It was my leg as a cargo 747-100 first officer, a creampuff Sunday flight from southeast US to Anchorage, Alaska. Dauntingly clear skies and smooth air bridged the gap separating us three from cold drafts and beer battered halibut at the Fancy Moose. Spirits were high, the first leg of a ten day trip that we had flown many times.

The Greek, our second officer on the panel, had a list of counterfeit software to buy in Hong Kong. I had a gold bracelet to pick up. Rob, the easygoing captain with a thick Oklahoma accent, stood six foot three and looked like Wild Bill Hickok. He held court on a shooting game in a Hong Kong video arcade. He played free for hours on bonus points, with excited Chinese stacking six deep, crowded to watch him. Tall with white Hickok-like hair and that too-small red jacket, like a flag pole, he pulled awestruck spectators from the open entrance to the sidewalk.

Before departure, it was all good and no bad. We joked with the ladies in dispatch, the van driver and even the usually grumpy mechanics. Stress free weekend flying—what a difference from hyperactive, choreographed 50-plane scrambles at 3:00 am during the week. Hydraulic lifts loaded upper and lower decks with palleted cargo.

The Greek, although a fairly new flight engineer, was conscientious and reliable. I had three years in the 74 right seat and Rob was north of a dozen.

None of us were ready for what happened next.

Kuhlman in cockpit
Running the numbers isn’t always enough in a 747.

Four engines running, we blocked out for the long, slow taxi. Captains taxi the plane—the tiller turning the nose wheel is near their left hand. Rob turned onto the runway and lined up. “Your airplane,” he said to me.

“My airplane.”

I held the brakes. “Cleared for takeoff.” I released the brakes and pushed the four thrust levers up an inch and said, “set takeoff thrust.” Rob pushed them up to takeoff power and The Greek fine tuned each one. Rob’s hand hovered lightly on the thrust levers (captains decide to abort takeoffs). Slowly, the jumbo jet’s 18 wheels gained momentum. Rob called out “80 knots” and I said, “check.”

The next speed is V1, or decision speed—the last chance to abort a takeoff and stop in the remaining runway. “V1,” Rob called out and took his hand off the thrust levers. Three knots later, he called, “Rotate.”

And things had gone so well to that point.

Amazingly well.

Accelerating a 600,000 pound 747 to 165 mph and lifting off is counterintuitive. It doesn’t seem possible considering the weight, torsions, valves, relays, sensors, and thousands of moving parts. So many things to go wrong.

To rotate, the control yoke is pulled back smoothly. This moves cables extending 200 ft. from the flight deck to the tail. Cables move hydraulic valves, porting high pressure oil to push the elevators up, which force the tail down.

Before taxi, we calculated a trim setting for the moveable horizontal stabilizer, where the elevators attach. The setting, called “units of trim,” varies by aircraft weight and center of gravity. It gives the yoke a neutral feel on takeoff.

I smoothly pulled the yoke back to feel the nose weighing against it—like removing slack in a fishing line. Yep, the line tightened and I felt the weight.

Normally, the nose strut should extend, followed by the nose gear breaking ground. The nose should rise, as checked on the attitude indicator. The cockpit sits 25 ft. off the ground and wings are not visible from the cockpit. Therefore, rotation is by feel and checking the attitude indicator. Too rapid a rotation and the tail hits the ground. Too slow and the gear can hit lights off the end.

So what was going on here?

The line was tight but it felt like a snag. The nose wasn’t coming up.

Of course, this was happening very fast. Too fast to say more than, “Nose is heavy.” Way past the point of stopping.

I pull back on the yoke more. It was quite heavy, but it did move. Not jammed.

So why was the nose not rising and the plane was still on the ground?

I pulled back more, past where the yoke should be. Still little movement. At this rate we would run off the end at 200 mph.

I pulled back even more and the yoke was getting close to the stop, almost touching my stomach.

Getting a 747 in the air shouldn’t be this hard…

The nose came up a little.

We’re not going to make it.

What could I do?

