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Last week a US Air Force C-17 transport plane (tail #96-0002) made a dazzling nighttime “wheels up” belly landing at Bagram Air Base in Aghanistan sending sparks and flames higher than the tailplane (which on the C-17 is five stories high).  The crash led to a three-day closure of the airfield for fixed-wing operations, as the plane came to a rest right in the middle of the airfield’s only runway, until the fully-loaded behemoth could finally be moved off the runway.  A UH-60M pilot stationed at Bagram has a far more interesting account of the crash, and there is mounting opinion on a  number of discussion forums that C-17 pilots are playing “cowboy” and executing hard and fast wartime landings at Bagram, which makes for dramatic flying but can lead to safety issues.  As you can see from the photograph, damage to this aircraft is pretty extensive.

Crashed C-17:  a $200 million writeoff?

Crashed C-17: that'll buff right out, sir!

This isn’t the first time this kind of incident has happened at Bagram.  In October a P-3 Orion crashed after overshooting the runway, and the Navy quickly relieved the Commander (who was piloting the plane) of his post.  Only a week or so before this latest incident, the overshoot of a C-17 at Bagram resulted in minor damage and caused only limited disruption — but in 2005, another C-17 (tail #01-0196) was very nearly written-off after overshooting the runway, causing extensive damage (see below).

C-17 at Bagram in 2005:  another fixer-upper

C-17 at Bagram in 2005: another fixer-upper

The 2005 crash resulted in a fairly remarkable recovery and restoration.  The plane was very nearly considered for a writeoff, however it was made (barely) airworthy by Boeing technicians on the airfield and then hopscotched back to Long Beach for an extensive reconditioning.  It has been flying again since the summer of 2006.

Bagram, an ex-soviet base built during that country’s (understatement) expedition in Afghanistan, is a forward operating airfield run by the US Army in a rather hotly-contested area of the country.  This means that it primarily supports A-10 attack aicraft as well as the Army’s usual complement of AH-64, UH-60, and CH-47 helicopters.  In 2007 an ambitious suicide bombing attack against the Bagram airfield claimed 23 dead and might have killed Dick Cheney while he was on a special morale-depleting visit.  That said, a town has now built up around the airfield and the base itself is considered relatively secure.

A number of other pilots have criticized aircrews of the C-17 and other non-attack aircraft of “flying hard” and using “combat zone” landing techniques when coming into Bagram.  This means landing hard, low, and fast and would certainly explain many of the overshoots.  Whatever the cause, in order to mitigate the overshoots and to make the field more usable by larger aircraft, the runway was extended in 2006 after the 2005 C-17 overshoot (C-17s can land in as little as 3,500 feet, and after the 2006 lengthening Bagram’s main (and only usable) runway is 11,000 feet long).  However, the overshoots have persisted.

The cautionary note on Bagram’s pilot’s briefing is pretty benign (for a combat airfield):

Ctl explosions and de-mining ops in vcnty of arpt, ATC will advise. Acft opr blw FL210 may experience a loss of rdo and/or radar ctc with Bagram ATC at dist greater than 30 NM. MPN-25 (ASR/PAR) PMI Mon-Fri 1930-2130Z. Hi potential for hydroplanning when rwy sfc is wet. Rwy in advanced state of decay, increased possibility of FOD. Avoid ovft 1/2 mile NE dep end Rwy 03, burn pit will cause inadvertent flare dispersal. tkof obstacle rwy 03 4900′ MSL ant , 599′ fr DER, 510′ leftof cntrln. Lit twr, 120′ AGL, Rwy 03 apch end 1,250 ft E of cntrln. Lit twr, 120′ AGL, 1,250 ‘ E of cntrln midfield Rwy 03/21. Poss 1/2 rwy width clsd for const, ctc App for status. Twy H btn twys B and E is 44 ft wide. Acft use inboard eng only to reduce FOD.

It goes on to warn that if the airfield is under attack, you should stay above 25,000 feet; and avoid flying below 1000 feet West of the airfield or you could get shot down by US air defenses.  :)   That said, though, for a C-17 to come in to Bagram these days doesn’t seem to be particularly challenging, unless you fly over the burn pit and your anti-SAM flares go off from the heat.  Baghdad’s briefing is a little more frightening.

Concerningly, the peanut gallery seems to think that this particular air crew failed to follow their checklist in the heat of .. erm .. battle and essentially forgot to deploy the landing gear.  It will take some time in order to figure that out of course, but C-17s are outfitted with cockpit voice recorders and if the pilots have anything to hide, news will come out soon enough.  Others have pointed out that hot-dogging it into Bagram is becoming a bit too commonplace.

The briefing above does contain a bit of a nugget, though:  “use inboard eng only to reduce FOD”.  In other words, pilots are instructed to run outboard engines at idle in order to prevent them from sucking in debris from the outer edges of the runway and adjacent desert (thought this might apply only to taxiing).  As Global Security points out, the thrust reversers are an integral part of the C-17’s ability to land in short distances –and if pilots are coming in hot but only using inboard thrust reversers to slow down upon landing, they’ve got 50% less thrust to use in braking.  That’s a problem.  Maybe our most recent celebrity C-17 crew just figured the easiest way to slow down in a short distance was to retract the landing gear.

In the meantime, Canada now has 4 C-17s, designated the CC-177.  If one of ours were to crash at Kandahar while the pilots were playing “Top Gun” the consequences would be disastrous to the Canadian military’s mobility, and to its budget.  Both of the badly damaged C-17s hail from Charleston, South Carolina.  Let’s hope that if the “hot-dogging” allegations have any merit, that our guys are a little more Formula One, and a little less NASCAR.

UPDATE: Welcome trolls from Charleston!  Your comments will be approved (see below)…

UPDATE 2/22: New photos popped up last week from the night of the crash… some interesting details were revealed.