Close Call

Thursday, August 20, 2015 7:25 PM | William J. David

    I have been here too many times before.  I get a sharp and disgusting feeling of angst whenever it happens.  I have been through it enough to recognize the sequence of feelings that are about to march through my brain as the scene unfolds.  I know better than to pay much attention to these feelings but they are still there in the background as I focus on taking the steps necessary to survive.  I don't want the experience again however,  a long time ago I came to the realization that unfortunately it is part of the game and this game is played for keeps.

    Me and my buddy Brian were to fly a 1947 Fairchild 24R to Oshkosh in the hopes of selling it for another friend.  I had flown this airplane several times before.  In fact I picked it up when the owner purchased it and flew it practically all the way across the country and through tall mountains to get it home to KTDZ.  A few years earlier I flew it over Lake Michigan from Oshkosh.  In all the years I have flown to Oshkosh I have always flown over the lake.  That would not be the case this time.

    We departed fully loaded and full of fuel.  We were heavy, topped of with sixty gallons of avgas, and more junk than we needed stacked all the way to the ceiling in the baggage and back seat.  It was hot out side too.  Hot and hazy.  As we climbed out my GPS was telling me that there was a wide area of marginal VFR to IFR between our position just north of Toledo and the lake.  I made a quick decision and decided to fly west instead to avoid this area.  It was was supposed to be improving to clear the further west we flew so, west we flew.  Remember this pilgrim, it is better to be lucky than to be good. 

    People are not moved by fact or reason but rather skillful manipulation of emotion.  Sometimes that manipulation comes from within.  A couple of facts come into play when it comes to flying over the middle of a lake that is freezing cold and even colder most of the year.  One is that it is only about sixty miles wide at the narrow point which is for all practical purposes on the way to Oshkosh.  Another is that airplane engines almost never quit abruptly, they usually run rough for quite a while before they quit if they do quit altogether.  The fact is however they hardly ever quit and if they do a pilot usually has enough time for a favorable out come if, and it is a big if, the pilot is prepared for it.

    A couple of things I know from experience is that very few pilots are prepared to make a a forced landing period, in spite of the fact that we live in a place on the planet where everywhere is a suitable landing site.  It is perfectly flat and for the most part smooth no matter where you go.  If you loose an engine around here all you really have to do is trim the airplane and point it into the wind.  Chances are that it will make a perfect landing in a nice field with no help from you.  That is usually not what happens though.  The ill prepared pilot will start to think and when that happens look out!  The last place you want to start thinking is immediately following an engine failure, it's too late.  You should have thought about it before and when it happens you react with a well though out plan.  This may be a bit of an overstatement but, very, very few pilots are prepared (read practiced) for any emergency, let alone an engine failure so it really doesn't help if you don't fly over the lake, chances are you will crash anyway, usually stall/ spin in.

    An example of what I am talking about took place at my home airport recently and the poor fellow eventually died from the injuries.  It didn't have to happen but it did.  Unfortunately it is very easy to predict.  His engine failed for whatever the reason and he stall/spun her in trying to get back to the airport.  It happens almost all the time.  All he would have had to do is land in a field, any field.  Emotionally you may "believe," that you can handle a forced landing by flying around the lake but, I don't "think," you will.  In fact I will go further by saying your chances are better because there are fewer decisions for you to "think," about by the fact that all you have to do is land into the wind without stalling.  Of course you will probably do neither of the two but the results of your failure may be more forgiving than they would be on terra-firma.

    Emergencies are occurrences that are by nature are unpredictable, otherwise they would not be emergencies, duh.  So how do you best handle them?  It is actually quite simple, you establish and communicate a plan.  We have a book in the cockpit of our jet airliners that is called a QRH, it stands for quick reference handbook.  There are a bunch of procedures to guide us through an abnormal situation like loss of a generator or a fuel pump, etc.  Some of them are more dire than others but, only a few could be called holy !@#$ emergencies.  As an example, there is something in there about smoke in the cockpit but nothing about the cockpit bursting into flames.  The bottom line is that the book is there for you to read because the situation is really is not that bad, the really bad stuff is not in the book and if it was you probably would be limited by time, or ability to to read it.  The other thing is it is not possible to think of every scenario and put it in the book.  So you had better have established a plan for certain eventualities. 

