Tag: I was there

CompletePilot

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a VariEze!

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Bob Purdy loved airplanes all his life. When Bob was eight years old, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic from New York to Paris and inspired a national passion for planes. As a kid, Bob hung around airports and flew models. After graduating from high school in Detroit, he worked for the Ford Motor Company and became a tool and die maker. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he and his two brothers enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Bob then flew B-24 Liberator bombers over Italy, was shot down, captured by the Nazis and spent time in Stalag Luft I, the prison camp near the North Sea. After the war he returned to Detroit and in 1954 moved to California.

We married when I was in my 40s and he was in his 50s. From our home in Berkeley, he loved to go to air shows in San Jose and Watsonville. He then renewed his pilot’s license, rented Piper Cubs and we flew around California. His day job was teaching machine shop at the East Bay Skills Center in Oakland. One day he said, “I think I would like to build an airplane.” My clueless response was, “That’s nice.”

He spent several months looking at kits available for those building airplanes at home and finally settled on Rutan’s VariEze. Burt Rutan was an airplane designer in Mojave, California, where, in 1975, he designed the VariEze made of foam and fiberglass. After creating a sensation with it at the Experimental Aircraft Association show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Rutan developed kits that homebuilders could buy. About 2000 VariEzes were under construction by 1980, with some 300 flying by late 1980. (The sale of kits ended in 1985.) 

Building an airplane

Kit construction

Homebuilding 40 years ago was a lot more complicated than today’s quick-build kits.

With enthusiasm, in 1976 Bob bought VariEze Kit #216, a number we later painted on the plane. The aircraft was unique in many ways. Rather than constructed of metal, it was made of foam and fiberglass and finished with coats of epoxy. The plane was a pusher, that is, the engine was in the rear. It rested on three wheels, two under its wings and one under the nose. The tail, or canard, was in the front and the wing tips had added winglets. To counter balance the weight of the rear engine, the plane had to rest on its retracted nose wheel on the ground.The pilot sat in the front and the passenger in the rear, tandem style.  

As it turned out, building the VariEze was very hard. The whole concept of molding fiberglass was very new. Bob used a hot-wire cutter to slice the plane’s foam core to shape, then covered the core with epoxy resin and fiberglass cloth. As he began to use the epoxy coating on the fiberglass core, he discovered that the fumes activated his asthma, so he designed a helmet for protection. The helmet received fresh air from an old vacuum cleaner blower installed on our house’s roof. It blew fresh air through a hose going through the window into his mask. He bought cotton shirts from Goodwill for 25 cents that he could throw out after one use and wore rubber gloves. Later, a less toxic epoxy came out, but for us it was too late.

Bob precisely followed the kit’s instructions, made paper templates and carved and covered the foam cores. He found an aircraft engine that he liked and bought it; we polished it up and featured it as a sculpture in the living room. He implemented the engineering needed to build the aircraft and installed its flying instruments. 

In 1978, I had a new job in Carbondale, Illinois. A friend gave us an old trailer to load up the plane’s pieces and cart it to the Southern Illinois Airport. There he found a hangar to share with another VariEze builder.  

Bob’s next task was to find another engine. After much thought he decided that the engine he had bought in California would not function well on a plane that had an engine that pushed from the rear, so he sought another, the 100-horsepower Continental O-200 engine that Rutan recommended. In Highland, Illinois, there was a used airplane parts store called Wick’s Aircraft Supply that had a huge hangar with parts from twisted turkeys (crashed airplanes) that hung from the walls and rafters. There, he bought a four cylinder engine with very few miles on it. He also found a wooden propeller that would be good for the plane. It was a beautiful sculpture so we hung it as an art piece over the fireplace until it was needed. 

After several months of intense construction, the day arrived for the VariEze’s first flight. We called together a few friends on April 16th, 1979, at 6:30 am, dawn, when the air is very still. To start the engine, Bob had to spin the prop by hand until it caught; the plane did not have an electric starter. We all held our breath as he climbed in, took off, made several laps around the field and landed safely. 

Then he had to fly the plane for 40 hours in order for it to be inspected and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. This is a fairly rigorous process. After inspection, he had to fly hours of test flights in non-populated areas to make sure everything was operating properly. Only after that could he carry passengers. His days were filled with doing touch-and-goes at our local airport. Passing inspection was like achieving knighthood.

Flying around Illinois was an adventure. Although we normally flew at 5,000 feet, we enjoyed tracing the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at 500 feet; they called it wet beaming. I acted as navigator. We flew along the rivers over ports, bridges, barges, and scows. If we could not figure out exactly where we were, we could fly down to 200 feet and read the name of a town off of its water tower. 

Naturally, we wanted a picture of the plane in flight, so a friend took the door off his 1946 Luscombe, strapped me in the passenger seat, and flew near the VariEze where I could take photos. What fun.

The Finished VariEze, N216EZ 

VariEze

The finished product.

The VariEze was small, its body only 15 feet long and wingspan 23 feet. The whole plane weighed 580 pounds. Each wing tank held 12 gallons of fuel and a spare tank held another 2.5 gallons. Its maximum takeoff weight was 1,050 pounds. With 28 gallons of gas, a full fuel load left a margin of only 326 pounds for the total weights of the pilot and the passenger. Bob weighed 150 pounds and I somewhat more, so weight was an issue. 

As it turned out, we two could fly comfortably for about 300 miles before landing for fuel. It travelled at about 150 miles per hour and used about 5 gallons of gas an hour. The plane was covered with a long clear plexiglass canopy; we had good visibility so I could enjoy aerial photography.

We had to land at general aviation airports, not those used for commercial aircraft. The runway had to be at least 3,500 feet long and paved. We only flew during daylight and in good weather. We always had radio contact with the airport tower who would guide us into landing. The VariEze was a hot little plane; we landed at about 70 miles per hour.

Our First Journey

On Memorial Day, May 28, 1979 we took off on our first long journey and flew from Carbondale to Charlevoix, Michigan, a shakedown cruise of about 600 miles. It truly was a shakedown cruise, not only for the plane but for us.

We stopped at small airports about 150 miles apart for refueling. Our first landing was at Champaign, Illinois, where we discovered that Bob forgot the gadget that unscrews the gas tank cap, so I went into the airport gift shop and bought a pair of kindergarten scissors and they worked just fine.

Our next stop was at Meigs Field, a single runway airport that was located along Lake Michigan across from the Chicago Loop. As we flew in, the tower complained that he could not see our tiny little white plane coming from across the lake until we appeared and landed. This inspired Bob to later install a light in the plane’s nose. Just 15 minutes before we landed, a DC-10 passenger plane landing at O’Hare in Chicago lost its engine; this caused quite a stir. We didn’t see it, but we received a lot of comments on the safety of flight. Bob’s response was, “All engines are put on by someone, and I know who put on mine.”

On landing at Charlevoix’s airport, the nose wheel collapsed and we ended up skidding to a stop nose down. This created a problem as to how to take off, so while I visited with Charlevoix family, Bob sneaked off to repair the wheel. After returning to Carbondale and consulting with Rutan, he redesigned the wheel and Bob installed the new one. Since his was amongst the first VariEzes to be completed, Bob had the honor of discovering needed revisions.

The VariEze caused a sensation in Michigan when we landed; it was written up in the Charlevoix Courier and the Detroit Free Press.

Memorable Landings

In June we left for California with two VariEzes, Bob Mudd’s N295EZ and our N216EZ. We stopped at small airports about 150 miles apart, heading toward Albuquerque, Mudd’s new home. They all had tiny, one-room offices and gas for fueling. Tucumcari, New Mexico’s was deserted, not a human for miles; they left a courtesy car for travelers. We gassed up and they trusted us to pay. 

Sandia Mountains

Flying a single engine airplane across the country allows you to see some amazing view.

In Albuquerque, it was quite a challenge to land at 5,000 feet altitude. We could see New Mexico’s mesas, fluffy cloud patterns, the Sandia Mountains—astonishing beauty. 

A very important stop was in Mojave to visit Burt Rutan. Although we arrived at 6 pm, Rutan was out testing his next model, the LongEze, and was extremely hospitable; three VariEzes had flown in that day. He checked over the plane and made some suggestions, allowed us to tour his workshop and took us to a motel. Gaining his praise compared to earning a Ph.D.

