< Also published in Pilots
For Christ International
Crisis Over Canada
a true story by Clyde E. Millington (1961; written 1987)
Now I know it for fact. Statistically,
there is a fair certainty that anyone who operates high performance military
aircraft for two decades or more is going to encounter at least one very
hair-raising experience before that term has expired. For me, and for my
brother David, in the same incident, our trial came relatively early in our
This is not necessarily a story involving courage since I am quite
ready to confess that, during the fifteen minutes or so of its happening, I
was gripped by a fear so raw that I think I quite adequately discounted
myself from any passing consideration for commendation. Yet the episode
should make good reading as I endeavor to narrate an experience that so
stunned my complacency about God and self that even now, 26 years later, its
vividness is almost as intense as the day of its enactment. For, in those
minutes after the dire emergency commenced, factors began to compound
against us until, at the most critical moment, the circumstances utterly
exceeded my ability to control them. I remain convinced it could only have
been Providence which righted our swerving craft at the crucial moment just
before touchdown. The years make me only more sure that something very
special happened at that instant.
Though I considered for a time that our factor might be ascribed to
luck, however benevolent to us in this one incident, such a caprice was too
pale a candidate to supply the comfort and assurance that might be needed on
future flights into foreboding unknown. I had arrived in a situation needing
intervention of the personal God. However tenuous was my initial faith, I
think it began here in earnest. To God I give full credit that I am here to
write this narrative. Let His name be praised!
interrupting the story, allow me to precede the main story with needed
background that will enhance the picture. Let something be said about the
airplane involved, the national posture of the '60s, and the mission itself.
The airplane was a Lockheed T-33A, more affectionately called the
“T-Bird.” Designed with tandem (one behind the other) cockpits and dual
flight controls, the T-33 was the standard jet trainer used in USAF Pilot
Training Schools during and following the Korean conflict. The machine
introduced literally thousands of fledgling pilots to jet flying, including
me in 1954. Fully serviced with 813 gallons of fuel, the plane grossed
15,100 pounds. The turbojet engine could develop 4,600 pounds of thrust (at
sea level), which
sufficient to propel the airplane to speeds well over 500 mph and to high
altitude. Extraordinarily clean aerodynamic design enabled excellent
performance that included substantial glide range (an important factor in
this story, but also a distinct handicap when it came time to configure for
landing drag when wanted items would not respond).
In those days, too, this country had some notion that fleets of Soviet
long-ranged bombers might appear over the poles to strike at the heart of
the U.S. To give radar fighter-interceptor aircrew members practice against
multiple targets, air defense exercises were organized to assemble several
dozen aircraft, acting as the target force, across the broad Canadian front.
Vectored to assigned points, called IP’s (initial points), in the high
latitudes of Canadian wilderness, times were coordinated so that all target
aircraft would turn southward from the IP at about the same time to come
looming up after a while, on the scopes of Air Defense ground radar.
Fighters would be scrambled off various air stations throughout the sector
to intercept these “unknown' tracks. (Trusted agents made sure it was known
and emphasized that these were practices and not the real thing, should one
ask. These games were a lot of fun actually).
So on this occasion David and I were to be
part of the target strike force. Normally, brothers were not crewed
together, but policy was waived for convenience on this particular occasion
(and promptly revived immediately afterwards!). In 1961 my principal rating
was in the Northrup Scorpion F-89J, a twin-engine radar-interceptor
aircraft, with which the Vermont Air National Guard (VtANG) was equipped.
David served as RO (radar operator) aboard these two-crew aircraft. This was
the plane we flew in most of the exercises; but since I had been re-checked
out in the T-33 a year before, this was to be the vehicle we were to use on
the target mission.
My flight log
records that we departed Burlington Airport on April 7, 1961, for the
afternoon trip to Chicoutimi, Quebec (not quite a hundred
miles north of Quebec City), landing at Bagotvillie Royal Canadian Air Force
Base. We were there in an hour, and I practiced weather approaches for
another 0:40 before landing. This was all the day before the scheduled air
defense exercise. to give us time to prepare flight-planning for the next
day and be adequately rested for the exercise. The Canadians were always
wonderful hosts and comrades to those in the flying fraternity.
