Friday, August 3, 2012

Lost Baggage Tales

Almost every stand-up comedian has some kind of joke about airline luggage handling. My personal opinion is that the airlines do a remarkable job of getting your luggage to the same place as your body.  With all the non-direct flights, late departures and last minute gate changes, it amazes me that my luggage ever makes it.  It my fifty-seven years of being an airline passenger and belonging to the million miles club on three airlines; I have never lost a bag. I have had them arrive late on four occasions; but they always caught up with me.
However, in my career as an airport bum hanging out where air-taxi operations, low budgets charter outfits, wealthy playboy owned airplanes and corporate aircraft are the normal denizens; I have accumulated a good stock of stories about luggage belonging to the people that are on these types of flights.
One story involves a corporation in the Fortune 100, actually in the top five for as long as I can remember. After World War II, military surplus aircraft were dirt cheap and many large corporations purchased them and converted them into luxurious executive transport machines. This particular corporation had purchased several surplus B-23 bombers and fitted them to carry about eight executives in comfort with plenty of work space, sleeping accommodations and of course a well equipped galley and complete bar. It was rumored that the two flight attendants present on every flight were culled from the ranks of Las Vegas show girls.  The FBO (Fixed Base Operation) where I worked in the fifties was located near to one of the corporation’s large manufacturing facilities. Consequently, the aircraft landed and parked overnight at our facility four or five times a year.  They usually called ahead for a taxi and the VIP’s were swept off to the factory as soon as the aircraft landed. They came back to the airport and departed the same way without any fanfare.
Military version of Douglas B-23
On one occasion we discovered a very expensive attaché case in our main office about two hours after the aircraft had departed.  One of the executives must have come in to use the restrooms and forgot to carry his attaché case back to the aircraft. We locked it up in the boss’ office and assumed we would get a call when the aircraft landed and the owner realized it was missing.  Several weeks passed and no inquiry came. The owner of the FBO decided to be proactive and asked one of the mechanics, who had learned his trade while a guest in the State Penitentiary, to open the locks on the attaché      case. Perhaps there would be some correspondence or documents that would identify the owner.
There was great anticipation in the office as the mechanic carefully picked the locks without damaging them. The corporation did a lot of work for the Department if Defense. Maybe there would be folders stamped “Top Secret” and we would all be interrogated by the CIA. When the cover popped up, we realized that this was not a working briefcase; it was an overnight playboy survival kit! They were silk pajamas, seventy-five year old VSOP Cognac, expensive chocolates, fine Cuban cigars, condoms and mechanical devices with bumps and feathers that we had never seen before.  There was not a single clue as to the owner’s identity. We relocked it and put it in the corners of the boss’ office. When I quit working for that FBO five years later, the case was still gathering dust in that corner.
Another story that sort of involves lost luggage occurred while I was working at that same FBO.  In this case the lost bag was a camera bag. The camera bag showed up on a bench that was outside the door to our office. In nice weather, this bench was a gathering place for airport bums to gather and watch, talk about and tell lies about airplanes. Our secretary opened the bag looking for something that would identify the owner. The bag contained a rather expensive state-of-the-art single lens reflex 35mm camera; but not a clue about the owner’s identity. She brought it into the office and put it on a table in pilot’s lounge that served as a repository for various items that people left lying around the office and hanger. We assumed the owner would claim it soon because it was quite expensive.
Like the attaché case, several weeks passed and no one came for the camera. I am a rather advanced amateur photographer and had a fairly well equipped darkroom. I suggested developing the film and maybe that would help us locate the owner. My boss approved this plan, so I unloaded the film and took it home with me.  The roll was only about half used but the pictures were very revealing – literally. The pictures had been taken inside the Beechcraft D-18 that we used for air-taxi service for larger groups. The interior seating arrangements had a couch on one side of the cabin that was wide enough for three people to sit side-by-side. In these photographs, there was just one person lying down on the couch. She must have been very poor and couldn’t afford to buy clothes because she was naked as a jaybird.
Our secretary had the reputation of knowing everyone that worked at the airport and all about them. She immediately identified the lady in the picture as a ticket counter agent for one of the major airlines. She agreed to ask her discreetly about the photo session and try to return the camera to its rightful owner. After she had this conversation, we heard this interesting explanation.
 Let’s just call the naked girl Suzy. Suzy had a face and figure that would qualify her to be a centerfold in a men’s magazine. A customer had convinced her that he was a photographer for such a magazine and offered her one hundred dollars to pose for some test shots. She should have known he was a phony when he didn’t ask her to sign a model’s release form. He wanted the pictures to be taken inside an airplane and no empty airliners happened to be available. It was late at night so she suggest going down to the FBO to see if an empty corporate aircraft was overnighting. Our aircraft was unlocked and empty and they began the photo shoot. After several photos, the fake photographer tried to convince Suzy that he should get more for his investment. That was a big mistake because Suzy happen happened to have a hobby that she practiced to help keep her in such fine physical shape. She had earned a black belt for her achievements in this hobby. Evidently the guy dropped his camera and bag on his hasty retreat from the airplane and Suzy’s lethal feet and hands. One of security people must have picked it up and put it on the bench while making his regular rounds. All Suzy wanted was the negatives and prints. She suggested I keep the camera for recovering the photographs for her. I still use it to this day.
And that’s the truth!
Bowinkle T. Propwash

