Any one who aspires to learn to fly an airplane is soon exposed to flying stories usually told by pilots who got their licenses before Wilbur and Orville got theirs. It is often said that you can learn more useful information about flying than you would ever learn out of a test book or by sitting in a class, simply by sitting in an old hangar and listening to the local aviation legends telling their stories. You would be surprised how often a little tidbit that you overheard in the hanger helps you out of a tight spot in the sky later on.
I think that the best flying stories come from naval aviators. This is because the Navy doesn’t give those gold wings away to just anybody. A naval aviator has to be fairly bright, but not too bright, have superior hand-eye coordination, the ability to multi-task like a Cray computer, and have the absolute, naïve faith that nothing is ever going to go wrong, the airplane is not going to break, the weather is always going to get better, and if none of this turns out to be true, the superior skills learned by our intrepid aviator will allow a quick solution to the impending disaster.
Most naval aviator stories are told in a certain style and with certain mannerisms unique to the naval aviation community. First, the teller must never brag. In fact, the teller must be very careful to emphasize just how badly he screwed up to begin with. Then the teller must carefully outline how bad it really was, making sure the listeners are duly impressed with the hopelessness of the situation. Then the teller carefully goes over all the options that were available to him, setting forth the pluses and minuses. Finally, the clever, ingenious, not-in-the-manual solution is shared with the listener, the teller maintaining that it was all luck that he is here to tell the tale. The rapt listener is then impressed with the stupendous skills of the aviator and goes on to tell the story to any eager listener.
Now it is not surprising that some of the stories have been retold a time or two. The subsequent teller always being quick to say that “I wasn’t there, but I know Fred, who told it to me, and Fred heard it from Tom, who’s sister is married to the aviator, and she said he wouldn’t lie.” You get the idea. Fourth step hearsay. It is not surprising that some stories over time have grown to mythic stature.
Having said all this, I will tell you a mostly true flying story. I know it is true because I was the co-pilot on this little adventure. The pilot, of course, was a naval aviator to the core and was my dad.
A local businessman needed to get to the east coast because of a business emergency. He owned an almost new Cessna 340, which is a twin engine, eight passenger private airplane. The owner did not have a pilot’s license, relying instead on hiring charter pilots when he needed to go somewhere. On this particular day, his usual pilots were otherwise occupied, so the owner called my dad to ask if he would make the flight.
Let’s think about this for a moment. You get asked to fly a fairly new airplane, to somewhere fun, on someone else’s dime. Even better, you get to fly a bigger airplane than you normally fly and it goes faster, too. Hmmm. About 2 seconds later, Dad said he’s in and did I want to go as co-pilot? Hmmm. Get out of playing lawyer for the afternoon. Fly a neat new airplane. Go somewhere fun. Two seconds later we are out the door to the airport.
When we got to the airport, we both reviewed the pilot information manual, which is kind of like the little book you get when you buy a new car. I wrote down the approach speeds, stalling speeds and other info on the back of my hand. Combined we looked at the manual for about 1.5 minutes. Dad figured out the fuel system and the various adjustments to get the plane safely airborne. I preflighted it. As they say, we kicked the tires, lit the fires and off we went. After arrival, we had dinner while our benefactor made bags of money doing whatever he needed to do. As soon as he was done that evening, we launched westward to Kokomo.
Also, in true naval-aviator fashion, now is when the story really begins because it truly was “a dark and stormy night.” A check of the weather prior to take off revealed an unbroken chain of thunderstorms, severe turbulence, hail, sleet, possible snow and icing conditions over the Appalachian Mountains and that there would be no services provided by the flight attendants. In true naval aviator form, Dad had a mission to fly and a little water was not going to stop real men like us from completing the mission.
All was well for about an hour. We were cruising at 12000 feet on course. We were using the onboard weather radar to fly around the storm cells with help from flight service. We bounced around in the turbulence, but it was manageable. I wouldn’t say we were relaxed, we were way too cool for that, but we had been through this before and we had both been through worse. The autopilot was on and we were both monitoring the various instruments and gauges to make sure that all was well with the various systems. There we were – fat, dumb and happy, as they say.
That was when it happened.
There was a loud BANG and the airplane yawed violently to starboard. The airspeed dropped and the plane nosed over. Dad and I both instinctively stomped on full left rudder to correct the yaw without much success. Dad told me to put both feet on the left rudder pedal, hold it level as best I could and not to let it spin. He reduced power to the port engine, cut the fuel to the starboard engine and fished around in the flight bag for a flashlight. Pointing a flashlight beam out the window, we could see through the torrential rain that the wing was covered with engine oil and the prop was frozen in place. Not good. Bear in mind that all this took place in about 5 seconds.
It was then that Dad said calmly, “Well, I have never had that happen before. Very interesting." Incredulous, I said, “Let’s declare an emergency and get this bird on the ground”. Dad said, “Not so fast. We’re still flying and we’ve got a good engine”. I almost came unglued.
Dad called Philly Approach and said, “Philly Approach this is Six Niner Five Seven Five with you at 12000. We may have a little problem.” Yeah right, I thought. A little problem? Who are you kidding?
Approach: “State the nature of your problem Six Niner Five Seven Five.”
Dad said, “We seem to have lost our starboard engine. We have zero oil pressure.” His voice was calm, cool, with no distress.
Approach: “Do you wish to declare an emergency?” Definite tone of concern in the controller’s voice.
Dad then said to my astonishment “Negative. We request an ILS approach (instrument approach) to the nearest field with a repair facility… with a restaurant and motel.”
Approach: “Understand you do not wish to declare an emergency?” The previous tone of concern rose to incredulity.
Dad responded by saying, “We are not on fire and it’s still flying. I am not declaring an emergency. Just give me vectors to the ILS and I will put this bird on the ground.” His voice betrayed increasing impatience
The controller responded, “I need you to talk to my supervisor. He thinks you should declare an emergency. You have to talk to him.” (I think the controller wanted nothing more to do with these lunatic pilots who refused to declare an emergency with an engine out.)
Exasperated, Dad said, “You tell your supervisor that I am flying this airplane, not him. I am in command here. I am not declaring an emergency because I do not have an emergency. I have a minor equipment malfunction. Now give me vectors for the ILS approach.”
Properly chastised, approach complied with Dad’s request. He then proceeded to fly a perfect engine-out instrument approach to a field he had never been to, using an approach plate (a kind of map) he had looked at for all of thirty seconds, in an airplane he had never flown before, through a rain storm, at night, over mountainous terrain, and he made it look easy. And to him, it probably was. After all, it wasn’t a night trap onto a carrier deck.
You should know that I have made hundreds of flights with my dad. He taught me a ritual that I have continued to this day. That night was no exception. He shut the surviving engine down and said as he did after every single flight, “We cheated death one more time.” Even after Dad died, every time I got out of my airplane at the end of the flight I would say,” Well, I cheated death one more time.” For almost two years after he passed, I would stop by his grave and tell him about my flight and tell him that I had cheated death “one more time.” It seemed like the right thing to do.
I should tell you that I composed this remembrance in my head last week while I was riding my road bike on the Nickle Plate Bike Path in Cassville. The story just wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t figure out why it was bothering me. Then the answer came to me.
My remaining life has become like that flight. Health wise, my starboard engine is blown. It is a dark and stormy night and I am trying to get this bird back on the ground, so I can say, “I cheated death one more time.” Unfortunately, my doctors made it perfectly clear last week that they have no hope for my situation. To quote my oncologist, “This is going to take your life.” Not what one hopes to hear from ones physician. The only good thing about it is that I will get to see Dad again.
Then, we really will have cheated death, again.