Our Last Flight

After enjoying our VariEze for several years, in 1984 we had an experience which led us to the realization it was time to sell. We flew north to a small airport at Shelter Cove, California, where we planned to spend the night. Unbeknownst to us, it was the height of the salmon fishing season and there was no place for us to stay. The cove was thronged with boats unloading salmon and full of fisher folk. It was clear that we must fly home before dark.

The problem was that when the VeriEze engine flew for a while, it was hot. And when the engine was hot, it was difficult to restart. In order to get us home, Bob had to hand push the propeller many times until the engine caught. When he was finally successful, he was exhausted. Then, an exhausted Bob had to fly the plane to Buchanan Field. Bob was now somewhat older. It was clear that his flying days had ended.

When Bob listed the plane in an aircraft newspaper, he had to be very careful to whom he sold it. The VariEze was a fast plane that required careful maintenance. He finally found a buyer who could handle it. 

There is now a VariEze on the roof of the Hiller Airport Museum in San Carlos, California, that I gaze on with fond memories as I drive by on Highway 101 toward San Jose. Bob loved to fly; building and flying the VariEze was the realization of a dream. 

Latest posts by Margot Smith (see all)

Really short and really soft fields—flying C-123s in Vietnam

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The Fairchild C-123 was powered by R-2800, anti-detonation injected, reversing prop engines. The also had antiskid brakes. We had the capability to get rid of all of the fuel we were carrying. The fuel was carried in nacelle tanks behind the engines and two pylon-mounted tanks on the wings. We had four switches overhead to drop either one or several or all of the tanks. The aircraft was unstable, as if it were mounted on a pinnacle trying to fall off. When it rained you got wet in the cockpit. During the rainy season, we wore ponchos and carried all of our maps in plastic wrap.

I was stationed in Saigon, Vietnam, with the 19th Air Commando Squadron flying C-123 aircraft. We achieved an extremely proficient operational ability in all aspects of flying the aircraft. We did this by operating the aircraft into and out of some of the most demanding landing sites imaginable. We landed on roads, fields, sidewalks (Song Be City), and runways made of grass, laterite, sod, clay, asphalt, and PSP steel planking. This was done at a rate of from 20 to 30 minutes between landings and a rate of up to 20 to 30 times per day. This led to the high proficiency necessary to accomplish the demanding missions of our operations.

When we accessed the performance charts to plan an operation, we would subtract 50 feet (each pilot set their own minimums) from the runway length available and use that runway length as “slop” for the takeoff or landing. To determine how much weight we could take out of a site, we would work backwards in the performance charts from the runway length minus 50 feet and go back through the chart to see what total weight we could use for that length. Subtracting our current weight from that performance chart weight gave us the weight of load we could accept.

C-123 landing

An assault landing is a fairly dramatic event.

We definitely got enough practice of short field, soft field, and slick field takeoffs and landings, as we were doing them almost every day and numerous times each day. The landing for short landing areas were what we called “assault landings.” Configuration and positioning the aircraft on short final could be done from any altitude. You simply flew until the runway disappeared under the nose of the aircraft, then accomplished the assault landing configuration, with prop levers full increase, throttles closed, gear down, and flaps full down. The aircraft would descend between 3000 and 4000 ft/min and appeared as if it were backing up away from the runway. You would hold this until it appeared that you are on a reasonable final approach angle.

Then the throttles would be advanced to hold this angle in transition to the angle of attack indicator. We flew the angle of attack indicator, and used throttles to adjust the touchdown point until just above the touchdown point. Then we would close throttles, flare, touch down, lift the throttles, and pull them into full reverse thrust. Full reverse thrust gives us about 80% of max power. At really short runways, we would stay in reverse thrust until the swirls came around from behind and pretty much put us IFR (zero visibility). We would stay in reverse until we felt that we were either stopped or backing up and then we came out of reverse. Needless to say, we were on our antiskid brakes while all of this was happening. Empty I think we could stop at about 700 to 900 feet.

Stabilized approaches, for the most part, were used at larger runways but each of the other landing areas had various obstacles or other reasons that we could not do that. For example, Song Be had a mountain directly in line with the landing area and also had a large tree to the right of the runway about 50 feet from the end of it. This necessitated a close-in, slanted base leg with an offset to the runway until passing the tree. After passing the tree, you quickly offset back to the right to touch down in the middle of the landing area. There was a walkway in the middle of the landing area and you had to get your nose gear on and stay on that walkway to prevent your wingtips from hitting chain-link fences on both sides of the runway. The runway is listed as 120 feet wide. Our wingspan was 110 feet. Turning around at the end was accomplished with the flight mechanic outside on intercom headset, while we maneuvered, similar to doing an automobile three-point turn on a narrow highway. It took about maybe six to eight turns and backups to accomplish this turnaround.

The photo above displays how proficient we were by showing an approach and landing on the very approach end of a very short runway. This was illustrative of our crews’ ability to maneuver the aircraft and touchdown with precision. If you look closely, you can see the end of the runway just under the landing gear. This is the proficiency that we strived for.

Mud

Many landing areas had no paved surfaces whatsoever.

We got shot at a lot while in Vietnam, mostly on our drop missions where we were low and slow. And we took quite a few hits, mostly coming from underneath the aircraft, going through the bottom of the aircraft and out the backbone of the aircraft. Unfortunately the elevator and rudder controls cables were fed up and back through the backbone of the aircraft. Needless to say, we did suffer control cable separation after being hit with ground fire. Therefore, we would often practice flying and maneuvering without different control availability. This practice gave us confidence that we could fly the aircraft without various controls to maneuver the aircraft.

Slick runways—we had them. The second picture that accompanies this article was taken at Quan Loi and is listed in our airfield directory as “use only when dry.” You had to be on top of your game to land here and keep the aircraft on the runway. Taxiing in the parking area was something else. You could turn the nose wheel steering max one way and add 100 RPM opposite the nose wheel position and the aircraft would turn opposite of the nose wheel. You could not put the brakes on and stop the aircraft. You had to find a rut and when you felt the main year go into it, you reversed the props to stop it in the rut. If you shut down without doing that, the aircraft would start to slide because the parking area was on a slant. Everybody referred to it as slicker than “greased owl s__t.”

Takeoff from a short field was done by pulling the yoke all the way back and wrapping the left arm around the yoke to the elbow. Throttles to max power, using the torque gauges; check all instruments and release the brakes. The aircraft would lift off when it was ready to fly. During takeoff from short fields, when we lifted off we were 15 knots below power-off stall speed. That meant that if you lost power, you stalled and you came down (hit the ground) from however high you were. We normally lifted off and leveled off a few feet above the runway or field and accelerated until we at least got past power-off stall speed. We now had 15 knots to go to get past minimum single-engine control speed. If you lost an engine prior to reaching the minimum single-engine control speed, then usually the procedure was to pull the other engine and put the aircraft down. Now you know why the aircraft was modified, adding the jet engines.

We hauled everything imaginable including people, combat troops, paratroopers, cargo of all descriptions, ammunition, vehicles, trailers, fuel bladders, drums, foodstuffs both frozen and fresh, animals, mail, and the wounded or dead. We also had flare missions. Our missions with the above included air para-dropping or free dropping and air landing.

Latest posts by Ralph Grigg (see all)

Helicopter escapades in the Arctic

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Helicopters depend on a complex interaction of rapidly moving parts requiring meticulous maintenance to function reliably. When it all works, the result is a magic carpet ride to places inaccessible to any simple fixed wing aircraft. At the same time, feeling comfortable in helicopters requires an unswervable belief that various key parts such as rotors, gearbox, shafting, and blades will stay connected and keep rotating long enough to make it back to earth in one piece. I was fortunate enough to have this belief and to enjoy spending hundreds of amazing hours in many different helicopters, from the iconic Bell 47 to the Sikorsky S-61. To top it off, I actually got paid for most of these experiences, using helicopters to support our Arctic sea ice research projects in Alaska, Canada, and Norway starting in the early 1970s.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I never encountered a major mechanical problem in the air apart from infrequent engine chip lights, which we took seriously. What I did encounter were numerous occasions when weather and the demands of the job pushed the operating envelope way beyond the pale. Here are a few escapades that remain etched in my memory.

Huey Adventures

Helicopter on ice

This is a bad place for a mechanical problem.

My adventures with the iconic Bell 204 and 205 “Huey” began in 1969 when the Vietnam war was full on. Rotor blades were in short supply and our Bell had been waiting for more than a month as a crack in one of the main blade roots gradually expanded. The pilot decided to ferry the 204 about 80 miles inland to the “big” town of Inuvik (pop ~3,000) and offered me a ride-along in the right seat. After a month in the tiny coastal hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk (pop ~800) in Canada’s Northwest Territories, I was bushed enough to jump at the chance to see some “city” lights.