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Look Ma - No Engine

It seems like every pilot, hanger pilot, airport bum and even occasional airline traveler has some kind of story about an engine failure. When a single-engine pilot encounters a non-flyer at a party: the first question is always something like "what would you do if the engine quit running"? Of course the answer has to be that you would land; just not where you planned to when you took off. With the exception of mountainous terrain and large urban areas, a small single engine aircraft pilot can usually glide to a suitable flat spot to land. It is not that easy at night. Power lines, fences and hidden obstructions often ruin a perfectly executed engine-out landing attempt. Walking away from the airplane is a higher priority for the people in the airplane than the condition of the airplane. I made a landing once that involved penetrating the fence located at the end of the flat place I had chosen. The wire farm fence would have done no damage except scrape the aircraft paint a little bit. A stump that was hidden in tall weeds growing along the fence line snagged the right landing gear strut and the insurance company decided to total the aircraft. My passenger (first airplane ride) and myself walked away without a scratch or a dry-cleaning bill. Therefore, it was a successful landing.
Small aircraft engines are quite reliable. I know several pilots that have flown thousands of hours in light aircraft and never experienced an engine failure. Larger aircraft engines are also very reliable on a per hour basis. Larger aircraft usually rack up many more flying hours and make it seem like there is a disproportional number of failures. If everything else is equal, simple mathematical probability dictates that twin-engine aircraft will have twice as many engine failures as single engine aircraft. Four-engine aircraft would be expected to have twice as many failures as twin-engine aircraft. Howard Hughes' spruce goose had eight engines. If it had become a production aircraft, it would have had engine failures on a regular basis.
An engine failure on a twin-engine aircraft results in a loss of fifty percent of the available power. Even with the FAA certification requirements that "guarantee" the aircraft will be capable of flying on a single engine, many aircraft are lost because of engine failure. With maximum allowable gross take-off weight and most unfavorable wind conditions, a pilot's skill is taxed to a maximum if an engine fails during takeoff.  Three-engine aircraft only lose thirty-three percent of their power and four-engine aircraft only lose twenty-five percent. Most airline and military pilots I know with lots of hours in four-engine aircraft have landed with only three engines operating more than once. One close friend few B-24's with the 489th Group in World War II. On his first combat tour of twenty-five missions, he returned to home base fourteen times with at least one engine not running. Jet engines are much more reliable than piston engines so the jet engine failure stories aren't as many. Often they are more dramatic. I was on a Delta DC-8 flight from SFO to CVG that aborted takeoff twice at SFO because of engine flameout due to gusting crosswinds.
Much of the training for a AMEL (Airplane Multi-Engine Land) or AMES (Airplane Multi-Engine Sea) rating involves learning how to cope with an engine failure. This is also true with training for a type rating for a multi-engine aircraft. I was a new private pilot at the time of this story and building hours to get my Commercial certificate. I was also grabbing multi-engine time whenever I could get a chance. I got a chance one night to ride from CVG to STL and return. It was a Part 135 air tax trip and we were flying a single passenger out and returning empty in PA23-150 Apache. I rode in the back seat on the way out. It was a beautiful night with a three-quarter moon and not a cloud in the sky. I could see the lights (the Gateway Arch hadn't been built yet) of Saint Louis when we were still sixty miles away. After we unloaded the passenger, smoked a cigarette and drank some foul machine coffee, the pilot said the words I was hoping to hear. "Hop in the left seat and fly me home. I want to get a little sleep."
