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A Captain (and Crew) that did hang in there for a good ending...

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I recall this story (for use w/ my CS-L1011), and I think some of you may also recall it. What has always struck me most about it is the fact that, at one point, in the desperate effort to re-gain control of the wide-body airliner (a Lockheed Tristar), the crew takes an un-usual step: direct the stewardess to gather all the passengers forward in the cabin to help get the nose of the aircraft down. The gamble didn't help much, but in their dire situation, the crew figured every little bit would help!

BTW, regarding the current state of L-1011 simulations, if one does not insist on study-level authenticity, both CS/JF would likely meet the requirements of "fun" as it did for me. The JF (Pro) version is V4 compatible, but the CS one is still V3 (V4 planned for future) - as far as I can tell (please always double-check further details). I'd earlier posted, here, a first-flight-report, with this CS version (L-1011 being one of my favorite airliners). This is the 2nd time I've now flown the CS L1011 - to illustrate this current topic that is a unique example of incredible airman-ship by the crew involved.

Delta Air Lines Flight 1080 (with 41 pax and 11 crew on board) was a scheduled flight notable for the incident that occurred on April 12, 1977 during the San Diego to Los Angeles leg of the flight. What was expected to be a routine flight, turned into a nightmare lasting one of the most harrowing 55 minutes in recent aviation history.  

On the flight, at the controls, was Capt. Jack McMahan: a burly, affable 56-year-old. He was one of Delta's most experienced Captains. During 36 years of flying, he had piloted biplanes, Grumman Wildcats (as a Marine Corps pilot during World War II) and over a dozen passenger planes, including all models of jumbo jets, and had been the First Officer on DC-8's first commercial flight back in 1959, and also the First Officer on the delivery flight of Delta's first Tristar.

A few minutes short of midnight, at 11:53pm local time, as the jet accelerated down Runway 27, the visibility was already approaching near minimums (a heavy deck of coastal cloud moving in-shore). The applicable performance/takeoff data indicated: V1=123, VR=126, and V2=138, but as the plane reached 126 knots, the plane unexpectedly and abruptly nosed up by itself before the pilots had to pull the control column for takeoff. Speeding into the heavy clouds and directly over the Pacific Ocean, the nose continued to pitch even higher. Capt. McMahan shoved the control column forward in response to the too-steep climb, and the plane's nose came down slightly and, at least momentarily, the plane seemed to return to a normal climb (15 degrees).

"After that," says Capt. McMahan, "the first thing I did was to check the setting for the stabilizer". "According to our control panel," he says, "the stabilizer was set correctly (3.5 degrees)."

At an altitude of 400 feet, however, the plane began excessively nosing up again, and he began to use "electric trim," another system for setting the stabilizer. That didn't work. He tried "manual trim." That didn't work either. There just was no response. He tried both again, with no effect. At 800 feet, with the plane climbing into thick clouds, the captain asked the engineer, to check the hydraulic systems through which most of the controls work. By 3,000 feet altitude, all emergency procedures concerning pitch and trim had been systematically tried, and the crew couldn't find out what was wrong.

As the plane climbed out over the Ocean, it pitched up more and more, far above the normal 15 degrees. . .pitch attitude exceeding 18 degrees. . .20 degrees. . .22 degrees. And the speed was decaying, 150 knots...145...143...140. In that sequence, the plane was fast running into the danger of a fatal stall. "Suddenly," Capt. McMahan says, "I had the horrifying realization that we were going to lose it. I'm trying to fly this thing as well as I can, and I thought I can't even fly it - it won't respond. I had a very clear mental picture of exactly what the aircraft was going to do - stall, roll to the left and descend vertically, disappearing into the clouds - at night - into the water." And no one will ever know what had happened. Pilot dis-orientation while executing an over-the-water (night) takeoff was a common probable cause of accidents under similar circumstances. Just two weeks before, the Pan Am and the KLM planes had collided on Tenerife, and the horrific memories were still fresh in his mind. But he asserted himself, "We may lose this aircraft, but it won't be because we're not hanging in there and it won't be because of pilot error."

