Student flight control jam

Aeroflex-Andover Airport, New Jersey, 1962

Aeroflex Airport is located about 40 miles northwest of New York City in the town of Andover, New Jersey. The runway is located in a valley between two forested ridge lines in a very picturesque, heavily wooded area that includes many ponds and lakes. In fact, there are bodies of water on the approach ends of each runway. I had been hired by the owner of the airport and its FBO as an instructor and charter pilot, with duties that also included being his personal pilot as well. In the early 1960s, operations like this were thriving across the country.

Al came from a background of farming and was also a skilled tractor mechanic and seemed to adapt to any mechanical vehicle easily. He began his flight training with me in our Cessna 150, which was a late 1950s model with a straight tail and “fastback” fuselage. Aeroflex Airport owned two 150s for student training. Al took to the flight training with no difficulties and did his first solo flight in minimum flight time.

Aeroflex-Andover airport
Aeroflex-Andover is a great general aviation airport.

This particular day Al was flying on his third hour of supervised solo, meaning these solo flights needed to be approved by me beforehand. The maneuvers he was to do would be agreed to by me and Al. He departed normally and considering his progress so far, I had no concerns about his flight.

Perhaps 20 minutes after his takeoff, Al called on the Unicom frequency: “Bob, I’ve got trouble with the controls.” I responded quickly. “What’s the trouble, Al?”

“I can’t move the control wheel forward or back. It’s stuck a little aft of the neutral position. Ailerons and rudder are fine. Just the elevator.”

Wow. This is a problem! What to do next? I couldn’t do anything from where I was on the ground, so I decided to use our other 150 and fly next to his airplane to see if anything could be seen from looking at his airplane in flight. I called him again on Unicom: “Al, how are you making out controlling the airplane?”

He came back: “I’m okay now, but in the beginning with the wheel aft of neutral, I added power and climbed, then closed the throttle and did a glide and kept doing that. Then I discovered a throttle position that let me hold altitude but flying slower. That’s what I’m doing now.”

I responded: “Al, that’s excellent thinking. You’re doing a great job with this. I’m going to come up in our other 150 to look over your airplane. Where are you now?”

“I’m just east of the airport, on the other side of Lake Lenape”

“I’ll be up there as fast as I can!” I grabbed Harry, a pilot for Pan American, to go with me in the 150.

Harry and I were now flying in the area that Al said he was located and we saw nothing, but when I looked down I saw a 150 very low doing steep turns and sharp pull-ups at tree-top level. What is he doing? Has he lost control of the airplane? The 150 now headed towards the east and was climbing higher, which gave me some hope that we could salvage this. It took many minutes for us to catch up to him and we were now virtually flying formation. We could see him in the cockpit looking straight ahead. He didn’t answer any of our radio calls. Then it hit me: this 150 next to us had wheel pants, our 150 did not.

I said: “Harry, we screwed up. That’s not our 150. We got the wrong one!” Then we turned left and away. I’m sure the pilot of that 150 never knew we were there, even though we were looking in his window watching him. His head never turned from straight ahead!

What now? I headed toward the east looking frantically for our 150 and Al. Harry and I finally had a few minutes to think more about this control problem and began talking more about the elevator trim tab as being a partial solution. We quickly decided to spare Al any more complications and not mention the trim tab. The elevator trim tab would need to be moved in reverse of normal to get the nose up or nose down that Al would want. Way too complicated.

Newark
Newark isn’t nearly as nice a GA airport, but those long runways can come in handy.

Then we heard a weak transmission and it was Al’s voice on the radio. I called him on Unicom frequency by his tail number and by his name. He answered. I said, “Al, where are you?” He came back, “I don’t know but I’m headed south and I see huge buildings off to my left and big white gas tanks on the ground just ahead of me.” I quickly responded, “I’m pretty sure the buildings you see are New York City and the tanks are on the Jersey side. I know about where you are. Try to stay in that area so we can come over and join up with you.” Al said, “I’ll try.”

It wasn’t 15 minutes and we saw Al’s airplane. Unbelievable luck. We got up next to his airplane. He seemed happy to see us, but obviously not under the best of circumstances. We saw nothing unusual about Al’s airplane and the problem now became: how do we get him down?

Then a call came from a Unicom station located at one of the smaller airports in central New Jersey. I don’t remember which airport. The ground guy said, “I’ve been listening to what you are up against and I’d sure like to help you any way I can.” I said, “Well, what I’m thinking now is we need an airport with a very long runway in order to talk this 150 down.”

“How’s this for an idea?” the guy on the ground said. “Suppose I call Newark tower on the phone and explain the predicament and see if they could help.” I said, “That sounds great. Be sure to tell them this is a student pilot flying the troubled 150. He has no pitch control of his airplane and he has a total flying experience of about 18 hours.”

“I’ll do it. Stand by,” he said.

In a short time, he responded. “They’re ready for you. Here’s what they want: You’ll be landing on Runway 11 and you can lead the other 150 on a long straight in, then you pull up making a left pattern to also land on Runway 11. You can talk to the student, but on a mile final you need to switch to the Tower frequency.”

