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Error In The Skies
The engine fell silent as all eighty horses busted out of the corral at the same moment. The first few quiet seconds are being eaten up with disbelief. This can't be happening to me! A crowded highway, nine hundred feet below, appears to be my only salvation. Trees cloud the surrounding terrain dictating, what appears to be, a single perilous path of escape.
The year is 1973. Having just kicked the academic dust off of my shoes, a diploma in my hand and Southeastern State College in my rear view mirror, I'm on the road to riches, fame and the flying game. My first flight instructor position is in the bag, along with the three hundred dollars per month base pay and hourly wages once reserved for the coach class workers on ancient rowing galleons.
"George, I need you to fly to Atmore, Alabama, tomorrow and pick up an aircraft I took in on trade." The boss, owner of Mid-Continent Bellanca and operator of the only flight school in Duncan, Oklahoma, has spoken.
"Sure, what is it?"
"It's a 1948Ercoupe, you know, a little two seater, twin vertical stabs and no rudder pedals. You steer it like a car."
Four years of college, two years of college flight school and a lifetime of interest in aviation are all failing me at the same moment. What is he talking about?
"Take John with you, he needs the flight time."
I've been given a reprieve. John, a friend of the owner and currently rebuilding his own Bellanca Viking, needs the flight time. John, gets to -- "steer it like a car."
The early afternoon of July 9, 1973, saw John and myself climbing into a Bellanca Viking 300. Our destination is Atmore, Alabama. We have clear skies. Strapped onto the seat of our pants is one of the hottest 200 MPH plus, single engine aircraft on the market Three and one half hours down to Atmore, and about the same back to Duncan. Sure beat's flight instructing!
Oklahoma's terrain swiftly passes beneath us as we track a course destined to take us across Louisiana, Mississippi and into Alabama.
"Well John, looks like you get a quick flight down and a long flight back."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it's going to take you a lot longer to get back in theErcoupe." John then dropped the bomb on me. "You're supposed to fly the Ercoupe, back."
Then it all made sense. John's rebuilding his own Bellanca Viking. "He needs the Bellanca, flight time." Besides, he's a friend of the guy beating the drum in the rowing galleon. Beautiful skies and an equally beautiful airplane lost their luster for the rest of the trip. ". . .You steer it like a car."
A quick turnaround for John, at Atmore, leaves me to watch as John and the Bellanca, climb comfortably into the Alabama sky. He'll be home in a few hours. Where will I be?
"Now, you know, that aircraft isn't certified for night flight."
I hear these words as the proprietor of the FBO is collecting his cash for the necessary navigation charts I've just purchased. The afternoon shadows are growing longer and time is growing short. If any portion of the distance back to Duncan, Oklahoma, is to be covered today it had better be started now.
With my flight plan filed and charts, E6B flight computer, plotter and other aviator paraphernalia tucked into the brief case we head out across the ramp to where the faded and weather-beaten three legged bird stands.
For an aircraft that appears to have served in the past decade as a bird perch and a fire hydrant for the airport dog it becomes quickly apparent, this isn't going to be a short preflight.
Behind the single, side by side, seat was a leather fleece lined helmet with built in headphones. The wire, leading away from the headphones, has no jack plug attached. Well, so much for looking like a 1948, "you steer it like a car," ace. An earplug with a good phone jack is all that is found for my audio that will be generated by a "coffee grinder" radio. The wing tanks and main tank need to be sumped.
The fluid draining from the wing sumps would be safe for the airport dog to drink. Pure water has filled up half of a mop bucket donated by the sympathetic FBO proprietor. "Well, we might as well throw in some good fuel on top the slurry that's already in there." With the fuel truck having given this faded blue bird its first taste of Avgas in modern times I mount the machine and try for a start.
The friendly FBO helper is still looking at me sympathetically. More so now as it becomes obvious the aircraft battery is in a state of suspended hibernation. "I'll move in the fuel truck and give you a jump start." It's thumbs up to my assistant bird surgeon. With the cables connected to the battery and life now flowing through this unlikely two-tailed swallow the engine jumps to life. The fingers of afternoon shadows are pointing at me. The airport dog will have to find a new hydrant. I've got to get out of here.
