy Alaskan seas. Five members of the crew perished including the patrol plane commander. He had stayed atop the aircraft after escaping through the cockpit roof hatch before the plane sank, counting his crew to ensure all got out of the plane. He was swept away by the waves after that.
In our case, the crew had to carefully walk through the OODA Loop in this crisis. First, where should we go? We were pretty much in the middle of the North Atlantic; St. Johns, Newfoundland was the nearest land. So we headed there, still several hundred miles away and on the other side of the ocean from where we’d started our flight that day. The P-3 that lost the prop off of Hawaii flew for about two hours before its overspeed condition led to near disaster; the aircraft off Alaska, less than that. It would take almost three hours to fly to St. Johns. We all knew the history of these other flights.
Should we plot our course near identified ships, in case we needed to ditch? (We were far, far outside of helicopter rescue range). But if we did this, we’d add minutes or more to the flight, which could have fatal results. We decided to fly straight to St. Johns.
How fast should we fly? A trade-off between precious time versus the risk of the faster slipstream possibly speeding up the runaway prop. We opted for operating the aircraft at as slow a speed as practical while maintaining at least some margin of safety above minimum controllable airspeed (see my prior post about the P-3 that stalled and spun when they got below minimum controllable airspeed). It was a painfully slow speed, prolonging our flight over the crashing seas to a safe haven.
Should we prepare for ditching or for bail-out? This was an easier one… no one really thought jumping out of the plane in parachutes over the ranging North Atlantic was a good idea … even if we survived getting out of the plane, the odds of finding us in the seas below were slim-to-none.
Each question led to more questions, each decision led to action after observing the developing situation and orienting to it.
The next several hours were the longest many of us would ever experience. The crew was mostly silent and nervous. I recall sitting at my station, warily watching the very big, violent ocean below, going over and over my emergency ditching and egress procedures in my mind, and dwelling on the low odds of surviving a ditching so far from rescue.
My communications duties included telling everyone I could about our situation and our location after we’d declared an emergency. We communicated with SAR resources, our Navy command, other aircraft, and oceanic air traffic control out of Gander, Newfoundland. Over the Atlantic, there is no radar tracking; you call your position to controllers who monitor your progress. I’ll never forget hearing the concern in the controller’s voice; he was professional, but you could tell he thought he might be the last person to speak with us alive.
During the course of the flight, we regularly experienced jarring and unnatural vibrations originating in the engine, as critical components continued to disintegrate. We briefed emergency procedures for ditching and for fighting an engine fire if it broke out. And we watched that big #2 propeller going round and round, wondering when it would speed up fast enough to cause a disaster.
At one point, an officer suggested we fly another thirty minutes past St. Johns, a civil airfield, because of all the top secret crypto gear on the aircraft. There was a Canadian military base where our equipment and codes would be more secure, he reasoned. If looks could kill, he’d have been dead on the spot.
Eventually, we made it to St. Johns and landed safely on three engines. We’d never been so thrilled to be back on terra firma. In an expression that I heard one of our sensor operators use, we spent that long, long flight “puckered up tight enough that a team of horses couldn’t pull a greased knitting needle out of our arses”. But we made it.
In a future post, I will discuss the OODA implications of all this. Stay tuned!
This post is dedicated to the brave men and women of the Navy Patrol Squadron community past & present, and especially to those who have lost their lives while being ever vigilant in defense of our nation.
Don Mathis is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kinetic Social, a social data and technology company focused on making sense of the world’s social signal. He also serves in the US Navy on reserve duty, where he is an Expeditionary Combat Logistics & Anti-Terrorism Officer.
By Don Mathis, Kinetic Social CEO.
In military aviation, the “OODA Loop” has the status of a biblical commandment: thou shalt Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It is a decision framework which has utility across military operations … and in business too.
My first practical application of OODA occurred as a young Flight Communications Officer in a Navy P-3 squadron. We were over the North Atlantic, during a Search and Rescue mission that went (very much) awry. The fact that I’m here to write about it is testament to the skills and training of my crew, imbued with the OODA mandate. Its power as a decision-making framework was indelibly imprinted on me that day.
I’ve written about leadership lessons in the context of crisis management in my post, “Double, double toil and trouble” (parts #1 and part#2) … this is a different spin on lessons learned in a crisis environment while serving with the Navy.
The scene: we were flying a Search and Rescue (SAR) mission looking for a missing woman. She had been trying to sail the North Atlantic solo. We were part of a multinational search effort, over the middle of the ocean (not far from where the Titanic sank, as one of our crew later pointed out). The weather was “rough as a cob”, with heavy overcast, a broken cloud layer at about 1,000 feet, moderate to severe turbulence and 25-foot swells in the dark seas below.
Our 10 member crew was flying the venerable P-3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop patrol aircraft used for anti-submarine warfare … but which doubled as a pretty good long-range SAR platform. Three were on the flight deck, the rest of us “tuberats” operated from the main compartment of the plane.
Important fact in the story: we had our #1 engine in “loiter shutdown” to conserve fuel and extend our time on station (the plane’s engines are numbered one to four, starting with #1 on the far left side of the aircraft, and ending at #4 on the far right). Shutting down #1 was common on station.
