Flying athletic teams can be lots of fun. Depending on the event, sometimes flight crews get to attend the athletic contest while laying over. Other times, the departure time, weather conditions, or duty time limitations simply don’t allow it. On this trip, Jerry and I were unable to attend the collegiate men’s basketball game due to pending weather and duty time. We knew it was going to be a late night…
Jerry was a great guy to fly with. I was still a right seater at the time, with an upgrade coming soon. A great mentor, Jerry treated co-pilots as equals. He was deliberate, yet exceptionally smooth in the handling of any aircraft he was flying. Anyone that flew a trip with Jerry walked away enriched. Jerry was later killed on United 232 in Iowa. I feel lucky and honored to have known and flown with him.
We were to depart at 10 pm from Peoria, Illinois, and return the basketball team back home to Carbondale, Illinois. We were in a DC-3 with 24 full seats in the back. Widespread fog was forecast at both the departure airport as well as our destination. Our alternate for Carbondale was Evansville, Indiana, which forced us to add fuel in Peoria, rather than being able to fuel round trip Carbondale-Peoria-Carbondale. We would be close to maximum gross weight for takeoff.
The basketball team showed up late. The weather during our 10:30 pm engine start was two miles visibility in fog. There’s not a lot going on at Peoria Airport after the evening news is over, so we were the lone airplane making the long taxi to runway 13. This airplane had big old Pratt & Whitney 1830-75s that were smooth and throaty. We took our time as we went through the run-up procedures.
In addition to the standard takeoff briefing, Jerry added, “Visibility looks like a good two miles. If we have any immediate problems, we’ll come back here. Probably left traffic back if we can.”
“Roger that, Jerry.”
We received our takeoff clearance and taxied out onto runway 13. Jerry let the airplane creep straight ahead a bit to allow for a smooth engagement of the tailwheel lock once we were on the centerline.
As the right seater, my job was to fine tune the power during take-off and make all the power changes as called for by the captain. I did not see many takeoffs, as my attention was inside monitoring the engines and power settings.
Everything looked good as I monitored the 52 inches of manifold pressure and 2800 RPMs, which is maximum takeoff power for the 1350 HP radials. Due to our weight and the slight uphill slope of runway 13, it took a bit longer than usual for the tail to come up. Jerry reached over just after V1 and added a touch of nose up trim as we levitated into the night.
I was commanded to raise the gear right after I called positive rate. Raising the gear is a two lever activity in DC-3s. You unlatch and raise the positive latch lever that is located on the floor between the seats, and then raise the long hydraulic lever that is located next to the co-pilot’s seat.
Jerry called for METO (Maximum Except for Take Off). I reduced the power to 42 inches of manifold pressure and 2600 RPMs. We had now climbed to approximately 800 AGL. I started to pick my head up and peek outside, and Jerry called for climb power. I reduced power to 35 inches of manifold pressure and reduced the RPMs to 2300 RPMs. A DC-3 is never quiet, but for late night departures, we sometimes would reduce the power a little earlier for noise abatement.
Just as I trimmed the RPMs to 2300, the right engine cut loose with a cacophony of explosions that resembled a 10-gauge shotgun being fired right next to my ear. The engine was backfiring. Badly. When a radial engine backfires, fire comes out of the carburetor intake, which is located on top of the engine. The burst of flame extended directly into the relative wind at least eight feet. I could see the flame go past my window each time it erupted, which was about one per second. The cockpit would fill with bright orange every time the fire went by my window.
Jerry reduced power on the right engine. The backfiring slowed a bit to one bang every two seconds. Jerry began a left turn back towards the airport. I called the control tower and told them that we had an engine problem, and that we were returning to the airport. The controller asked if we had the airport in sight, and indeed we did not. I asked for all the runway lights to be put on high and there it was, slightly ahead and to our left. Jerry had put us on a tight left downwind. The airplane was not happy with climb power on the left engine, while the right engine was providing a marginal amount of thrust at best. We were losing altitude, even though Jerry was holding the best single engine climb speed of 110 MPH.
In a calm voice, Jerry said, “let’s go to METO on the left.”
“Yep. Here it comes.” I pushed the left engine throttle up to 42 inches of manifold pressure and the left prop control up to 2600 RPM.
We were making some noise now. I chuckled as I imagined lights turning on underneath us as we flew overhead. After all, we were down to a weak 600 AGL on downwind. One engine screaming, the other banging away big time with fire shooting out the top. Noise abatement not a consideration…
The tower asked for souls on board, fuel status, and whether we needed the trucks.
“26 souls, four hours of fuel, probably better roll the trucks,” I said.
“Cleared to land runway 13, the trucks are rolling.”
We turned from base to final just a bit outside the middle marker. Jerry called for gear down. The landing gear takes some time to extend. We were cutting the gear extension a little close. As I said earlier, gear extension is a two lever activity. The hydraulic landing gear lever was hurriedly placed in the down position. I waited what seemed like an eternity for the landing gear hydraulic pressure to build, placed the gear lever back to neutral, and just as I engaged the positive latch mechanism on the floor, the wheels touched on runway 13. At idle, the back firing ceased as we made the long taxi down runway 13 and returned to the operator.
Once parked, oil was everywhere. The master cylinder had blown, which was the source of the engine malfunction.
The basketball team had to wait for the bus to come back and take them to the hotel. This was enough of a delay to allow for the press to show up. Given the number of tragedies that have involved collegiate athletic programs, this is understandable, but we were just hoping to stay under the press radar. Jerry suggested we hide in the bathroom so we wouldn’t have to address the press. Probably not our best decision, but that’s what we did.
Instead, the press questioned some of the basketball players. These individuals are athletes, not aviators. From the questions and discussions with the players, the resultant quote in the local papers was “We was on fire; I could see the flames.”
Well, we weren’t really on fire… but we did make lots of noise. And Jerry got us back.