We got back to airplane and I did the engine start and taxi-out check list from memory. Fred was doing the radio and soon we got clearance to taxi to the active runway. I did the run-up on both engines and the pre take-off check list. We were cleared for take-off and everything was great. Fred stayed awake until we were out of STL's airspace. This was way before Alphabet Airspace or even TRSA's and TSA's. We were operating VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and cruised at odd thousands plus five hundred feet altitude when on an easterly heading. I asked Fred if he wanted me to climb to 3500, 5500, 7500 or 9500 feet. He told me to do whatever I wanted: he was going to sleep. I decided on 9500 and Fred's snoring was almost enough to drown out the engine sound by the time I leveled off and got all trimmed and leaned for the rest of the flight. There was really not much to do for the next hour so I tried to find some classical music on an AM station that I could turn on the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder). I couldn't find any classical but I did find some pretty decent jazz on an Evansville, Indiana station.
Now the story really begins. I was just enjoying the music and the ride. The air was so smooth at 9500 feet that I just had my hands and feet resting on the controls. I really wasn't having to do anything to maintain heading and altitude; the plane was flying itself. Then the plane lurched. I felt the lurch before I noticed any difference in the sound level. My whole three hours of official dual instruction in this aircraft came flooding into my mind at once. Fred was still snoring. I remembered the old saw "dead foot-dead engine" and I was sure that the left engine was the problem. I was surprised at how I checked stuff like the mag switches and fuel pump and finally pulled the prop control back through notch. It actually worked. The prop feathered and quit spinning Fred was still snoring. A turned on the map light on my side and looked for the real type written checklist  to make sure I hadn't missed anything.
Then another lurch. Even with Fred's snoring, it was very quiet. I didn't have any simulations in my limited training about how an Apache flies with the left engine feathered and the right engine wind milling. A little voice told me to concentrate on maintaining airspeed and attitude and NOT to feather the other engine until I woke up Fred. He was a sound sleeper but a quick waker. He took the controls immediately and began accessing the situation. His expression told me not to say a word until he asked me for information. He seemed to grasp the whole situation in just a few seconds. Then he looked between the front seats at the fuel selectors. The first words he said were "Aw shoot" or a very similar sounding phrase. As soon as he turn the right engine fuel selector to the Main position, there was another lurch and the wonderful sound of an engine running.
Now the problem was starting the other engine since there was no un-feathering device. The procedure was to use the electric starter for a restart just like on the ground. The starter controls were on my side, so he told me to try just like a normal start. It worked! All of this happened in less than three minutes but it seemed like hours. I decided to fly the rest of the way at 7500 feet. Fred was snoring again in a few minutes and didn't wake up again until I taxied up to our hanger at CVG.
What happened was easy to explain in hindsight. The Apache has two main fuel tanks and two auxiliary fuel tanks. With the auxiliary fuel tanks full, you can't carry as much load but you can fly a greater distance. Most of our air-taxi business was lots of people and baggage for very short distances. Because of that, we tried to keep the auxiliary tanks empty except when we made a long trip. Fred had switched the engines to auxiliary tanks on the way to STL so that he could burn them dry. With a single passenger load and good weather, we had plenty of fuel in the main tanks. The written check list requires the engines to be switched to the main tanks for take-offs and landings. Fred did the check list from memory when he landed and I did it from memory when I took off. We both forgot the fuel selector check. Fred and I agreed that the incident didn't need to be told to everybody in the pilots lounge but we both agreed that we would never kiss off the written checklist again.
And that's the truth
Bowinkle T. Propwash