Before leaving, the pilot proudly showed me the chalk marks tracking the progression of the crack. It wasn’t until we were trucking along about 100 ft above the muddy Mackenzie River that the true lunacy of my mission really clicked. From that point on, the flight in my mind became a race against time, with my imagination in overload. Needless to say, the feeling of relief as we settled gently onto the ramp in front of the Inuvik terminal felt like winning the lottery.

A few years later, we chartered a float-equipped Bell 205 with over 4,000 pounds sling capacity to move hundreds of barrels full of crude oil from where a barge had unloaded them into a huge heap on the beach, about five miles overland from where they were needed. This operation involved rolling about nine of these 450-pound drums into the center of a large cargo net, and then hooking up. Loading was hard physical work but hooking up was scary. The pilot hovered a few feet above my face as I crouched on top of the load to secure the short lanyard to the belly hook. For some reason, he had forgotten to bring a long line that would have allowed us to stand safely off to one side and quickly get out of the way if anything went awry. The memory of being trapped between the big rubber floats surrounded by deafening noise and gale force winds and dust with the belly hook practically in my face is one I’ll never forget.

The Huey was a great machine to fly in under normal circumstances. The jumbo-sized cabin took anything you could throw in and the characteristic thump-thump of the big twin blades announced your arrival a good ten miles away in the cold Arctic air.

Vietnam War Fallout

After the fall of Saigon, there was a surplus of amped up helicopter pilots in the US. Flying traffic in LA or Atlanta just didn’t cut it in terms of adrenalin output. Fortunately, operators in the Arctic were looking for pilots as oil and gas activities expanded. Here in the last frontier with no regulators within a thousand miles, pilots recently out of the jungles of Vietnam could continue to operate in survival mode. Much to the dismay of many non-pilot passengers, this style of flying provided moments of unwelcome terror.

BO105

Low level in a BO-105 over the Colville River in Alaska.

Standard operating procedure was to make sure we were always below 50 ft AGL even if that involved nap-of-the-earth flying, popping up over the very low, undulating, featureless terrain that characterized the Arctic coast. There was no risk of enemy fire but that didn’t matter! Another standard practice was to celebrate surviving another “mission” by heading directly for the cook tent as low as humanly possible, and then zoom climb, missing the doorway by a few feet. The grand finale was to continue the steep climb and expend all the available momentum before rolling and falling off the top while suspended in zero gravity for a few seconds. I found these antics great fun, a point of view not universally shared by the rest of the crew.

On one occasion in the early 80s, we were returning to the Inuit settlement of Sachs Harbour from a long, cold day drilling holes and making measurements about 80 miles out on the sea ice west of Banks Island in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. With four of us in the AS350 A-Star in good spirits anticipating a hot dinner, the pilot suggested a game of “how long can we stay stabilized without touching the cyclic?” The goal was to see if we could maintain level flight by using our own synchronized weight shift to control pitch and roll. By moving in unison we managed to hold attitude for a surprisingly long time—all the while bopping to the pilot’s tune track over the intercom. Zooming along in this bliss state 50 ft above the ice with pressure ridges flashing by on an intensely bright, blue-sky day was a truly meditative experience.

Gradually, these old, bold ex-military pilots faded away through attrition or age and Arctic helicopter operations in the 90s became much safer and less exciting.

Whiteouts

Whiteout presents a potentially deadly condition, especially in the endless expanse of the Arctic in winter. The horizon disappears and contours of a snow-covered surface become indistinguishable with no shadows. Depth perception is nil and there is no way to judge height. Fortunately, dark objects are still visible. I remember being in an A-Star coming in to land in a whiteout when the pilot asked me to throw a shovel out the door. At that point, I would swear that we were only a few feet above the ice. Instead, I became mesmerized counting the seconds as the shovel twirled down through the whiteness before finally embedding itself in the snow. We must have been a good 50 feet in the air. The landing was fine, once the pilot had the shovel in his view as a fixed reference.

A-Star

With whiteout a constant threat, no landing was taken for granted.

In another case of whiteout, we were returning in the Bell 206 Jet Ranger to our camp on old thick ice about 600 miles south of the North Pole. The weather came down quickly and the pilot elected to land while he still had a touch of horizon and depth perception. By the time we shut down, the whiteout was fully developed. I stepped out and literally couldn’t walk five feet without falling on my face. The inability to distinguish features on the ice surface was totally disorienting. There was no other option but to spend the night in the Jet Ranger bundled up in our survival bags—uncomfortable but safe. In the morning with visibility restored, I climbed up to the crest of pressure ridge beside our landing spot and there was our camp a few hundred feet away!

Mimicking an ICBM

As a total contrast to the usual flights blasting along on the deck, we were forced up to unheard of altitudes one day over the ice in the Beaufort Sea about 70 miles offshore of a Distant Early Warning (DEW) site called BAR-4. These radar sites were constructed in the 1950s, stretching from Alaska to Greenland as means of detecting Russian bombers and ICBMs. The radar operators cooperated by providing a range and bearing of our helicopter from the DEW station. By lifting off and staying overhead our camp, we could work out our ice drift—often several miles a day. Remember this was long before GPS and we had no LORAN, VOR, or other means of pinpointing our position.

On this particular day, the operators could not get a fix on the Jet Ranger. The 206 presented a small radar target and was notoriously difficult to see on the screens at the best of times. We kept going up and up until eventually they captured us as a target at 11,000 feet. Conditions were perfect for flicker-induced vertigo—a bright sun coming through the rotor blades and no relative motion, apparently suspended high above a frozen expanse of white in all directions. The result was a sensation of total panic that I have never experienced before or since in an aircraft. Fortunately, the pilot seemed immune and a feeling of normalcy returned at the more familiar lower altitudes. I joked afterwards that if the Russians came over the pole in a fleet of Bell 206s at low level, we would never know what hit us.

I have always loved flying in helicopters. That moment as the weight lifts off the skids, followed by the nose down translation accelerating to forward flight is amplified by seeing the world spread out beneath your feet. It truly feels like flying through space with no visible means of support. Very few if any airplanes can duplicate that sensation (except maybe the highly unusual Edgley Optica, built in small numbers). If only private helicopters weren’t so expensive! For now I’ll have to be content with our Cessna 150.

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NotKosh—a year without AirVenture

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To paraphrase the old quote:

“When once you have tasted AirVenture, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned toward Oshkosh, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

There was no Oshkosh in 2020.

All the past weeks spent at Oshkosh under Wisconsin summer skies are memorable; some more memorable than others. I remember one Oshkosh of constant rain, ever present rumbles of thunder, ubiquitous puddles, muddy grounds, but always pleasant dispositions. That summer became known as “SloshKosh.”

Concorde low pass

Some years, Oshkosh is truly unforgettable.

Other summers held promising prospects of seeing things close up most of us in general aviation never have a chance to experience. The sleek Concorde, performing not one, but two eye-catching passes prior to touchdown; the Airbus A380 hanging, low and slow, on short final; walking through an Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport; Bob Hoover entertaining in his Shrike Aero Commander; Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11, appearing together on the 25th anniversary of the Moon landing; and, of course, who can forget Jet Man, one of the few attractions the summer our elected representatives (in their infinite wisdom and in keeping with their interminable rounds of political warfare) decided to reduce the Defense Dept. budget, grounding all military aircraft from performing demonstrations or participating in static displays.

Because Wittman Field stood empty and silent, the summer of 2020 deserves a name as well. I believe it is entirely appropriate to tag this particular part of the last week of July and first week of August 2020 as “NotKosh.”

We have had little control over the sometimes random, sometimes contrived, events that unfolded in front of us in 2020. A worldwide pandemic and its inevitable economic recession, a hotly contested Presidential election, peaceful protests, and out of control riots and looting. In 2020, possibly more than ever before, we needed Oshkosh.

My son and my daughter have been attending Oshkosh with me since they were little. One of our best memories, among many, was watching the afternoon air shows while reclining in the long shadow of the east side of the old control tower. The shade the tower provided, the perfect angle of the grassy hill for viewing, and the close proximity of the tower to cold drinks or ice cream, made that venue a perfect spot to spread our Tweety Bird bedsheet and relax. I had hopes that my grandson would join us at Oshkosh for the first time this past year.