“We will do that. You saved our bacon today and I’ll talk to you on the phone later.”

I said to Al, “You heard that. Sounds good to you?” Al said “Oh yeah.”

“Al, listen to what I’m going to tell you. This is going to be easier than you think. I’ll need to get in front of you on the approach to the airport in order for me to lead you to the runway. On your descent you will need to control both the airspeed and the rate of descent with the throttle. You’ll be doing the same thing you were doing holding altitude earlier, but with less throttle than before. The airplane will come down with less throttle. You follow me to the airport and you will see the big runway in front of you. I will fly to 200 feet and pull up. You continue right on down to maybe a foot above the runway and close the throttle. Keep the airplane level with the ailerons and straight with the rudder and ride it out. Let the airplane do what it wants to do. The most important thing is this: when you close the throttle DO NOT OPEN THE THROTTLE AGAIN, under any circumstance. Are you good with this?”

Al said, “I think so.”

I said, “You’ve been doing amazingly well so far. I know this will come out just fine.”

Cessna 150
Landing a 150 with a stuck elevator? It just takes patience and good throttle control.

We maneuvered into position, me in front and Al flying behind me and down we went toward Runway 11 at Newark. I heard nothing from Al while we were both still on Unicom frequency so I felt his airplane was under control and stable. It became time for me to switch to the Tower. At 200 feet, I pulled up into a left turn and looked back and down to see Al’s 150 just touching down. I could see considerable bouncing, but the airplane quickly stopped and there appeared to be no big problems. The yellow Port Authority cars quickly surrounded the airplane and began to lead him to taxi to Newark Air Service for parking.

I landed and met Al at the FBO. He had a big grin on his face and a hearty handshake. He said that as soon as the airplane hit the ground, the control wheel loosened up and moved normally. Further examination of the tail section found a drill bit sitting in the tailcone, which was the same size drill bit that was used to drill the VOR antenna mounting hole in the upper vertical fin. It was obviously left there at the Cessna factory and over time worked its way down through the lightening holes until it wedged in the elevator bell crank.

Al was an extraordinary man. Fortunately for all of us he was a great problem solver and could manage great stress. Not many people could have handled all the stresses he had that day. It was about two hours’ time from when he called me on Unicom until he was safely on the ground at Newark. Low fuel was beginning to be a concern, but I didn’t need to throw anything more his way.

Back home at Andover, he and I sat and reviewed the action of the day. I proposed he come and fly again as soon as possible. He held up his hand to stop me from talking and said, “Bob. Today was my last airplane ride. I quit.”

12 Comments

  • That was a nailbiter! I was sorry to hear at the end that he quit flying, since he was a natural. I saw the photo on FB first and thought it looked like Andover; I took some Stearman training there a couple years ago.

  • Agreed with the first commenter. The student was a natural; an ability to think clearly and remain calm. Too bad he stopped flying.

  • I do not understand the comment about “;reverse “pitch trim. How would trimming nose up have pointedthe nose down?

  • There used to be an airport on the other side of street from Aeroflex. It was called Donavan-Hughes and it was a small grass and dirt strip. In 1951 I rented a J3 Cub from there and flew locally for a few months. At that time Aeroflex was a private airport and required permission to land.

  • First one. When he was safely on the ground at Newark we took the tailcone off and there was a drill bit sitting in the tailcone. It was the same size drill bit that would have been used to drill the holes on the upper fin area to install the VOR antenna. Our theory was it was left in there at the factory and slowly worked it’s way downward until it lodged in the elevator bellcrank. When Al landed hard it jarred it loose.
    Reverse pitch trim. In a healthy elevator, trim tab combination, if nose up trim is set the trim tab moves downward and that forces the elevator surface upward which gives the nose up pitch on the airplane. Now, suppose the elevator surface is jammed. When you trim the trim control in the up direction the trim tab moves downward as before, but the elevator surface cannot move. So the only surface in the airflow is the tab which is downward and as small as it is compared to the elevator surface, a slight nose down pitch on the airplane will result, not nose up as the pilot wanted. I am open to corrections on what I just wrote.

  • 1951 was before my time in that area. I never heard of that airport that you name and I thought there was no airport where the Aeroflex Airport was until eventually Fred Hussey built it on his property. There was and still is a small grass airport south of Aeroflex called Trinca.

  • Great story and great work on the problem solving. This is a great CRM example!

    Too bad Al quit, he would have made a fine pilot with problem solving skills like that!

  • The name Andover Aeoflex brings back some memories. In about 1988 when I was an Air Safety Investigator for Cessna I was there in the winter. I believe it was a student pilot who crashed a 172 into the frozen lake adjacent to the airport and we investigated.

  • The stress Al felt that day must have been enormous, especially when he was lost and flying aimlessly not knowing where we were and would we ever find him. He must have thought he’s going to fly until he runs out of fuel and then just crash straight ahead. And he wasn’t sure how he was going to do that. I think he earned the right to pack it in.

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