April 8th dawned brightly in our
sector. Low overcast blanketed most of the area to the west, but this would
be no factor to us since we would be flying well above these clouds. The
only disappointment was that they would prevent map-reading since no ground
detail could be seen. Oh well, Canada was still under deep spring snow, and
the ponds and lakes still frozen. There would not be much to be seen in that
barrenness anyway. We would navigate by “dead reckoning” (heading and
distance estimation) since we would be flying beyond the range of electronic
Our takeoff was
scheduled for shortly after noon. We would fly a north-north-westerly
heading to N 52° W 72°, which was our assigned IP, a point halfway to Hudson
Bay. We would be in a long climb to 43,000 feet enroute, about 1:10 to IP
and altitude, whereupon our track turned almost
180° toward Montreal and the US for landing at Burlington, a total flight
distance of about 600 nautical miles. We would be sure to see a succession
of F-101s, F-89s, F.-102s, and F-106s come sweeping by in head-on, beam, and
stern passes, making sure that no “invader” would get the merest chance to
So it was, Dave and I were airborne on time and without problem, aiming
toward N 52° W 72° marveling at the brilliant sunlit sea of cloud layer
below. We wore little more than sunmerweight flight suit, flight jacket,
thin gloves, Mae West (flotation gear), and seat pack parachutes. We could
readily converse with one another even with oxygen masks since they were
equipped with “hot mikes” operating through the interphone system. It was
just a grand day to be aloft!
The first hour elapsed quickly and we were approaching our IP. All
engine instruments looked good. The 1:10 time comes up so I begin the gentle
turn all the way around to a southerly heading. The air at 43,000 feet is so
thin that the wings cannot support anything but a gentle bank. In two
minutes we come steady on our target heading. I have attempted to call
Target Monitor to advise we are at IP and outbound. There is no reply, but
that is no surprise because it is probably 200 miles to their closest radio
transmitter. We busy ourselves with fuel and flight computations.
1:20 into our flight, now ten minutes south of our IP. I had set
throttle at 96% RPM after steadying out on homebound heading. Hmm- 92%. The
throttle must have slipped. So I push it ahead to recover the 96%, then even
to the 100% stop. No change! In fact, as the minutes go by, there is further
decay. Soon 88% is our best, and we are beginning to slip below our assigned
43,000 feet. RPM still decaying slowly, no doubt about it. I must think
about transitioning from main fuel control to emergency backup. (The fuel
control units meter fuel to the burner cans in proper ratio to the amount of
air available for combustion). I am a little hesitant about switching,
because the flight manual cautions about high altitude transfer. But it
transitions OK, and soon we are lapsed back into routine duties. David is
navigator in the rear cockpit. I have best view up front. I could not have
been caught more by surprise.
BANG! A sharp blast vibrates through the airframe. Engine instruments
unwind - tachometer (RPM), EGT (exhaust gas temperature), fuel pressure, oil
pressure- all plummet toward zero readings. Flameout! (Engine quits.) For
some seconds I am almost paralyzed by an enormous surge of adrenalin.
The ‘hot mike” intercom system is now powered only by battery. The
sucking and expelling of oxygen through our masks sounds like a rasping roar
in the strange, new silence. I come back to reality. I can hear our motions
as we shift position nervously in the cockpit. I hear the crinkling of paper
in our plexiglass confinement - the map on David’s knees. POSITION! We’d
better determine some coordinates of our position. Woops! Better attend to
airspeed first. ESTABLISH GLIDE! The airplane has almost done it by itself.
I true it up to hold 180 knots indicated, best glide speed. Vertical
velocity shows about 3,000 feet per minute descent. THINK of a plan of
action. We have the advantage of an abundance of altitude –musn’t waste it!