The old tower is gone now. A new tower has taken its place. Change is inevitable. We have found other locations for enjoying the air shows. But even as we seek out the familiar and comfortable, we are continually amazed by the new attractions AirVenture offers each year. More aviation interests are being served and promoted and, even if you are not a pilot, there is more for you to do and see as well. One spectacular success is the Wednesday and Saturday night airshows. If you have experienced one, you know how fantastic they are.

I have always found it interesting that there are so many shared memories of AirVenture, and so many individual, personal memories as well. Oshkosh, in one sense, has always been comfortable and predictable. We all enjoy coming back to the same campsites; engaging again with groups of wonderful friends; having breakfast in the Warbird Café; visiting the Red Barn for lunch; standing three deep in front of an avionics vendor’s booth in an exhibit hangar; enjoying a bag of freshly popped popcorn in the Vintage aircraft area; drinking cool water from the tree-shaded bubblers next to the Brown Arch; delighting in “Jerry’s One Man Band;” watching the endless line of ultralights departing and arriving on the grass strip on the south end of the grounds; and sitting with a handheld radio under the wing of a DC-3 and tracking the arriving aircraft on Runway 27. “Red and blue RV, make your base turn now. Green dot, land on the green dot.” “Yellow and white Cessna high wing on downwind, rock your wings now.” “Piper Cherokee, nice job, exit onto the grass when able, and follow the flagmen to parking. Welcome to Oshkosh!”

Night airshow fireworks

The night air show has been a big hit in recent years.

I often started my mornings at Oshkosh with warm, freshly made donuts (plain, sugar, or cinnamon) and coffee. This operation, a not-so-well-kept secret, started in a tent next to the IAC display area many years ago, approximately at the corner of Wittman Road and Boeing Plaza. Several years later it was moved slightly farther north where it now shares enclosed space with several hamburger/hotdog/chicken sandwich vendors. Wooden picnic tables with colorful blue and orange umbrellas providing mostly unrestricted views of the flight line and Runway 18-36 are set out in front of the walk up windows.

When not flying, I cannot envision a better place to be than sitting under an umbrella, sun coming up, coffee and donuts within easy reach, and watching AirVenture wake up slowly in the coolness of an early morning. In the distance, the Ford Trimotor’s engines are belching and turning over. The relative calm is broken only by a few GA aircraft landing or departing, or the thunderous roar of a formation of T-6s gracefully climbing and banking their polished wings in the direction of Lake Winnebago. Delivery trucks, transmissions grinding, occasionally pass in front of me. Pilots and families at other tables smile and talk in low voices about their arrival experiences, how they spent the previous night, or formulate plans for the day ahead.

I am at a point in my life where there is no compelling need for me to buy stuff, but I want to walk through the Fly Market anyway. It would be a challenge to attempt to describe the Fly Market. Like Las Vegas, better to counsel others to walk through it and see for themselves. If you are a pilot or builder, often you can find exactly what you are looking for. To everyone else, it is a swap meet/garage sale; an outdoor museum; and sort of an open-air Walmart, offering everything from flight suits, aviation books, sunglasses, one of a kind aircraft parts, Ginsu knives, hand tools, massage chairs, aviation apparel, bed pillows, and cookware. Whatever you are looking for, you will likely find it there.

In 2020, EAA offered many virtual seminars and presentations to fill the void left by the Forums and Workshops remaining dark and empty. Online is fine, but it is not the same. No aviation celebrities on stage or sitting just a few feet away from you when you are participating only with your laptop from home. No arriving flight of F-22 Raptors in full afterburner to drown out any speaker’s voice. You can miss out by not being there.

Several years ago, I attended a talk on the Grumman A6 Intruder, the Navy’s primary attack aircraft until retired in 1997. I watched a gentleman come in and take a seat a few rows away from me. He had shoulder length, tied-back hair, and a long beard. He sported denim bib overalls and sandals. He could easily be mistaken for a member of the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame or, if holding a guitar, a member of the band ZZ Top. I surmised he was connected with a commune and probably sold dope out of the trunk of his car. He must have become lost and just wandered in.

The presenter, neat and trim, was a retired naval aviator who flew A6s off a carrier deck in Vietnam. About halfway through the presentation, the guy in the bib overalls raised his hand. He proceeded to stand up and advise that he was a Marine Corps pilot who flew A6s out of Da Nang. He wanted to correct a technical point the presenter made concerning the A6, as the presenter was apparently accurate when referring to the Navy’s aircraft, but inaccurate as it related to the Marine’s land-based ops. Once I recovered from the shock, I remembered something about not judging a book by its cover.

Oshkosh overhead

A summer with Oshkosh was a strange summer.

I missed taking the bus to the EAA Museum and the strangers you meet on the short commute. You can walk there, but it is easier to walk to the Bus Park and take the regularly scheduled transportation. Always lines, but everyone is courteous and happy. On the bus, it was not unusual to discover that the young couple in front of me flew in from North Carolina, the older couple behind me flew in from New Mexico, and the two young men sitting across the aisle, wide-eyed and excited, are from Brazil on their first trip to Oshkosh.

The Seaplane Base (96W), located on a photogenic bay on the west shore of Lake Winnebago south of Oshkosh, stood quiet and green and ready in 2020. The colorful Super Cubs, Cessnas, Lakes, de Havillands, and larger multiengine types, were not circling overhead or carving Winnebago’s placid waters last summer. They were elsewhere. The woods, always inviting for its shade, was silent, with only the faint humming of insects and the chirping birds who make their homes within. Out on the lake, a few motorboats in the distance pulled water skiers or returned from a morning’s fishing. If you went there, you found the moorings empty and the bay’s waters still.

There are ghosts who attend Oshkosh. Not scary phantoms. Not frightful spooks of disasters or mayhem, but good and endearing memories of pilots who once were and are no more. They may be a mom or a dad, a spouse, a brother, a daughter, or a good friend. If you look closely when you are on the AirVenture grounds, you can see their ethereal images sitting on a bench enjoying ice cream on a typical hot, humid Oshkosh afternoon. You can see them on the flight line, excited about being there, and proudly discussing the work and long hours they put in to build or restore their airplanes. You can see them at the Theater in the Woods enjoying the warm breeze in the company of friends while taking in the evening’s program. You can see them in Paul’s Woods, or Camp Scholler, or the North 40, relaxing on lawn chairs outside of their campers and tents, laughing and talking late into the dark and gentle night.

Some say that if you love airplanes, Oshkosh is airplane heaven.

I plan on returning to that heaven this year.

Latest posts by Dean Zakos (see all)

My pal Joe, ornery to the very end

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Joe was an ornery sort, in life and in death too, as you will soon find out. I met Joe when I was just a little kid. He reminded me of a tough character from one of those men’s true adventure magazines so popular in the 1950s. You know, with cover art depicting a guy in ripped khakis fighting a lion with his bare hands and a blonde cowering behind a bush. My parents were friends with his family in the small town of Firebaugh, located along California’s San Joaquin River.

Comanche parked

An early flight set the tone for a life in aviation.

A favorite childhood memory is when Joe took me and my brother flying in Piper Comanche, N7833P. I rode up front first and Joe even let me fly. We landed at Madera airport, where Joe gassed up the plane. I remember liking the smell of that green fuel. On the return flight I rode in the back, enjoying every minute. Joe was relieved when my airsick little brother held it and did not paint the inside of the plane with, well, you know what!

Joe was a World War II Army veteran who loved hunting and fishing. He insisted on doing things his way. Period. He either loved or despised people and could be either very giving or quite disdainful. But he did have many friends, wore a smile most of the time and could take a joke.

After falling off a roof in his early 40s, Joe couldn’t go back to work pounding nails. He was quite proud of sticking it to the carpenters union for more than 40 years of benefits. “Longer than anyone else,” he would boast. Ornery sort, remember? This turn of events allowed him full-time pursuit of the things he loved: good food and drink, women, travel, the outdoors, and of course, flying. The type of things a little disability just can’t be allowed to stop.

Thirty years passed. Joe continued being Joe. My brother and I grew up airplane-crazy and we both got paid to fly—he a corporate pilot, me an airline pilot. When my wife and I moved to Nevada’s beautiful Carson Valley, I learned that Joe was living nearby. I was a bit afraid to go see him. Maybe he wouldn’t remember me. Maybe he was a frail old man. Not even! He was still big and brash and even sported a lady friend.

Joe

An ornery type, but one who loved hunting and fishing—even when donkeys were involved.