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Surprise Shopping Spree

Pilots that fly  for FAA Part 135 Air Taxi companies usually have lots of stories to tell. Just like taxi drivers in Hollywood or the Wall Street area, their fares aren't exactly a cross section of middle class America. In the days before airline deregulation, the majority of airline passengers were businessmen, celebrities or upper middle class. Flying was very expensive compared to personal automobiles, buses and trains.
The pilot in this story worked for a FBO (Fixed Base Operator) at a medium sized mid-western airport. An FBO is like an old time service station – before they became food-marts with gasoline pumps out front. Most FBO's had fuel service, mechanics, hanger rental, flying instructions, aircraft rental and many other services. The main function of an FBO was to provide a room for airport bums to gather in and swap lies. The room would always contain some source of incredibly strong, bitter coffee, flying publications that were at least 5 years old and a hodgepodge of well worn furniture.  Some FBO's also provided air taxi service.
New York Skyline before WTC construction.
The majority of air taxi flights took a passenger to another airport, dropped them off and returned to their home airport empty. Most rates were set on this basis. The rate included the cost of flying the airplane back home with no passengers. If a passenger could be found for the return trip, anything you could get them to pay would be icing on the cake. Every now and then someone would want to fly somewhere and stay for just a few hours and there was a special rate for waiting time.
Now that you know all about the air taxi business, I'll get back to the story. The FBO got a call from the travel department of a large hotel corporation with headquarters located in a large city about 300 miles away. The CEO wanted an aircraft sent to pick him up and fly him to the airport where the FBO was located. This was a most unusual request for two reasons. First, there were several air taxi services with comparable rates in the city where he was located. Secondly, his corporation owned several corporate aircraft and CEO's usually had top priority on their use. Money is money and the secretary set it up for the CEO to be picked up at 10 o'clock the next morning. The weather was forecast to be wonderful and only a single pilot would be required.
About 7 o'clock the next morning, the pilot took off for the two hour flight to pick up the CEO. If the CEO was on time, they should be back shortly after noon. Because of this, the secretary at the FBO didn't hesitate to schedule the aircraft for another charter flight at three o'clock in the afternoon. About eleven o'clock a very attractive lady in her mid-forties came into the FBO main office. Her designer clothes and confident attitude marked her as one who was at home in the upper echelons of society. She explained to the secretary that she was the wife of the CEO that was due to arrive shortly. It was his birthday and she had flown in on an airline flight to surprise him. It was a warm, late summer day and she said that she would just sit on one of the benches that were outside the FBO office. From that vantage point she could see the airplane carrying her husband as it taxied in after landing. Of course, if her husband was looking out the window, he could see her also.
About fifteen minutes before noon, the pilot called the secretary on the Unicom and told her they would be landing in about twenty minutes. Unicom is a two-way radio that operates on a frequency that is reserved for aircraft and ground facilities to communicate about just about anything. Pilots often use it to have someone on the ground order a taxi or rental car to meet them or even to order a pizza to be ready when they land. The secretary knew the wife wanted to surprise her husband so she didn't say anything to the pilot about her being there. The pilot might not be using headphones and the CEO could hear the conversation if it was on the aircraft speaker.
The birthday wasn't the real surprise! About five minutes after noon, the airplane landed right on schedule. Soon it was taxiing up towards the FBO unloading ramp and the waiting wife. She was up off the bench and waving in hopes that her husband would recognize her. He did. Instead of the airplane turning towards the FBO ramp, it did a u-turn and started taxiing back towards the runway. A few minutes later, it took off again. The wife came into the office and asked if that was the airplane her husband was in. The secretary knew that something fishy was going on, so she said that she didn't think so. It must have been a transient pilot that taxied to the wrong spot on the airport. That story would explain the u-turn, but not the take-off. At least it would buy her some time to think up a better lie. But the wife didn't question the explanation. She just said she would go back outside and wait for the airplane that her husband was on.
About ten minutes after that the phone rang. The secretary answered it and the caller identified herself as the secretary for an FBO on a nearby airport. She had just received a Unicom call from the pilot and was informed that the CEO had requested to be taken to New York city. The pilot would call with a full explanation when they landed in New York. The secretary thanked her counterpart at the other FBO for the information and went outside to inform the wife that her husband had been called to New York for an emergency business meeting. The wife was nowhere to be found.
About a week later the pilot and airplane returned. The CEO and his wife had treated him to a fantastic week in New York city including dinner at Elaine's, two Broadway plays and lots of sightseeing. The husband and the pilot tagged along while the wife spend a fortune at Tiffany's, Saks, Prada and Bloomingdales. The CEO paid the FBO for the pilots salary and use of the airplane for the whole week.
Whoa! Where did the wife come from? She was in the airplane all along! Her sister lived in the city where this story started. She often visited her sister when her husband came there on a business trip. The corporation was in the middle of an IRS audit and the accounting department recommended not using the corporate aircraft when his wife traveled with him. The wife was sitting on the side of the airplane where she couldn't see the woman waving at them. The u-turn and trip to New York for a shopping spree were passed off as a big surprise her husband had planned.
It was the CEO's birthday. The woman at the FBO did come in on an airline flight to surprise him. The person she called in the corporation travel department forgot to tell her that the CEO's wife was traveling with him. That's a real downer for a mistress!
And that's the truth!
Bowinkle T. Propwash

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Careless Contractor

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, commonly referred to as Wright-Pat, is located north east of the city of Dayton, Ohio. This story begins at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport which is located in Boone County, Kentucky about 60 miles south west of Wright-Pat. At this time of this incident, Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport was officially just Greater Cincinnati Airport (CVG) and most locals called it Boone County Airport. It had eleven airline gate positions and was served by six airlines.