I have no idea how I decided. It was not a standard procedure or a non-standard procedure and not practiced in training.

I held down the nose-up trim switches on the yoke. They moved the horizontal stabilizer towards nose up. That forced the tail down and created more wing lift.

The nose finally came up. The main gear broke ground in the final portion of the runway.

Rob remained professionally silent throughout. He called out, “positive rate,” and I replied, “gear up.”

Slowly we climbed and retracted flaps.

So what happened next? Well, that’s a good question.

I told my story to Rob and The Greek, which ended with, “this airplane is f’d up.” They didn’t even know about the boot-full of trim I added to get airborne.

The first obvious question was, did we screw up the trim setting? We checked the paperwork on climb out. Trim number was good.

As old airline pilots know, the 90s was a transition period from a three person cockpit to two. Also new to us was the concept of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). Simply, adopting CRM was like changing the cockpit from a dictatorship to a democracy, with the president having veto power. Captains build their team and keep communications open, but make the final calls.

“So, if the trim calculation was correct, maybe we set it wrong? Or, I was lazy on the rotation,” they suggested. “Nope,” I said. It was like pulling a sofa with a rope.

The plane’s systems seemed normal and we climbed northwest, asking for direct to Winnipeg.

Next yellow flag: the plane required more thrust to hold speed at cruise altitude. “Could be another screw up by flight planning,” someone postulated.

The flight finally settled down to normal bitching about management, the crew meal orders being screwed up, and still no Diet Cokes.

These were the days before satellite phones and flight data links to dispatch. Mother mostly knew we left for Grandma’s house and would call when we got there.

We kept a log of time and fuel at each waypoint compared to the flight plan.

Next yellow flag: fuel burn was above plan.

So, how important was a three person cockpit in this situation? Well, that depended on who was in the seats. Certainly The Greek and I weighed in on the conundrums during the seven hour flight. But, our experience compared to the captain’s was fractional. Rob had been flying these tired old birds a long time.

On one hand, we had the “go with the flow” option. Get to the Fancy Moose with no paperwork or problems with gateway management.

On the other hand, we added 2+2 and got a 3. The “make waves” option.

It could have gone either way.

We landed with no problems.

Loading cargo
How much does all that cargo really weigh?

We went to the Fancy Moose, drank Alaskan Amber and ate halibut chunks, while watching float planes flying on Lake Spenard. Lived to fly another day.

But in-range of Anchorage, we sent a message to the gateway about the suspected cargo load error. We requested all cargo be unloaded and re-weighed. Not a small thing on a 747.

This, of course, was on a weekend with minimal gateway staffing and a plane scheduled to fly west the next day without unloading. A risky write-up for any captain in those days.

Later, I submitted a flight safety report. The investigation results were jaw dropping. Even hardened freight pilots shuddered to think about what could have happened.

It started with a simple hex bolt. A bolt that somehow slipped through the gap between the frame and table of a cargo pallet scale. A scale that was red tagged during the week for bad readings. A scale our weekend loaders accidentally used without calibrating.

Our pallets were weighed. The heavy pallets depressed the table until it hit the bolt, reporting weights thousands of pounds too light. Some of the heavy pallets were loaded in forward deck positions with low weight limits.

The aircraft was 58,000 pounds heavier than planned. The center of gravity well forward of plan.

Our crew settled on the right decision. Call it democracy, CRM, or personalities.

The list of “what if’s,” is too long for this story. Its fair to assume that the next crew with that load, would have struggled to get airborne.

Our crew actions were not perfect. I could have called for max trust, which might have helped.

Yet, we could have rationalized away the head scratchers, and didn’t.

Certainly, I knew captains that were hesitant to write up even minor items for fear of highlighting themselves to management. One almost killed us coming out of Seoul.

What I can say about our captain is, he was definitely not in the timid category. What he was, unlike many, was a captain that listened and was open to persuasion. The essence of what would later be called Cockpit Resource Management.

I think the company understood how close they came to losing a 747. Although the incident was kept quiet, there were material changes in cargo loading procedures. It improved greatly over the years.