Let's see, "You steer it like a car and no rudder pedals." There's one small brake pedal on the floor. The craft rolls away from its accumulated debris as another thumbs up is in order for my companion of the last hour. O.K., slow it down before the turn onto the runway. One little brake pedal that now goes all the way to the floor. No brakes! Atmore airport is not releasing its grip on this aviator in his Alabama bird perch. The only thing between me and Laurel, Mississippi, the first planned overnight stop, is a can of hydraulic brake fluid. The brake fluid reservoir has a lip lock on the can downing it quicker than an ace chug-a-lug champion.
Again, the engine comes to life. With another ritual thumbs up to my, now, personal mechanic I'm again looking through a crazed windshield that has soaked up a millennium of ultraviolet radiation. The aircraft and its young aviator moves off the ramp and onto the runway.
With the engine run-up and flight controls check complete, full power is applied. Full power equates to eighty horses minus the ones' that busted out of the corral over the past forty years. As slow as the bird begins its' roll it quickly becomes obvious the strays need to be rounded up. They're no where to be found.
Coaxing the yoke back with uncertainty is not the way to separate this aircraft from Alabama. Fortunately the length of the runway is allowing for experimentation leading to a hypothesis that reflects the urgency to become intimate with the yoke. Pull it all the way back and in its' own sweet time the aircraft gently lifts from the runway. Any other aircraft would be inverted southbound on a northbound flight plan with that much elevator pulled in.
Dead reckoning and pilotage are the only avionics packages' tucked into this cockpit. The non shielded spark plug wires seemed to be tapping out a "Mayday" over my earplug attached to the "coffee grinder" radio. Voice communication would be better served by two Dixie cups and a string. Ground navigation signals are intermittent as they try to work their way through the aura of electrical charge set up by the antiquated ignition system. And, if I had a hot-dog and a bun right now I could cook one and toast the other off of the heat from the engine that is slicing its' way through the firewall.
A setting sun presenting itself through copious quantities of humidity rising from the Mississippi wetlands and viewed through a crazed windshield does not lend itself to successful pilotage techniques or finding your planned destination.
"It should be right down there." I see things, but not the right things. There is no one to talk to but myself. "OK George, Laurel, Mississippi or not, when the sun touches the horizon I touch the ground." The aircraft has passed over one hundred miles of open country. Finding myself in a dark Mississippi sky, over the swamps and lost in an aircraft not certified for night flight is an option for someone else. Through the haze and craze a town appears. Unless I want to land on Main St. I need an airport, not a town.
Town water towers have always been a beacon to lost pilots. The smaller of the communities seem to have an affinity to painting the towns name on said structures. We just need to make sure we circle the tower at least once. Usually you'll find the name of the town opposite of the banner, "Home of the Fighting Eagles."
I've turned north, following a highway in search of a water tower while the sun heads west in search of the horizon. The expedition over the highway to the North is proving fruitless. However, there is some comfort knowing I have a highway on which to land. After all, "You steer it like a car."
Thirty miles of highway flying finds the sun with a couple of more minutes before it begins to bring in the first shades of night. On the right side of highway 11, I see a field with a dirt road bordering on it. The road and two houses seemed to be the only signs of habitation in the area. A quick approach over low trees and swamp has the aircraft lined up for an "off airport" landing. On the far side of the field are tall trees lining the dirt road. I'll take my chances in that direction. If something goes wrong I don't want to add the possibility of drowning to whatever else might happen. Touching down, the aircraft easily rolls to a stop at the end of the field near the road.
Scratching through the bramble bushes that lurk between the trees I'm able, charts and all, to make it to the dirt road. "Let's see, which house do I pick?" Certainly it would make sense to pick the one with the two people sitting on their porch in a couple of overstuffed chairs. A Martian couldn't have held their attention anymore than the fixation they have on the approaching aeronaut of the field.
"Maybe you folks could help me out." If a lost aviator can't find a water tower find an older couple sitting on their porch. "Can you show me where I'm at on this chart." After a few strokes of his chin followed by some guttural utterances he points to Stonewall, Mississippi.
"There we are, Stonewall!"
His wife nods in agreement. A quick check of the surrounding area on the chart shows an airport a few miles farther north in Meridian, Mississippi.
"Great, thanks for the help. I've got to go if I want to get there before it gets too dark." The route back to the aircraft gives the bramble bushes another chance to rake off the remaining skin on my arms.
