Drop everything to fly a DC-3? Absolutely

My phone dinged as the text message came through.

“Can you spend the day in Griffin tomorrow?”

I had a lesson first thing in the morning, but was otherwise free. I asked Dan what was going on.

“DC-3 flying. Emerg.”

I didn’t need any other details and I made arrangements to change what would have been a lazy Saturday into one that would doubtlessly not be boring.

In the morning, I finished my flight lesson and thanked my student for agreeing to start earlier. “I can’t wait to hear what happens!” he said.

I preflighted the Luscombe, pulled it out of the hangar, propped it off, and was soon flying southwest in air that was thick with hot, milky haze. I wondered if the thunderstorms would let me come home later.

I felt my phone buzz. “Look for the yellow DC-3 as you fly over. Park next to it.”

DC-3 with engine cowl off
Never turn down a chance to spend a day with a DC-3.

There it was, impossible to miss: a huge yellow and white DC-3 somehow wedged into a too-narrow taxiway between several hangars. I landed and then weaved the Luscombe through the labyrinthine rows of hangars until the DC-3 filled the windshield.

Dan was on a ladder with his hands inside the right engine cowling. A big bandage was wrapped around his left knee. He smiled exhaustedly and stepped down and offered me a greasy hand.

“Dylan had a swim meet today and felt terrible that he couldn’t help. He told me yesterday, ‘Everyone’s gone, Dad. Who in the world could come out to help you tomorrow?'”

“I bet Dan Schmiedt would,” Dan laughed.

I smiled and said that I wouldn’t pass this up for anything.

We sat down in the shade of the hangar and he told me the long saga that had brought us together again. The left engine had thrown a rod on the way back from the PDK airshow last June. Drama with the engine shop had continued until a few weeks ago, when the overhauled engine had finally arrived.

They had installed the new engine and it ran perfectly. In the process of installing it, Dan had fallen off a ladder and gouged the back of his knee on a sharp forklift blade. He continued working and the wound got badly infected. After three days in the hospital to treat the infection, he was back at work. The DC-3 had to be in Oshkosh on Monday.

Although the new left engine ran well, the right engine now had a significant drop on the right magneto. Dan had isolated five cylinders that ran cold on the bad mag, and of course they were in the rear cylinder bank. We would have to remove the massive engine cowling.

I followed Dan’s instructions and together we removed the two bottom halves of the cowling. Then we lifted the one-piece top cowl half onto the top of the engine nacelle. Dan marked the suspect plugs with tape and I removed them. All were obviously fouled and we were tentatively happy to have found such an easily remedied problem.

We spun the engine with the plugs removed to clear any remaining oil. Dan cleaned and prepared serviceable spark plugs; I installed them.

Soon, we were reinstalling the massive cowl, careful to get all the rubber bumpers to fit into their slots. With the cowling mostly installed, it was time for a test run.

Dan climbed up into the cockpit and I watched from the outside. The massive propeller spun through and with a couple of belches, the 14-cylinder radial slowly settled into a steady rumble. The engine sounded good as Dan ran it up, and I wasn’t surprised to see a thumbs-up and a smile from Dan’s tired, greasy face.

“We did it! Let’s go get lunch.”

Later, as we waited for our food in a smoky biker bar, we drank tea and Dan described my upcoming duties in the cockpit.

“You will be flying and I’ll talk you through everything. The main thing is to keep the nose as low as possible. Pretend like you want to give the shopping center a really good buzz job.”

“What airspeed are we aiming for?” I asked.

“As much as possible.”

“If an engine fails, will you handle it?” I asked.

“Yes. I’ll have it feathered and shut down before you even know it failed. I’ll handle everything except for the flying.”

It sounded like a good plan to me.

DC-3 engine
Getting to the back row of cylinders is not easy work.

When we got back to the plane, we finished our work on the right cowling. One bumper was misaligned, so I had to release most of the latches in order to set the massive cowl into its correct position. The mid-day sun bore down with incredible intensity and sweat blurred my vision as I wiggled, pried, tugged, and pulled on the cowling to little avail. Jesus, this was just a small glimpse into the travails of operating one of these beasts.

