A few summers ago, I was climbing out of a little grass airstrip in my Zenith 701 about a mile east of Smithfield, North Carolina, just starting to take in a pretty view of the Neuse River basin below, mostly thick forest with a dark river winding slowly through it, when the engine sputtered a few times (something like sputter, sputter, sput, sput, sput) and then stopped. Just plain quit. I stared at the motionless prop for about one second and then glanced at my altimeter, which read somewhere between 450 and 500 feet. Then came a huge adrenaline rush and suddenly everything seemed to slow way down.
With no electrical system, restarting the Continental A-75 engine was not an option, so I was looking for a place to put it down and seeing nothing but a lot of very big trees which were getting ominously bigger and closer. My airplane is great for short takeoffs and landings, but has a glide ratio like a brick so I had less than a minute to figure this one out. As I completed a scan from right to left, I thought I saw the end of a field peeking out from the forest less than a quarter mile away. I wasn’t sure if I had enough altitude to make it there, but it was all I had. A few hundred feet above the trees, it never even occurred to me to attempt a turn back to the airstrip.
I needed to complete two turns to make the field: a left turn to get over to it and a second turn to the right to line up with whatever was there for me to land on. As I made the first shallow turn trying to give up as little altitude as possible, I was aware of the trees looming below me but was mainly focused on that turning point ahead. And I wasn’t looking at any more gauges; I was just flying the airplane. Everything now seemed to be in slow motion as my mind raced to calculate and recalculate the tradeoff to get there. A little more stick aft, a little less, a little more, with no sound except for the relative wind whooshing past the airplane.
As I approached the point of the second turn, the field began to come into view on my right. It was looking good for a landing – a big, flat hayfield! I made my right turn to line up with it, the airplane barely over the treetops now, and as I did I thought I felt the right wing shudder a little. I noticed that I had the stick full aft and at that point I somehow remembered Wolfgang Langewiesche’s passage in Stick and Rudder about all of the pilots who’ve been found in their airplane with the stick clenched full aft in a death grip after they’ve stalled it. I thought, “Not me.” I slammed the stick full forward, and the 701’s nose dropped down, picking up airspeed fast. I flared just before the wheels hit the ground and made what seemed like the best landing I’ve ever made – and on the biggest, flattest, smoothest, most beautiful hayfield you ever saw in your life.
As I got out of the plane, a lady with a little boy in tow came running across the field from the road.
“Are you OK?”
“I think so. My engine quit.”
“I wondered what happened,” she said. “I saw you flying so low over the trees and said to my son, ‘Look at the airplane’ and he said ‘What airplane, Momma?’ and I looked back again and you were gone. Then the next thing I saw was you landing!”
We talked for another minute or two and then they headed back to their car.
I thought it might be a good time to call my wife, Katrina. I have a well-deserved reputation for being a practical joker so naturally when I told her that I’d landed in a hayfield she was a little skeptical. The conversation went something like this…
“No, I’m serious.”
“No, I’m NOT kidding.”
“You’re not kidding. Oh my God, are you OK?”
I told her I was OK and that the plane was OK. We talked a little more and then I said I’d call her back after I figured out what I was going to do next. I wanted to find the owner of the field and then get my plane out of there. I walked to a nearby house, explained my situation to a sympathetic older couple, and asked if they knew how I could contact the owner. While we were looking up a phone number, I saw out their window that someone was now standing next to the plane. I thanked them for their help and ran back to where a young teenager was frantically trying to figure out how to stop my airplane from leaking gasoline all over his dad’s field.
In all the excitement, I had forgotten to turn off the feed from the wing tanks to the header tank and it was now overflowing from the header onto the ground.
Once I got the gas turned off, I explained what happened and introduced myself to this personable young man. His first name was Spencer (omitting his last name for this story) and he was 14 years old, the same age as my daughter. Two more guys walked out to meet us: Spencer’s dad, Spence, and Spencer’s grandfather, also named Spencer. I assumed Spencer’s dad was called Spence because two Spencers were a little less confusing than three Spencers although I have to confess that remembering which Spencer was Spence confounded me for a while. (I’m not making this up.)
Grandpa Spencer was an imposing man in overalls, well over six feet at 250 plus pounds, and clearly not at all pleased with an airplane in their hayfield. Spence informed me it was a good thing that I landed today and not yesterday because they had just removed all the hay bales from the field. I’ve since tried to imagine how good I would have been at dodging hay bales on top of everything else; I doubt that scenario is on a simulator anywhere.
Anyway, after some discussion, we determined that the best thing to do would be to get the plane over into a small grove of trees next to their hay barn where it would be out of the way and somewhat protected. The three generations and I pushed the plane out of the field, over a small bridge, and into their farmyard. They called Billy, a pilot and farmer whose airstrip I had just flown out of, and he and his son drove over and graciously offered me a ride back to the Johnston County airport (JNX) where my Jeep was parked. Billy speculated that carb ice may have caused my problem and that I could likely just fire it back up and fly away but I didn’t share his confidence. In fact, I had little enthusiasm to fly again anywhere until I knew what the problem was.
An attempt to restart (hand prop) the airplane provided some useful information. It would only start and continue running if set for at least 1000+ rpm. If the RPMs were less than that, it quit. I had had this problem a couple of times recently including on the morning that I made this flight. A fellow EAA member had advised me that this condition indicated a problem with the carb idle circuit and a suggestion was made to carefully turn the carb idle screw all the way in and then back it out again to its original setting to remove any obstruction. Doing this seemed to solve the problem but, unbeknownst to me (until later), it also indicated that there could be some serious debris in the carb. Later, Spence and I removed the Stromberg carburetor and I took it home to check it out on the bench.
When I opened it up and accessed the bowl, I found all kinds of junk in it including tiny bits of rubber, mud dauber wasp grit, and something that I can only describe as an “ooky” semi-gelatinous mass. (I still don’t know what the hell that was.) No wonder the engine had quit; it was amazing that it ran as well and as long as it did with all of that crap in the carburetor.
On a very hot fall day, with a lot of help from fellow EAA members and Katrina, we removed the wings from the airplane and transported it to where work was completed to remedy the fuel system including new wing tank drains, rebuilding the carb, and replacing all of the rubber fuel lines with aviation-grade fuel lines.
Lessons learned: With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that one needs to consider the larger ramification of a maintenance issue not only in terms of how to simply fix something but also to ask, “Is the airplane safe to fly?” Learning the hard way from a bad experience works out well if you’re lucky enough to survive the experience to learn from it. I was fortunate enough to do that and benefit from all the help and good will of the folks who assisted me in getting the airplane out of the hayfield, properly repaired, and back into the air. There are a lot of good people out there willing to help when you need it and I’m very grateful to have met some of them.
Every once in a while I fly back over that hayfield, waggle my wings just to say hello and remember that day.
A shorter version of this story originally appeared in EAA’s Sport Aviation.