We embarked on what was to be years of friendship. I took him to the Reno Air Races and flew him around in my ’57 Cessna 182. We made a nostalgic flight to Firebaugh, where he finagled a box of melons from an old buddy. When he stopped driving, I chauffeured him in his Lincoln. I took him to his 65th high school reunion and to see his dying sister for the last time. We went fishing, Joe-style. Catch-and-release fly fishing? No siree. We trolled using flashers and worms. Quite often we would go out for breakfast or dinner. My wife cringed at Joe’s treatment of the restaurant staff. Joe insisted on buying most of the time. Often, I would secretly leave a tip.

Joe was masterful in the telling of his many stories. We would often end up crying from laughing so hard. He got a lot of mileage out of his deer hunting stories, including the time he lit a fire under a pack donkey’s rear to get it moving! He spoke fondly of his favorite bird dog and after many years still grieved. He told of growing up poor on a ranch during the Depression (youngsters, please look that up). He would often nearly drown trying to spear salmon that he could sell, or that the family could eat. He would get slapped around if he came home from the river empty-handed. Tough times.

He spoke of the war. In the Ardennes Forest he challenged a German prisoner: “Why are you fighting?” The prisoner replied, “For God and country.” Joe was stunned; that was why he himself was fighting! Though Joe was born and raised by rosary-wielding Italian immigrants, he didn’t attend church. Shortly after the war a priest got sideways with him and that was the end of that. There’s that orneriness again, maybe to a warm, eternal degree!

Flight

One last flight… or is it?

Ravaged by the cruelty of age-related health issues, Joe knew that his time of fighting lions and rescuing blondes was just about done. He called me over and made the request that I aerially dispose of his ashes. He asked that they be spread in the same mountain lake where his favorite wife had been interred. Out of the many places they fished, this was their favorite. Naturally, I agreed to do it. Joe had been good to me. He died the very next day, at home, having lived an adventure-filled life. On his terms. For nearly ninety years.

A couple of weeks later a box arrived on my front porch, sent by the mortuary. Joe was a big fellow and this was indeed a heavy box. I couldn’t just toss such a box into a pristine lake (especially since my address was on said box). I took the box to the airport and carefully opened it. Inside was a strong plastic bag hard-packed with the mortal remains. One probably shouldn’t just toss a plastic bag into a nice lake either. I found a perfectly-sized paper grocery sack and did the transfer. Tell you what, Joe made a nice dust cloud in the hangar during this process. Even today, years later, I find traces of that dust. Joe’s orneriness prevails.

At the time of Joe’s passing, I did not own an acceptable ash-scattering air machine. I was able to enlist the services of my pal Bumper and his Aviat Husky A-1B. The Husky is the ideal vehicle for this type of mission, thanks to its inflight-openable door. The door’s top half consists of a large window that opens upward, and the bottom half is indeed a door that opens downward, making a huge opening. I had owned a Husky a few years prior and I sure did love that airplane. Even shed a tear or two watching it fly away after I sold it. Anyhow, I digress. Let’s get back to the hangar.

Husky

The Husky is a great airplane for all kinds of unique missions.

I contorted myself into the rear seat while holding onto my “bag o’ Joe.” We took off and climbed into a lovely morning. A bit less than an hour later we arrived at the drop zone. First on the agenda was to circle and check for boaters. None. The lake’s surface was a perfect mirror. Bumper descended to 500 AGL, slowed and then opened the door/window.

I readied the sack, thinking that I could “feed out” the contents in a controlled fashion. Not to be. The bag had begun tearing in places from sharp, bony thingies. It was ready to explode in the plane and, well, we couldn’t have that, could we? I had no choice but to quickly pitch out the sack. I reckoned it would come apart when the sixty knots worth of airstream smacked into it.

We watched in amazement as the bag remained intact and streamed a bright contrail. It quite literally streaked towards the lake like an air-to-sea missile and exploded on contact, sending resident mallards furiously flapping. There was, in fact, an ashy-white mushroom cloud rising from the point of impact. Concentric waves dispersed pieces of brown sack, which soon began to sink. After a couple minutes, the lake had settled down to its previous glassy magnificence. A passerby would have not a clue that organic matter had recently been added to the waters. The mallards returned.

Bumper closed the door/window, advanced the throttle, and flew us home. After shutdown I extricated myself from the plane and noticed a gray powder on my pants and shoes. I could see that the aft floorboard needed vacuuming, thanks to ash that had seeped out of the failing bag. I could easily imagine old Joe getting a good laugh out of this one. It might rate right up there with the one about the donkey!

Yep, my pal Joe was indeed ornery to the end.

Latest posts by Roger Kubeck (see all)

My personal Guinness Book of Records

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August 14-16, 1992. Ninety-five miles in three days by C-172.

That book’s list of the longest of this or whatever of that prompted me to scroll through an ancient logbook, remembering our three-day adventure to fly a distance of 95 miles… I know, weird, huh? Well, that little hop from Sterling, Massachusetts, to Martha’s Vineyard gave me and my wife quite a different flight experience.

Into the record book?

Cessna

The Gray Ghost.

‘Twas a bluebird day for aviating in our 1974 Cessna 172M Skyhawk, “The Gray Ghost.” I had arranged a meet-up with my wife’s longtime friends—we would be visiting them at their home on the Vineyard. A short hour and twenty-five minutes in smooth air brought us to the idyllic island. Piece of cake.

After lunch with the family, I took the mister and his two daughters for the grand tour around the island. It was now time to head back to home base. However, the usual goodbyes were stretching longer than planned, and my check on the weather showed a large mass of thunderstorms slowly grinding their way from the southwest toward our neck of the woods.

I whispered a couple of times in my wife’s ear that we needed to saddle up, time’s a wastin’. Finally, we launched for that “little flight” home—I filed an IFR flight plan just in case. As we neared Providence, Rhode Island (PVD), the controller advised that there was a line of strong storms over Worcester (ORH). He suggested that we land at PVD. I had already made that decision, looking southwest at a massive gray/black sky that was on the way as advertised. Tally for today’s flight time: 55 minutes.

I arranged for hangar space in the FBO’s cavernous hangar. Coming in behind me was a big King Air, carrying a load of business folks. I spoke with the pilot, who said, “I have never seen the radar totally red before; we were gong to PA, but this is it for me!”

We got a motel room directly adjacent to the airport, with a perfect view of our airplane through the open end of the Quonset-like hangar. Through the big window, I sat transfixed as a mighty gust of wind blew the rain horizontally, almost toppling a palm tree (yes, a palm tree) just outside our window. As visibility deteriorated rapidly, the lightning strikes began, hitting all around the field. To my surprise, a Boeing 737 and a couple of commuter types taxied out of the gloom. The 737 remained, but the two commuters took off in the storm! As the second one rotated, a strike hit the ground right on the airport, heavy rain and wind pounding down. Finally, as things settled down, the 737 departed.

Next morning, day two of our trek home, we ascended into a low ceiling on our way to Worcester Airport, as Sterling was a VFR airport, just a tantalizing thirteen miles away. However, Worcester Airport sits at an elevation of 1,009 feet, so with weather near ILS minimums, that would do it for today. As we approached the field, ATC reported that the previous day’s storm had wiped out the glide slope, so what now?

I requested my alternate, Hanscom Field, in Bedford, where the weather was good enough for an ILS. Just abeam of ORH, ATC came on with “the glide scope is back,” so I shot the ILS into Worcester (another 55-minute flight). Another try for home, no luck today. Once the bird was hangared, I decided to ring up my old boss from my line boy days at the Bolton Airport, back in the 1950s, who lived close to Worcester Airport. I asked for a ride to a motel. Pappy Malone was a colorful character, so I invited he and his wife to have dinner with us before we went to our motel. By this time, thick fog had enveloped the airdrome, and after dinner and a nice chat, Pappy volunteered to drive us home!

Day three, my wife drove me back to Worcester, and with a special VFR clearance (that darn elevation at ORH), it was an easy 15-minute scamper under a now decent ceiling, once I got off the hilltop, to finally get the 172 to her nest, capping off quite an interesting series of sorties.

Well, as the olde bard said, “all’s well that ends well.” That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it…

On the other end of the scale, one other odyssey was the 19-hour duty day flying a Boeing 707 freighter from Rome to JFK, holding for weather, finally giving up and retreating to Bradley Field, Connecticut, then back to JFK, more holding, and ending with a VOR approach to minimums. I recall getting food poisoning in Lisbon (must have been the raspberries that the flight engineer and I had; the captain didn’t); it caught up with the F/E in Rome, so by the time we broke out of the clag at JFK, I was so “out of it” that I saw we were still above the runway, with the threshold well behind us. I called it to the skipper’s attention, whereupon he replied, “it’s OK, this runway (14,500 feet long) has a displaced threshold.” Glad that one was over… no big deal to some, but that’s the long and short of it.

