DC-3

Early February 1981. The basketball coach had called expressing concern about our Saturday morning departure from Carbondale, Illinois, to Kirksville, Missouri, for a Saturday night men’s basketball game. He had heard that they were expecting a blizzard Saturday morning in northern Missouri. He wasn’t entirely wrong.

I asked if he would be more comfortable leaving that afternoon, which would mean an overnight for the basketball team, or about 25 people total. He was happy to leave Friday afternoon, with the return scheduled for approximately 2230 local Saturday night, after the ball game.

Our 1938 DC-3 took up a good portion of the main ramp at Kirksville, so a hangar was out of the question for an aircraft as large as ours. Support was as expected, with no deicing available and limited services.

The blizzard forecasted for Saturday morning arrived a few hours after our arrival Friday afternoon. Saturday morning was a bright, sun-filled morning revealing a fresh seven inches of snow.

Our airplane was now part of a snowbank.

DC-3

Cleaning seven inches of snow off a DC-3 is not a simple job.

We began the aircraft cleaning process at 1000. We carried our own winter support tools: garden sprayers filled with glycol, squeegees, brooms, and a salamander heater. My co-pilot, Doug, would carefully walk out on the wing, brooming the snow as he went. Most of the snow would be pushed forward off the leading edge, so I worked the trailing edge of the wings, pulling snow aft.

We called out line service for fuel for the salamander, and fuel for our airplane. For $20 the lineman let us use the roof of the airport pickup truck as a stand for the salamander. We drove the truck right up to an engine, put the salamander on the roof of the truck, and pointed it into the engine. We carried 150 feet of drop cord, which allowed us to plug the heater into an AC outlet by the “terminal.” Each engine had to receive heat for at least an hour before we could start… It takes some time to heat up 24 gallons of 40 weight oil. Fortunately, the snow was not sticking to the airplane and it came off easily. No glycol was needed, simply good old manual labor. It was slow, but it was progress.

The left engine had completed preheating, so we moved the truck to the right engine and started the preheating process all over again. We got the left engine running. Radials really smoke when they are cold and only hitting on a few cylinders early in the start sequence. After idling for at least thirty minutes, with oil temperatures at the bottom of the green arc, I pushed up the power and tried cycling the prop. The oil in the prop hub was very thick and difficult to move.  As usual, the prop did not budge. A few more minutes of high idle, and another try at getting the prop to cycle. A pull of the prop control all the way to the stops, and then wait. About five or six seconds. Then the prop would cycle. When the prop would respond quickly, we knew the cold, thick oil had been replaced with warm oil.

When the salamander ran out of fuel while heating the right engine, we removed the heater from the roof of the truck, put it away, and drove the truck away from our aircraft. We got the right engine started and repeated the warmup procedures. A mere six hours later, the aircraft was good to go! Engine plugs were installed to keep the engines warm. We were starving and cold and headed for the hotel after a bun and run.

Then I looked at the forecast.

Snow mixed with freezing rain was on the way. We were scheduled to leave at 2230, so we ran by the airport on the way to the basketball game to check on the airplane. The airplane was now an ice cube, in another snowbank. And it was still snowing. It made no sense to start cleaning the airplane in the middle of a storm. Doug and I discussed our options and concluded that we should cancel our return trip home and schedule a departure for Sunday morning at 1130. That way we would have adequate rest before we started the deicing process again Sunday morning at 0700. We coordinated with the basketball team through the Sports Information Director, confirming the 1130 departure time for Sunday morning.

A partly cloudy sky greeted us when we arrived at our DC-3 Sunday morning. We began to excavate. The aircraft had a layer of ice on top of about two inches of snow, and a layer of ice as the base. We had to break it up before we could get it removed. We brought out the garden sprayers and applied glycol on the wings and tail. If done correctly, a line of glycol would be applied along the top of the leading edge and it would run back down the wing, de-icing as it went. Banging away with squeegees finished the process. Care was taken on the ailerons and elevators to not punch through the Ceconite. After a couple of hours of work, we were finally able to have both engines running and warming up for the flight home, but we were unable to remove the snow and ice from the top of the fuselage.

