An Enlightening Experience

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(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)

“Speed is life”, the old aviation adage goes.  But on May 16, 2010 I had plenty of speed, about 540 mph, and I had plenty of altitude, 36,000, however, life was not guaranteed!

In order to give you a good feel for what I was about to be confronted with, I will provide some background details on the day that led up to my “enlightening experience”.

I arrived at my hotel room at approximately 7 am Sunday morning, May 16th, after flying the all nighter from LAX to JFK.  I finally got into my comfy hotel bed and tried to catch up on that much needed night time commodity, of which I had to bypass during the night because I was flying-SLEEP! Unfortunately, I could only get approximately 4 1/2 hours of sleep and woke up at about 11:45 am that same Sunday morning.

After having a one person conversation with me about my desire for more sleep,  I nevertheless decided to get up, showered, ordered up a great NYC pizza, turned on the NASCAR race from Dover International Speedway, and watched ol Kylie Busch win the race.  Shortly after the race ended, I packed up my bags, got my uniform on, went downstairs, then my First Officer and I grabbed the van back to JFK for our flight back to LAX.

After going through security I finally maneuvered down through the bowels of our operations at JFK in the British Airways terminal to finally arrive at our JFK flight operations.  It is here that I am able to pull up the paperwork that will give me the vital information about our route of flight, the enroute weather,the departure and arrival airport conditions, and the condition of the airplane that is assigned to me for this flight.

After reading all the paperwork for this flight, I noticed that this plane had diverted to Las Vegas on the previous day, Saturday May 15th, for smoke or fumes in the cockpit.  The aircraft was ferried (flown without passengers) to San Francisco to the maintenance facility and was checked out further.  The mechanics there were unable to find the problem, or so the paperwork stated, and the aircraft was put back into service. Also noted in the paperwork was the inbound crew had, once again, written up smoke or fumes detected in the cockpit upon their arrival at JFK.

Upon my arrival to the gate and airplane, a mechanic was standing in the cockpit.  I engaged him in conversation regarding the write ups of the previous two days on the aircraft relating to the smoke and fumes in the cockpit.  He assured me that there was nothing found in the airplane that would warrant any concern on my part.  I conferred with my First Officer, we discussed our concerns, then decided that we would fly the airplane as planned.  However, my parting remarks to the mechanic was, “at the first hint of smoke, I will put this thing down on the very first piece of concrete that I see, do I make myself clear”!  The mechanic wasn’t too pleased with my parting shot!

Little did I know that the statement would become a reality!

With all the passengers seated, the bags all stowed, the cargo doors all closed and locked, it is time to push back, taxi out, and fly this B-757 to LAX.   It is now SHOWTIME!

As we took off to the west on runway 13R at JFK, at approximately 8:29 pm EDT, the lights of Queens and Howard Beach were in our face.  Shortly after liftoff we made a left turn to fly the departure over Canarsie, then out over NY Harbor heading to Sandy Hook, NJ.  From there the departure takes us just a little north of Philly as we are heading west for LAX.  During the climb  there are numerous turns and level offs to keep the north-south traffic separated from the traffic heading westward.

Momentarily after level off, I instructed my First Officer to turn off the seat belt sign and talk to the passengers.  He gave the “welcome aboard” speech, the pertinent details of the flight, our proposed arrival time, and arrival weather.

Once he finished his PA announcement we started to engage in some conversation.  Before even the first thought was completely expressed, a hissing sound emanating  from just below the left corner of where the front windshield meets the glareshield.  Almost simultaneously with the hissing sound, came smoke boiling out from under that same corner.  Likewise within a nano-second of the hissing and the smoke, fire erupted in that very same left-hand corner of the front windshield with flames running all the way up to the ceiling of the cockpit!  “Holy S!*t” was my first thought!

I immediately gave control of the airplane to my First Officer, told him to call ATC to declare an emergency, and request an immediate decent!  All the while we had put on our smoke goggles and oxygen masks, because the cockpit had started to fill up with that acrid electrical fire smell that burns your eyes, nose, and throat.  The acrid smell is very distinctive and once you have smelled you will never forget what it smells like!

