Vermont’s spring teases its way to life, but on a warm April 10th in 2005 there were hints it was for real. As my son Christian and I roared along in our Cessna 170, under sunny blue skies, the bumps and jabs of thermals had that fresh wallop of a new season. The flight was one of those wonderful no-place-special-to-go wanderings, and Christian was flying left seat. At 14, he looked forward to summer gliding lessons towards solo, having reached the magic age to do so.
Just as when I was a young fellow flying with my father, Christian picked up various tidbits you hoped were valid and helpful. A small, but interesting bit he’d been attracted to, was the discipline of formal and positive control transfer between pilots; the “I’ve got the airplane,” “you’ve got the airplane,” routine. I’d told him that was what we did in the airline and why, so maybe the connection was both common sense and symbiotic. He also was honing an innate gift from his grandfather… gentle with the controls, while concise but smooth.
Another harped upon was scouting for a place to land, in case the engine quit. It was a favorite insistence of my father’s, understandably as his aviation era began in 1930, with far less reliable engines, and he’d experienced a fair share of impromptu arrivals. Despite my own decades of flying without a piston-engine failure, the caution stuck, and now it was my son as the sounding board. However, through a passion for soaring, “off-field” (off-airfield) landings had been normal life in my young flying years. Recent reminiscing in those logbooks had counted 60 such arrivals… fields with all sorts of crops, golf courses, West Texas roads, a “restricted” RCA electronics facility, and other variations on the theme… but never the elusive farmer’s daughter. As a matter of fact, even without the latter, landing off field always seemed like a neat little bit of adventure! Now in far later years, that “neat adventure” quotient was about to be retested.
Today’s flight had left Montpelier, Vermont’s airport, buzzed west and popped over the Wooster Range of low mountains, circled home, then reveled in seeing light tan grass at the local golf course, with even a few hints of green – all saying the ground was drying from its long winter under deep snow. The few short, but landable, fields along the valley floor looked about the same. Yet two weeks earlier such was not the case: when on a local flight with my wife, I’d noticed the fields had veins of darker color, hinting to wet ground and a lousy place for a forced landing. Like maybe it would be a real challenge to keep the airplane upright. That, I didn’t tell her.
About over the golf links, we spied a lenticular cloud further north, just east of Mt. Mansfield, near Stowe. From local soaring adventures, this wave seemed far from wild and wooly, hence worth an educational visit. We decided to explore, so Christian aimed the bird north, easing in the power to climb above the wave’s rotor. And then the world came unglued!
The engine burst into roaring chaos, with hideous vibration, which had the shock mounted instrument panel in a blur. We took a very short second to stare at each other… his expression wide-eyed and mine was probably the same. If I recall correctly, I think he’d told me that since his young hand had pushed the throttle forwarded, he wondered what in the heck he’d done wrong! Anyway, “we” slowly pulled back the throttle, until the engine was not vibrating much at all. I told Christian to fly the airplane at about 80 for best glide, turn back to those landable fields, and that “I have the throttle…you fly the airplane.” He said: “You’ve got the throttle, I have the airplane.” Cool.
We had altitude, partial power, and all else of aeronautics and gadgets seemed okay. With Christian doing the flying, there was semi-relaxed time to fiddle with the problem, the first and all-telling “diagnosis” being a look at the oil pressure – ZIP! No parts sticking through the cowling, no oil on the windshield, struts, wheels or tail; assumption said it was along and off the belly.
Perversely, the next thought was, “This is going to be expensive.”
Fiddling with power and speed, we confirmed that at a somewhat calmer RPM there was just enough power to NOT hold altitude. Even if we had, it was not a comfortable thought to churn across the tree-covered route towards Montpelier, nor landing on Interstate 89’s hilly, wandering path.
There was also quick mulling of total engine disintegration or fire, versus some power for more time, in case we needed it from a botched approach. However, we decided to keep old-shaky running.
“Hey Christian, you know that field along Kneeland Flats Road, near home and across from the Davis Farm, we thought a good place to land a glider?”
“We’re gonna land there.”
The boy doesn’t easily ruffle.