Wright Patterson Air Force Base - Circa 1990

The time of this story is 1960 and the space race and the cold war are very much in the news. A major US Air Force engineering organization was headquartered at Wright-Pat. It was common for representatives of corporations involved in research and development activities for the Air Force to take a scheduled airline flight into Greater Cincinnati and then air taxi up to the smaller airport in Dayton, Ohio. They could rent a car there and drive a few miles over to Wright-Pat to conduct their business.
I worked for the air taxi company and was not surprised one sunny afternoon when I received a call from the TWA agent in the main terminal. A passenger had just arrived on their flight from New York and wanted air taxi-service to Wright-Pat. I alerted a pilot that I had booked a trip to Dayton and hopped in our trusty VW minibus to pick up the passenger at the main terminal. The gentleman I met was probably in his early-to-mid fifties. He was dressed nicely in a stylish, but conservative, business suit and had two large Pullman cases and a leather satchel type briefcase.
As I was loading his luggage into the minibus, he told me that he needed to call ahead to Wright-Pat to make arrangements for us to land at the air base. This was a new wrinkle to me but should be no problem to our pilot who was an ex-military pilot anyway. As we rode back to the air taxi hanger, I inquired if he had a preference about the type of aircraft he flew in. He told me that he wanted to fly in the largest multi-engine aircraft we had available. That would be our Twin Beech that was a converted Air Force C-45G transport. I decide to take the rest of the day off and ride along. When we arrived at the hanger, I asked a line boy to load the luggage into the Twin Beech. I was a little surprised when the passenger handed his briefcase to the line boy and asked him to put it on one of the seats. Businessmen usually didn't let their briefcases get very far out of their sight. The passenger and our pilot went to phone and made all the arrangements for us to land at Wright-Pat. I asked the passenger if he wanted to sit in the copilot's seat on the flight. He declined and insisted that he would be much more comfortable in the passenger cabin.
Soon we were airborne and headed north-east. We only climbed to 5500 feet for the short flight over flat terrain. From twenty-five miles away, the sprawling air base was clearly visible. We made radio contact with the base control tower and were immediately cleared to land on one of the 12000 foot runways. About two miles from touching down on the runway, the pilot motioned for me to look out my side window. Just a few feet away from our wing tip, there was an F-104 jet fighter. I looked over to the pilot's side window and saw that another one was on his wing tip. They followed us until our wheels touched down and then they climbed away and were out of sight in seconds. As we slowed to stop on the runway, a jeep with a big "FOLLOW ME" sign pulled in front of us. We followed the jeep to a ramp area near the runway where a 1950's vintage sedan, painted Air Force blue, was parked.
An airman signaled us to cut our engines and another airman was already opening the passenger door and helping our passenger into the sedan. A third airman put the Pullman cases in the trunk of the sedan. In less than a minute, the first airman was signaling us to start our engines. It was obvious that they didn't want us to stay on the base very long. Soon we were following the "FOLLOW ME" jeep back to the runway. The tower cleared us for immediate take off and thirty minutes later we were calling Cincinnati control tower for landing instructions. It had been a routine air taxi trip. Then the odoriferous bodily excretions came in contact with the rotary ventilating mechanism.
The tower told us to return to Wright-Pat at once. About the same time we heard that in our headsets, we saw our F-104 friends again. This time there were four of them. They could not fly slow enough, long enough to escort us all the way back, so they took turns. We would have two for a few miles and they would zoom off and the other two would take their place. I have often wondered what the Rules of Engagement were. Were they ordered to shoot us down if we made any abrupt movement or were they there to protect us if we had to make a forced landing before we got to the base? The arrival was déjà-vu except two airmen came on board and retrieved the briefcase that our passenger had left on the seat behind him.
It was not over. Two more airmen with arm bands and very obvious weapons asked us to please leave the aircraft and come with them. We were driven across the base to a large ominous looking building and taken to the basement through a small doorway. In the basement, we were separated and I was taken into a small 6 X 8 foot room with no windows and a steel door. It looked like a set straight out of a Hollywood movie studio. I sat down at a small wooden table across from a man that looked more like a college professor than an inquisitor. He gave me a long lecture on the importance of keeping secrets to maintain peace and public safety. Then he quizzed me about the briefcase. I had nothing to hide and told him over and over that I didn't even know that it wasn't removed with the other luggage. They knew we never left the cockpit. Finally he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth and produced a long form for me to fill-out and sign. The form was similar to the one that recruiting offices used. It listed dozens of organizations deemed to be subversive and I had to swear that I was not a member of any of them. I hadn't heard of most of them. Finally, he said we were finished and got up to escort me to the door. I noticed a large reel-to-reel recorder operating on a small table in the corner so I assume everything I said was recorded.
The pilot had a similar experience as mine. We were escorted out of the basement and through the building to a car that took us back to the airplane. On the way through the building we walked through a large conference type room and saw our passenger sitting at a long table with several others. His briefcase was laying on its side and several file folders were spread across the table. I assume that they were taking an inventory of the contents to make sure nothing was missing. I wondered how much trouble he was in for being so careless with the contents. As we passed by, I noticed most of the folders had a large red ink stamp on them that read TOP SECRET EYES ONLY.
And that's the truth!
Bowinkle T. Propwash    