As I whirled around and jumped out of my seat to grab the Halon fire bottle, which is located behind my seat on the back wall of the cockpit, the oxygen hose that is attached to my mask had reached its length limit, snatching both my goggles and mask off my face.  Holly Moses, I thought!  This is extremely bad timing and what a horribly poor design this is!  I am now stuck with fighting this fire, at least momentarily, without the use of my oxygen mask and smoke goggles. THIS REALLY SUCKS!

After I retrieved the first Halon fire bottle, I got my mask and goggles back on and began to fight this cockpit fire.  I pulled the pin, pointed the nozzle at the base of the flames, and squeezed the trigger. It seemed like simultaneously the bottle emptied and the flames extinguished. Thank you God, I thought!  My pulse lessened and I started to breath easier.  However, that feeling was only to be momentary at best!

Then just as suddenly as the flames extinguished, the flames re-lit!  “Oh my God, this may kill me”, I said to myself!  Instantaneously I spun around heading for the cockpit door to request from my Pursor/head flight attendant another Halon fire bottle.  With that move, once again, my oxygen mask and smoke goggles were snatched off my face with the same force as before!  Now my pulse had quickened once again, my blood pressure went through the roof, for I now felt the urgency of life and death!

As I opened the cockpit door I was met by my Pursor with a Halon fire bottle in his hands shoving into mine, he had already figured out that there was an electrical fire in the cockpit, and that I needed all the Halon bottles that he could muster up for my use.  I quickly closed the cockpit door and frantically pulled the pin on this bottle and began to empty the second Halon bottle into the fire.  It was in this time that we removed the power to the window heat by turning off the switches simultaneously while I was fighting the fire with the second fire bottle.  As this bottle emptied, the fire went out once again, hopefully to remain out for the duration of the flight.

Once this fire appeared to be out I climbed back into my seat and got up to speed with the First Officer on the progress of his requests.  I then told ATC that we wanted to land at Washington Dulles ASAP!  We had already started a descent and ATC had given us a vector heading, which was a turn to our right.  That would give us more time to get the aircraft down.  At this point the airplane was descending out of 36,000 feet and Dulles airport was only about 50-55 miles to our left.  The right turn was not the most direct path, however, it was going to give me the needed time to get this airplane down in the very short distance that was available!

Now it was time to assure the passengers that their pilots have the situation under control.  With that I got on the PA system and told the passengers that we have experienced an abnormality in the cockpit and that we have the situation well under control.  Additionally, the flight was now on its way to Washington Dulles for landing.  Furthermore, your flight attendants will have some much needed information, please pay very close attention.

The descent was fairly rapid at about 4,000-5000 feet per minute, with the speed brake fully extended for added drag.  As it turned out, the large sweeping right hand turn was working out just perfectly for loosing altitude and positioning the aircraft to line up on runway 19L at Washington Dulles.  By approximately 10 miles out of final approach the aircraft was stabilized, on course, and on profile for landing.  Everything was now under control! I was feeling like “mission accomplished”!

What else could possibly go wrong?

Finally everything had come together and was looking like a normal approach, fully configured, stabilized, now all that is left is put this on the runway and get it stopped!  At about 500 feet above the ground there was a very loud bang or explosion.  The noise shocked me and the view that I had instantly after the explosion was frightening.  My front windshield had shattered and crazed, I had zero forward visibility!

Immediately I transferred control of the aircraft to the First Officer so that he could make the landing.  Another curve ball was thrown at the crew.  For this last segment of the flight, I wasn’t sure if my windshield was going to implode into the cockpit an essentially fill me up with shattered shards of glass, and possibly cause great bodily harm to me!  Consequently, I was sitting very low in my seat, kinda like “Cheech and Chong” in the movie Up In Smoke, hoping to avoid the windshield, if in fact, it imploded in on me.

Once that aircraft was down to a very slow taxi speed I take back control of the aircraft and taxied it off the runway to the awaiting flotilla of fire trucks, the time was approximately 9:36 pm EDT.

With ground control acting as the liaison between the fire trucks and the flight crew, we coordinated engine shut down, the  firemen checking the exterior of the aircraft, and finally getting the fireman to board the aircraft to further check for the existence of fire inside the aircraft.

Once it was determined that the aircraft was safe the tug was allowed to hook up and pull the aircraft on the the gate.  Once out of the aircraft, after the paperwork was accomplished in the aircraft’s log book, I headed to our flight operations at out Washington Dulles.  Sitting down in a chair already was agents from the FAA!

