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while fling in Cleo

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I In The I By
Paul Rollins

The Association
of Naval Aviation

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The information below is from Walt Walter's book, THE WIND CHASERS

The Photos (all original) were given to Rod Howell
 from another squadron member in January of 1968.

On the 19th of August 1964, the U.S. Weather Bureau Office in San Juan, Puerto Rico discovered an area of cloudiness and possible tropical circulation about 1000 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. The squad­ron had been tracking Hurricane Cleo since the 20th when one of the squadron aircraft discovered a low pressure area east of where the bad weather was re­ported. Continual tracking and reporting was made as she moved across the Caribbean. On the 24th Hurricane Cleo was approximately eighty-five to one hundred twenty-five miles south, southwest of Puerto Rico and moving west. Commander Walt Reese and his crew took off at 8:50am in WV-3, Bureau Number 137891 from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to reconnoiter the storm. They were to make a low-level, daylight penetration and then land at the Naval Station Roosevelt Roads. They were to collect the usual weather data as on all penetrations, the lowest barometric pressure, areas of precipitation and extent of winds including the highest winds in the storm.

It was the third pilot, Lieutenant (jg) Desmond Phelan, who was in the left seat as the plane lumbered into the sky that bright August day. The Super Con­stellation headed southeast through the Caribbean skirting the southern tip of Haiti then heading directly towards Cleo. As usual they were maintaining between 1000 and 500 feet above the wave tops while trying to burn some fuel out of the tip tanks. Commander Reese had elected to fill the tanks and they had some six hundred gallons in them or nearly one ton of weight at the end of each wing. After little more than two hours of droning along with scattered to broken clouds with bases at about fifteen hundred feet, the three meteorolo­gists sighted the great black blur ahead. Sizing her up on radar they determined her to be a moderate to large tropical hurricane some one hundred miles wide with clouds nine miles high. This put the cloud tops at somewhere over 46,000 feet. The radioman passed the next message to the Joint Hurricane Warning Center in Miami, warning them of the severity and enormity of. this hurricane. Miami then issued a watch for the East Coast of the United States which later proved to have saved many lives.

During this period the plane increasingly flew into more and more rain, wind and turbulence. Weather bands, like spirals on a pinwheel, were encountered more and more as the plane penetrated into the storm. This action caused the tips to flex more and more. Commander Reese walked through the fuselage, hot and crowded with instruments and people. At the Combat Information Center he peered into the radar for his first good look at this wild she-devil. The storm sprawled on the radar screens like a pulsing green octopus. They were approaching the storm from the southwest but there on the screen was an ominous '1hook" cloud some fifty miles long and many miles wide. The echoes from the radar indicated heavy tor­rents of solid precipitation along its entire structure with heavy rain. Beyond the hook lay the dark hole of the eye itself. This is where they were headed hoping for some respite from the severe turbulence and heavy rain which they were sure to encounter. This is where the crew intended to get the vital statistics of Cleo and send them back to the JHWC at Miami. Commander Reese once again checked the radar, which was then focused on the odd looking hook cloud. 'Pretty solid stuff," warned the CIC Officer, Ron Walker. Commander Reese nodded his head in agreement. When Reese returned to the cockpit he ordered the plane to circle their present position to burn down the tip tank fuel. It was only a short time before he again headed the aircraft into the storm. The radar now showed a safe passage into the eye of the storm without having to enter the hook shaped cloud.

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Expecting the worst Commander Reese returned to the cockpit and ordered the crew to don their Mae Wests and get strapped into their stations for the rough ride to come. Figuring now that the aircraft was down to a safe penetration weight, Commander Reese told CIC to give them a course to the eye and to "con" them into it. Of course the heading would have to change frequently to keep the surface winds forward of the port wing. The radarmen in CIC now became the eyes of the plane coordinated with the meteorologist who was observing the surface winds and barometric pressure, they guided the plane towards the center of the raging fury while trying to keep the plane out of the worst weather.

As the wind rose, "Metro" Chief, Frank Morgan kept calling out the surface winds: "64 knots... .70... .90.... 110 knots (125 miles-per-hour)."

At 12:45 pm came the first real test. Whirling and swirling just ahead, five miles high and twenty-five miles thick lay the deadly wall cloud. Surface wind increased, 115...120, humidity was now 100% with a steady wall of water. The aircraft lurched forward. The engines were straining. The pilot called for more power. The fury below was all white. Turbulence increased to the point where all the cockpit instruments seemed to be dancing as if suspended in air. They were almost unreadable. Lieutenant Commander Don Edgren, who was at the controls, had all he could do to keep the aircraft upright and the wings somewhere close to level. Finally, the plane punched into the area which was where the eye was seen on radar but as they left the wall behind them, the pilots and crew stared in astonishment. The storm had no calm eye. It should have been a big, cloud-domed room about fifteen miles in diameter. Instead it was a wild, confused whirlwind turned loose on the aircraft. Winds were of exceedingly high velocity blowing in several directions at the same time. Turbu­lence was extreme. The plane was being tossed around like a toy. Reese and Edgren tried to make several turns but the plane was blown into the wall cloud a number of times. This was a storm with an eye gone mad. No one had ever seen anything like it before. There was no peaceful place to rest and relax for this crew. They had hoped to have a cup of coffee while the meteorologists took the pulse of the storm, instead everyone was just hanging on for dear life.

