This story should come with a Warning Label: Do Not Try at Home Airport. Especially if it’s a major, air carrier airport in a large metropolitan area. Now that I’ve satisfied all legal disclaimer requirements, on with the story.
Back in the last century – around the 1970s – I worked for an air carrier that is mercifully out of business today. But at the time, they operated a fleet of some dozen C-130s, all-cargo, hauling all sorts of goods. Typically, they carried drilling equipment. The long-tail entry of the C-130 made it ideal for out-sized dimensions. For oil, the equipment was usually destined for the Middle East. For water, it went to countries in Africa.
This particular New Year’s Eve, I had the night off. Since having a holiday night off was rare in those days, we planned a big gathering at my house for friends and family. We were well into the celebrating that night – with all that New Year’s Eve celebrations entail – when the phone rang shortly before midnight.
As it turned out, I was not going to have this holiday night off. Maintenance control had an aircraft coming into Boston with a wing overheat warning light. All I knew was that the aircraft – en route from Houston to Gander to Shannon to a Saudi military base – was diverting with a serious maintenance problem. There was no waiting until the next morning. I had to stop partying then and there, change clothes and hustle off to the airport.
By the time I got to the airport, the C-130 had landed and was parked near the international, passenger terminal. I debriefed the crew on what the problem was and proceeded to do an inspection, trying to find what caused the overheat warning light to illuminate. Finding no obvious reason, I asked the crew to run the engine. Since the problem came from the wing root area, it was important for me to look there first. A pallet piled high with boxes was conveniently located just where I needed it and up I clambered.
With the engine running, I could hear and feel the rush of hot air, a sure sign of a pneumatic leak. I don’t have to tell any of you how hot that air gets – and how dangerous it can be for the aircraft structure and, of course, the contents of the hold. I climbed down and told the crew to shut the engine. Then back up the boxes I went to work on fixing the problem. Being anxious to get back on the schedule, the first officer came by to see how I was doing. Seeing me on the boxes, he asked me if I knew what I was standing on. With no markings on anything anywhere in the hold, I answered, no, I had no clue.
Dynamite, he said. The aircraft was shipping dynamite and equipment to Saudi Arabia to put out an uncontained oil well fire. He sure had my attention now! If getting back to the New Year’s Eve party wasn’t motivation enough to hurry up this job, this certainly was!
Moral of the Story: Where do I begin? Hazardous cargo clearly needs to be labeled. Mechanics need to know when they’re working around hazardous cargo. And, of course, never park a potentially explosive aircraft anywhere near a passenger terminal. And, while sensitivities in the past were different, we know today that maintenance and alcohol don't mix.