was 3:30PM and I was getting a briefing from the day shift coordinating foreman
whom I was to relieve for the rest of the day. The TWA hangar at SFO was right
against the airport access road and US101. Our foreman's office was a glass
booth perched two stories off the hangar floor facing San Francisco Bay. There
were no hangar doors so we had a clear view all the way to the ends of 1R and
1L. The Pan Am non-stop 747-121 to Tokyo went roaring down 1R. His takeoff roll
seemed awfully long and I said to the other foremen, "Hey, look! That Pan Am
47 just hit the approach lights". "Bull" came the response, "you don't know
what you're talking about".
As I watched the shallow climb I could see hydraulic
fluid streaming out from the main gear wells. Soon we were alerted that there
was an emergency, the 747 was returning and would be landing on 28R. About an
hour passed as fuel was dumped and the airport readied. The approach looked
normal. There was a Coast Guard C130 flying parallel at the seven O'clock position
lined up for 28L. What looked normal proved not to be. As with all wide body
airplanes flight control is achieved solely through hydraulic pressure. The
747-121 has four separate hydraulic systems, four engine driven hydraulic pumps,
four air driven hydraulic pumps and a single electric pump that is for brakes
only. There was no landing flare because there was no hydraulic fluid to raise
the elevators. The touchdown was very hard, the 747-121 bounced back into the
air higher than the tip of the vertical fin, then settled back hard. Bright
red flames and black smoke poured off the main gear. She finally came to a stop
just after clearing 1L, shuddered and fell back onto her tail.
Cabin doors opened and evacuation slides were
deployed. Due to the nose high attitude the 1L and 1R door slides hanged straight
down. I felt helpless as I watched several people jump out and fall straight
to the ground. It took about 36 hours to get the 747-121 of the runway and into
the Superbay which at that time was 100% occupied by American Airlines.
TWA owned the 747 recovery equipment at SFO,
something I thought strange since it was United's home base, but that's the
way the airlines set it up. There was a lot of damage, it took months to repair.
Both body gears were knocked off the airplane, the horizontal stabilizer had
huge gashes in the leading edge all the way through the spars. An iron "L" beam
off the approach lights had come up through the cargo pit and cabin floor and
stabbed right through several seat backs in the "D" cabin center rows. Luckily
no one was sitting there.
I don't have all my facts straight here but I
remember this same airplane had a wing gear knocked off it attempting a landing
at Renton's less than 5000 foot runway, a landing prompted when it was too crowded
at Boeing Field so it was going to be prepared for delivery to Pan Am there
after having been used in flight testing, and one other incident I believe when
it was being leased to Air Zaire. Reminds me of the Eastern Captain who was
suspended in the 1960's when a woman passenger asked him, "Captain, how often
do big planes like this crash?" and he replied "Usually only once, Mam."
All photos Clint Groves.