Overweight Takeoff

by Capt. John Snidow

Somehow, I survived thirty-seven years in the cockpit and tens of thousands of hours (it does pile up with mostly long haul-flying!). A certain amount of good luck is required to do this even with good pilots to fly with and good maintenance. I have to say that Seaboard had great maintenance because I got to see what other airlines did because I was furloughed so many times.

I was flying with Capt. Ralph “Racing Slicks” Webber, one of the Canadians who came down and joined Seaboard. They were all gentlemen and capable pilots and I enjoyed flying with each of them. Bob “Deputy Dawg” Pritchard, another good guy to fly with was the flight engineer. We were at Yokota AB on the far west side of Tokyo one hot and humid summer night. After reviewing all the paperwork and getting the weather briefing we proceeded, to the airplane. The flight attendants and the 219 GIs were already on board, the latter anxious to get back to the states. We soon started the engines and headed for the end of the runway. This makes the preflight sound simple but it is a very busy thirty minutes plus to check out the airplane, the cockpit, align the inertial navigation units, enter the flight path into them, set and check the radios, get the air traffic control clearance, set and check a plethora of switches and instruments and get your charts set out in order.

Getting the clearance to takeoff, Ralph entered the runway and swung the big DC-8-63 around to the north, spooled up the engines, and released the brakes. The airplane weight and balance showed that we at the maximum weight for the runway at that temperature and if the weight wasn’t the airplane limit of 355,000 pounds it was close to it. Initial acceleration was slow as expected. We continued to accelerate slowly until it became evident we weren’t performing as well as we should. I said, "Ralph, the red lights” (we were approaching the end of the runway) and he replied, “I see ‘em” as he rotated hard and the tail skid dragged the runway. This is very loud in the back of the airplane. I think we were about 10 knots below the specified rotation speed but this was a long time ago. In any case, the ‘eight staggered off the runway and was very slow to gain speed. Ralph did a masterful job of gently controlling the pitch so as to climb but also gain speed. We eventually get fast enough to retract the flaps on schedule and climb more or less normally. Air Traffic Control gave us some shortcuts to the airway fix where we went coast out or feet wet as the military pilots say. She climbed normally once the climb speed of 250 knots was achieved. We continued across the ocean to land the next afternoon, 10 hours later, with the additional 7 hours of time-zone difference. We were told that ten thousand pounds of duffle bags were aboard but had not been listed by the Air Force.

The kicker was that at about 150 feet above the ground, and with everything hanging on Ralph’s skills (and no small amount of divine help or luck, depending on your belief system) with the airplane barely flying, a flight attendant came through the door and loudly announced, “You got the tail-skid.” She wanted to make sure we understood, I suppose, because she said it twice.

Bob spun her around and unceremoniously applied pressure at her most convenient part to send her back into the cabin! He reached back, closed the door, and locked it! It is funny in retrospect but it was really tense for quite a while. We had used nearly every foot of a two-mile-long runway and could not have stopped without a crash.

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