At that instant, the captain decided to yank all the throttles back, reducing power. For a pilot, it was an unnatural and illogical move! Reducing power would cut air speed further, and that would seem to hasten the risk of a stall. But, the Captain says, "At that stage, you quit being methodical - you just do something and do it fast."

The tactic worked, and he felt a little more control over the plane. He then advanced the No. 2 throttle, which increased the thrust of the No. 2 engine in the tail. In the L1011, the two engines (Nos. 1 and 3) hanging on the wings of the plane cause their thrust to make the plane pitch up. But the No. 2 engine in the tail is tilted slightly upward, and its thrust makes the plane pitch slightly downward. The increased thrust Capt. McMahan applied to the No. 2 engine (accompanied by reduced thrust on the other two engines) did exactly what he wanted the plane to do. The nose slowly began to come down, to about 18 degrees; speed began picking up, to about 150 knots, and at 9,000 feet the plane broke out of the overcast and into bright moonlight. He was able to momentarily stabilize the plane at about 10,000 feet, but the ordeal was far from over.

The aircraft soon continued to climb, again, w/o any pitch input, past 12000'. . .13000' to 14000' (in spite of full forward pressure been applied to the control column). The stewardess, sensing something wrong, came in, and was told there was a control problem. She was then asked to move all the passengers forward in the cabin to help get the nose down. Meanwhile, Capt. McMahan was wondering: if something is not done quickly, the aircraft cannot be stopped from climbing to some unknown altitude (maybe 25000'-30000') before controllability is lost and it would then descend as rapidly as it went up!

Next, regarding where to attempt a landing, the crew methodically eliminated possibilities one-by-one for one reason or another: Palmdale Airport, Edwards Air Force Base, Phoenix, and Las Vegas... San Diego was ruled out because of confirmed (prior) bad weather. That left Los Angeles International, and despite cloudy conditions there, too, Los Angeles was finally chosen (its RWY 6 approach being one that Capt. McMahan was very familiar with, a definite plus).

The crew was offered the option of flying over the city of Los Angeles itself into the airport (RWY 24 east approach). "That's no good," the Captain said. "I could imagine the holocaust if we went down over the city," he recalls later. "I figured if we lose it, we should lose it over water." So the Delta flight would come in from the west over the ocean. That had some disadvantages as pilots dislike landing over water at night, because there aren't any visual reference points. Among pilots, it's called landing "over a black hole." Various thoughts then crossed his mind. A normal touchdown would be impossible. With no control over pitch, the pilot could force the nose down on the runway, but the plane might still float across the airport on a cushion of air and crash at the end. Even worse, as it neared touchdown, it might suddenly pitch up a couple of hundred feet, stall, then crash down into the runway. With no altitude to maneuver, there would be nothing the pilot could do.

The solution, Capt. McMahan figured, was to come in with reduced flaps set on the wings. That would allow the plane to come in at a higher speed - (170-180) knots instead of a normal 130 - which was risky itself, but it would allow the pilot to "bang" the plane down on the runway. The final seconds would be the key.

Then, at 2500 feet, the landing gear was extended, shifting the center of gravity, and the plane abruptly pitched up again. He shoved the control column full forward, but they continued to climb while air speed deteriorated and they were going above the landing glide-slope. His first thought was: "Since we can't control the aircraft with the landing gear down, retract the gear, turn south and ditch in the ocean parallel to the coast." Instead, the Captain again boosted power on the No. 2 engine and cut thrusts on No. 1 and No. 3. Very slowly, the nose began dropping - back on to the glide-slope.

At 700 feet, the Delta jet broke out of the clouds, and the runway was dead ahead. He realized this would be an one-time attempt, and there would be no 2nd-chance for a go-around!

Capt. McMahan says: "I'm gonna touch down and get on the brakes. . .right down the middle. . .and get it on. . .Help me hold the controls. . ." . The plane slams onto the runway at 170 knots well within the 1st 1000 feet, but, after the main gears touched down, the nose cannot be brought down in spite of full forward pressure on the control column. Capt. McMahan then decides to apply main-wheel-braking to bring the nose-wheel down, as the copilot calls out the speeds, "130. . .120. . .110. . .100. . .90. . .80. . .70 knots, 60 knots, thank God."  There were no tail-strikes nor any blown tires. And, most importantly there were no injuries and no loss of life!