After some discussion, we decided to go out onto the runway, check the braking, and do a high-speed taxi if conditions permitted. Braking was mostly fair. We did a high-speed taxi down runway 18, turned around, and did the same northbound on runway 36. It was fun seeing where our three tire tracks were reduced to two. Doug got out and checked the top of the fuselage. It was still covered with snow and ice.

Cockpit

Not a lot of avionics to help a pilot troubleshoot.

I was concerned about how much the aircraft would weigh with both snow and ice and a load of passengers on board. Our only option was to take off and fly around the patch. We could hear the ice occasionally hit the rudder as it left the airplane on downwind. After landing we returned to our parking spot and shut down the engines. As I was walking around the airplane, the basketball team arrived. Talk about perfect timing…

Our departure on runway 18 was normal as we were cleared to our cruise altitude of 5000 feet. With the hard part behind us, Doug got out of the co-pilot seat to remove his blue and white pinstripe coveralls as we passed 2600 feet.

Just then I lost control of the right engine. The engine would catch and surge. Then fail. Then backfire. It seemed to have a mind of its own. My feet were doing a twostep on the rudder pedals trying to keep the back end from jumping side to side. Doug dove toward the co-pilot seat with the coveralls down around his knees. He halfway fell because his legs were shackled. I moved the mixture control from AUTORICH to EMERG RICH. That did not help. I tried AUTOLEAN on the mixture control. The engine continued to misbehave. I went back to AUTORICH and continued to adjust the right throttle, trying to find a smooth power setting. I made a gentle right turn to return to Kirksville. Somewhere around 20 inches of manifold pressure the engine surges were minimal, and I could relax my feet a bit, maintaining a bit of left rudder pressure to keep us straight.

Doug called Center and told them we were returning to Kirksville. The winds were still calm, so we planned runway 36. My main concern was ground handling on a contaminated runway with fair braking and a surging engine. The intermittent backfiring continued but was more subdued. The touchdown on the runway was soft and smooth. Snow will do that for you. Make you look good.

We parked right back where we started this fiasco three days earlier. I looked at the engine, only to find two spark plug leads dangling in the wind. No big oil leaks or obvious cracks.

We were broken, not going anywhere.

The basketball team chartered a bus and were gone in 45 minutes. We checked in with our boss and told him what had happened, and he sent a 310 to pick us up and bring us home.

I found myself back in sunny Kirksville ten days later with two mechanics. After further review, the right pressure carburetor was the culprit. There are seven altitude chambers separated by rubber diaphragms in this carburetor. The diaphragms had come apart, creating one chamber only. Apparently, the engine did not like that modification.

Steve Jordan
9 replies
  1. Greg Pfeil
    Greg Pfeil says:

    Great story, Steve. Am wondering, is N54595 an ex-FAA route check -3? We originally had three of them at Ohio University (now down to one, still flying and in great shape) and they had/have pretty much the same paint scheme. We use it for Avionics research projects.

    Reply
    • Steve Jordan
      Steve Jordan says:

      Yes it was a FAA route check airplane. After the college life, the airplane went to Otis Spunkmeyer in Oakland, Cal. for a few years. I believe it is currently owned by a private museum in Texas, and still being flown.

      Reply
  2. Warren Collmer
    Warren Collmer says:

    In 1979, I got my first paid gig as a copilot with a DC3 cargo operation, Air Indiana, based at IND. We had a small fleet of DC3 and C47 freighters, one of which was an ex-FAA airplane. Great memories.

    Reply
  3. Steve Cirino
    Steve Cirino says:

    I remember these lengthy painstaking ground operations prior to launching, the result was always worth the effort. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply

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