The test: when things go wrong in a DC-3

“I could never tell where inspiration begins and impulse leaves off. I suppose the answer is in the outcome. If your hunch proves a good one, you were inspired; if it proves bad, you are guilty of yielding to thoughtless impulse.”
– Beryl Markham

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

No one was anywhere near me when I “heard” it. Yet there it was: clear, concise and cold as the night air. Just as if someone had spoken it. It was real enough to make me stop as I walked across the hangar toward the flight line. I looked around but saw no one. I brushed it off as simple nerves and kept walking. Still, I could have sworn I had heard it even though I knew better. Everybody’s a little off at 3:00 in the morning!

My DC-3 was being loaded and readied for dispatch at the end of the row of airplanes. It was a long and lonely walk, made more so by steady drizzle from an October night sky that hung low over the Memphis airport like a damp blanket. The airport lights added just enough to make the whole scene seem surreal. This night sky wasn’t inviting and pretty as usual, with stars and moon. It was a murky and ugly.

A DC-3 passed overhead and I watched its neatly-defined silhouette until it slipped into the low, gloomy overcast. I walked through the drizzle and mist and I kept thinking about what I had just “heard.” I wanted to be anywhere else but here. But I wasn’t anywhere else, I was here and now, and on edge. Shake it off! I set my flight bag down and began my walk around inspection.

Got to get a grip on myself, stop squirming, right now!

DC-3 on ramp
A trusty airplane, but those round engines have been known to quit.

This is no way to begin a trip and I knew it. What if I lose an engine on takeoff tonight in this crud? Nothing like the real thing to test a pilot! Every pilot will tell you there is a big difference between engine-out flying during training or a check ride, and engine-out flying for real. But how will I do if it happens tonight?

This leg of my trip was always heavily loaded and I considered the extra weight on the airplane, and on my mind. As I looked again at the low overcast, I knew tonight’s flight was not going to be easy. It would be “in the soup,” “the goo” as they say, the whole way. With almost four hours to go before the first stop at Kansas City, where the weather wasn’t much better, I didn’t expect much improvement in my mood. Self-respecting ducks were probably going to wait it out a while.

I continued to pre-flight the DC-3 while these thoughts raced through my mind. I inspected the left wing and I thought about the drizzle. I checked the left engine and landing gear and thought about our takeoff weight. I thought how my airplane would handle if an engine died right after takeoff. I thought about the condition of all of the airplanes my airline flew. Most of them weren’t in very good shape either.

I checked the leading edge of the right wing and I noticed the cabin lights in my airplane. Instead of brightly lighting up the cabin, they looked dull and dim.

The loading crew was using the airplane’s battery to run the cabin lights and they had been on too long. I would just have to start tonight’s trip with weak batteries. There would be just enough battery power to start the engines and once started, the generators would recharge the batteries. But it was a poor start to a long night, and I was a little more on edge as I considered the added burden this put on me. I started to squirm again, like I was wearing a shirt made from horse hair.

The flight never would have been anything more than another line in my logbook if it hadn’t happened again. Right at the tail of the airplane and as I was noticing the increasing report of raindrops striking the fabric surfaces, this: “You’d better be sharp tonight!”

When you’re on edge already, small concerns become big ones in a hurry. It’s so hard to keep things in perspective. I was just trying to keep my wits but this “voice” seemed so real, like some wise old pilot following me around the airplane watching me and offering advice. Just nerves, shake it off.

After a much hurried start up and engine check at the end of the runway, we called ready for takeoff: “Air Dallas 838 ready to go on Runway 27.”

“Air Dallas 838 maintain runway heading, cleared for takeoff.”

After a long roll down the runway, we got up to the right flying speed and I lifted the DC-3 into the wet dismal sky. I called for the landing gear to be retracted and just as I was reducing engine power back to the first climb setting, the entire sky outside lit up in a bright blue flash with a deafening “pop.”

DC-3 cockpit.
A DC-3 cockpit after an engine failure demands teamwork.

A thousand things rushed through my mind. None were particularly useful. I felt as if I was swimming in glue as I looked around the cockpit, searching for some indication of an engine fire or failure and finding nothing!

Everything was normal.

Then, “BANG,” and another flash!

If I had any doubt before, I didn’t now! There was no mistake. I had an engine failing. It was actually happening! Why me, why now? In a rush to complete the engine out procedure, I quickly checked the power on the left engine, rechecked the landing gear was “up” and shut down the right engine. All by myself. No crew coordination, no teamwork, just me. Just exactly the way you’re not supposed to do it. What did I just do?

I realized it then had a bigger scare. What if I secured the wrong engine? Was it really the right engine that sputtered, or was it the left…? If I shut down the good engine, it could end up being the last mistake I ever made. At this altitude, there wouldn’t be another chance to make good on such a blunder. No time to restart the other engine. It would be over! Our two lives, the copilot’s and mine, were now just riding on my guesswork. Well, that’s just great! Nice goin’, Captain.