    So there we were, Brian and I, slowly making our way along the turnpike toward Chicago.  Since this route would take us through Toledo's airspace I had to give them a call.  When I dialed up the frequency I tuned into some pilot trying to file an IFR flight plan to Ripon.  If you don't know what the Ripon intersection is you could be an air traffic controller because this guy didn't either.  It is a VFR reporting point on the VFR arrival procedure to land at OSH during Airventure.  I listened to this long winded and unprepared pilot and controller go on and on before I cut in.  It took several calls before I got through the nonsense and got clearance through the airspace.  That is when we first smelled it.

    There was a faint smell of what we decided was like a smoldering piece of paper.  A napkin was what popped into my mind for whatever the reason.  I thought it might be something in all the stuff we had in the back.  The propeller had thrown quite a bit of grease on the right windshield but there was only a trace of oil.  We decided to make a precautionary landing at Fulton County Airport in Ohio, only a few miles away from Toledo.  Upon arrival I got out and inspected the airplane.  The propeller had thrown a lot of grease but I figured that was normal since it had recently been greased during an inspection a few weeks prior.  There was very little evidence of oil on the nose.  Again, I had quite a bit of experience with this problem in previous flights and the amount that I observed was insignificant.  All seemed well so off we went.

    About twenty minutes later the smell returned.   Damn, I thought.  One side of my thinking was based in emotion, the other in fact.  The emotional side of me said that it was nothing to be concerned with, old airplanes stink and leak oil.  It will keep running and we had a schedule to keep.  The other side of my thoughts, the ones I listened to, fell back on an old aviation adage, "it is better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than to be flying wishing you were on the ground."  I selected an alternate airport and proceeded directly to it about four or five miles away.

    A big mistake a lot of pilots make in this kind of a situation is they begin a decent in order to arrive at the airport at pattern altitude.  Controllers will actually tell you to begin a decent for the same reason and this can be and often is, a fatal mistake.  I held on to the altitude I had as I headed toward the airport. Soon I was about to change my mind on that altitude thing.  The smell was quite strong now and as I was looking at the fields I could stuff the airplane into should it catch fire, then cabin filled with thick blue smoke.  Possible fire.  The next thought was this airplane didn't have shoulder harnesses in it, that actually pissed me off, there is no reason for that and I should not be flying in an airplane with no shoulder harnesses.  If we were on fire no matter how fast I got us on the ground it would not be fast enough.  Oh sure, I could stuff it in a corn field but we would most surely smash our faces into the dashboard as it flipped over on it's back.  This was desirable compared to the alternative of burning alive trying to make it to an airport now only about three miles away.

    Seconds after the smoke started I was looking out the windshield and could see smoke coming from around the propeller and all of the sudden woosh!  The windshield was completely covered with brown oil, I could see nothing out off it.  I shut off the engine with the mag switch and pointed the nose down steeply.  I wanted to get the airplane on the ground now!  We started at a little less than three thousand feet AGL.  I still had the airport in sight and Brian saw it out there too.  I was flying the airplane but I was thinking about burning up in it.  When we got down to about fifteen hundred feet AGL I said out loud, "I don't feel any flames!"  He didn't say anything so I figured we must not be burning.  I leveled off and turned the mags back on. 

    I knew exactly where the airport was but I couldn't see it.  We had rolled down the windows (roll down windows are common on old airplanes) to let the smoke out so I thought I would stick my head out in the breeze to get a better view.  Bad idea, my face was immediately covered with oil.  Good thing I had my glasses on.  I pulled my head back in and set my glasses on the instrument panel.  I slipped and slided the airplane from side to side to get a glimpse of the airport.  When I figured I had it made I shut the mags off again.

    I was about a mile and a half out for a down wind landing on a fairly long paved runway.  At that point I don't think I knew the name of the airport.  I didn't know the the frequency or anything and I didn't care either. I just knew I had the runway made and we weren't on fire.  The rest would be easy.  It always amazes me when I hear about a pilot that was about to crash and they get on the radio and declare an emergency just before they hit.  There was a commuter crash at the Charlotte airport a few years ago where they took off with a very aft center of gravity with improperly installed control cables which limited down elevator.  On rotation the airplane pitched almost straight up, climbed about a thousand feet, rolled over and dove straight into the concrete ramp of the maintenance hangar by the runway.  On the way down the pilot declared and emergency on the tower frequency.  What good did that do?  Shouldn't  she have been trying to fly to the bitter end?  In a situation like that you had better be totally focused on flying.  The radio is a distraction that plays no roll in the outcome.

    Flying was all that I was concentrating on now and to me this was the easy part, I think about and teach this stuff and practice it all the time.  It was second nature to me.  I played the approach out, managed my energy, and positioned the airplane for a good downwind landing.  By the way I didn't need to look at the wind sock to tell which way the wind was blowing, I could see it in the trees and the corn we were flying over.  I could see it in the wind correction angle I was holding as we cruised along.  Knowing where the wind is to me second nature as well. 