Latest posts by Robert Trumpolt (see all)

A beautiful early May Day might have become a mayday

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It has been said that a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise one learns from the mistakes of others. I have benefited greatly from stories of other pilots who choose to talk about mistakes they have made. After an event I experienced in early May of 2020, it was immediately demonstrated to me that I am susceptible to the same factors as any other pilot that I have heard about in their stories. There’s just something about experiencing a scenario yourself that etches the lesson in your mind.

At the time, I was a 250-hour pilot with around 50 hours of tailwheel time, and I was flying my beautiful 1946 Stinson 108 that I love. I had purchased it in 2019 with a fresh restoration and a fresh overhaul of the Franklin 150hp engine. The weather was gorgeous that Saturday morning, and the day’s activities began with a flight of about 40 minutes from KBVX to 4M3 for a fly-in breakfast. I had decided last minute to make this trip, so I was alone.

After a great breakfast and admiring some great airplanes, I received a call from a friend who was also my flight instructor for my primary training years ago. We had been talking about going to see a Piper Apache for sale that wasn’t too far from our location, and he was ready to go have a look. He was back at the home base, but on such a beautiful day, I certainly didn’t mind picking him up and going right back past 4M3 to the grass strip where the Apache was located.

Stinson

A Stinson is a simple airplane, but it still demands discipline.

Back at the home airport, I didn’t even have to shut the engine down; I just loaded my passenger and we departed immediately. I was excited, as I had never landed my Stinson on a grass strip before. The flight was uneventful, and we made a pass over the strip to have a look and then landed. After looking at the old twin for a while, it was time to depart, and this was where I made my first mistake.

It happens that in my real job, one of my responsibilities is to establish standard operating procedures (SOPs). Relating this to my flying hobby, I recognize preflight inspection is an SOP that I definitely follow. I am normally very methodical about it. First flight of the day, the airplane gets a thorough preflight. Making a quick stop for breakfast or something like that, I always at least do a walk-around and also check gas and oil. When we left the grass strip that day, I did not.

The Stinson 108 has two piano hinges on the top cowling for easy access to the engine. Departing the grass strip, reaching about 2500 feet, I noticed one of the hinge pins had migrated out about three inches. It was bothering me, and I was considering making an unplanned stop to fix it. That’s when I happened to look down and saw a bit more pressing issue. My oil pressure was dropping fast! Of course, the two problems were unrelated, but the hinge pin already had me thinking about options for a quick landing. I reached down and pecked on the pressure gauge with my finger. Nothing changed.

It was that moment, in hindsight, that I experienced a thought that could have led to an off airport, forced landing. A thought that was so subtle it was almost not even in my conscious mind. We were at 2500 feet. I had an engine with less than 100 hours. We were probably less than thirty minutes from home base. These facts probably contributed to that insidious thought that could have led to a very different outcome. The thought was that it was probably a gauge malfunction. I wanted to believe it was only the gauge.

I’ve heard and read a lot of good advice from others when it comes to flying. Things like “stack the deck in your favor,” and, “if more than one factor about the flight is bothering you, abort.” That pesky piano hinge pin might have saved the day. That pin had migrated out a few inches toward the spinning propeller. Sure, it probably had a several inches to go (and many flight hours) before it interfered, but I didn’t like it. So I had two factors that were bothering me very much. Because of that pin, I was well aware of an airport (4M3) that was nearby to the east, and I thought it was probably within gliding distance. I pulled the power to idle and made my turn to a long final for runway 9.

I made the landing without incident, taxied off the runway, and shut down. We got out of the airplane and saw just how serious the problem could have been. Oil was everywhere! My friend, flight instructor, and passenger is also an A&P mechanic. We searched the best we could for the problem, thinking it might have been the oil pressure sensor, lines, and so on. We never could figure it out, so the airplane had to go into the shop for a closer look. It turned out to be a cracked cylinder base flange. Thankfully, that was the only damage, and a new cylinder was the extent of the repair.

Cylinder

That’s a bigger problem than just a hinge.

I’ll always think about what might have happened. More than that, I think about the subtle pressures that can creep into a pilot’s mind, like not wanting to believe there is a problem. When hearing about aviation incidents and accidents, one often hears reference to the causal chain, where it is usually a chain of events with several decision points that lead to the outcome. At any one point in the chain, if another course of action would have been taken, the outcome would have been different.

My event began with failing to adequately preflight the airplane before leaving from our short stop at the grass strip. I’m not certain, but there may have already been oil leaking at that point. Yes, I did try looking over the airplane as we were approaching it, but I didn’t open the cowling and check the oil like I normally do. I think one reason for this is I had my old flight instructor with me, who is basically retired, with probably 40,000 hours or so of PIC time. Naturally, I feel very comfortable when he is with me because of his enormous amount of experience. Maybe that led me to be a little more relaxed on the preflight.

Next, after departing, noticing the oil pressure was abnormally low, my mind was desperately trying to tell me the gauge was at fault. We weren’t far from home base and the engine had a low numbers of hours—both teamed up to convince my mind that nothing was really wrong. One official name for this is also “Plan Continuation Bias” or “get-there-itis.” It had been a great morning of recreational flying, and I was ready to put it in the hangar. At the rate of oil loss, I have no doubt we would have run out long before reaching our destination and would likely have had a forced, off-airport landing. In that case, even the best outcome would have been far worse than our unscheduled stop at 4M3.

I learned some valuable lessons that day. First, I will always, always, always, check the gas and oil after a short stop (like I normally do). I have never failed since to give the engine a quick look, no matter what. Second, if an engine gauge is telling me something is wrong, I’ll land immediately. A little inconvenience is a small price to pay to confirm the issue. We are trained to keep the engine gauges in our scan while flying. I think I always did, but now I am very intentional about it. Third, and probably most important, I learned that I (and I believe all pilots) are susceptible to these subtle external pressures, situations that cause us to act in a different way than we normally would. We are trained from the beginning about these things: the PAVE checklist, human factors, the five Ps, and so on. I had heard and read about them. I knew about them intellectually. But now, I have experienced just how those factors can creep up and just how much they should be at the front of my mind on every flight.

We all love aviation, the great rewards it provides, and we accept some amount of risk to be able to experience this passion. I’ve done a fair amount of review of the FAA literature on human factors and Aeronautical Decision Making since that day. Having experienced the event, I know I am more conscious of my own susceptibility to them. I hope it has made me a better pilot and that others can learn from my experience. Wishing everyone many more happy flights and blue skies!

Latest posts by Travis Hoggard (see all)

When a simulated emergency becomes all too real

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I have had a long flying career of 44 years as a military and commercial airline pilot, and by the time I retired in 2016, I had amassed some 30,000 flying hours. As a military and civilian pilot, I have experienced many emergencies, but one episode sticks out in my mind: an engine failure. I have had nine of them, two of which resulted in forced landings. One was on a runway at Mackinac Island, Michigan; the other was in a wheat field in South Dakota. This article is about the wheat field and a self-inflicted engine loss.

In the late 70s, while I was in the Air Force, I flew in my off time, teaching and acquiring all my flight instructor certificates. One Saturday afternoon, I went up for an over-the-shoulder observation of a multi-engine student getting ready for his multi-engine checkride (I was going for my multi-engine instructor rating ride the next day). When I first started flying light twin-engine aircraft, my instructor told me that I was now entering the most dangerous period of my flight instruction career. Oh, how right he was!

Apache

The Piper Apache is not known for its stellar engine-out performance.

We took off in an Apache that had seen much use in its day. The weather was hot, and we were at an altitude of about 3,000 feet AGL, which is about 6,000 feet MSL. As it turned out, this combination of altitude and temperature was a bit much for an Apache on one engine. The student occupied the left seat and the owner of the flight school occupied the right seat. Everything was going normal until we got to the ride segment, where we would do single engine work. Our flight school had a procedure to simulate an engine loss by pulling back the throttle to a predetermined manifold pressure. For some reason, the chief pilot pulled back the prop control and not the throttle. The engine failed, and the propeller feathered.