There was a sudden twinge of that old off-field landing excitement, until I remembered this was not a nice sailplane with lots of stretch, sporting a great set of dive brakes that could spot us on a dime. But there was reassurance from all those practice power-off landings, just because we liked doing them, and the 170 can be quite fluffy with those great big Cessna flaps. And really important was remembering how one needs to pick a place to land as early as possible, then stick with it, allowing for a well-planned look at the field, pattern and approach. Waiting too long, or vacillating between various potential landing spots until too late, has wrinkled many aircraft… or worse.
As we neared the Davis’ field, the slow descent still gave us time to do that scouting of the field. Our new airfield seemed about 1,500 feet long, its direction dead-on into the west spring breeze. It also had a clear approach, save a few low, scrubby bushes. There was a wall of trees on the west end inspiring one to not overshoot. A slightly darker hue to the field’s east side alluded to maybe a bit damp…land further down. There was little slope to the field, known from hometown advantage of driving past it every day, and no ditches, hidden fences, power lines, animals or equipment. The cover was matted hay stubble from last fall, which if wet could be slippery. Our landing pattern would be to the right and north side, because the terrain sloped up to the south.
We had a quick briefing on what was wanted of the airplane before landing. Mixture pulled, mags, master switch, and fuel off, as well as who would do what. We made sure what junk in the back seat was as secure as possible, and that our own seats were also secure, with seatbelts and shoulder harness snug. Then we unlatched our doors, which trailed but a few inches. Christian asked why we opened them, and the answer was in case the airplane is damaged or flips, we wouldn’t be stuck inside with jammed doors. To that was quick discussion on if the airplane was upside down, DO NOT just grab and unlatch the seatbelt… it’s very bad for the head, neck and spine. Support yourself first, but do it thoughtfully, quickly, and get out. Christian later mentioned these comments made him realize the event had gone from his own neat adventure to serious business!
A last thought… should we tell someone? A local VFR flight, no flight plan, and the folks at Montpelier only knew we were going to “fly around.” That was a quick reminder towards future wanderings having more defined and announced plan. So we made a quick “in the blind” call on 121.5, declaring an emergency over Waterbury, Vermont, with an engine failure, and landing in a field along Kneeland Flats Road, about a mile and a half from Guptil Road. Vague, but the electrons were free.
Who should pop up but the last vestiges of the local Flight Service Station still in existence at Burlington, Vermont! Turns out it was someone I knew, as they recognized my voice. They knew right where we were headed, and asked if we wanted “the authorities.” Well, over the years I’d learned not to be afraid of calling a true emergency… paperwork be darned… and use assistance. It’s a real bummer if you need it and hadn’t asked. So, yes! Oh how we miss those local Flight Service Stations!
Christian was doing a great job of flying, but obviously the time was near for the old man to go on stage… yet there was a moment for comic relief:
“Hey, you’re doing such a nice job, why don’t you land the airplane.”
Christian looked at me as if he’d smelled something bad. Then smiling, the fun-time was over:
“I have the airplane.”
“You have the airplane.”
And so it began. Into downwind, all looked good… until turning base. You see, afternoon sun on drying grass during an unstable spring day, with that gentle west breeze on the upsloping terrain towards the hills further east, made a lovely thermal… quite a few, actually. And now the flaps were out, but you do not want to slip a 170 with flaps…period! Regretted was not having planned the approach with slip… the 170 slips well and it is fun to do…then extending full flaps on the “made it” final. It seemed imprudent to retract the flaps, slip, and then pull them back out so late in the game. Such was a sure setup for a bunch of whoop-dee-do stuff, and a good chance to screw the whole thing up. As we concocted some sort of S-turn wiggling this or that, Christian calmly commented over the intercom:
“Hey Dad, I can hear you breathing.”
The necessary switches and levers were turned off, just as we slid over the beginning of the field. A bit high, which didn’t allow the distance to hold off for a full stall landing, so we gingerly poked her on. There was a slight grasp of the wheels, but, as it turned out, not from soft ground. It loudly splattered against the wings, and quickly reminded us how often manure was spread on those fields!