    I did this all without the benefit of a front window too.  I always teach the the worst window in the airplane is the one that most pilots spend their time looking out of, the front window.  When I fly I seldom look out the front window, the side windows provide a much better view for attitude.  I think they do that because every vehicle they have ever operated requires them to look out the front window.  A car, a boat, a motorcycle, a skateboard all require your attention to the fore.  That is not the case in an airplane, the front window provides the least benefit of situational awareness but, most pilots still sit there staring out the front window.  So it didn't really bother me that I couldn't see out the from window.
    By now it was prettying much all over but the shouting.  The motor was off, there was no fire, and we were over an airport.  All I had to do was land the thing.  Although I knew where I was I couldn't see the fine detail of our situation.  I was grateful to see our shadow as I looked out the left window.  It was providing me feedback on my decent rate.  That would make it easy to tell when I was about to touch down.  I thought I was over the runway but I couldn't tell for sure because it was right directly underneath us.  I made a remark to Brian, something like, "I think I'm over the runway."  He responded very positively, " oh you are directly over the runway right now."  This gave me great confidence. 

    I made a good landing except for the fact that I was not exactly straight when I touched down.  This is one of the few times you want to look out the front window, when you are landing a tail dragger so you can keep it straight.  The wheels were squealing as I jabbed at the rudder and brakes to keep it where I thought the middle of the runway was.  We slowed to taxi speed and we're still under control.  I let it cost off the side of the runway being careful not to hit any lights so the runway could remain in use.  That is another thing I learned a long time ago, don't get on the runway unless you are going to use it.  The reason I was told is because somebody that is having an emergency might need it.  I see pilots pull out on the runway and sit there, sometimes for several minutes before they take off.

    As soon as she came to a stop I jumped out and started dancing a jig because I had survived another situation in an airplane.  The outcome could have been much worse and I was glad it was over. I have been through this too many times and I feel like I am starting to get used to it which of course I am not.  As I was doing this the usual suspects pulled up within seconds to two vehicles.  Knuckleheads I thought, thank God for all of the knuckleheads that spend their days hanging around the airport.  No matter how bad the weather is they cannot drive by the airport, they have to see what is going on even if it were nothing which unfortunately it is too much of nowadays.  These guys saw us coming in and knew we were I trouble and started after us before we came to a stop.  If the airplane flipped they would have got us out before we knew it.  The one guy looked at me and smiled a real smile as I was dancing. He knew exactly what I was feeling, I'm sure he had been there to. 

    The worst thing to come out of the whole mess was the mess itself.  I was planning on meeting up with a fellow airline pilot and riding with him out to California to pick up an airplane he had just bought.  That meant that I had to look presentable in order to ride the jump seat so I brought a pair of slacks and a shirt and hung them on a hanger in the back seat.  When we rolled down the windows oil splattered all over them.  Once we were on the ground we had to climb back in the slobbering mess to retrieve our luggage because we rented a car to drive the rest of the way.  I had on a new EAA shirt a good friend had given me along with a new pair camping pants I was wearing and both of them were ruined with oil stains.  Brian had on a nice new Under Armor shirt and it suffered the same fate.  There you have it boys and girls, my latest adventure.  I hope you can take something way from it, I hope you never have to use it but, there you have it if you do.


  • Sunday, August 30, 2015 12:42 PM | MarcyBrian McMahon
    Captain Bill,
    Again, yes again, thank you for saving my husband's life. So very glad you listened to me right before take-off when I begged you two not to fly over the lake. Just had that "feeling". Even took a picture of the N number so I would have it for reference. Another memory and this one turned out to be a valuable one, as well as a happy one with the safe ending. Straighten up and fly right!
    With hugs,
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  • Monday, September 07, 2015 5:48 PM | Ryan Weaver
    "The emotional side of me said that it was nothing to be concerned with, old airplanes stink and leak oil."

    I, too, find myself inclined to think that leaking a bit of oil is a normal condition. Just about every airplane, car, tractor, etc. that I have operated has had at least a wisp of an oil leak somewhere. In fact, I have come to desire seeing it as if it is an indication of authentic reliability. I know this is dumb, but we are talking about the emotional side.

    As for airplane stink, my wife and the general public should be glad that "antique aircraft in operation" is not a cologne.

    If there is a next time, try to have your passenger capture your jig on video. That would be a great clip.

    Glad you made it!
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