I don’t know who suggested it first, but it is to, DECLARE AN
EMERGENCY! David and I converse about our position, where we are along our
flight track that is meaningful to explaining our location. Only an unbroken
sea of clouds below! Wait! Way off to the east, do I see ground? Yes! A big
round lake in the distance. I snatch a look at my own map (pilots always
keep a doublecheck on the navigator, no faith, you know). Dozens of ponds
and lakes; but there is a distinctive round one on the map. Lake St. John?
Dave thinks so, too. Let’s call, will anybody hear us?
Mayday! Mayday! It sounds corny even in such a tense situation, but
those are the words we are supposed to announce to get immediate attention.
A call comes back! We are back in radio range! It is Target Monitor,
inquiring our difficulty and intentions. I must have almost yelled it,
“Flameout; turning toward Lake St. John.” Monitor asks, “Can you make an
airstart?” I give back the book answer, “Flight Manual advises airstarts not
possible above 18,000 feet, will have to wait.” (The windmilling engine at
high altitude will not produce enough fuel pressure to ensure re-light).
Monitor acknowledges my statement and advises that we go to Guard Channel
for better coverage. We did, but that was the last peep we heard on the
radio. Battery voltage was already ebbing and was not sufficient to
channelize the radio to Emergency frequency. It scarcely mattered. We were
too busy to talk anyway. I had to review the involved procedures of setting
switches to conserve electricity and rehearse the complications of air-
start procedures for when the time was ready.
I was already turning the plane to the east as I talked with Target
Monitor. In the process I am reminded of a handicap I had forgotten would
happen. Aileron boosts system drops off the line because of insufficient
hydraulic pressure. Ailerons control rolling/banking of the airplane. Rudder
and elevator controls do not require power boosting, but ailerons require
greater effort and a power-assist to this control delivers a 15:1 advantage
as we move the stick. It feels something like your automobile power-steering
when the belt breaks. It is very stiff to move, requires heavy manual force.
But that is not the only problem.
Defrost system. Without an operating engine there is no hot air bled
from the engine compressor to keep the canopy and windshield clear. At high
altitudes the outside air temperature is -55 C. Canopy plexiglass and
windshield glass coldsoaked in the frigid environment of high altitude
become efficient condensers. We are already frosting up, slowly but surely.
Oh well, I can see forward enough to make it over Lake St. John. By then we
will know if the engine will re-start, otherwise we will eject over that
area since now Target Monitor has some idea where to conduct search if we
The T-33 glides well in clean configuration. The flight manual claims
it will cover 80 miles in an engine- out glide from 40,000 feet. We seem to
be losing altitude quite rapidly, but we seem to be making good progress on
the Lake. We have estimated our planned track about 35 miles to the west of
Lake St. John. We are already out of 30,000 feet, but the Lake definitely
seems to be moving closer. I think I see something familiar in the distance,
a dark length in the snow contrast, a landing strip? “Dave, does the map
show an airfield near the south shore of Lake St. John?” The map crinkles in
the unnatural silence, “Can’t find it! I’m looking!”
And he never did find it, but it was becoming unmistakable as we glided
downward and closer, some kind of strip, and it was in the sunshine! Golly,
do we dare try for it? I would not know its length, surface condition, wind
direction, nor even the field elevation.
Minutes go by even though time
seems suspended. Down to 20,000 feet. Try for an airstart! Fuel pumps on,
increase RPM of the windmilling turbine by battery assist, ignition switch
ON, starting fuel switch ON, nothing, no fuel pressure, no combustion
rumble, still high, don’t give up hope. Boy! Visibility out of the cockpit
is really shutting in. Try airstart again, now we are really below 18,000
feet- really legal.
Steps repeated but in vain. We are over our strip at 15,000 feet. What
kind of airplanes fly up in this neck of the woods? But it must be an
airfield! I try still another start attempt as I turn the T-33 to a westerly
heading. The airstrip is on an east-west axis. The wind must be similar to
that at Bagotville.