Well, this was certainly interesting from my backseat perspective! The student kept flying the plane, and the instructor initiated restart procedures. Now, my main flying background was in jets, which laugh off an engine loss. The B-52 has eight engines, and literally, you can lose an engine and not feel a thing. Not so with an Apache. As I always taught my students, a second engine on a light twin can cause you more problems than an engine loss on a single engine aircraft. An engine loss on a twin delays the inevitable landing, be it at an airport or wheat field. That remaining engine will give you some options, but you had better know what to do with it.

The Apache was not able to maintain altitude on one engine. The plane kept descending, but the two pilots up front did not seem to be aware of this. The heading and airspeed control were not stable, and the engine would not develop enough rotation to unfeather the propeller. It became apparent that the student and instructor had lost their situational awareness. The instructor was bore-sighted on trying to start the engine. The student was distracted by what was going on. There was a small airport nearby, but the opportunity to make that field had come and gone. The lack of a proper plan to resolve this emergency was starting to put us in danger.

At about 500 feet AGL, I told the student flying to fly straight ahead at 80 knots. He did this flawlessly. I told the instructor to stop trying to start the engine and take control of the airplane, because we would be landing in less than a minute. Sizing up our landing site, I looked out in front of the plane and saw a freshly harvested wheat field about the size of Rhode Island. It was so flat that I believed if you stood on a beer can, you could see Dallas. It looked like a great port in a storm to me.

With the instructor flying and a clear plan of action, we calmed down and got ready to land. As we approached the ground, I blurted out that the gear was not down. The instructor immediately put the landing gear handle down and advanced the operating engine to prolong the flare. Oh great, I was hoping that we were above Minimum Controllable Airspeed at that particular moment so that the plane would not flip. Our airspeed was just fine, and the aircraft continued straight ahead. Two green lights appeared, indicating the main gear was down and locked. Almost at the same moment, the mains touched down. I then said I saw two green gear lights but not the green light for the nose wheel. The instructor kept the nose off the wheat field, and a few seconds later, the third green light appeared, indicating the nose wheel was down and locked, and the plane completed its landing. There was no damage to the aircraft or crew.

We were on the ground safe and sound, and we decided to see if we could restart the right engine. It cranked, but the propeller would not unfeather. We stopped trying to crank the engine. We got out of the plane to stretch and figure out a plan of action.

Prop hub

How do you get that prop unfeathered when it just doesn’t want to?

Now the next part of the story I am not making up. We noticed nearby a small ditch with some trees growing around it. I walked over there and spotted the skeletal remains of a cow. We hatched a plan that, perhaps using two cow rib bones as a vice and three pilots’ strength, maybe we could manually unfeather the prop. We put the bones parallel to each other with the propeller in the middle. We grabbed the end of the ribs, which now acted as torque enhancers. Our brute strength and good fortune convinced the propeller to unstow from its feathered position. It worked!

Soon we had the engine started. We pulled out the performance manual and quickly calculated how much distance we would need to take off. I went out and paced off the required takeoff distance and noted no adverse ground conditions. I looked at the previous crew and decided they had gone through enough so I would fly the plane out. We rolled down the harvested wheat field and lifted off. During the initial climb out, we felt relief that the takeoff worked.

Seconds later, we became aware of a large power line; it was one of those massive ones! We were too close to fly over it or turn, so what the heck—let’s add a little more drama to the story. I decided to fly under it. No sweat, once we passed the power lines, we headed back to our home field without further incident.

This flying episode brought to light some lessons learned.

  • Flight plan for success
  • Know your plane and its systems
  • Know the performance limits of the plane
  • Thoroughly brief the mission either to yourself or your instructor
  • Know the plane’s emergency procedures
  • Practice those procedures
  • Be prepared for an emergency and feel very confident that you can successfully resolve the emergency
  • Fly a lot and keep current

One cannot overemphasize the need to plan your flight to successfully and safely complete your mission. Thorough system knowledge is a must. Knowing the performance limits and, in the case of a twin-engine aircraft, knowing the minimum controllable airspeed is critical. Never fly slower than that speed. Brief the mission, meaning ensure you know every detail of your flight before you lift off. It will be your objective to fly the mission as planned. Be in charge—do not let the plane be in charge of you. Know the plane’s emergency procedures and practice them. In case of an emergency, you want to perform these procedures without taking away from controlling the airplane.

I want to interject that your first objective is to fly the airplane! In the case of a training flight, make sure that you and your instructor agree on the flight’s itinerary and the procedures for simulating an emergency. As the pilot in command, you will have a daunting task to manage and resolve an emergency. That success will depend on how well you have prepared yourself for the moment. Maintain situational awareness. You might have a lot of time, or you might have to make a split-second decision. Learn your plane and fly a lot. Enroute, keep up with emergency landing fields. Be ready to divert to one. Safety is a prerequisite to flying. Make sure you are aware of all factors that could adversely affect your flight. Flying is no place for amateur decisions; be professional in your attitude and conduct. Engine failures are inevitable. Be ready for it!

After all the dust settled, I got my multi-engine instructor rating the next day. Before my rating ride, I briefed the evaluator that he would not have a left arm if he pulled back the prop control. The rib bones became souvenirs. The whole engine out episode did not take very long. In those few minutes, I learned more about flying light twins than I could have gotten from any number of lessons. Hopefully, it will never happen to you.

Latest posts by Craig Warner (see all)

Come fly with me: life as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam

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I served as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Southeast Asia, flying the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco from Thailand as well as from bases in South Vietnam. I flew 165 missions over North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Join me now on one of those missions.

During the Vietnam War, FACs flew day and night at low altitudes, and in every sort of weather. Operating from Jeeps, FACs also deployed in support of ground forces.

FAC by Jeep

Not all Forward Air Controllers were in the air.

We directed air strikes flown by US and Allied warplanes in support of embattled ground units, searched for targets, interdicted enemy lines of communication, and coordinated rescue operations for downed airmen. We also struck targets by directing artillery strikes and naval gunfire. We were the eyes, ears, and voices above the battlefield providing a vital link between troops in the field, the various command and control agencies, and US and Allied warplanes.

A few “Fast FACs” flew F-100 Super Sabres and F-4 Phantoms. The more numerous “Slow FACs” flew slow, propeller-driven aircraft, as their low-speed maneuverability and endurance were ideal for locating and maintaining visual contact with targets across the battlefield.

Some Slow FACs flew T-6 Texans or T-28 Trojans, but most flew either Broncos, O-1 Birddogs, or O-2 Skymasters. Both O-1s and O-2s were off-the-shelf Cessna aircraft modified for the FAC mission. The OV-10 was developed specifically for counter-insurgency combat, but its primary mission was the FAC role.

With a target identified, FACs had to describe both it and its location to attacking aircraft. This was referred to as “marking the target.” A valuable tool in marking targets was our forward-firing rockets armed with white phosphorous warheads (hence their name Willie Petes). Upon detonation, Willie Petes created a distinctive white plume of smoke and, using that smoke as a reference, we ‘talked the eyes’ of attacking pilots onto the target. To make our job easier, and the mission quicker, we endeavored to get our “smokes” as close as possible to the target. Hitting the target was considered the perfect pass and, when you pulled it off, you could simply direct the attacking aircraft to, “Hit my smoke!”

For FACs to mark targets and for the fighters to deliver their ordnance, we had to finesse our respective airplanes through aerobatic-like maneuvers in order to get the nose of the airplane pointed at the target. We called this rolling-in, because it oftentimes required rolling the airplane nearly inverted while pulling the nose toward the target. Once pointed at the target, you would fine-tune your flight path to align the aiming reticle (called the “pipper”) onto the target.

Winds, dive and bank angles, g-loading and airspeed all played a part in final placement of the pipper. Maximizing your chances of hitting the target required having your aircraft perfectly coordinated before firing/releasing your ordnance. Clouds, sun angles, and especially potential gunfire from the enemy were other factors that came into play while maneuvering to get the pipper in the right place at the right time. As you might imagine, extreme maneuvers were often required.

FACs piston

Not your typical warbirds.

Now, climb into my back seat to experience such a time on a mission to find and interdict enemy forces and/or supplies in eastern Cambodia. I was conducting visual reconnaissance near the Vietnamese border over some very dense, triple-canopy jungle rising over 100 ft above the terrain below me. Through a small break in the jungle, I spotted a wooden bridge, approximately 50 ft long, spanning a river. It was only possible to spot it when either directly overhead or else looking upstream to the north or downstream to the south.

