Crises over Canada

Author: Clyde E. Millington, Lt. Colonel, Story April 8, 1961; written September 30, 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 career.

Clyde, Preflight
Burlington Free Press story
Clyde honored by the Thunderbirds, year 2000
Citation, VT National Guard
Story Published in Pilot’s for Christ

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!

To avoid 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 was 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).

(Trainer) T-33. From cockpit looking up flying in formation
Luscombe Clyde Owned

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 navigational aids.

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 slip by.

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 cold soaked 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 abandon ship.

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 come.

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, heavy airframe?

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, if swiftly!

Gravel sprays and grinds against aluminum. Momentum carries us at a furious rate down a path concealed by frost to forward view. Snowbanks 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 snowbank 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 snowbank. 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 injected from 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 a while 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 works.”


In the July, 1987 issue of the Green Mountain Sentinel, the VtANG newsletter, 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 dead sticked 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 snowbank. 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.”

Clyde Millington
Other talents
Clyde’s brothers Stillman, David
Clyde early in career
Same Luscombe pictured above… grass field landing in Middlebury farm field.
Lieutenant Colonel Clyde E. Millington
Clyde hand propping a Piper Tri-Pacer