Survival Skills
Props That Go "Bang" in the Night

© Beverly Howard, 2009

Ernest Gahn taught us that, in aviation, fate is the hunter.  Another lesson in his book was that our skills as pilots can help us survive if we become prey to this hunter.  In the episode that follows, fate plays the role of both hunter and saviour.  Interwoven between those plays of fate, survival skills bind all of the events together, in a fight to live through a desperate situation.  As usual the story starts out innocently enough.

Everything was going as planned.  As we climbed through 5000 towards 7000 feet, it was as if we were in space rather than the atmosphere.  There was only a thin line of gold left along the western horizon behind us and the rest of the sky was already jet black and full of stars.  The black sky was absolute, cold and crystal clear, with no clouds or moon.  The time was Christmas Eve in 1971.  Christiane and I were starting out on a thousand mile trip home to visit the family for the holidays.

This trip was going to accomplish several ends and we had been planning it for over a month.  I had just made the switch from running an airport and soaring center to a desk job in engineering, so the flight was going to get me back into the air plus give me some much needed practice on my brand new instrument rating.  It would also take both Chris and I back to Charleston for the first visit with the family since my father's death in October while flying in a North Carolina airshow.

The preparations had included considerable searching for a suitable airplane to rent for the trip.  I had found a new, fully instrumented Grumman AA1-A trainer in San Antonio that would take us there and back for about the same rental price as the airline tickets would have cost.  The week before our departure, I had driven down and gotten a check out in a Grumman Yankee, which consisted of three takeoffs and landings, plus a stall series.  It had been my first flight in a Grumman, and on the night of the 22nd, I made my first solo flight in the AA1-A, ferrying it to Austin after a poor preflight done by the light of a flashlight.  I tried the next day to fly again before we left, but the weather had been lousy and unflyable.

But now we were on our way and I was beginning to relax. The first two hours of the flight had been straightforward and without any surprises.  Center had brought us back down to 5000 feet from 7000, and as we approached the VOR that marked the last leg before a fuel stop in Alexandria, Lousiania, Chris asked what we would do in the event of an engine failure at night.  The question didn't make me as nervous as it should have.  I knew about her psychic powers by then.  The week before, we had been going down an Interstate highway on a BSA motorcycle at 75 mph, when she asked me what would happen if a tire blowout occurred, and about 90 seconds later the rear tire went.  That example was only one of her many accurate premonitions.  I glibly explained that we would simply ask center for a vector to the nearest lighted airport, then glide there and land.

What I didn't tell her was that I had been nervous about that possibility ever since we took off.  I had been on many single engine night flights with my father throughout my childhood, but I was still a bit nervous on this trip since I had done very little night flying on my own other than to occasionally practice night landings to keep current.  As a result I was taking every precaution that I could think of, such as flying high to get maximum glide range in case of trouble, burning thirty minutes out of the second tank, then back to the first tank and burning that one dry to get some solid figures on our fuel use, and in general being jumpy about the slightest change in engine noise.

Less than five minutes after the question, the whole airframe shook with a tremendous bang, followed by unbelievable vibration and noise.  My hand reacted
by reflex immediately and yanked the throttle back to idle.  Still , the vibration felt capable of destroying the airframe, so much so, that it seemed as if the whole aircraft was shaking violently over six inches in every direction.  I knew I had to get the engine stopped completely but at the same time I knew I also had to get that vector that I had just spoken to Chris about.  I pushed the mike button and cleared the frequency with a few "maydays," and at the same time pulled the mixture back. . . no change in the vibration with the engine dead and windmilling.

Center came back and asked what the problem was.  As I told him that we had just experienced a complete engine failure and needed a vector to the nearest lighted airport, I started to bring the nose up to slow the plane down enough to stop the prop.  No such luck, the Yankee stalled and fell off into a quarter turn spin before I could recover, and the prop hadn't stopped.  I tried it three more times before I was successful, each attempt with the airplane trying to fall off into a spin.

I was scared.  A better word would be terrified.  Only four months before this flight, I had experienced a catastrophic engine failure in daylight, and over friendly terrain.  I knew how close that had been, and here I was, at night, no airports in sight, over terrain that I knew was mostly pine forests and swamps, and the only road I could see was two lane, bumper to bumper with holiday traffic, and car lights that flickered under the trees hanging over the road.  It seemed to be just a matter of time until. . .  Center came back with a vector, "Turn right to 120 degrees."  I started a right turn. . .

"You've turned too far."  The voice was calm and authoritative, but it didn't come from the loudspeaker, rather from the right seat.  Chris didn't have a pilot's rating at that time, but she had been around me and flying long enough to know that I wasn't functioning up to par.  She repeated the heading, and I turned back toward it.  Center came back with the information that the assigned vector was to Fort Polk airfield, and the distance there was 20 nautical miles.  The Grumman had a glide ratio of under 10 to 1, so, with an altitude of less than a mile it was clear that we were not going to make it.  I told him that making Fort Polk was impossible, and that the best thing that he could do for us was to make sure that someone would be looking for us and that they knew about where to start looking.