We are back over the strip at 12,000 feet on westerly heading. The
ground seems to be rising noticeably. One more 360° turn to set up an
overhead landing pattern. (I have practiced simulated flameout patterns
fairly often, using idle throttle and dive brakes extended). This one is for
real. Wow! I am tense. Another airstart attempt, nothing, nothing at all!
A witness on the ground told me that a weak trail of vapor caught his
eye. Looking above he spotted a silent jet and knew it had troubles. I had
just been making my final attempt at restart, all futile. Now we had arrived
back over the field, now down to 7,000 feet.
Forget the airstarts. Dave and I agree to try for a landing. We decide
against ejecting and replace the safety pins to preclude inadvertent firing
of the seat catapult explosives.
Concentrate on the landing pattern. I lower the gear handle. We hear
and feel the roar of air as the fairing doors open to the airstream. I feel
drag, but the Selsyn indicators show only “barberpole” (unsafe). Engine
windmill seems not enough to deliver required hydraulic pressure to gear
cylinders. Quickly! Use the emergency electric hydraulic pump. Hydraulic
selector Forward pump on. All the cockpit warning lights simultaneously dim
to nothing and cease; the battery is dead! We are down to 3,500 feet, on
base leg and turning to final. At this point it is practice to extend speed
brakes and wing flaps for lift and high drag that will make judging
touchdown point easy. Wing flaps switch, full extend, gulp! I forgot these
items require electricity. I planned on high drag, hence placed base leg
close in. We are committed. I am way too close. We will overshoot the whole
field. Now I do not want a clean and smooth glider. I cannot zigzag or
maneuver quickly because of the heavy ailerons. Time is running out! Here we
I am almost overcome with fright. Nothing seems to be working. I cannot
even see the field ahead of the windshield as it is so opaque with frost.
The only thing I can think to do is something I learned to do in the
Aeronca, the little fabric-covered airplane I learned to fly first while in
college. Raise the nose to slow the airspeed and let the plane “mush”. Add
to that a slip maneuver, lower the wing and use top rudder to drag the
fuselage sideways through the air. Would it work with a high performance,
For a moment I think not. My heart was in my mouth, but then the effect
became noticeable. At first we seemed to be rising high above the strip, but
now our descent angle had an added blessing. I could see just well enough
out the side of the canopy between jack frost crystals to see runway center
line, if that was what it was, but oh, was it coming up at us fast. Still
with about 400 gallons of fuel weight aboard, I did not dare drop airspeed
below 150 knots (170 mph) as we were already shuddering near stall in the
crazy maneuver being attempted.
The ground is passing the canopy side- rails
in a blur- time to kick the ship straight for touchdown. The ailerons stick,
probably the boost system, the control column is frozen in the left corner!
A panic yank. It breaks loose, clear to the other side. Trying to get
leverage I inadvertently jam left rudder to the other extreme. The T-33 yaws
violently to the right. I have lost it! We will cartwheel to bits and
pieces. But no! A peculiar force arrests the wild skid and we are restored
to even keel at the instant of touchdown. The aircraft strokes on smoothly,
Gravel sprays and grinds against aluminum. Momentum carries us at a
furious rate down a path concealed by frost to forward view. Snow banks blur
past our limited side vision. The left one is closer. We seem not to slow.
Time is in suspension, but then we engage a thick snow bank of melting snow.
It splashes and pelts with fury against the solid deceleration. The plane
comes to a tilted halt atop a fat and juicy snow bank. David reports he is
OK in the now quiet tranquility. How have we survived this madness?
We worry a moment about fire. There is a lot of fuel around us. But
there seems little danger in all the snow and a long-cold airplane. The
canopy mechanism seems jammed as we try to open it with the manual handle.
It refuses to budge. The warm afternoon sun begins to melt the accumulated
frost on the inside of the canopy as we work to free ourselves. It drips in
our faces, for we have taken our helmets off in order to struggle better.