It was too late to backtrack now; the deed was done. I glanced to the right and looked through the co-pilot’s window. The propeller was stopped and one propeller blade was in view and standing straight up like a finger. Silhouetted in the green glow from the wingtip light, it looked so final, a stopped propeller on a dead engine. No pilot ever wants to see it, but there it was. In my haste I knew I had earned the obscene hand gesture it resembled!

The copilot called on the radio, “Departure control, Air Dallas 838 has lost an engine and needs to come back and land.”

“Roger Air Dallas 838, turn left heading one six…”

Silence.

“One six what? What did he say?” More silence. The airport was behind us and to our left and I guessed he was telling us to turn to a heading of one hundred and sixty degrees, or Southeast. Why stop guessing now? I turned the DC-3 to one hundred and sixty degrees then got busy getting my head back into the game.

“Try ‘em again,” to the copilot. More silence and I leveled the wings on the new heading. I felt his hand on my shoulder and he yelled over the roar of the straining left engine, “I can’t get ‘em, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” Those dim cabin lights I had seen during my walk around inspection. Damn!

Any further calls on the radio would be pointless. Time to squirm again. The radios had failed because there wasn’t enough electrical power left for them to operate. But why? Think! We had a perfectly good left engine. There’s a generator on it, why wasn’t there anything left but dead batteries? When I selected the voltmeter to the left engine, I had my answer. There wasn’t any power coming out of the generator; it was dead just like the right engine. Terrific! There was just enough battery power left to keep some of the cockpit lights on.

DC-3 electrical panel
With no generators and a weak battery, options are pretty bad.

In the flying business, we call that situation NORDO, short for “no radio.” There are specific procedures to follow when an airplane goes NORDO and a pilot does well to keep them in mind. Most know they will never have to use them, but are mindful of them nevertheless.

What next? Think.

My flight instruments, being electrically powered, had also failed. Little red “fail” flags appeared in the attitude indicator and the heading indicator. Not a huge problem if you’re flying in visual conditions, but we were in clouds. The flight instruments on the copilot’s side of the cockpit showed normal and I began using them. Good! It was awkward at first, but the DC-3 cockpit is small and I adapted to my new scan.

If I started up the right engine and just let it run at idle, maybe I could get enough electricity from the generator to power up the radios and talk to the tower. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it was worth a try. First thing I had to do was un-feather the propeller, get the blades at the right angle again to start turning the propeller in the wind. Once I did that, I would only have to turn on the ignition and fuel and the engine would start.

Good plan! Un-feathering the propeller takes electricity, and lots of it. When I pushed the button on the overhead panel which controls the propeller feathering and un-feathering, all the remaining lights went out. Dark took on new meaning. Bad plan! Time to squirm again.

I quickly pulled out the button and the lights came back on, although dimmer than before. A better plan was to just leave things alone and re-assess the situation again. The airplane was flying fine even on one engine so I reduced the power I was demanding from the left engine. It was then I remembered the DC-3 I had seen taking off earlier. If I could get below the clouds safely and find the airport again, the tower would be able to see us against the cloud cover just as I had seen the other DC-3. Good plan.

It wouldn’t matter that the radios weren’t working. The tower would flash us landing instructions from a light gun they had for just this sort of thing.

I had just finished patting myself on the back when I noticed a change in the cloud deck below us. Coming up on the left side and slightly below our altitude was a long streak in the cloud deck. It was a darker shade.

Through it, I thought I could see streetlights. There it is, my way back. The hole was just long enough for me to turn into it and descend the airplane below it. Beneath the clouds, it was a beautiful sight. Streets, houses and good visibility, just what we needed. Boy are we low! Behind us and to the left was Memphis International Airport.

As I was congratulating myself again, the runway lights for runway nine came up all the way bright as if to say, “Here we are, we’re ready for you.” The guys in the tower were on their toes and doing their part. The ordeal was about to have and happy ending. I turned toward the lights.

I landed down the runway a bit too far; our approach speed was a little fast. I didn’t care. I wasn’t paying much attention inside the cockpit; I was looking outside at that runway. It just looked too good to take my eyes off it! Besides, there was plenty of concrete for a DC-3. My moment of truth was over. I knew what was on the test.

Now comes the hard part. How do I taxi a DC-3 on one engine?

Time to squirm again.

4 Comments

  • Wonderfully told! I think I’ve heard that voice a few times, too, but it seemed to say, “‘Splain to me why you think you should be doing this.”

  • Interesting story with a good ending and as said how do you taxi a DC 3 on one engine Ihad to shut down my left engine due piston failure landed ok at YFC but had to be towed in after going around in circles.

  • I never piloted one but taxied them at DCA in 59 as a mech for Allegheny I remember I could not get her turned in a very heavy wind and had to go around the block the long way. Caught hell for being late to the gate.

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