A sticky situation: flying blind in a vintage airplane

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.

My buddy Brian and I 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 off with 60 gallons of avgas, and more junk than we needed stacked all the way to the ceiling in the baggage and backseat. It was hot outside, too. Hot and hazy.

Lake Michigan
Over the lake, or around it?

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 Lake Michigan. I made a quick decision and decided to fly west instead to avoid this area. It was supposed to be improving to clear the further west we flew, so west we flew. This route would keep us from flying over the Lake. 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 than freezing most of the year. One is that it is only about 60 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 outcome 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 forced landing, whether it is on land or in the water, 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 lose 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. When it happens, you react with a well-thought 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 a 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 stalled/spun 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 over the water 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, unpredictable; otherwise they would not be emergencies. 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 you-know-what emergencies. As an example, there is something in there about smoke in the cockpit but nothing about the cockpit bursting into flames. There was little useful information in the QRH for Sully and Skiles.

QRH book
The really bad stuff isn’t in the QRH.

The bottom line is that the book is there for you to read because the situation is really not that bad. The really bad stuff is not in the book and, if it were, you probably would be limited by time, or ability 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 could 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 is 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 20 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. I was used to it in this airplane. It will keep running and we had a schedule to keep. The other side of my thoughts, the ones I have learned to listen 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 descent in order to arrive at the airport at pattern altitude. Controllers will actually tell you to begin a descent 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, the cabin filled with thick blue smoke. Possible fire. The next thought was this airplane didn’t have shoulder harnesses in it, and that actually pissed me off. There is no reason for that and I should not be flying in an airplane with no shoulder harnesses. People who don’t have shoulder harnesses in their airplanes are stupid. People like me who fly them knowing this are dumb. 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 its back. This was desirable compared to the alternative of burning alive trying to make it to an airport now only about three miles away.

Oil on airplane cowl
More than a little oil.

Seconds after the smoke started, I was looking out the windshield and could see smoke coming from around the propeller and all of a sudden: Whoosh! The windshield was completely covered with brown oil, and I could see nothing out of 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 3,000 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 1500 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 skidded 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 downwind 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 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 who 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 an 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 role 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 quartering downwind landing. By the way, I didn’t need to listen to the AWOS or look at the windsock 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.

More oil on Fairchild
With an obscured front windshield, the only view was out the side window.

I did this all without the benefit of a front window too. I always teach 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 front window.

By now, it was pretty 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 open left window. It was providing me feedback on my descent 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 about halfway down the runway. This is one of the few times you want to look out the front window, when you are landing a taildragger 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 were still under control. I let it coast 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 this is somebody who 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 we came to a stop, I jumped out and started dancing a jig because I had survived another nasty 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.

Off runway
Clear of the runway, and safe.

As I was doing this, the usual suspects pulled up within seconds in two vehicles. “Knuckleheads,” I thought. Thank God for all of the knuckleheads who spend their days hanging around the airport. No matter how bad the weather is, they cannot drive by the airport. They have to check it out and see what is going on even if it is nothing, which unfortunately it is nowadays. These airport bums saw us coming in and knew we were in trouble and started after us before we came to a stop. If the airplane had flipped over, 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 too.

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 jumpseat on the airliner 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 to Oshkosh. I had on a new EAA shirt a good friend had given me along with a new pair of camping pants and both of them were ruined with oil stains. Brian had on a nice new Under Armour 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.

8 Comments

  • Great story and teaching points; should be read by all student pilots. And active pilots.
    Just curious: what was the cause of oil loss, and was the engine saved?

    • Thank you Hunter, it’s an old Hartzell variable pitch, not constant speed, propeller with Micarta blades, and early form of what we call composite construction. The pitch is varied by metering engine oil in and out of a reservoir that looks like an angle food cake mold that wraps around the prop shaft. There is a rubber bladder inside this that looks like a tire tube to hold the oil and evidently a bearing was seizing up causing it to heat up and melt through the bladder and wala!

  • My usual comment is “Fly the airplane”…you did (and you obviously have a long history of doing it well), which is a refreshing change from the folks debating what doodad, ATC assist or something else would have helped that wasn’t “Fly the airplane”.

    I hope there’s plenty of folks who stop by and take that onboard.

    Commenting on Lake Mich route…my engineering world looks at risk as having two components, 1. Likelihood (in your example, engine doesn’t know it’s over the lake) and 2. Consequence (are you a good swimmer/how’s your drysuit, egress, and rescue response?). I tell folks I’m onboard with the engine being uninformed, but not so enthusiastic about the consequence!

  • Thank you Rich. Good point on the engine not knowing if it is over the water. On the part about being a good swimmer (when I was young I wasn’t bad). The point I was trying to make is that few pilots are prepared for an engine failure over anything, be it land or water. Being over water eliminates the judgement required to make a good forced landing. It was a very easy choice for Skiles and Sully and they were two proficient pilots. Sadly that is not the case usually and the accident records reflect that.

    • Sadly, have to agree on forced landings…loss of proficiency in power off landings is one of the skills lost when we teach everyone to fly the pattern like they’re going to fly an airliner.

  • Glad the outcome of your adventure was good.
    We had a derelict Navion with that propeller at the A&P school I taught at. We rigged it to run, and I wanted to tie off the valve to that propeller so the ancient bladder would not fail. A bull headed know-it-all student insisted that I had the valve wired on rather than off, even after I perused the manual with him repeatedly…so I said if it blows, you clean the mess. It took him two days cleaning the oil from the wall of the building.

  • Had a similar situation happen to me in a Stinson on a 2000′ field in Alaska. Took off and at about 500′ the windshield went dark with oil. I reduced power, swung around in a very tight pattern using the side windows to navigate. Just like Lucky Lindy in the spirit of St. Louis. Killed the power over the threshold and safely landed. As it turned out, the oil cap was not screwed on. I also had this happen on an older C172 but the slip stream kept the oil off the windshield and put it on the lower left windshield. I have since used safety wire on oil caps for extra insurance.

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