Reese decided to get the plane out as fast as possible. He managed one last tight turn, then called CIC, "Give me an immediate exit course, we're getting out." CIC scanning their radar replied almost immediately," best route out lies south by southwest, take up a heading of 150 degrees." Next Lieutenant Commander Edgren made a strange request. "It's my turn to make the exit-remember?" Reese replied, "She's all yours, take her out!"

At 1:01pm Edgren braced his feet on the rudder pedals and took a firm grip on the yoke. He brought the plane around until it was headed directly for the wall. Immediately the plane was buffeted by one hundred twenty-five mile-per-hour winds hitting its right wing. Turbulence was extreme, rain like a solid brick wall. "More power," called Edgren. The plane began bucking like a wild stallion. As the wall cloud swallowed up the plane, the sea disappeared. Edgren concentrated on his altimeter, turn and bank indicators and rate of climb.

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Two minutes later the area surrounding the aircraft went black. Edgren heard Reese ask CIC to check their radar. A heavy jolt shocked the plane. Instantly the reply came, "Radar's off the line, we've lost our signal." Just when the crew needed it most the radar had failed and now they were flying blind in the most severe weather anyone can comprehend.

The horror was just beginning. The only thing the crew could do was hold the 150 degree heading and pray. More hard bounces shook the wings. At 1:04pm there was a great updraft as though the aircraft had flown over an explosion. When the aircraft started up the crew found itself pinned to their seats by the G forces the aircraft was then experiencing. One crewmember found himself lying on the deck grabbing for a chair. He tried in vain to force himself up. The extraordinary upward acceleration continued. Phelan, who was strapped in behind the cockpit found himself watching the left wing. It was flexing hard. The engines were blowing blue fire, straining to maintain their power output. As he watched, the left tip tank swung wild like a big cigar. He shouted through the intercom, "The left tip tank is going." The tank tore loose, dangled momen­tarily from broken fastenings and pipes then suddenly vanished, leaving the outer end of the wing torn and spewing fuel. The plane banked sharply toward the right wing which still had the tank attached and prob­ably half full of fuel. The Lockheed manual states that a Constellation's wings must never be more than 300 pounds out of balance. This crew now obviously had an incredible imbalance of nearly two tons; the weight of the right tip tank plus fuel. 

In the cockpit as the right wing dipped, almost pulling the plane over on its side, Reese and Fdgren fought the controls. They got the wing up slightly. Reese shouted to the Flight Engineer, Vic Workman, for "MAX" power. Momentarily the four engines roared as Workman increased r.p.m. and pushed his throttles forward. The engines went from 2,600 r.p.m. to 2900 r.p.m-then suddenly, crazily dropped to 2000 r.p.m. With a surge and a howl, engines number 1, 2, and 3 returned to 2900 r.p.m. The unnerving sound reminded Reese of a race car revving up in a series of prestart bursts. Soon number 4 joined the howling and wandering.

All engines now began changing speed. Were C forces upsetting the governor flyweights, or were the propellers cavitating? Whatever the cause the crews heart rates were increasing, respiration becoming shal­low and abrupt and perspiration exceeding all norms. What ever they had run into they were surely only minutes from total obliteration.

Commander Reese prepared to dump fuel to gain stability and lighten the right wing. Before his chance came, at 1:10pm, without warning, a second jolt even greater than the first shook the aircraft. This was fol­lowed immediately by a wild plunge with loss in alti­tude. In the cockpit Reese's headphones were ripped off his head. In the engineers panel there was a loud crash. Two radios had torn out of their racks. In the rear of the cabin Chief Frank Morgan, though strapped in, was hurled off his seat and lay groaning on the deck.

Everything within the aircraft strained at their moorings. Toolboxes which were lashed down broke loose and rose in the air like balloons. Paper napkins, pencils, charts and navigators kits rose and remained suspended in the air as if suddenly transformed into lighter than air objects. navigator Eston Haymond seeing his equipment floating away tried unsuccessfully to retrieve them. A half-dollar rose from his pocket and hung in mid-air. He snatched it back angrily.

A flashlight was ripped from Phelan's hand and flew to the ceiling. He never saw it again. Back in CIC, Radarman John Lewis, his seat belt broken, found him­self pinned to the ceiling. He couldn't get down. Other men floated up there with him, among the parachutes.

Technician Jim Kieffer grabbed a table to hold himself down. The table cut off the end of a finger above the small knuckle as he went to the overhead. Above all the confusion, Lewis head him shout gamely, they'll never make a yeoman of me now."