Now even more  paperwork has just begun!

Following the paperwork came the different investigations regarding the cockpit fire over the next 10 days.

That is still another story to come!

However, I finally got to my hotel room at 1:00 am EDT Monday morning, May 17,2010, totally exhausted both physically and emotionally!

So other than that Captain, how was your flight this evening?

77 thoughts on “An Enlightening Experience”

  1. That’s quite a story Leon. Sure glad I wasn’t on your flight. Sounds like you did a great job & the story is very well written. How many seat cover changes??

  2. That’s quite a story Leon. Sure glad I wasn’t on your flight. Sounds like you did a great job & the story is very well written. How many seat cover changes??

  3. Capt. Hammack, What an outstanding display of professionalism and airmanship. I’m glad that all turned out well.

  4. Capt. Hammack, What an outstanding display of professionalism and airmanship. I’m glad that all turned out well.

  5. Dad you truly are a Hero.What you did was great you save a lot of lives,im thankful to have a dad like you love you dad.

  6. Dad you truly are a Hero.What you did was great you save a lot of lives,im thankful to have a dad like you love you dad.

  7. I would say that it looks like this experience put “some hair on your chest” but, in this situation it probably made all your hair fall out.

    Dad what you experienced was extremely unique and utterly frightening. How you handled was heroic!

  8. I would say that it looks like this experience put “some hair on your chest” but, in this situation it probably made all your hair fall out.

    Dad what you experienced was extremely unique and utterly frightening. How you handled was heroic!

  9. Leon,
    You learned your craft with many years of experience. Your “cool head” saved the aircraft and the lives on board. Well done blowdri. “smoke on”.

  10. Leon,
    You learned your craft with many years of experience. Your “cool head” saved the aircraft and the lives on board. Well done blowdri. “smoke on”.

  11. Thanks, Jason! It is really good to read that both of my sons really understand and appreciate some of my life’s experiences—-this one in particular! It was an experience that I do not ever wish to relive at all!

  12. Thanks, Jason! It is really good to read that both of my sons really understand and appreciate some of my life’s experiences—-this one in particular! It was an experience that I do not ever wish to relive at all!

  13. Good job Leon. I am now an inspector for the FAA (thank you Glen) for obvious reasons and give check and rating rides in the B-757/767. I would love to get more information from you; so, give me a call on my cell (727)643-3898. Jeff
    PS. I would never try to violate an old room mate.

  14. Good job Leon. I am now an inspector for the FAA (thank you Glen) for obvious reasons and give check and rating rides in the B-757/767. I would love to get more information from you; so, give me a call on my cell (727)643-3898. Jeff
    PS. I would never try to violate an old room mate.

  15. Gee, Leon. Some guys will do anything for a little fun.
    Captain Carpenter
    Tipper Flight Willy Air Force Base
    (aka Brophy)
    Good job Leon!
    Mark

  16. Gee, Leon. Some guys will do anything for a little fun.
    Captain Carpenter
    Tipper Flight Willy Air Force Base
    (aka Brophy)
    Good job Leon!
    Mark

  17. Leon,

    Sure glad it didn’t happen on one of the flights we flew together out in the middle of the Pacific at o-dark-thirty.

    This sounded challenging enough! Good job!

  18. Leon,

    Sure glad it didn’t happen on one of the flights we flew together out in the middle of the Pacific at o-dark-thirty.

    This sounded challenging enough! Good job!

  19. Leon.
    I knew about the inflight fire but did not know you were the Capt. You guys did a great job with the kind of experience no pilot wants to have. Like Dick, I am glad it did not happen to us in the middle of the Pacific. Don’t spend your bonus check for the good work in one place.

    Don

  20. Leon.
    I knew about the inflight fire but did not know you were the Capt. You guys did a great job with the kind of experience no pilot wants to have. Like Dick, I am glad it did not happen to us in the middle of the Pacific. Don’t spend your bonus check for the good work in one place.

    Don

  21. Good on you Capt. Hammack ! It’s always satisfying to hear of a triumph over the aviator’s bane, “Fire and Ice.” Continued victories to you!
    another “86er.”