Jumping up on the wing then settling into the cockpit through the pull open canopy top, an immediate start is attempted. Attempted, is as far as it goes. The battery, having been awakened during its season of hibernation in Atmore, decided to go back to sleep upon reaching Stonewall. The battery made its decision in the few moments it took to get a briefing from a couple of nice rural Mississippi porch dwellers. Looking toward the road one could only search for a circuitous route around the bramble bushes. My arms already look like they've been on the losing end of a fight with a Lynx, known in these parts as a "Souped Up Wild Cat."
The cordial couple have not seen the last of me. "Hi, again. Would you folks know of anyone around here that might be able to put me up for the night? My aircraft won't start."
Mom and Pop, not used to taking in strange men from the sky with bleeding arms, suggest, "Try the people that live in that house down the road."
A hundred yards or so down the road finds me knocking on a strange door in a strange place. An older gentleman, living with his younger girlfriend, greets me. Listening to my plight, while occasionally peering past the story to catch a glimpse of the aircraft in the field, the people invite me in with traditional Mississippi hospitality. After being driven to the nearest phone booth a call is made to the boss and the Flight Service Station, to close my flight plan, notifying them both of my dilemma.
The evening passed with small talk over a meat and potatoes' dinner and television. The day had taken its toll on me. "You can use this bedroom here. The beds' pretty comfortable." Utter bliss! Another couple of minutes will find me checking my eye lids for holes. "Thanks for the hospitality, I'll see you in the morning." A knocking on the bedroom door ripped asunder the first couple of minutes of sleep. I didn't see any farmers' daughter around here. It must be someone else. "Yea, come on in!"
The door opens. The older gentleman, the sheriff, the sheriffs' deputy and a highway patrolman are walking into the bedroom. "I didn't tell them, I didn't call them." The older gentleman is hopping around trying to satisfy both sides of the bedroom. "Look sheriff, he's O.K., there's his credentials," pointing to my brief case. "Are those your credentials?" Still under the covers, I answer. "No sir, that's my charts, flight computer and a few other items."
The sheriff knows why he's here. "Well son, I'm here to inform you, it's against the law in the State of Mississippi, to land an airplane at any place other that an approved airfield unless it's an emergency."
Delivering my speech from the comfort of the bed I inform the sheriff, "You can consider it, that.!" Silence permeates the room as the local law look at each other. All of a sudden they have no case. My host for the evening seems to look relieved.
"Well, the F.A.A. wants your name and pilots number," "What for? I've already notified Flight Service." "They just do!" His, Mississippi lawman, tone of insistence causes immediate compliance.
After hearing the obligatory explanation of my emergency, the deputy, the highway patrolman, my host and the sheriff walk out of the room. As an afterthought, sticking his head back through the door, the sheriff says, "Don't know how you're going to get out of that field, son. Wasn't plowed but too long ago."
The chance of getting out of that field will be equal to the chance of getting back to sleep. "Wasn't plowed but too long ago." Images of trees painted on the mural of a windshield haunt every effort at sawing the proverbial logs of late night. Counting sheep hopping over a fence is being replaced. Now try to visualize one small blue airplane hopping over some tall trees.
With an early country breakfast under the belt and a farewell to the younger mistress of my elder host we head out to round up a pair of jumper cables in town.
"Let me run out to the plane and give it another try before we head into town." My host has long since broken the code of the bramble bushes. His "Brier Rabbit" sense of country navigation salvages what skin remains on my arms as he points toward a safe path to the field.
Again, in the aircraft, with my "credentials" safely stashed behind the seat, anticipation of failure is sitting at one hundred percent. An engine start is initiated.
The angels of fate must have known something, last night, that I didn't know. Whatever kept me on the ground then is not present now as the engine sputters' to life. After coaxing the engine into a semblance of smoothness, and a quick wave to my country host, the aircraft heads across the washboard field toward the trees that live in the water.
The morning dew has every loose weed clinging to every part of the aircraft that they encounter. Considering the horses this engine has lost over the years we need all the help that Bernoulli's' principle can guarantee us. These wings need cleaning. With the engine still idling I jump out of the cockpit and proceed to clean the wings of the accumulated debris. The tail of the bird is as close to the barbed wire fence as possible. The brakes are locked. The throttle is advanced to full power. The tachometer has risen to its zenith. OK, George, it's a soft field/short field with an eighty foot obstacle, take off. Keep the nose wheel off of the ground. As the aircraft rolls every second that passes fills up an ever widening field of vision with trees. Another few seconds ... it's either airborne or abort the takeoff. The Atmore, Alabama departure floods my consciousness. Pull the yoke all the way back!
It works! The aircraft is defying my worst dreams and now laughing at the sheriffs' lack of confidence. Looking down and out of the open canopy the tops of the trees sail beneath the aircraft about twenty feet below.
The wire protruding from the main tank in front of the windshield and the wires protruding from each of the wing tanks, all attached to fuel floats, are the only fuel gages on this aircraft. They're not standing as tall as I would like them to be.
The nearest airfield with fuel, indicated on the chart, seems to be Okeefe Field in Newton, Mississippi, about 30 miles to the Northwest of Stonewall.
The bruised and thirsty aircraft rolls to a stop next to the fuel pump on an early Tuesday morning in July. The airport appears to be unmanned. A badly faded sign, that would probably be unreadable in about a week, prompting fuel seekers to call the telephone number listed.
A tired voice answered at the other end of the line. He must not have the morning shift. It appears the morning shift is on nobodies' schedule. "Yes sir, I'm out here at the airport and need some fuel. Have I reached the right number?"
"Yea, you've reached the right number. But, with the fuel crunch right now, we have to reserve the fuel for club members only." If tears were combustible I could generate enough right now to power this bird back to Duncan, Oklahoma. He continues, "What type of aircraft are you in?" "It's a 1948,Ercoupe." "Oh yea, it's been awhile since I saw one of those. I'll be right down there." The man parked his car and walked over to the aircraft seeming to admire that which I would have paid to stay out of. "Say ah, listen, like I told you I'm not supposed to sell to anyone except club members. But, I'll sell you ten gallons"
The additional ten gallons of fuel has the wire fuel gages standing at attention as the aircraft climbed away from Okeefe Field.
There's my flight plan, Interstate 20. My ticket home, a highway that traverses most of the continent from east to west has appeared. A quick turn to the West and it's smooth sailing from here on out.
The heat sizzling through the firewall necessitates flying with the slide- open canopy fully slid open. The slipstream is sucking my hair to ends' length lending the scalp to the blazing irradiation of a July sun. It's only a guess as to which end of me will first qualify as "medium rare." Looking out of the cockpit, watching the trucks on the highway exceeding the speed of the aircraft, allowed for the first notice of the oil sliding along the side of the fuselage and passing beneath a set of disbelieving eyes.
The need to stay clear of controlled airports, due to an inoperable coffee grinder radio, has me looking for anything claiming to be an airport. The chart indicates an airport near the highway and within range of an aircraft that's beginning to spill its first drops of life.
Up ahead, on the North side of Interstate 20, can be seen a long skinny runway with a couple of buildings on the south end. Landing to the North, on what is obviously a crop duster strip, the aircraft touches down. A quick application of the brake pedal serves up notice that the brake hydraulic fluid failed to make the touch down with the rest of the aircraft. Fortunately the remaining 60 knots should be able to be overcome, before reaching the end of the runway, with thanks to one of Newton's Laws of Motion. However, Newton didn't own anErcoupe. His calculations would have left him with another fifteen knots, at the end of the runway, with which to steer into a field and spin around back onto the runway. Thankfully, differential braking is not needed in a "steer it like a car" airplane.
The crop duster folks are accommodating as far as the oil and hydraulic fluid are concerned. However, refined "Texas Tea" is gold in any state during a fuel crunch. Fortunately I'm not hurting on the fuel. I'm just looking for a little insurance.
Mississippi is now miles behind me. Louisiana has been kind, allowing the little aircraft to traverse the width of the state without a single attempt to pull it earthward. It's hard to believe I've only traveled approximately 450 miles since leaving Atmore, Alabama, yesterday. It's even harder to believe the amount of oil now painting the side of the aircraft.
Turning away from Interstate 20, theErcoupe is homing in, on the home of the Confederate Air Force, the airfield at Paris, TX., 120 miles to the Northwest. Surely the Confederate Air Force can spare some oil and fuel. It'll be a crap shoot whether the brake reservoirs will need another drink.
The brakes bring the aircraft to a stop amongst the old war birds. And, maybe if I had worn the leather fleece lined helmet and waved a Rebel Flag, the Confederate Air Force lady might have sold me some fuel. "Here's two quarts of oil. Sorry about the fuel, you know, fuel crunch and all."
This could have been my last stop before reaching home, 120 miles to the West. I don't have 120 miles of fuel left in this bird. Sixty miles to the West is Eaker Field, in Durant, Oklahoma. Eaker Field is the home of the Aviation Department, Southeastern State College. If I can get there before they roll up the sidewalks they'll take care of this recent graduate.
With fuel wires hovering near their tips, and the side of the aircraft covered with oil, Eaker Field offers another opportunity for the brakes to prove themselves, and they do.
Two wings and a main tank fueled up with the oil and hydraulic fluid topped off isn't enough to convince thisErcoupe to try for the remaining 60 miles. Six Hundred and forty miles has beaten this bird to death.
A mechanic throws open the cowling. With his head inside and waving his elbows around to the tune of a ratchet he finally emerges with a sense of confidence, saying "Give her a try."
Again, the sad little bird comes to life. The illicit departure procedure from the airport pattern has me wondering if a college can revoke a diploma. "As the crow flies," so to does this swallow searching for the Capistrano of my flight plan, Duncan, Oklahoma.
An uneventful 60 miles delivers me home. Walking into the FBO with a sunburned head, hair standing up like a wheat field and feet and legs cooked to a medium rare should qualify me for a heroes' welcome.
"Well, it's about time!" The wife of the galleon drummer is throwing in her two cents on top of the pittance of alms that are destined for my paycheck plate. Ignoring the comment, I lay out my cash receipts in front of her. "What's this? Why didn't you use the company credit card?" This is not a heroes welcome. "Because my radio was inoperative leaving me no choice but to land at podunk airports that only take cash." My sunburned arms, face and scalp along with the quilted pattern of scratches on my arms has me looking like someone you don't want to mess with. She rings open the cash box, trading cash for the crumpled pieces of paper. "Thanks, maybe I can go buy some medical attention. Or, maybe just any attention. And, by the way, don't ask me to fly that airplane again."
Three feverish days of refurbishing, by the in-house mechanics, has theErcoupe in saleable shape. The canopy and windshield are replaced. All eighty horses are signed off as back in the corral. The oil well has been plugged. New snap-in padding, where there was none before, surrounds the interior of the cockpit and the brakes have been rebuilt. But, I don't care. ". . .don't ask me to fly that airplane again."
"George, how about flying theErcoupe over to Ardmore." The boss knows I have a family to support and might jump at the chance at making the five dollars for the one hour flight. "No, find someone else!" He also knows my sentiments toward his Alabama albatross. "Look, the bird has been looked over, top to bottom. You shouldn't have any problem. It'll only take you a little less than an hour to get there. They'll bring you back in one of their planes."
Disregarding an instinct for survival and the fact, today is Friday the 13th, I say "Yea, I'll do it!" Besides, I'm not superstitious. It's bad luck to be superstitious.
The flight to Ardmore, Oklahoma, fifty-five miles to the Southeast of Duncan should be quick and easy compared to my "Flight of the Phoenix" from Alabama. Something about a straight line between two points has me pointed in a direction requiring the least amount of flight time to my destination.
About fifteen minutes out of Duncan, on a straight shot to Ardmore and over open country, I connected the thought, that it's Friday, with the fact, my sister is supposed to be headed over to Duncan from Ardmore, to visit this evening. Maybe if I swing this bird down to the South and pick up highway 70, running West out of Ardmore, I might be able to see her car on the highway.
Intercepting Highway 70 near Ringling, Oklahoma left only 25 miles before reaching Ardmore. Soon the highway beneath me became divided. The two directions of traffic, east and west, are separated by a steep wide "V" shaped median. At 900 feet it shouldn't be too hard to spot my sisters' car.
Just ten miles to go. The little burg of Lone Grove should be just up ahead. Still no sis'. The cars on the highway, traveling in my direction, are passing me up at the same time the engine decided to pass out.
The silence was stunning. A few precious seconds are wasted through denial and disbelief. Immediately a handle to engage the starter is pulled. The engine turns to the tune of the starter but not to the tune of combustion. Maximum time to terra firma, approximately two minutes.
All surrounding terrain on both sides of the highway is covered by trees. The median between the divided highway is too steep to land on. The highway has got to be it. The approach was already dictated by my original position. Frantically I'm searching for a clue to enable this aircraft to stay aloft. Four Hundred feet to go. Check the fuel selector switch that allows wing tank fuel to be pumped into the main tank. It should be in the "On" position. I remember it from the Atmore trip. The mechanics have installed snap padding over the switch. Ripping the padding away from the right side of the cockpit finds the switch in the "Off" position. The main is dry, just as the float wire indicates.
Two Hundred Fifty feet to go. Revelations abound. It's too late to try for a start. The picture looks bad. I'm going to hit an unsuspecting car for sure. A high tension power line is webbing its' way across the highway at the top of the upcoming hill. And, at Two Hundred Fifty feet, emerging from the solid line of trees, on the other side of the highway, a postage stamp sized field, home of numerous oil field pumping units, comes into view.
An adage, referring to forced landings, oft repeated by flight instructors is, "Pick your spot and don't change your mind." This rule isn't going to direct the outcome of this landing. The choice to land in the field, too narrow to even flare for a touchdown, is made. This will keep the folks on the highway out of the picture. TheErcoupe rolls into a ninety degree turn to the left at less than One Hundred Fifty feet from the ground.
Rapid and massive mathematical calculations conclude, either I attempt to crash on purpose near the fence by the highway or proceed into the trees on the other side of the field. Total misfortune will have me doing both. Taking control of my own destiny seems to be better than floating into oblivion.
Tunnel vision on the intended point of impact, a point as close to the barbed wire fence as I can be without hooking the wheels in the top strand, is where my 20/20's are looking. The brakes are locked before landing. Passing over the oncoming Westbound lanes at a ninety degree angle and at an altitude of about eight feet the aircraft gives the occupants of the oncoming car something to tell their grandchildren about.
The nose wheel, as planned, hits the ground first. The resulting angular force of the impact propels the yoke full forward taking my knuckles with it into the instrument panel. The noise of the impact lasts but a second as the aircraft decides to bounce back into the air. Under the circumstances my only chance for healthy survival is to stick to the ground with wheels that don't roll. The plane is again forced against the earth. The brakes have yet to be released. That which failed me in Mississippi, brakes, is all that will save me now. The noise, resulting from the aircraft crossing over pipes strung between the oil field pumping units and the roughness of the field is, the accompanying sound track to the picture of the upcoming trees.
The noise and theErcoupe stop thirty feet short of the trees. All avid watchers of Grade "B" aviation movies, at this moment, would now do what I'm going to do. "Run, she's gonna blow!"
Departing the cockpit at something just short of Mach 1, distance is placed between theErcoupe and the East end of this West bound pilot. If I slow down to turn around and look back I might either turn to salt or get blown up.
A black pickup truck, with two highway travelers, wheel in from a small dirt road bordering one side of the field and intercepts me about a hundred feet from the aircraft.. "Man, we saw it all!" "What happened?" Not giving me a chance to answer he continues, "Man, you went right over the hood of a car, just missed 'um." "Can we help you with anything?" Still clinging to Grade "B" movie scripts I answer, "Yea, I'll take a shot of whiskey if you have one."
The condition of theErcoupe will not support future stories being told about a crash landing in Oklahoma. From a hundred feet away no visible damage can be seen. It, just can't be! All the damage must be on the other side of the airplane.
The two wide-eyed spectators of the air show trail behind as they follow me over to that which was," . . .gonna blow," just a few seconds earlier.
There's no popped rivets. There's no wrinkled skin. There's no bent motor mount. There's no damaged landing gear. The only damage is personal, as evidenced by me sucking on my knuckles.
"Wadd'a ya think made the engine stall?" It'll be another thousand years before witnesses of air disasters finally come to grips with the fact that wings stall and engines quit. "I'll tell you why she quit. The mechanics' turned off a switch that allows wing fuel to be pumped into the main tank. Then they covered everything up with snap in padding." As if to confirm my, "The Other Guy is to Blame," story they peer into the cockpit to view the padding that is hanging loose and away from the switch in question.
"Well, how ya figure to get her outta this place?" The clutch in my brain has only just become disengaged from the calculations on how I was going to get into this place. He's right, how do I figure to get out of this place?
Surely, any attempt to fly this aircraft out of this place will nix any future plans to write about the event under any name, other than a "pen name." Oh well, I'm young. And If I wait long enough the statute of limitations on stupidity will run out. Then, I can use my real name.
"We'll need to transfer some fuel from the wings to the main tank. You guys have any containers in your truck?" A quick check found nothing. Soon we were all heading down the highway to the nearest gas station.
The station attendant is cooperative. "The only thing I've got is a bucket." "That'll be O.K.!" A bucket is the best. That way when the fuel runs out of the sumps it can run over my hand and down the length of my arm and land in the bucket. Why do it any different from any other time?
Stupidity steps up to the plate. The fuel has been pitched into the main tank and the engine is running. My only ill conceived plan is to attempt a take off on the longest side of the rectangle. The view is ninety degrees to the view this bird had on approach. If this thing will lift off anywhere, on the projected path, I'm close enough to the fence on my right to swing over it, fly over the oncoming traffic, climb the upcoming hill and fly under the power lines.
Power is applied and the aircraft is accelerating along the fence line. Tall, July scorched weeds hide what appears to be level ground in front of me. A flash of water, glistening in the weeds and filling what was probably an old oil field mud pit, is dead ahead. The brakes are slammed on and "steering it like a car," the aircraft swerved to the left, stopping with the right wing hanging over the water.
The air show spectators should have picked up some popcorn at the gas station. This has got to be better than anything they've ever paid for.
Stupidity, playing for the Atmore Albatrosses, again with stick in hand steps up to the plate on the "Field of Dreams." I've got to be dreaming if I think there is a way to fly out of this field.
By now the spectators are becoming part of the show. "O.K. guys, If we can shove this thing over into that far corner of the field I can do a take off roll under those two oak trees that have grown together. Then she'll hit that hump of dirt just beyond the trees which should shove me into the air." Something about the sum of the square of the two sides giving me the hypotenuse of the hypothesis led me to believe, this cut across the oil field, was going to do the trick.
The brakes are locked and the engine is brought to full power. Releasing the brakes theErcoupe begins to roll. Surely this will be the only time in my entire career that oak tree branches will be seen passing over my head on a take off. Up ahead the slight slope from the mound of dirt that lined the edge of a filled in ditch rapidly approaches.
The calculation of being jacked into the air by the mound of dirt was correct. Pulling all the way back on the yoke, as is necessary in this bird, did nothing except slightly arrest the decent of an aircraft not possessing enough air speed to stay aloft.
Most air shows have the public address system turned up loud enough to drown out the screams of terrified pilots. My spectators only had to listen over the sound of an idling engine in a descending aircraft to hear my screaming plea to god.
Again the aircraft skids to a stop, narrowly missing the water at the top of the triangle near the intersection of the long side and the hypotenuse.
"Say, what if we drug it out over that cattle guard, through the fence, to the dirt road? Then you could get on the highway and take off."
I'm not flying a rocket. Yet, here is a rocket scientist. I'll buy this mans' popcorn. Short of being disassembled, that is the only way out of here.
TheErcoupe is taxied into position as close to the cattle guard as possible. The cattle guard is not wide enough for the track of the wheels. This aircraft is going to have to be pulled and pushed sideways across the cattle guard to the road. That's going to require us to pull up the metal pole holding the barbed wire fence on one side.
Finally, free of the confines of the field, the aircraft is taxied about 100 feet to the highway. My pit crew confirms, "We'll stop the cars on the highway. Then you can go." As the 70 MPH traffic began to brake to a stop, heeding the commands of the air show spectators, I wave briefly and holler, "thanks," to couple of guys I will never see again.
The highway rises slightly as I accelerate to the West. Holding theErcoupe on the ground, until topping the rise, brings into view miles of straight highway and gives the East bound traffic a sight they would never forget. A little blue airplane, where it needed to be, rolling down the highway being "steered like a car."
George Mertz, though still involved in aviation, is the
Executive Director of a nonprofit