Suddenly, the men on the overhead found them­selves hurled to the deck. Lewis came down hard on meteorologist Norman Putrite. Lewis heard him cry, "Where's my arm?" Lewis looked and said, "You're laying on it, Its broken!"

The plane literally began to come unglued. The second tip tank tore of{ metal panels were ripped from the wing and the great radome below the fuselage split right down the middle. Inside the fuselage a fire axe broke loose and began chopping holes in the deck.

The engines were still running despite being flooded by the torrential rain that the plane was now encounter­ing. The crew dared not close the cowl flaps for fear water would build up over the engines and cool them enough to make them stop functioning. The second Flight Engineer, Marshall Jones, worked his way aft in the fuselage. There he found Chief Morgan badly bruised and bleeding. He and Lewis determined that he was hurt very badly. Lewis had his own hand torn, pointed to the man with the broken arm. "When we ditch," he said, "you take the chief and I'll take Putrite."

The plane was now wallowing and losing altitude. Chief Morgan still had enough professionalism in him left to glance up and read the altimeter. "This thing reads zero." "This is it!" Someone else shouted, "Yes, we've hit the ocean at last." The plane went on flying however, bouncing from one wave to the other but still flying. The crew finally got out an emergency message. "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We are in urgent need of assistance." Every ship, aircraft and shore station heard their cry for help. Tracking stations including ships initiated a radio search. Within minutes Dan Chesler, Squadron Commanding Officer, who was back at the base in Roosevelt Roads knew the exact position and problem Snowcloud One was having. The Coast Guard at San Juan launched a Grumann Albatross amphibian and he headed into the area of the storm which lay some one hundred fifty miles south. He knew there wasn't much he could do should the Constellation have to ditch in the high winds and bad weather. He was hoping for them to at least get out of the storm before they had to ditch.

The Constellation was now bouncing along, pitch­ing and yawing with her engines roaring weirdly. The crew hadn't been able to make much altitude and the storm had them pinned close to the surface. Com­mander Reese knew that most of the storm lay between him and Puerto Rico. His main hope was to fly west and get out of the storm before he had to ditch. He found that loss of the second tip tank had helped. The plane still threatened to come unglued but some of the imbalance was gone. It still crabbed sideways because the second tank had taken a much bigger chunk of the right wing with it. The Albatross was now calling. Reese heard them report that they had him on radar and were going to close and fall in behind them.

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"Thanks," replied Reese as he went back to see his crew while Phelan relieved the arm-weary Edgren at the controls. The storm conditions had subsided some and conditions were improving all the time. Phelan had found her awfully shaky. He had to fly her at 170 knots, no more no less. Still flying below five hundred feet the plane dodged the worst weather by flying under it. Within an hour the crew spotted storm-stressed trees just below. It was the forest of Puerto Rico. The crew however was not in a rejoicing mood. They weren't sure at this time whether the landing gear would come down let alone hold up for a landing. They had not tested her yet for slow flight. Reese would wait until they were under Ground Control Approach (GCA-radar) control before trying that. Roosevelt Roads GCA came up on frequency and reported that they had Snowcloud One in radar contact. Commander Reese coaxed the plane around the GCA pattern. They were in the process of completing the Landing Check List. First Engineer, Vic Workman called out the Landing Check List. "Autopi­lot off?" Reese replied, "Off." Workman, "RPM set at 2400?" Reese replied, "RPM will remain at 2600." Workman, "Fuel Tanks?" Reese, "Set on Emergency." Workman, "Landing Flaps?" Reese made a quick cal­culation, "Flaps will remain up during the approach." He was afraid that the hydraulic system might have been damaged and might cause split flaps should he try to lower them. Of course this could have been disastrous. Reese called for the landing gear to be lowered. The copilots heart started to pump faster. He selected down and the gear left its up position and the landing doors cracked open. He stared at the landing gear position indicator. Finally three gear indicated down and locked. Would it hold for landing, that was the $64,000 question. Commander Reese now slowed the aircraft, some say to 122 knots but he quickly determined that this speed would probably put them into the trees before getting to the runway. He increased his speed to a no-flap approach speed which meant he would have to come in flat and hot.

Suddenly she burst out of the clouds, slightly below the normal glide path, leaking fuel from her broken wings with the Coast Guard Albatross sticking to her like glue. Snowcloud One was still yawing, pitching and bucking. The crew guided her to a fairly smooth touchdown. The fire trucks were rolling long before she touched the runway. The crew held their breath waiting for the swerve and the gear buckling. No swerve. The gear held. The engines were all put in reverse and despite the high touchdown speed, Commander Reese brought the aircraft to a smooth halt. The crew raced through the ground emergency shutdown procedures while the fire trucks and ambulances surrounded the aircraft. Inside the cabin a weary voice echoed the sentiment of the entire crew, "Well, we made it again."

The incident was investigated and the squadron determined that it was only that, however, when the paperwork reached the Safety Center in Norfolk it was kicked back and determined to be an accident due to the severe injuries sustained by the crew.

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