Engine failure as a student pilot

I always built and flew model airplanes when I was young. We lived in Brooklyn, New York, in an apartment so having a workbench wasn’t possible, but my folks were tolerant of the smell of glue and paint. I even built a model in the back seat of a ’55 Cadillac while traveling across the country going to California and fighting with my sister at the same time.

My dad had built a sawmill in Central California and he had a pilot to commute to the mill, so I would fly with the pilot once in a while. We landed at a small private airstrip at Bass Lake, California, and I didn’t realize that it was a one way strip that was closed, but everyone used it a lot. Little did I know that later in my career I would be landing on that strip myself for almost ten years until the mill was closed in 1970.

That was the beginning of my flying career in Fresno, one that started when I met a girl in college who belonged to the Fresno State flying club and invited me to go to a meeting. Even though I had built and flown models all through my early years, I had not gone any further with lessons to get a pilot’s license; that changed after my first flight with an instructor named John Banks.

John was a calm and quiet man who put up with my learning trials. The club plane was an Aeronca 7AC, a beautiful cream and red airplane that seemed to me just wonderful. John took me up for my first lesson, and I still remember the most wonderful view and feeling of freedom in that plane. I do remember that the plane was $4 an hour wet and John’s fee was also $4 an hour. Things went well and in short order and with some practice, John told me to land the plane and pull over to the ramp. I did and he jumped out and told me to go ahead and fly three circuits solo! From that moment, as every pilot will remember, life was changed forever.

How I loved 24Echo—just a sweet plane that was a true stick and rudder plane, one that would reward you if you learned to use the rudder. You could sign out and fly the plane solo if it wasn’t reserved when you wanted to fly.

Aeronca
The Aeronca Champ is a simple airplane, but there are still some systems to understand.

The day I remember as yesterday was a warm spring day in Fresno and I decided to fly to enjoy the beautiful day and weather. I started my checkout and everything seemed OK, except when I checked the fuel I removed the cap and heard a hissing noise. The tank usually had a wire gauge that stuck up from the cap to show how much gas was in the tank, but I assumed that the cap was replaced with a new cap and didn’t think anything was amiss. I assumed the tank had pressurized because it was a warm day, so I promptly finished and started the engine and took off.

I headed for a local lake and just felt good how wonderful it was to be fortunate to enjoy the day.  Everything seemed to be in order, but suddenly the prop stopped and it got very quiet. I do remember thinking that I shouldn’t be seeing the prop but then I quickly remembered John and I practicing forced landings and established a proper glide speed and checked the oil pressure and tach.

There was no useful information there so I started to scan for a suitable landing spot and below me was Highway 41, a main road to Yosemite Park. I didn’t see any traffic so I decided to land on what looked like a great runway. I had no problem landing—just steered the plane and stopped. It seemed to me just another forced landing that John and I had practiced before. Just then I saw a car coming towards me and I realized that it was a California Highway Patrol car. Our eyes met and I remember the wide-eyed look on the officer’s face.

I got out of the plane and he walked up to me. He was very nice as I’m sure he saw I was in a nervous state. Of course he asked what happened and I replied that the engine just stopped. He looked around the plane and asked if I had fuel, and opened the fuel cap. As he did there was a whoosh as air was sucked into the tank.

“Here’s your problem,” he said. Someone had put a non-vented cap on the tank, so there was no vent to allow air in the tank. Since it was a gravity tank, the non-vented tank stopped the fuel from getting to the engine and caused the shutdown. I was able to fly for a while until the fuel would’t flow anymore and caused the engine to quit.

He said he was a pilot too and went to his tool box, got a screwdriver, and punched a hole in the gas cap and put it back on. I got back in the plane and we started the engine. He told me he was going to go and stop any traffic and for me to take off when he flashed his lights. He also told me to keep this story to myself. I’m sorry I didn’t get his name, but I think that since I was a student pilot, 19 years old, he might have seen himself in what had just happened. Off I went with little fanfare and I went back to our field. I just put it the back of my mind and continued on with my flying.

I thought that I had done just what Mr. Banks had taught me. I didn’t tell anyone about my adventure for 50 plus years, but I always thought it was a wonderful memory of an unusual day.  

5 Comments

  • This was a fine, understated account.

    You are not the only Champ pilot to suffer fuel starvation due to vent issues. Selecting/executing forced landings was heavily emphasized in 1960s’ training programs. It seems a lost art today owing to more reliable equipment and more irritable property owners.

    You were well served by your instructor and you rewarded him by your performance that day.

  • My instructor was Lester Dethloff at the old Chardon Airport in Chardon, Ohio. Les had been a civilian instructor for the Army Air Forces in the war because he was too old at the time to become an Air Force pilot. He treated his young students in 1956 and 7 as if we were cadet pilots in the 1940’s. And so we learned to FLY.

    Of course we practiced “forced landings” by pulling power and aiming for a farmer’s field before shoving power back in and climbing out. But one day about a week before this soon to be 16 year old budding pilot was scheduled for my CAA check ride, we were out flogging through the winter Ohio sky in a 7AC Aeronca Champ.

    With an armstrong starter. (Only us old guys remember those.)

    So there we were, enjoying a nice sunny day with some of winter’s unlimited visibility in a sky where more than 10 miles visibility was an unusual treat when all of a sudden, Lester reached up and flipped the mag switch to OFF. Then he settled down, pulled his cap over his eyes and pretended to take a nap.

    It must have taken a few seconds to realize what he’d done, but he’d trained me well so I shoved some forward stick, established a good glide speed and looked for a field. Any field. Spotted one not far away and began to set up an overhead approach. Gonna be tight, but if I slip a little . . .

    Finally he sat up, looked around and asked in a voice that sounded like a shout in the engineless silence, “Where the hell are you going?”

    I pointed out the chosen field and explained my plan to slip over the trees. The furrows were running in the right direction but it might be a little tight trying to get out of it.

    He turned around and fixed me with the famous Dethloff glare. “You never looked straight down, did you?”

    Sure ’nuff. There it was right below us. Bunch Woods’ 1200 feet of beautiful Ohio grass with his hangar and 170 sitting at the end of it.

    That beautiful little Air Knocker touched down gently and rolled to a nice stop. Lesson learned that happily never had to be used again.

    Then he swore me to secrecy and threatened a one-way trip out over Lake Erie if I ever breathed a word of it to any of his other students.

    Can’t quite imagine anything like that happening today . . .

  • Delightful story! What a strike of luck that the officer who arrived at the scene of your road landing was a pilot and a sensible man.
    Thank you for sharing! After all these years, I don’t think he’d mind you teeling us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *