By JJ Rushmore
“Morning, Joe—it’s Larry Conklin,” I said. “I need a T-41 for the weekend. Got one available?”
Joe’s greeting was an unfriendly grunt. I knew he hated letting a civilian take the club’s aircraft. It was an air force flying club, and I wasn’t even a veteran, let alone in the military. Club rules said any government employee could join, though, and I qualified.
“I dunno,” he grumbled. “Lemme look at the log. Yeah, I guess I’ve got one. We just finished the hundred-hour service on Three-Eight-Bravo.” He paused. “What’s your status, anyway? I heard you had a problem.”
“I’m fine,” I lied. “It was nothing. Can I pick it up around three tomorrow? I’m going to Syracuse, and I’d like to land before dark.”
“We’ll have it fueled and ready. Just file your flight plan,” he growled, hanging up abruptly.
The T-41 Mescalero was a retired Army trainer with dual controls. The modified Cessna may have been fifty years old, but the old bird was still airworthy. Its fuel-injected engine got good mileage, but I was more interested in the time it would save. Flying instead of driving would cut my travel time in half.
I filed a flight plan from Hanscom Field to Syracuse. The weatherman predicted sunny and cold with minimal wind—perfect flying conditions. A stormfront threatened from the southeast, but I planned to be on the ground before it crossed my path.
I arrived at the airfield and completed my pre-flight checks. I fired up the plane, performing my run-up on the taxiway. The engine roared comfortingly and the controls worked smoothly.
After takeoff, the tower handed me over to Boston Center, the regional air traffic control. I keyed in the transponder code they specified, allowing them to track me on their radar screens.
Reaching my cruising altitude, I prepared for a smooth flight. I dialed in the navigational beacon and adjusted the trim tabs, fuel mixture, and throttle controls for as near an effortless flight as one could get without an autopilot. Or so I thought.
The city traffic had delayed my departure, and the rainstorm I had hoped to avoid caught up with me. Rain lashed at the windshield by the time I crossed the state line. I could still fly in the rain under visual flight rules, as long as I remained below the clouds. But with the precipitation came complications.
It wasn’t long before the engine speed dropped. Compensating by adjusting the throttle and air/fuel mixture seemed to help. A few minutes later the engine slowed again and began to sputter.
I recognized the symptoms. The moist air and low air temperatures meant carburetor icing. Even small ice deposits could interfere with carburetion and cause complete engine failure.
There’s a simple remedy for this. Redirecting hot air from the exhaust manifold to the carburetor intake would melt the ice and prevent it from re-forming. Confidant of the cure, I reached for the knob labeled CARB HEAT and pulled.
It didn’t move. It had worked fine in pre-flight, but now refused to budge. I pulled on the knob again, harder this time.
It came off in my hand.
My palms began to sweat. Trying to reattach the knob was pointless. The ice would continue to build, and the engine would die.
As would I if I didn’t do something. At that altitude, the T-41 could glide for fifteen miles without power. That meant I only had six minutes left in the air.
This was no time for hubris. I switched to the emergency frequency and keyed the mike.
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Boston Center this is November Two-Two-Three-Eight Bravo, over.”
“Go ahead, Three-Eight Bravo.”
“Boston, I have complete engine failure. Repeat, I have lost my engine.”
“Three-Eight Bravo, squawk seven-seven hundred and stand by, over.”
“Roger, Boston. Squawking seven-seven hundred, over.” 7700 was the transponder code for an in-flight emergency. The Mescalero would flash bright on their screens for as long as it remained airborne, which at this point wouldn’t be long.
The chart on my tablet showed no nearby airports. I peered out the window, searching for an emergency landing spot. That was a mistake.
In spite of the rain approaching from behind, the western sky ahead still glowed red from the setting sun. The engine had died, but the propeller on the aircraft’s nose continued to windmill. The rotating prop blades flipped by the sun about twice a second, flashing the light in my eyes like a pulsating strobe. My mouth watered with the taste of licorice, and my tongue swelled up.
I knew the signs.
The neurologist called it my aura, the warning of an impending episode. A few minutes before a ‘spell,’ the strong flavor of licorice would overwhelm my mouth, and my tongue would turn into a pickle.
Not really, but that was the feeling.
He diagnosed my condition as photosensitive epilepsy. A seizure would cause me to black out for several minutes, after which I would wake up groggy. The medications he prescribed made me sleepy and caused hallucinations.
The FAA frowns on pilots taking psychoactive drugs while flying. My episodes were infrequent, so I hadn’t taken my meds to fly. This apparently was not a good choice.
I only had a few minutes before I blacked out from the seizure. I wouldn’t be awake long enough to glide the plane to a safe landing, emergency or otherwise. There was only one way to reach the ground faster and live.
I pulled up on the control wheel, or yoke, raising the nose and decreasing air speed until the stall warning horn screamed. The plane ceased flying, the nose dropped, and the aircraft started to fall. I punched the left rudder pedal, dipping the left wing, pitching the craft down and rotating to the left.
My stomach leaped to my throat.
A spin dive is a suicidal move. You point the plane straight down and corkscrew toward the ground. It’s a great way to drop altitude fast, as long as you can recover from the maneuver.
Seeing the spinning landscape rush up at you is enough to paralyze anyone.
No one could pronounce my flight instructor’s Polish last name, so we called him ‘Ski.’ Ski had been a maniac, forcing me into multiple ‘death spirals,’ talking me through the steps to recovery.
“Opposite rudder,” he would say. “Slow the spin. Push in the yoke. Increase the airspeed. Neutralize rudder. Pull up the yoke. Pull up the yoke hard. Pull up harder!”
While he talked, I screamed, “Yahhhhhhhhh!”
“Recover,” he continued. “Now, breathe.”
Noting my sudden drop in altitude, Boston Center shouted in my earphones. Even if my swollen tongue would allow speech, I couldn’t talk and recover from the spin at the same time. I let them yell.
Intentionally increasing your airspeed when hurtling straight at the ground sounds crazy, but it’s necessary to provide enough lift to the wings so you can pull out of the dive. I was breathing hard as I leveled out at five hundred feet, barely high enough to allow a landing. I picked a long, narrow cornfield, lined up the plane, and descended.
You can’t discern topography from high altitude. The field lay on a hill, its long dimension running up and down the slope. I was heading up. Into the hillside.
It was too late to pick another landing spot. I raised the nose to compensate, trying to land uphill. I couldn’t tell if the failing light was from the setting sun or the seizure. I never saw the boulder. The left wing slammed into the massive piece of granite with a loud crash, and the plane spun sideways as it boomeranged into the hillside.
I awoke in pain. The flavor of licorice was gone, replaced by the smell of aviation gasoline. I jettisoned the door and hauled myself to the ground, shrieking in agony. My right leg was broken. Fearing fire, I used my arms and elbows to belly-crawl over the corn stubble and away from the wreckage. My cursing would have made any sailor proud.
The fuselage lay in the field like a wingless chicken. There was a loud whomph, and the plane burst into flames. Three-Eight-Bravo burned brightly in the drizzle.
Lights flickered through the trees, and an all-terrain vehicle pulled up. Someone looking like Old MacDonald dismounted, dressed in overalls, a checkered shirt, and a straw hat.
He squatted next to me. “You alive?” He didn’t say, ‘E-I-E-I-O.’
“Yes,” I groaned.
“Hang in there. Help’s on the way.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Sorry about your field.”
“Hmph. Sorry about your plane.” He peered at the wreckage. “Looks like you’ll need a big box for the pieces, and a smaller one for the ashes.”
At least I was alive.
There’s an old saying. Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. I would amend that to, ‘Any landing you can crawl away from…’
This wasn’t any landing, but it was good enough for me.