  22. Good on you Capt. Hammack ! It’s always satisfying to hear of a triumph over the aviator’s bane, “Fire and Ice.” Continued victories to you!
    another “86er.”

  23. I applaud your efforts for a successful “save.” However, as a former ALPA Professional Standards Committeeman and strong believer in the team concept, I am somewhat disappointed that you give very little credit to your First Officer who, in my humble opinion, shines brightly throughout this incident. Milt (retired UA Captain)

    1. Thank you for your “humble opinion”, Milt. But somehow, Milt, you have missed the main point of this article. It is the story of one person’s response to a nearly catastrophic airborne event. It is not my point to write a novel outlining all of my crew members reactions, duties, and responses. There is no disrespect intended to my crew. Quite to the contrary, they acted very professional! But once again, you have totally missed the point of this story and I am truly sorry that you are disappointed!

  24. I applaud your efforts for a successful “save.” However, as a former ALPA Professional Standards Committeeman and strong believer in the team concept, I am somewhat disappointed that you give very little credit to your First Officer who, in my humble opinion, shines brightly throughout this incident. Milt (retired UA Captain)

    1. Thank you for your “humble opinion”, Milt. But somehow, Milt, you have missed the main point of this article. It is the story of one person’s response to a nearly catastrophic airborne event. It is not my point to write a novel outlining all of my crew members reactions, duties, and responses. There is no disrespect intended to my crew. Quite to the contrary, they acted very professional! But once again, you have totally missed the point of this story and I am truly sorry that you are disappointed!

    1. Thanks Troy. I am not sure that I would have had the same results with the 320, since it is the all electric jet!! It really might have done a “Cheech and Chong”……”Up In Smoke”!!

    1. Thanks Troy. I am not sure that I would have had the same results with the 320, since it is the all electric jet!! It really might have done a “Cheech and Chong”……”Up In Smoke”!!

  25. WOW!! I got this story by email from the wife of your cousin, Don Hammack.
    I flew single engine planes, many years ago. Your plane, all the instruments, controls, people on board, — it is just mind boggling!! When your article began with, “HOLY S@#T!”

  26. WOW!! I got this story by email from the wife of your cousin, Don Hammack.
    I flew single engine planes, many years ago. Your plane, all the instruments, controls, people on board, — it is just mind boggling!! When your article began with, “HOLY S@#T!”

  27. Great Job “Capt Blowdri”. 🙂 I hear about emergencies frequently as I am now a Operations Officer for the FAA in Seattle. Still remember those good days with you and Dick at Hickam. Cheers!

  28. Great Job “Capt Blowdri”. 🙂 I hear about emergencies frequently as I am now a Operations Officer for the FAA in Seattle. Still remember those good days with you and Dick at Hickam. Cheers!

  29. Captain:
    HELL OF A JOB LITTLE BROTHER you undoubtly saved many lives with your cool, under fire, clear headedness under pressure. Now you know how I felt many times as a coach in the bottom of the 9th inning, two out , no one on base, and trailing by two runs, your job on the line, and your worst hitter coming up next.

    As I have told you for years, you are a great pilot, from good Okie stock. Hope you get that bonus check, we will go out for dinner.

    The Coach

    1. I am trying to picture Leon moving “fast” in the tight space and not messing up his hair with the mask.

  30. Captain:
    HELL OF A JOB LITTLE BROTHER you undoubtly saved many lives with your cool, under fire, clear headedness under pressure. Now you know how I felt many times as a coach in the bottom of the 9th inning, two out , no one on base, and trailing by two runs, your job on the line, and your worst hitter coming up next.

    As I have told you for years, you are a great pilot, from good Okie stock. Hope you get that bonus check, we will go out for dinner.

    The Coach

  31. Leon,
    How you doing Buddy? Would love to chat with you. Email me or call me at 678-613-8719.
    Regards, Steve Wachsler

  32. Leon,
    How you doing Buddy? Would love to chat with you. Email me or call me at 678-613-8719.
    Regards, Steve Wachsler

  33. Wow. Nicely written and “enlightening” for sure. Great job to you and your crew.
    I do have some questions if I may.
    Can you as a Captian refuse to fly a plane that had been known to have issues and have them provide you with anothe rplane for that particular flight?
    What was your original though when you became aware that you were going to fly the “smoking” plane?

    Brenda

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