There! It releases and the canopy opens. We clamber over the side. The
crisis is over. It is so good to be alive!
At the same moment an auto has driven up. Its driver is a Canadian
weather officer, who welcomes us to Roberval Airport. Minutes before, a
message had been relayed to him that an airplane might have come down in his
area. He went outside to have a look.
The RCAF sent a Twin Beech over to
pick us up. The T-33 was well enough off the strip so that he had no trouble
landing. Eventually our home outfit, the 134th Fighter Interceptor Squadron
at Burlington, sent the old Gooney Bird (C-47 cargo plane) to pick David and
me up. What we found at Roberval was an airstrip the bushpilots use, the
gravel strip well saturated with spring melt, hardly the recommended surface
for a 500 mph jet. Nevertheless, some weeks later the strip had dried enough
for T-33 #29734 to be flown back to Burlington for minor skin repairs.
Langley AFB, Virginia, presently has this ship, which will be one of the
last T-33’s in the fleet to be retired. In fact, it revisited Burlington
only last June ‘86, in time
for the 40th anniversary of VtANG, flown in by Colonels English and Kenny,
former VtANG guardsmen, who have taken pride in this special airplane for
this adventure and other reasons and plan to see that it finds a special
place of honor when it is finally retired.
Other T-33s in the early ‘60s suffered similar symptoms in the main
fuel control as did #29734 on April 8, 1961. Most of those airplanes,
however, managed to come home fairly uneventfully by using the emergency
fuel control. What happened to us in that regard was that a circuit
breaker had popped which dumped the emergency system abruptly off the line
(it was electrically maintained when selected). No answer was found for its
cause. The main fuel problem was more obvious once the investigators
sleuthed it down. For a time, it was thought that ice crystals in the jet
fuels chilled down at high altitude temperatures were causing difficulties
with the fine calibrations of the main fuel control. The answer for that
seemed to be installation of alcohol tanks from which fluid could be
time to time to melt internal ice. Unfortunately, the rash of flameouts only
increased. It turned out that the alcohol was dissolving magnesium parts of
the fuel control, causing fouling problems far worse than the icing
difficulties. Improved quality control of jet fuels thereafter virtually
eliminated all repetition of either problem.
For awhile after our return to Burlington I could think of almost
nothing other than reasons to quit flying. Eventually my confidence in the
air returned. I went on to scare myself a few more times, though not quite
so badly. I remained in the career over two decades, from 1954-1977,
accumulating some 6,000 hours in the cockpit.
That critical moment before touchdown, coming “over the fence”, will
ever be etched in my memory. I like to think that perhaps I got by on the
coattail of my brother, David, who always seemed to live a fairly charmed
life. Yet much more certainly, I must give powerful respect to my wife
Lindy, who faithfully followed on after me with deep prayers for my safety
even though I did not realize it at the time. My deepest thanks to David
(now in God’s glory), to Lindy, and most certainly to God; “Whose will is
ever directed to His children’s good, and Whose mercy is over all His
Clyde E. Millington
September 30, 1987
* * * * *
In the July, 1987 issue of the Green
Mountain Sentinel, the VtANG news letter, Lt. Col. David Ladd had this to
say about Clyde Millington.
“Lt. Colonel Clyde Millington, collected a total of more than 2000 hours in
the T-33’s. I remember when Colonel Millington (Ret.) was flying a target
mission over Canada on a winter day before automatic anti-icing equipment
was available. Colonel Millington and his brother, David, a radar observer
in the back seat experienced engine flameout and deadsticked the T-33 onto a
small airfield in the middle of rural Quebec. With a runway just a little
short, and a canopy fogged up, the T-33 came to rest half buried in a snow
bank. Safely back on the ground, calls were made and a crew was dispatched
to dig out the aircraft. After refueling and checking her over, the T-33 was
flown back to Burlington. Everything checked out o.k., but I swear that
plane never flew straight after that.”