A bit of slippery braking, we halted safe and sound. The engine dead, there was just the whine of the gyros spinning down. We looked at each other… silently for a moment… then Christian smiled and said: “Hey Dad, we’re in deep sh** now!” Chip off the old block.
IT AIN’T OVER YET…
I lept out the door, quickly called the Flight Service at Burlington, reported down safely, thanked them, and was hoping to call off “the authorities.” Too late… here they came… the local ambulance, fire trucks, town police, volunteers, neighbors and the inevitable curious who happened to be driving by at just the right time. Oh, the State Police, too! And other folks appeared from who knows where, all tramping across a now ticked off woman’s backyard to see the “crash.” A good friend redirected the mob and calmed the poor gal. Fortunately, our local gendarmes were cool and sensible, and we convinced them it was NOT an accident. No one called anybody of “higher authority.”
We were but a mile from our home, so I called my wife:
“Hi, do you want to meet us at the field across from the Davis farm?”
“No…why would I want to do that, and besides I’m busy vacuuming the house. And aren’t you supposed to be flying?”
“We were…until the engine disintegrated, and we landed at that field across from the Davis’.”
“Oh no!” Click.
In a few minutes, her red Passat came zipping down the road.
The time had come for the inevitable surprise. Opening the cowl, there was dripping warm oil everywhere, and yes, the rest had exited along the belly. Our trusty Continental C-145, around the # 1 cylinder, had a big hole in it. The piston rod had broken, its flailing little end thrashing the case to bits. As a matter of fact, the damage continued beyond the trashed case, almost totally cracking around the oil pan! Had the engine not mounted in cradle arrangement, it might have left town. Such provoked thoughts on keeping a rough engine running.
The afternoon waned, with the Davis family kindly helping us push our forlorn and well-oiled 170 to a quiet spot, where the tie down kit was unfurled and lashed. We called John Roberti of Vermont Flying Service at the Montpelier Airport. John and I go way back, so the event brought great amusement to an otherwise mundane afternoon.
On calling my storied aviator father, then 91, all he said was: “Really?!” His word had a smile to it. No doubt there was vindication to all those years he’d harped on always having that place to land. I think he also felt those years of soaring contests, expense, and driving that long glider trailer all over the United States had just been paid in full. He also got a kick out of the idea his grandson picked up, on a lovely spring afternoon, one heck of a lot of flying experience… including “the engine lesson” loud and clear! Yes, my father was relieved we were fine, but the next day, while visiting the scene of the crime, he had that wily smirk of his and mentioned how nice it was that his kid was paying for whatever it took to fix the 170.
Word of mouth found its usual exaggeration. In school the next day, Christian learned he’d jumped from the stricken airplane just before the inevitable crash. Around town, I’d had a crash landing. Why even 10 years later, my crash landing occasionally comes up. I’ve stopped trying to explain.
John Roberti, along with fellow aviator and friend Jack Centonze, generously orchestrated taking the wings and struts off the airplane, loading it all on a big borrowed flatbed trailer. John hauled the 170 back to Montpelier, where it took up residence in the back of the hangar, with the fuselage on its gear, and wings resting on old tires. We were not sad, really, because nothing more than the engine was loused up. It was more an inconvenience, and some lost flying, but what a rock of memory that will last a lifetime!
The 170 has phoenixed to fly again… around Vermont and across the country and back. The “new” 60+ year old engine now shows about 230 hours in the logbook… so far, so good, but when flying about we’re really keen on looking for landable fields! Christian soloed a glider about mid-summer of 2005. He was still 14, and enjoyed ribbing his father and grandfather, who had not soloed until the ripe old ages of 15.
The next morning was another cool, but lovely spring day. Our event had made local TV coverage, and where it was said the pilot could not be reached for comment (planned), I was identified as “the owner, from government records.” They also took about 15 seconds of video for the deserving public. Our 170 looked proud and elegant, tied in the field, its closed cowl masking reality, and the naïve would think her ready to fly off from that secret country airstrip. Instead, the senior Mr. Davis, perched proudly on his John Deere, puttered slowly in front of our lonely craft, towing the trusty manure spreader which flung the obvious wildly about.
And that was off-field landing # 61, which, I suppose, was kind of a neat adventure!