Finally, with a satisfying thump, everything lined up and I pulled the latches tight and installed the safety bolts.

Dan inspected my handiwork, connected the cowl flap linkages, and installed all of the safety pins.

We sat in the shade and guzzled bottles of cold water. We were ready.

Dan started the tug and we connected it to the huge tow bar that was attached to the tailwheel. Slowly, Dan towed the plane between the rows of hangars as I walked with one of the wings, which cleared the buildings by only a few feet.

Once the plane was in position for starting, we briefed my jobs before I got in the plane. Dan would start the right engine and I would then disconnect the battery cart, secure the external power door, and carefully pull the battery cart towards the rear of the plane and out behind the wing.

“Move slowly and deliberately,” Dan cautioned. “There is no need to hurry.”

Then, I would remove the stairs and secure the rear door.

I gave Dan a thumbs-up and he spun the right engine as I watched from outside. Just as before, it belched, coughed, and slowly rumbled to life.

I carefully walked to the rear of the plane, and walked under the wing. I pulled the power plug out of the plane and secured the door. Slowly, I pulled the battery cart clear of the plane. I climbed the stairs and then removed and stowed them. I swung the big cargo door shut and latched it.

I walked up to the cockpit through the steeply inclined cabin and sat down in the left seat. I buckled my seat belt and put on my headset. Dan handed me a checklist and asked me to call it out.

I called out each item and Dan responded. Once complete, Dan advanced the throttles and the big bird lumbered forward.

“You’re responsible for your wing,” he told me, as I watched it edge closer to a hangar.

“It’s pretty close,” I said. Dan inched the plane to the right.

“It should clear,” I said, saying a silent prayer that we wouldn’t feel a thud.

We didn’t hit anything and finally we emerged onto the taxiway. The massive wings brushed small trees that had begun to grow up beyond the grass edges of the taxiway.

“I need to get my chainsaw back out here,” Dan grumbled.

Dan lined the plane up on the runway and we ran up both engines. Everything looked good. We went over our plan.

I heard the engines thrum up to a roar and moved my feet to keep the plane straight.

DC-3 cockpit
Flying a DC-3 requires physical effort to move those controls.

“Loosen up on the rudders. Relax. Stick forward. Ok, Dan… we are definitely going flying today. Nose up slightly, that’s it… no more. Keep the nose down. We want to just barely clear the shopping center.”

I had both hands on the yoke and was pushing with most of my might to keep the nose down. I didn’t dare let go to adjust the trim until we had a little bit more room between us and the ground.

“There we are. Now just climb a little. Two hundred feet per minute at the most.”

I carefully took one hand off the yoke and rolled in some trim.

“How’s your engine?” Dan asked me.

I glanced out my window and saw nothing amiss. “Looks good,” I said, taking a moment longer to admire the thrumming beast of an engine that turned its huge propeller with apparent ease.

“Work the oil pressure and oil temperature gauges into your scan,” said Dan, pointing to the gauges. I did, and the needles stayed where they were.

Slowly we climbed, sometimes riding thermals up a hundred feet. I watched our shadow over a farm field. “Take any altitude you can get from a thermal, but keep the nose where you’ve got it,” Dan said as he finetuned the throttle and propeller levers.

As we gained altitude, I slowly banked the big bird in a circle around the airport, positioned so that we could make the runway if we needed to.

“How’s your engine look?”

I glanced to the left and saw that all was well with the big radial and reported such to Dan. Again, I took an extra moment to admire the spinning monster before returning to my instrument scan.

After about an hour, we climbed higher and flew south to the Thomaston airport. We circled wide around the airport and watched a Twin Otter drop skydivers over the field.

“On the next loop, begin your descent and set up on a downwind for three zero,” Dan said, after verifying with the Unicom operator that they had fuel. I heard enthusiasm in the response. “We didn’t know if you wanted air to air, or what.”