Monday, January 30, 2012

Post Crash Syndrome

A major aircraft crash with the corresponding loss of life and property is truly a tragedy of epic proportions. Even if the passengers are all lawyers, there is still the tragic loss of an aircraft and the non-lawyer crew members. Fortunately aviation has an excellent safety record and these horrendous events are rare. Not as rare are the many minor aviation accidents that are analogous to a fender-bender in the automobile world. In between these extremes are the incidents where the aircraft and property are destroyed or severely damaged but there are no fatalities or serious injuries.
When these major damage incidents or the fender-bender type occur with a non-professional pilot, the worse damage is usually to the pilot's pride or ego. If a legitimate mechanical failure or extreme act of nature can be blamed, the pilot can spin the story to make him/herself a hero. If the cause was strictly a lapse of judgment or piloting error, it is helpful to try and create an illusion of mechanical failure before the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) or FAA get involved. Weather phenomena are more difficult to create although wind shear is a good one if the terrain favors it and no accurate measurements are available for the moment the incident occurred. I know firsthand of an incident where a Cessna 182 wheel barrowed (nose wheel hit the ground before the main landing gear wheels) when landing on a very short grass runway. The prop contacted the ground and was damaged.  There is an 80 foot hill at the approach end of the runway. The airport sages witnessing the incident immediately began discussing the severe wind shear that was caused by the hill at the end of the runway. The FAA and the insurance adjuster bought the story so I  er I mean the pilot involved wasn't going to argue with them. They didn't seem interested in the fact the CG was at the forward limit (or just a tad out of the legal envelope) and the nose gear oleo strut was completely flat.
Most military aircraft are designed to operate in a hostile environment where they can literally be shot out of the air. Because of this, military air crew always have parachutes or the aircraft is equipped with some type of ejection seat or capsule. In peacetime operations, these escape devices are used when the aircraft encounters some type of situation where the crew cannot safely remain in the aircraft. Of course the aircraft eventually has to hit the ground somewhere. The military is usually very quick to find and secure these crash sites. The Department of Defense has admitted a few instances where the aircraft was actually carrying nuclear bombs or warheads. Almost all military aircraft, even cargo haulers, have some classified equipment on board that shouldn't show up in a local pawn shop after souvenir hunters have processed the crash site. Even if there were no National Security concerns, the military and it's vendors are very concerned about finding the cause of the crash.
C-54 Skymaster in flight.
Sometimes humor is the best medicine to offset the complex emotions that a pilot deals with after escaping a situation that could easily have been fatal. I was working part time for a large freight airline. One morning the base agent called before dawn to inform me that one of our C-54's had crashed in the trees about two miles short of the runway. I lived very close to the crash site and he wanted me to meet him there as quickly as I could. Then he made a strange request. He wanted to know if I had any dark colored house paint. My father was a building contractor and I assured him that I could obtain some quickly since the stores were closed at this hour of the morning. He told me to get the paint and a big brush and meet him at the crash site as quickly as I could. It only took me about ten minutes to get dressed and get some dark blue paint and a brush out of my Dad's storage shed in the backyard.
Five minutes later I was driving on a farm path up towards the flat top of a plateau of about two or three acres area. About the same time I saw the State Trooper car blocking my path I saw through the morning mist the vertical tail section of the C-54 sitting at an odd angle. The base agent came running up to the car and beckoned for me to follow him with the bucket of paint and the brush. He just ignored the cop asking him what he was going to do. There was already a short section of ladder leaning against the tail. While I watched in disbelief, he took the paint and brush and climbed up the ladder and quickly painted over the company name of the freight airline. The cop was shouting at him that he was going to have to arrest him but didn't do anything to stop him from moving the ladder to the other side of tail and painting over the name on that side also. Then the base agent walked up to the cop and said, "Thanks, you can put on the handcuffs now".
It was then that I realized that the pilot and copilot were sitting in the company van that he had used to bring the ladder to the crash scene. From the back seat of the cop car, he instructed me to take the crew to the emergency room to be checked over and then bring them to the base office at the airport. He seemed confident that he would be there and not in jail. I later learned that obscuring the company name was the highest priority the base agent had in a crash if there were no injuries. It must be done before the news people showed up and started taking pictures. Those pictures got saved as file photos and could come back and create bad PR for the airline years after the incident.
The crew was in great shape and suggested we get breakfast instead of going to the emergency room. I was afraid of getting into trouble so we agreed to do both. After breakfast and several hours in the emergency room, we arrived back at the airport about noon. By this time, the airline owners and the various representatives of the government had all arrived at the airport and were sitting around a long makeshift table hastily set up in a corner of the cargo building. I had gotten acquainted with the crew during our time together. The pilot was a jolly, heavy set guy with a bushy mustache and had logged thousands of hours in the left seat of a C-54 including participating in the famous Berlin Airlift. The copilot was on his first C-54 flight for the airline. The pilot was completely calm and the copilot was as fidgety as a woman of the evening at a Woman's Temperance League meeting.
An airport fireman was waiting to meet us when we arrived. He escorted us to the area where the conference table was set up. The pilot stopped and surveyed the situation for a moment. All the dignitaries' eyes were fixed upon him. He cleared his throat, looked at the trembling copilot and spoke in a loud stentorian voice. "I told you to wake me up when it was time to land!"
And that's the truth!
Bowinkle T. Propwash