In an area where there were no signs of civilization, I thought, “Who would be using this bridge?” Through my binoculars, I could see vehicle mud tracks on the bridge and assessed it was likely being used to supply the North Vietnamese. Referencing my map, I plotted the bridge’s coordinates and reported them to the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center, callsign “Cricket.” Cricket quickly called back validating the target and clearing me to strike it. They also informed me fighter aircraft were already headed my way.

Within minutes, a flight of two Air Force F-4s checked in on my radio frequency. They were already headed in my general location and we used a radio direction-finding procedure, known as a “DF steer,” to give them a more precise heading to my location. Soon thereafter, my Radar Homing and Warning scope lit up indicating they had “locked me up” with their air-to-air radar. That’s when the adrenalin started to flow; in a few moments, they would be in my area and under my control!

As they neared, the flight lead passed me their “line-up,” including the weapons they were carrying and their “play time” (how long they could stay with me). They were both carrying six Mark-82 General Purpose bombs (500 lbs apiece), which were perfect for this target. However, their play-time was short—they had only enough gas to make a single pass.

Unfortunately, the flight lead also informed me their bombs were fitted with “daisy cutters,” an extended fuse designed to ensure the bomb detonated on contact (even with foliage) rather than going deep into the earth before going off. Earning their name because they would cut down everything above ground level, they are not the preferred fusing when striking a hard target like bridges or bunkers. I thought they might just blow the dust off the bridge, but it was the hand I was dealt, so I briefed them on the target and that it would only be visible using either a north or south run-in.

Bomb

Not the right fusing, but sometimes it’s all you have.

I was orbiting the bridge at roughly 6,000 ft AGL in a counterclockwise direction when the flight lead radioed he might have me in sight. So, I started rocking my wings and turned on my smoke generator, which produced a smoke trail from my aircraft and highlighted me against the jungle below.

When I spotted the F-4s several miles west and some 10-12,000 ft above me, I radioed “Lead, I’ve got a tally on you.”

The flight lead immediately, replied, “I’ve got you smokin’ and rockin’ FAC, if you can mark the bridge now, I can roll-in behind you.”

I had just passed the downstream view of the bridge but, because of the fighter’s low fuel state, I had to roll-in now. So, I radioed, “FAC’s in to mark!” as I instinctively went full throttle, pulled the nose up, and rolled right, away from the bridge. With about 30 degrees of turn completed and with my aircraft nearly 60 degrees nose high, I stopped at about 45 degrees of bank and continued to pull my nose to the horizon. Inverted, I sliced through the horizon with my right wing about 30-45 degrees low and maintained back-pressure. Still inverted and nearing 45 degrees nose low, I tilted my head back and picked up the target through the top of my canopy. I was now on my back heading south toward the bridge, so I leveled my wings with the horizon and continued pulling back pressure until I was once again right side up, but still diving earthward.

As I approached about 30 degrees nose low, I released a little back pressure on the stick to slow the pipper’s movement across the ground. When the pipper reached the bridge, I stopped its movement by unloading to about a half-G and fired a Willie Pete. I immediately pulled out of the dive and, as soon as my nose was above the horizon, I rolled 80-90 degrees left to see where my smoke would hit. When the plume of smoke blossomed dead center on the bridge. I smiled and radioed, “Lead, HIT MY SMOKE!”

Lead immediately responded, “One’s in hot from the south, FAC in sight.” The “…in sight” call was important as it meant we were deconflicted during an especially perilous time.

I saw him as well and replied, “You’re cleared hot,” meaning he was cleared to drop his bombs.

FAC dive

To get bombs on the target, the FAC first has to get smoke on the target.

I watched him dive down, release his bombs, and then climb away. The bridge was quickly enveloped by a geyser of mud and water flung high into the air. There wasn’t much smoke from the impact of lead’s bombs, which worried me that they had landed in the river – ‘washing’ rather than ‘blowing’ the dust off the bridge. As the water and mud fell back to the earth and the little smoke present had cleared, it became apparent lead’s bombs had landed under the bridge and the Daisy Cutters had worked as advertised; several trusses were blown out and the bridge had partially collapsed.

Meanwhile, #2 had circled around to the north and he radioed, “Two’s in hot from the north, FAC in sight.”

I answered, “You’re cleared hot, aim where lead hit!” I watched #2 dive down, release his bombs, and climb away. His bombs exploded in the same place lead had struck. As soon as the bridge was again visible, I saw it had completely collapsed with parts of it being swept away in the current.

The F-4s were already heading homeward when lead asked, “FAC, you got our BDA?” (bomb damage assessment report).

Their BDA included the time on and off the target, the target coordinates, and ended with, “Bridge destroyed.”

Lead responded, “Copy,” then added, “Hey, FAC, can I ask a favor?”

I replied, “Shoot.”

He said, “I’d like to see that marking pass again.

Laughing, I answered, “I’ll see what I can do next time.”

The rest of the mission was routine—hours of utter boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror. However, the best part of the mission—seeing my Willie Pete strike that bridge dead-center following my aerobatics to put it there—sticks with me today.

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Full of life

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Last night, as usual, I woke at about four, too late to go back to sleep. The centrifuge that is my nighttime mind, started spinning. It often brings back the same day in July of 1943, in Ft. Myers, Florida. I was 13 years old and I was with my brother. We had just been given approval by the guard at the gate to proceed on to the Page Field, a US Army Air Force Base, after my brother showed him his ID card. Salutes were exchanged and my brother’s 1941 Mercury convertible took us to the temporary barracks building that was the officer’s mess.

The day started with a breakfast of powdered eggs, despised by all in the military, but I thought it was wonderful. My brother then learned his plan for the day had been revised. He thought he would have the day off and could show me around but the commanding officer decided that since they had time between groups of students, they should do some training themselves and do a group cross country.

Allison engines in Curtiss P-40s were started by crew chiefs to warm them up to proper takeoff temperature while pilots switched to flight gear: lightweight coverall flight suits with many pockets in various places that could be easily reached, sitting or standing. I was left to spend much of the day pretty much alone, wandering where I chose, listening to many Rolls Royce Merlin P-51 engines of the other RTU (Replacement Training Unit) squadron on the field. I watched the group’s P-40s, with cockpit canopies open for safety, take off one at a time to form up before heading to their destination. The runway passed close enough to my location that I could identify which P-40 my brother was flying.

P-40

The distinctive sound of a P-40 is hard to forget.

I was there because my brother Bill had invited my parents and me to visit for a week between fighter students, and had rented a cottage for us that week on the beach at Ft. Myers. I don’t know what that beach looks like now, but I imagine million dollar condos have replaced the modest summer cottages sparsely placed along the beach then. Not many in the military had an opportunity like that but since he was in a relatively stable RTU, training fighter pilots to replace others overseas, it was possible. It would change when they were needed to form new ground support groups for the invasion of France with the best available pilots.

The day included close observation of three different types of fighters: P-40s,  P-51s, and at the end of the day (after my brother’s group returned), their first replacement aircraft arrived, switching to P-47s. The pilots gathered to watch their first Thunderbolt land and taxi to the area where all squadron aircraft were parked. The canopy was already open for landing safety, then the pilot shut off the engine, unstrapped the seat belts and parachute harness, then stood up in the cockpit to exit. The pilot’s helmet was removed and long, blonde hair fell to her shoulders. The group saw their first P-47 and their first WASP. The pilots were slightly wary of the P-47 but if a girl could fly it, “It must be a piece of cake.” The WASPs served more than one vital purpose; one was moving airplanes and the other was encouraging guys to fly them.

The day had started when two other pilots from the group arrived at the cottage. We got into Bill’s car, which was full of tiny, nasty Florida mosquitos. At the direction of my brother, I jumped in the car and he started the engine and quickly started moving. He told me to hold the door open, which he was doing on his side. It created a vacuum and sucked all the mosquitos out. I learned another new skill from my brother.

The other two pilots in their car formed up in echelon next to us as though we were flying as flight leader and wingman. We occupied the entire country road from the beach almost to the airport. There was no other traffic or the formation would have been broken up. Their behavior was a little like boys playing at being airplane pilots, not actually being pilots of very lethal airplanes, and for the moment trying to forget it.

On that stretch of road I learned the meaning of an expression I had often heard. The interaction between my brother and the other pilots through the open car windows was a description of people being “full of life”. They were young and in their prime. They were boys getting to play for too brief a time with the best possible toys, 400 mph airplanes powered by 2000 hp engines. They were full of life, preparing themselves and others to go where the world was “full of death.”

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