I pushed the nose over and brought the big bird down to pattern altitude. As I turned downwind, Dan chided my excessive use of the ailerons. “Lead with rudder and just think about the ailerons.” That did work better.

Abeam the touchdown point, Dan dropped a quarter flaps, then the gear. The plane slowed noticeably.

“Hold 85 on the airspeed. Keep the nose down.” I trimmed the nose down a little more and held the airspeed.

As the runway approached, we gently held the big bird off until the mains chirped. “My airplane,” said Dan as he gently applied the very sensitive brakes.

The tailwheel bumped gently onto the runway and we lumbered slowly onto a taxiway. We pulled up in front of the FBO and shut down.

Thunderstorm over airport
Those puffy clouds often build into something more serious in the hot Georgia afternoon.

Dan and I relaxed in the air-conditioned lobby while the fuel truck filled the main tanks on the DC-3. I looked at the radar and saw that Griffin was now being clobbered with a thunderstorm. Dammit, I’d left my Luscombe with only one set of chocks. I hoped it would be OK.

The storm looked like it would be clear by the time we left, so we loaded back into the DC-3. We hoped that the batteries in the big bird had charged enough to get an engine started.

Dan flipped overhead switches and the right engine whirred solidly. He flipped the mags on and at first nothing happened. Then the engine coughed, sputtered, then went silent. Dan threw the mixture lever lean and it sputtered, then he threw the lever rich again and it slowly rumbled to life. Generator switch on and we knew that we had a ride home.

We used the same drill as before and I called out the checklist as we taxied. Dan responded to each item. Lined up on the runway, a normal run-up, and then the engines roared to life. I kept it straight, trying to be more fluid with the rudder.

Tail up, pull up a little, and we’re flying. I pushed the nose down with most of my might again.

“That’s it. Just clear those wires. Nice.”

A ridgeline appeared ahead and I asked if we should turn. Just then I saw horizon on the other side of it; we’d climbed higher than the ridge. Beyond it, we saw a menacing storm.

We turned east and saw that the little storm we’d seen on the radar had grown. I worried about my little Luscombe but stayed focused on the task at hand. Finally, we decided to land back at Thomaston and wait for the storm to pass.

The landing was mostly mine and it was satisfying to feel those big wheels begin rolling under us as I held it off. Dan took the plane and gently applied the brakes. He turned the plane around at the end of the runway and we shut it down in the displaced threshold.

Dan popped open the roof hatch and we sat in the hot cockpit and talked about airplanes.

Eventually, the radar showed that the storm had moved away from Griffin and was deteriorating. Dan started the engines with smooth and swift jockeying of the levers. I called out the checklists again and soon we were again hurtling down the runway, aimed at the obstacles that were ahead of us.

We lumbered to the east and found the edge of the dissipating storm. I lined the big bird up on an approach course for runway 32.

“It’s a short, wet runway with obstacles. We have to touch on the end, so I’ll do this one. I have the airplane.”

I gave Dan the controls and watched intently as he turned knobs, flipped levers, and deftly controlled the airspeed.

“You’re going to feel like we’re going to hit something, but we won’t,” he said.

The short, very wet runway loomed ahead, just past the shopping center and an intersection. I cringed as we passed just over the stoplights and in an instant the big wheels were rolling exactly at the end of the runway. The plane easily slowed before we reached the end of the runway.

I glanced at the radar. “Think you can make it home? You’re welcome to stay.” The route was clear of storms and I had just enough daylight to get my lightless Luscombe home. If it still existed, anyways.

I glimpsed my shiny bird between rows of hangars, intact, just where I’d left her and I breathed a sigh of relief.

After bringing the DC-3 back into terrifyingly close proximity to the hangars, Dan shut the big bird down. The engines ticked to a halt and we shook hands. “Success! I’ll meet you at the fuel pump and we’ll fill you up.”

Moments later, the Luscombe was fueled and I was back in the air, racing the sunset home.

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