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Saved by the Potty Break

In 1959 Piper Aircraft began selling the 250 HP version of the popular light twin-engine PA-23 Apache. The official designation of the aircraft was PA-23-250 but Piper decided to give this version a new "Indian" name – the Aztec. Almost all Piper aircraft have a name related to North or South American Indian culture. Some of the most popular are the Cherokee, Comanche, Navaho, Pawnee, Seneca and many more. Some such as the Warrior, Chief and the famous Cub are not names of tribes but are derived from Indian culture. There were a few aircraft like the Pacer and the Tri-Pacer that didn't follow the Indian name tradition
Aztec in flight.
The Aztec soon became a very popular airplane and it was manufactured until 1982 with many improvements made during that time. Over 4000 were produced in total and many were exported. It was a very popular aircraft for Part 135 Air Taxi operators because it had a large cabin that held 5 passengers for VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flights and 4 passengers for flights when a copilot was required. The passenger seats were easily removed to allow the hauling of cargo. Many operators that had been using the less powerful and smaller cabin Apache upgraded to the Aztec and kept their Apaches for multiengine trainers. From the early 1950's up into the 1990's, more pilots probably got their AMEL (airplane multiengine land) rating in an Apache that any other type of airplane.
I was learning to fly and working as a line boy for a Piper dealer in 1959. We had a big air taxi operation and used the Piper Apache for many of our trips. Ours were the early 150 hp models and had very poor single-engine performance when they had close to gross weight loading. There was an old joke - What is an Apache widow? The answer was – A woman that was married to a pilot that had a engine failure while taking off in an Apache with a passenger on board. They performed great on one engine if nobody was in them except a test pilot like Tex Johnson or Chuck Yeager. With both engines running, they were docile, stable and easy to fly. I would hate to guess how many times they have been flown by people that didn't have a multi-engine rating. Of course I never did something like that, but I do recall a few times when an Apache needed to get moved to a nearby airport and a multiengine rated pilot didn't happen to be around. I've been told that any person with some experience in complex singles could jump in an Apache and feel right at home as long as both engines kept running.
Now I'll get back to the story. We had sold Aztecs to two local doctors but neither had been delivered yet. On the night of this story, I had never seen a real Aztec before. About 4:30AM as I was returning to the hanger from the employee coffee shop, I was surprised to see a twin engine aircraft parked on the ramp in front of our office door. I knew it was an Aztec from all the publicity photos I had seen. My first thought was that Piper had delivered one of the doctor's airplanes. The airplane was empty and so was our office. The missing pilot mystery was quickly solved when a man in his early 40's came out of the men's room. He explained that he was delivering the brand new Aztec to a customer at an airport about 35 miles north. His bladder capacity was insufficient to continue to fly comfortably so he decided to land and relieve himself.
We were a large volume fuel dealer because we had some airline fueling contracts. Because of that, out fuel prices were lower that any of the FBO's in the area. It was this dealer's policy to always deliver a new airplane to the customer with full fuel tanks. Since our prices were so favorable, he asked me to fill up the main and auxiliary tanks. He would top them off at the destination with the more expensive fuel.
Our old Apaches held 72 gallons but I wasn't sure how much the Aztec would hold. It would certainly be more because of the larger, more powerful engines. I was a bit surprised when I looked at the meter and saw that it had taken a little more than 141 gallons to fill up all the tanks. I returned to the office and wrote out the invoice for the pilot to sign. I asked him how much fuel the airplane could hold because I had put in almost twice as much as our Apaches held.
The pilot gasped. You must have read the meter wrong. The airplane only holds 144 gallons and the Pilot Operation Handbook says that only 140 gallons are useable. I should have run out of fuel taxiing up to the hanger ramp. If I didn't have to use the restroom, I wouldn't even have landed here. Let's double check that meter reading!
We walked out to the fuel pump together. The pump meter had been calibrated and certified accurate only 3 days before. I shined my flash light on the dials for him to see. We always rounded to the nearest whole gallon when we sold over a hundred gallons. The numbers were 0141.1.
And that's the truth!
Bowinkle T. Propwash   