Tower: "Well, Delta 1080, everything okay?"
Capt. McMahan: "Tell'em we're all right - we'll take it to the gate."

The engineers (quickly swarming over the plane) found that the left elevator of the aircraft was stuck in the up position, causing the plane to pitch up. This was due to water from rain, fog and mist that had dripped down a structure in the tail onto a bearing and had eventually corroded it.  With immediate effect, mandatory visual checks were enforced on all Tristars. Lockheed subsequently devised a deflector to drain water away from the bearing, along with a seal on the bearing to keep water out and grease in, and it also re-designed the bearing itself so that if any part fails, the other parts will continue to function (aka: provide redundancy on bearing-failure).

Capt. McMahan won FAA's prestigious Distinguished Service Award for bringing Flight 1080 in safely. The crew received certificates of commendation.

For this simulated flight, here, I've executed a short (un-eventful) flight (please see AS/FSC Route-MAP screenshot below) taking off from KSAN (27) directly to Seal Beach (SLI) VOR (115.7) located at Los Alamitos (CA), south-east of Los Angeles - leveling off at 14000', and then, after a U-turn over the ocean, proceeding to KLAX (ILS 6R) for a (normal) landing - constantly reminding me it's merely a SIM, (in the actual case, it was one miracle of a landing!). Here, time is set to mid-night and cloud-cover is applied. Thanks for viewing these screenshot images and hope you enjoy this fascinating story. [CS(L-1011)/REX]





















Edited by P_7878
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I'm not sure if this is the source of the running joke "Free Drinks in First-Class" mentioned in Capt Venderberg's stories 

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Thanks, folks!

Here, below, couple of more exchanges from the crew - after the successful landing - (that you may like). Yes, those were the days with a Flight Engineer in the cockpit! And, BTW, Jane Hooper was the stewardess.

  1. Engineer Heidt: "Wheeee-eh."
  2. Jane Hooper rushed into the cockpit and kissed the pilot. "What was the problem?" she asked. Engineer Heidt answered, "We had up, but no down; we just kept going up, and up and up."

And, as always, I did a bit more investigation, after the post, and found 2 extra pieces of information, that may be of interest:

  • As for Delta's crew and passengers, they switched to another Delta plane and took off for Dallas, the next stop for Flight 1080. On the way to Dallas, Capt. McMahan got a note from a passenger saying, "All that screwing arounds in L.A. is going to make me late for a connection - what are you going to do about it?". I guess, he found out later, how this Captain had saved his life!
  • Also, this flight's incidence has made it into text-books and research-papers on "Fault Tolerant Fight Control Systems". The primary things noted in there are the following: (1) The elevator had got jammed at 19 degrees (aka: the fault). (2) The Pilot (in the cockpit) was not given any indication of this fault. (3) Still, he was able to take advantage of the remaining controls (unrelated to the fault) aka: differential power application across the 3 engines, to land the aircraft safely. So, the pilot never fixed (or had a chance to fix) the original fault. But, all survived still, is the key takeaway.
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Really Enjoyed this,Thank You for another Quality Post.

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Thanks for sharing. Excellent story of outside the box thinking. :cool: Lovely screenshots for your re-creation too.

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Posted (edited)


N707DA L-1011Tristar's first flight was on May 5, 1974. Delivery date (to Delta) was May 24, 1974. It was transferred in 1985 to ATA (American Trans Air) w/ serials (N187AT) & continued to serve till its last revenue flight on October 30, 2001. It was stored at VCV (Victorville) in February 2001 & was then broken-up/scrapped...sad to know always... in May 2002. There are pictures of it available (on the internet) if you search for "L-1011 N707DA"....looks pretty!

And, Captain McMahan passed away on May 11, 1994. Must have been a remarkable gentleman - worthy of admiration from the aviation community!

Edited by P_7878

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