Our hopes of finding anyone alive in that witches-brew of a sea were slim (and as it turned out, the target of our search was never found). We’d been briefed that the woman may have abandoned her sailboat in a red life raft; this would be extremely difficult to find in the rough waves, and so we were flying a tight search pattern low over the water – about 500 feet. All windows were manned, infrared video feed was being monitored, and our radar was operating. I was staring intently out my bubble window; my station was positioned just aft of the flight deck. And I was trying hard not to get air sick from the bumpy ride as I tried to keep a good look-out.
At some point as we lumbered along boring holes through the sky, the aft port window observer called out a red object in the swells below (an adrift ocean buoy, we later found out from the Coast Guard C-130 that replaced us on station). The pilot yanked the aircraft into a steep left bank to circle back to the sighting.
And that’s right when things went bad.
As the pilot applied a steep bank angle to turn us around and inspect the red object we’d seen, the #2 engine “crapped out” in the banking turn. For those keeping count at home, that’s two engines out on the same side of the aircraft.
Now, the (awesome) P-3 Orion can loiter for hours on station with two engines shut down … but most crews avoid shutting down two engines on the same side of the plane. It’ll fly that way, weight, weather, and fuel permitting (it can even fly on just one engine under the proper circumstances). But this needs to be managed carefully, and in our case, just about everything that you’d prefer not to be the case with two engines out on the same side was indeed the case: we were heavy with fuel, we were at a relatively low airspeed, we were under 500 feet of altitude, and we were at a steep angle of bank.
When I was still in my initial training, I was once sitting in our medical clinic at the Naval Air Station, getting my annual flight physical. One of my instructors happened to be there, and as we were waiting for our EKGs, we got into a discussion of when problems occurred in flight. There were probably thirty people waiting in chairs lined up in the passageway. My instructor had me stand up and face the doors down at the end of the passage, where outside, it was a nice day. He said, “See the sunlight out there? That’s not when the shit hits the fan.”
He then stood behind me, made me close my eyes, and started violently shaking me and shouting questions about what circuit breakers to pull, what procedures to implement in the event of an emergency. He was shouting like a drill instructor. The thing he shouted the most as he concluded his lesson? “OODA!! OODA!! OODA will save your life!”
This created quite a spectacle for the other people quietly waiting for their physical exams.
What is OODA? OODA was originated as a concept for fighter pilots in the Korean War, by Colonel John Boyd. He observed that decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. By processing this cycle more rapidly than an adversary, one can “get inside” the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage.
As I was taught during my training, the “adversary” we often faced in the patrol squadron community was accident chains – i.e., the series of events that build on themselves leading to an accident. In this sense, OODA isn’t useful only as a strategic framework (though it is definitely that… more on OODA later). It has strong utility in an emergent crisis, even if the cycle is compressed to mere moments in time. We were taught that training was the key to ensure that the cycle could be effectively compressed. But our training scenarios almost always required a process based on OODA.
My instructor shouting “OODA!!” at me was one of my most memorable lessons from my training. And I was definitely thinking about it that day on our SAR mission.
Back over the North Atlantic: when we lost the #2 engine on the port wing in the midst of our left turn, the aircraft made a sickening lurch towards the sea. The cockpit crew had to do a number of things immediately: most importantly, they had to fly the plane, ensuring that we didn’t fall below the power curve or fall below the minimum controllable airspeed given our loss of engine thrust. Our biggest risk in the moment was a stall – essentially, the aircraft falling out of the sky.
In our case, in addition to leveling the wings, the flight deck pushed the nose towards the crashing sea swells – the fastest way to keep our speed from bleeding off and avoiding a stall scenario. Incidentally, dropping the nose of a plane towards the earth’s surface is a very unnatural thing to do. There is a human reaction to pull back on the yoke or stick in an emergency, especially when close to the ground. Pilots are trained against this, but the phenomenon has caused more than a few fatal accidents.
The flight deck crew also had to manage power on the two good engines as well as make the correct flight control inputs to manage the asymmetric thrust (engines operating on one side of the aircraft but not on the other). They also had to restart #1 while more or less simultaneously securing #2.
And this all had to be done in mere seconds … the sea is awfully close and the room for recovery is very narrow at 500 feet.
It was a lot to manage, but they did it. There are a few examples of P-3 crews that have not fared as well. In one case, a P-3 had their #1 engine shut down during a training flight when their #2 engine began vibrating intensely and had to be “bagged” immediately. Unfortunately, with two engines off on the same side and with the airspeed too low, the aircraft stalled … at least 5 G’s were reported in the subsequent effort to recover, yielding substantial damage to the aircraft. The plane did five spin rotations from 5,500 feet, before recovering at an altitude of less than 200 feet.
Recovering our aircraft after the failure of engine #2 was the first OODA Loop that day, but certainly not the only one. It was a tightly compressed OODA Loop, with the entire decision-to-action process occurring in seconds. The quick reactions and deep experience of the flight crew saved the plane as we bottomed out maybe 150 feet above the swells.
But that was just the beginning of our problems…
Don Mathis is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kinetic Social, a company launched in 2011 with a core focus of marrying “Big Data” to social media on behalf of large brand advertisers. He also serves in the active reserve of the US Navy, where he is the Commanding Officer of a highly deployable, selectively staffed, joint-service combat logistics unit that supports forward deployed war-fighters.