The headline in the New London Day on November 8, 1968 read, “Plane Lands Safely After Losing Prop.” Underneath, a few short paragraphs recounted a serious failure:
On the evening of November 8, 1968, a Pilgrim Airlines twin-engine Beechcraft took off from Bradley International Airport with only a pilot and co-pilot aboard. Shortly after take off, when the flight was about five miles southeast of the airport, the aircraft suddenly lost a three-blade propeller from one of the engines and was forced to return to the airport and make an emergency landing.
The cause was reported to be a gear box failure in the engine. It was unclear where the propeller came down, and there were no reported injuries on the ground.
A few days after the accident the propeller still had not been recovered, and the airline offered a free airplane ride and $25 to the person who recovered and returned the propeller.
It is unknown if it was ever found.
The Queen Air Model 65 had been owned by the Beechcraft Corporation. It had 8 passenger seats and a rear washroom. Pilgrim Airlines bought it for light passenger loads and sometimes for charter flights. This evening with no passengers, the crew was deadheading the airplane back to home base, Groton, Connecticut, a short flight of about 50 miles.
Otherwise well equipped, this airplane had disappointing single engine performance at gross weight. Luckily, the load was light that night.
Under Instrument Flight Rules, the aircraft took off runway 06 at Bradley International and entered clouds at 500 feet above ground. Their clearance was to follow runway heading until reaching 3000 feet, then turn right direct to Groton as filed and wait for a further altitude climb to 5000 ft.
Bradley was Positive Radar Controlled Environment and due to weather conditions the controllers were quite busy with a number of aircraft holding, awaiting approach clearances.
The first sign of trouble inside the Queen Air was a sudden, rising electrical whirring sound in the pilots’ headsets as all the cockpit lights went out. The left seat flying instruments, navigation lights, all navigation and radios, transponder, and engine instruments also died.
The immediate issue the pilots faced was an instant yaw and both pilots were needed on the rudder pedals. The electrical failure was confusing since both engines had generators which were supposed to individually maintain total electrical power.
The co-pilot had a basic instrument panel with directional gyro, vacuum, pressure instruments, and compass, so he took the controls with a pocket flashlight in his teeth. The captain, with his own flashlight, began to recycle circuit breakers and double check the aircraft manual for possible causes for a total electrical failure.
Meantime the co-pilot pushed the nose down to regain 3000 ft. and held headings and airspeed as best he could, and was mostly worried about a mid air collision. Except for the yaw, there was no indication which engine had failed. In heavy cloud nothing was visible outside. Later it became obvious that when the propeller assembly departed, an instant over-revving had overpowered and killed the total electrical system. Whatever had happened, the remaining engine was needed at full takeoff power to stay flying.
Still in solid cloud, the pilots discussed options. Where to go, how far would the airplane fly on one engine, how could they land somewhere with no navigation instruments in these IFR conditions? They had all but decided to turn towards the coast on compass headings and begin a letdown using time to estimate when they might be over Long Island Sound (sea level), hope they could get below the clouds, and then find the Groton Airport visually. It seemed the only option.
At that instant, the aircraft suddenly broke out of cloud over the city of Hartford. Bradley International Airport was now visible behind them under the clouds. The good engine was beginning to backfire and didn’t sound like it would last too much longer- probably draining the battery. It was time to ease back on the power setting. Later, Air Traffic Control said they had recognized the in-flight emergency and used the primary radar reflection to see what the pilots would do. Thankfully, they had held other aircraft out of the way. As the aircraft was losing controllability quickly, and with the low ceiling, there was no choice but head for the closest runway—the opposite end they took off from.
There were no landing gear indicators (also electric) on the panel. On close final, the co-pilot began to crank the emergency gear extension handle—about 50 pumps the book said. With no landing flaps either, the pilots feared a stall and they had no idea if the wheels were down. There was no chance for a go-around. They had no lights. They decided on the paved runway instead of the grass infield, knowing it was at least smooth and if the wheels were up, fire vehicles could reach them quicker.
The runway was clear. When the power was reduced, the yaw reduced and a reasonable landing resulted—the wheels were down and stayed down. They taxied off the runway and coasted to the ramp. The captain, with a disgusted look on his face, looked over to the co-pilot and all he said was, “iron men and wooden ships.”
When they walked around the nose they saw the complete hub and three blades of the propeller were gone. The whole right side was covered with engine oil. The pilots figured that the rotation of the prop as it spun away from the airplane was all that kept it from slicing into the cockpit—right about where the co-pilot’s feet and rudder pedals had been.
A few months later, a small boat hit the propeller sticking up out of the Connecticut River mud.