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Positive Identification

One of the oldest and most intense college football rivalries is between the University of Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, Tennessee and the University of Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky. The teams traditionally schedule the contest for the last game of the regular season and alternate locations. The tradition started in the nineteenth century and the 2011 game was the 106th game in the series. Tennessee hold a large lead in the number of wins but it is usually an exciting game in spite of the team's performance the rest of the season. In Lexington, a win over Tennessee makes it a winning season even if every other game is lost. Getting beat by Tennessee means a losing season; even if every other game is won.
When the Volunteers came to Lexington's Stoll Field for the 1953 game, they hadn't lost a game to Kentucky since 1935 although there had been two tie games. It was a nippy late November afternoon with a bright blue cloudless sky; a perfect day for football. To add to the excitement, the rumor (true) was already circulating that this would be the last regular season game for Kentucky head coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. As the final minutes of the game clock ticked away, it seemed all 35,000 spectators were still glued to their seats in the stands because the big mechanical scoreboard read Kentucky 27 and Tennessee 20. When the final second ticked off the clock, it is reported that people on Main Street (three blocks away) heard the shout that rose from the stadium.
Hearing the cheers on Main Street may be an exaggeration, but another noise was heard that was not mistakable. As soon as the Kentucky players on the bench rushed to the middle of the field to congratulate their team mates, they instinctively ducked as a deafening roar and a swift shadow moved over the field. A World War II era P-51 Mustang fighter plane swooped out of the western sky and flew directly over the playing field. Witnesses reported that the wing tips only cleared the top of the goal posts by a few inches. People in the top rows of the stadium reported looking down at the airplane; not up at its belly. The aircraft disappeared to the east and then returned to make another pass over the field. This time it made what is called a knife edge pass where the wings are perpendicular to the ground instead of parallel. I have talked to pilots that were in the stands that day that swear on their grandma's virtue that the wing tips went between the uprights; like an aircraft field goal. The demonstration ended with a maneuver called a victory roll performed at a reasonable altitude of a hundred feet or so.
For the non-aircraft person reading this, P-51's like the one in the photograph were not unusual in 1953. Over 15,000 were manufactured during the World War II years and thousands of pilots were trained to fly them. They also were used in Korea and many reserve outfits still flew them in 1953 including one in Louisville, Kentucky only 80 miles away. Several were purchased as military surplus and flown as business and pleasure aircraft. Many persons that were pilots in the military had no desire to make flying their vocation after the war, but they still enjoyed flying as a means of personal and business transport. Today there are over 200 of them still registered in the US. Any major air show will feature a whole row of them.
At first most people assumed the fly by was done by the military at the request of the University, but those who knew anything about aircraft realized the paint scheme was civilian. None of the fraternities took credit for it so that possibility was ruled out. I'm sure 34,998 of the people in the stands thought it was a great finale to a great college football game. There are always one or two in the crowd that think that rules must be enforced all of the time; even when there is a good reason to break them like winning a football game. Because of these one or two folks, the FAA had to be notified and attempt to find this phantom aircraft and pilot. After all. a few FAA regulations had been bent fairly severely in the presence of 35,000 witnesses.
What follows is sheer speculation because I have not spoken to anyone privy to the FAA response. Buzz jobs at fairs, football games, and other outdoor venues were not all that rare in those years when the war was still fresh in everyone's memories. But a smart pilot only made one pass! Chances were that everyone would be too surprised to get the registration number off of the aircraft. In this case, after three passes, the aircraft was easily identified as one based at a small airport about 30 miles from Lexington. The owner's name was widely reported in the news the next day. It was quickly discovered that the owner was vacationing in Florida, so the aircraft was being flown by another pilot. Three other pilots were identified that occasionally flew the aircraft. All three had military combat experience in the type. I can just guess what the FAA investigator was facing.
FAA: Mr. Jones, were you flying N-12335 on November 21?
Mr. Jones: I can't remember.
FAA: Can you check your log book?
Mr. Jones: Oh sure. Let's see, here it is. I remember now. I flew over to Lexington and made a  few low passes over the football stadium.
If you believe that, I have some ocean front property in Arizona to show you.
Kentucky went to a post season bowl game and the buzz job was temporarily forgotten. I am guessing, that was OK with the FAA also. They were located at Bowman Field in Louisville and most of the staff were probably Kentucky football fans.
The story would end here except that in January, 1954 a newspaper reporter writing a recap of the 1953 football season mentioned the air show that Colonel Smith (fictitious name) put on after the Tennessee game. I have been told that he received a call from the FAA asking about his means of identifying the mystery pilot. He replied, "Shucks that weren't no problem. He's well known around here. I was up in the press box at the stadium and I could see his face plain as day when he flew by."
And that's the truth!
Bowinkle T. Propwash