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UTSI Student Recalls Struggle to Keep Wayward Airplane Aloft

“You had to be there.” Maj. Nathan Neblett, a Marine test pilot, uses these five words to sum up a 27-second experience with a gone-wild KC-130 tanker aircraft that neither he nor his 10 fellow flyers will ever forget.

The University of Tennessee Space Institute Aviation Systems student was cited for bringing in the wayward plane that twice flipped upside down after 200-pound rafts, stored under a wing, somehow escaped and one snagged on the horizontal stabilizer of the plane’s tail.

While defending his master’s thesis at UTSI, Neblett confirmed that all 11 passengers on board thought they would meet their death in the West Virginia mountains last April 12. Restrained from discussing details of the episode, he stood by quotes attributed to him in two stories written by James Darcy, public affairs officer with the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD).

Based on Darcy’s account, this is what happened: The crew from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20) left the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., bound for Twentynine Palms, Calif., where a series of high-temperature tests on the new Electronic Propeller Control System (EPCS) was scheduled. At 24,000 feet, everyone had unbuckled except Neblett and co-pilot Dan Sanders.

Suddenly the aircraft was “rolling through a death spiral toward the mountains of West Virginia,” Darcy wrote. Without any attitudinal references, Neblett was fighting to bring the plane under control while Sanders was struggling to keep hands off the controls. Other crew members were being tossed here and there, some bloodied by flying projectiles, trying to grab some anchor.

None of them knew why the plane had gone crazy. They could not see that the inflatable life rafts stored in the left wing had somehow escaped and one had become what Darcy called a “massive asymmetric drag chute.”

The aircraft lost nearly 9,000 feet of altitude in the 27 seconds as Neblett tried in vain to determine which way was up; his Attitude Direction Indicator was useless. Twice the plane flipped upside down. Neblett recalled that Wray Emrich, flight engineer, was “bouncing off the ceiling” as the plane headed downward.

Cans of hydraulic fluid shot through the plane “like cannonballs,” Darcy said. Three months afterwards, Sandy Hartkemeyer, loadmaster, was quoted as saying she still had indentations on her body. She and the others were “pinballs,” the pilot said, “flying here and there in an 80 by 10 by nine-foot space” in the rear of the plane. Neblett remembered that the only thing that didn’t move “was our instrument panel.”

These were not amateurs. The crew had accumulated more than 34,000 hours of flight time and Neblett had been a test pilot with VX-20 for more than two years. He had 1,200 hours at the control of C-130’s.

Based on later data analysis, Neblett was quoted as saying that 11 seconds into the nightmare, “we were 45 degrees nose down, with 350 knots forward air speed.” The maximum safe speed for this plane at that altitude is 315 knots.

Darcy quoted the co-pilot that the raft “sawed through the aluminum until it hit a stainless steel duct” in the tail of the plane, creating a huge amount of drag and interfering with the elevator, which controls the aircraft’s pitch.

Neblett had immediately disengaged the autopilot and relying on his test pilot experience, was wrestling to arrest the spin. Co-pilot Sanders – with 4,600 hours as a Marine Corps C-130 Hercules pilot before retiring a year ago as a major — had pulled the throttles back to idle. He was battling to avoid interfering with the pilot.

The airflow demolished most of the snagged raft. Neblett worked with Sanders, whose Attitude Direction Indicator was functioning, and got the wings level. Pulling back on the yoke, he coaxed the plane out of its dive. The altimeter read 15,000 feet. The plane’s maximum rate of descent had reached 19,000 feet per minute.

Neblett radioed authorities at Tri-State Airport in Huntington, W. Va., advising that he had wounded aboard and was making an emergency landing. Three crew members were hospitalized after the smooth touch-down.

Rear Admiral Jeff Wieringa, NAWCAD Commander, pinned the Air Medal on Maj. Neblett for saving the lives of the passengers and crew. The citation noted that Neblett’s “aeronautical instinct, aggressiveness, and level head led to the remarkable recovery of a non-aerobatic aircraft from uncontrolled flight while sustaining absolutely minimum damage.” His “superb airmanship, decisive decision-making, perseverance, and loyal devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service,” the citation concluded.

About that EPCS they were going to test? Sanders credited it with helping the engines to hold during the extreme challenge of the run-away flight.

Neblett, a native Texan, and a fellow test pilot, Navy Lt. Commander John Rosseau of Maryland, were at UTSI in late October, defending theses for
master’s degrees in Aviations Systems. Joining their major professor, Ralph Kimberlin, on the committee was George W. Masters, adjunct professor for Aviation Systems, and a former test pilot instructor at Patuxent.