All of a sudden my brain put the pieces together, and I knew what had happened.  At lunch that day, a friend (who was also an A&P) had gone with me to the airport to look at the plane. It had less than 50 hours total time so I had not been too concerned about it's safety, but during a walkaround, Gary spotted a large nick in one of the propeller blades.  It had been dressed out with a file to a smooth cavity with the radius of my little fingertip, and was about three eight's of an inch deep.  There was a logbook entry noting the repair, signed by a certified mechanic.   The bang must have been the propeller failing as a result of a stress crack originating from that nick.  Almost a foot of the prop would have ripped off.  I leaned up to the windshield, explaining my theory to Chris.  We could barely see the silhouette of one blade.  Bumping the starter carefully brought the other blade into view, and it was noticeably shorter.

The voice from center was back.  He had found a card with helpful suggestions in the event of an engine failure, and was reading a litany of suggestions such as ". . . check your fuel selector, check your mixture control, etc., etc."  The list seemed to go on forever.  When the frequency was finally clear, I told him that we had a broken prop.  There was no response and we glided on in silence.  I sat there trying to visualize what it was going to be like when we hit the trees.  Chris told me later that her thoughts at the same time, were of concern for my mother in having to go through personal effects from an air crash twice in three months.

Center came back and handed us off to Fort Polk tower. After establishing contact with them, all I could do was repeat my request that they have somebody start looking for us as soon as they lost radio contact.

The altitude was down to 1500 feet and there was nothing but blackness below us.  The fear began to come back.  I couldn't simply sit and wait, so I decided to see if I could use just enough power to drag us on to Fort Polk.  I hit the starter to get the prop windmilling.  The results of that attempt got my complete attention.  The vibration was worse than I remembered and I was certain that if I allowed it to continue, the engine mounts would fail and the engine would separate from the airframe.  I felt that it was going to be better to go in under control rather than out of control.  As a result, I was back to the routine of stall and spin recovery to get the damn vibration stopped, but this time under 1000 feet.  I was getting better, this time it only took two tries.

In the midst of the second prop stopping, stall-spin recovery exercise, I saw something I couldn't believe--we were over the end of the runway!  It was if someone had just turned on the lights.  I called tower and told them that we had the airport made.  The airplane was over the threshold with the runway heading 90 degrees off to the right.  I made a steep left turn to get in a good position to start the final approach, then another 180 to head back toward the runway on a short final.  I called tower and asked for the length of the lighted runway.  I had already assumed that since it was a military base, it's length would be at least 5000 feet.  With that in mind, my plan was to shoot for touchdown at the midpoint of the runway so that I would have some options in case either an undershoot or overshoot situation developed.

There was no answer from the tower on the length request. Something was wrong.  This was not Fort Polk.  It was simply a runway, a very short one at that, and... I was extremely high.  So much for plans based on 5000 feet of usable runway for the landing.  I was almost at the threshold of a runway that was 2700 feet long, and still had almost 500 feet of altitude. 

Years of glider flying began paying off.  I put the Grumman into a full slip and it came down like a brick.  Touch down was at about the one third mark, and we came to a stop 700 feet later.  My adrenaline level was off the top of the scale.  I slid the canopy back, and the next thing I knew, I was running up and down the runway yelling at the top of my lungs.  Christiane was more subdued.  She simply brought up the possibility that we were dead and just didn't know it yet.  I went back to the cockpit and picked up the mike.  "Is there anyone on this frequency that can relay a message to Fort Polk tower?"  There was a short pause and the deep, measured voice of a professional pilot came back out of the dark.  He must have had some of the same suspicions that Chris had had, because it took several exchanges of transmissions to convince him that we had not crashed.  He also guessed, correctly as it turned out, that we had landed at Leesville Municipal Airport, ten miles short of the goal center had set for us.

The entire drama had taken less than five minutes.  For most of it I had been sure that we would not survive.  It was five minutes that I would never forget, and it seemed more like twenty four hours than five minutes.  Fate had picked the most desolate spot possible to sever the prop.  Fate had also given us the vector to the unreachable airport that took us directly to the only landing area in range.

Throughout the episode I had been challenged to use many of my skills that as a pilot up until this point had only been practiced as exercises in improving general pilot proficiency.  I saw those same skills now as survival skills.  Stalls and spins for example.  How many pilots practice them with only an eye toward pleasing the instructor, or passing an exam.  That night knowledge and skills with stalls, spins, slips, deadstick landings, stopping the prop, and even radio procedures, prevented one of "those nights" from becoming a fatal evening.  If you are a new pilot, think about it when you are out in the practice area.  If you are an "experienced" pilot, remember that there is a hunter out there and ask yourself how long has it been since you practiced some of those old skills.

To Return to Bev and Rebecca's Home Page, Click Here.