Aircraft Vs. Snakes – OR- Snakes on a Plane!

We’ve all read stories or have heard of conflicts between aircraft and many different forms of wildlife, but how about SNAKES? Who has ever heard of an aircraft problem with snakes? Collisions between aircraft and birds or animals are common, yes. But SNAKES? Come on!  True, they have “escaped” into the compartment of cargo aircraft, but that usually causes only minor concern. No big deal. Since 1985 more than 30 Air Force planes and 33 flyers have been lost because of bird or animal collisions, resulting in a 50 million dollar loss. But none were due to snakes.  The commercial airlines can tell a comparable story. A few years ago in Alaska a small gaggle of Canada geese caused the loss of an AWACS aircraft and crew during takeoff. Hawks, buzzards and other large birds have caused considerable damage and in some case the loss of an aircraft when the collision occurred during flight. During my flying days I splattered several feathered flyers on the nose or wings of B-29s and B-52s and BBQ’d others by ingesting them through jet engines. It was not that unusual.

Other forms of wildlife are also a hazard. Ellsworth AFB in So. Dakota had/has a problem with deer on the field. One challenged a landing B-1 bomber causing considerable damage to both participants. Wolves, coyotes, deer, caribou and domestic animals have all wandered onto landing strips and caused problems, in addition to those with birds. These encounters are a real hazard which causes much concern and is one that has been around since man began flying.  In 1946, when we were landing on Guam, a small deer ran into the #3 prop of the C-54 landing ahead of us. The deer received more damage than did the prop. To date, no effective way to completely prevent these encounters has been found.

But have you ever heard of problems, collisions or encounters with SNAKES? Especially when flying? Very unusual you would think. But during my flying career, I had two encounters with snakes. No kidding? Well, sort of! No real damage was done either time and the missions were completed but at the time they were interesting.

On this one, please use your imagination to get the picture. (And forgive me if when accessing information stored over 50 years, some might come back a bit dusty.)  In the early 1950s my B-29 wing was deployed to our forward operating base on the island of Guam. We were equipped with MR-29s (modified receivers). These were B-29 bomber aircraft modified for in-flight refueling using a 4 inch hose passed between two aircraft. A squadron of KB-29s modified as tankers were also on the island. We routinely joined them to practice in-flight refueling. Since Guam is a small island, almost all our flying was over the ocean. Refueling was always accomplished over water.

Here’s a quick summary on how in-flight refueling was accomplished back then. Refueling altitude was in the 8,000-12,000 ft area. The receiver aircraft would deploy a cable with an end stabilizer dish to approximately 100-150 feet behind the aircraft. The tanker aircraft would approach from behind, come forward to a position alongside and slightly higher until its nose was near the mid section of the receiver. The tanker would deploy a cable with a 55 lb. lead weight which hung down below their aircraft. The tanker would then “slide” across the top of the receiver, and snatch the receiver’s cable with their cable hook. When the cable connection was made the tanker would assume a position slightly behind, higher, and to one side of the receiver. The joined cables would then be winched into the tanker. The receiver’s cable was then attached to the end of the 4” flexible black rubber hose. The tanker deployed the hose, and the receiver operator would reel in the cable, pulling the hose into the receiver. When the hose was full in, the hookup was made and fuel transferred. When in this position there would be some 150-200 feet of hose going out the back of the tanker, bending around and coming down into the receiver. Fuel transfer was fairly slow, so the procedure took several minutes. It was a hairy operation, especially at night or in rough air. When the fuel transfer was complete, the reverse would happen. The hose would be let out, go around the large bend and be reeled back into the higher tanker aircraft. The receiver’s cable would be removed, the stabilizing dish re-installed and turned loose, causing it to string out behind the receiver which would reel it back in.

We were about to finish our refueling practice one afternoon when this “fake snake” episode happened. We had about 50-75 feet of cable out, still attached to about 100-150 feet of hose which the tanker was reeling in when without warning, the rubber hose snapped, breaking clean. So there we were with our extended cable attached to this long length of black hose which appeared to be chasing our aircraft. With nothing to keep it steady, the end of the black hose would snap, causing pieces to break off and fall into the ocean. The tanker crew was aware of what happened and came alongside to see if there was anything they could do to hinder or help. Of course all kinds of chatter ensued between the two aircraft but the best comment, since they couldn’t see our cable (just the hose) was the comment that “makes” the story. It was a remark which went something like this. “Boy, that’s the weirdest thing we’ve ever seen. A hundred foot black snake chasing a B-29!” Their mirth went on for several minutes with more unprintable observations of “how funny it looks” and what else it might do! Too bad there wasn’t a camera among some of those tanker comedians.

After the hilarity ceased, it became our problem of what to do? We tried to wind the cable in, but when the hose snapped our cable was wedged between the reel windings which locked the winch. We tried to run it to the “out” position but it would not move, neither in nor out. We tried hacking or prying the cable loose using the fire ax, but it was a very strong cable, so that proved futile. We just could not get rid of the cable or the hose. So what next? As long as we were in the air, no big problem other than looking weird. But what might happen during landing? When landing at Anderson AFB on Guam we came in over the jungle and landed NW toward the ocean. Back then the jungle and trees were nearer the end of the runway than they are now. We knew as airspeed decreased the hose would hang lower. Was it possible for the hose or the cable to hang-up on one of the trees and what might happen if it did? Would the cable break or would the tree give way. Or would it act as a huge “bungee-cord” attached to the aircraft? Discussion with our maintenance people brought little help since this was a somewhat unusual occurrence. Their only advice – “Get rid of it if you can”. With no better option available, we came in for our landing using a steeper than normal descent and landed safely! We taxied to our parking spot pulling what was left of our “snake” (now dead) and turned our “problem” over to the maintenance people. A happy ending for this SAC aircrew.

The second snake incident happened flying MR-29s also, from Mountain Home AFB, ID. The crew chief, while watching us taxi one hot afternoon, shook his head, waved, and pointed to the left main gear. It appeared normal to us and as he did not signal to stop we continued. We took off and after 10-12 hours had completed our round-robin mission. Back on base the same crew chief went to the left gear and using his long handled “pinchers” reached between the wheel spokes and pulled out a two to three foot rattlesnake! He said he saw it crawl in just before we taxied, so it was there the entire flight. We laughed and wondered how the snake felt after rotating over 100 mph on take-off, then being nearly frozen, to again being whirled around like crazy during landing.  It was still alive, but a bit chilled and groggy and not too eager to slither away! We thought he’d probably tell all his friends that it wasn’t a very smart thing to do. And no, since he wasn’t on the flight orders, we did not log him credit in the Form 1. Don’t think he was even on flight status orders.

So how about this for a couple of “snake” stories that was interesting at the time, and is now something to remember with mirth. As they say when talking about wildlife, “Isn’t nature both wonderful and un-predictable?” It surely is filled with many surprises as was the life of many SAC aircrew members during the cold war.

Francis H. Potter

Col. USAF Ret.

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