A FORCED LANDING IN THE ALLEGHENIES

by Fred Carl Gardner

 FAAAce@aol.com

[Image]

Fred Carl Gardner - First Row on Far Right

Malden Air Base, Malden, Missouri

Summer, 1953


The time was February, 1953; the place was Malden Air Base, Malden, Missouri.  I, as a WWII pilot down on my luck, had taken a job with Anderson Air Activities as a contract flight instructor of Air Force student pilots. I had joined Anderson in late July, 1951, had gone through the Air Force PIS (Pilot Instructor School) at Craig Air Force Base, and by this time had put four classes through primary flight training in the T6-G. In those four classes, I had trained the students solely in the T-6. Starting students from scratch in the 650 horsepower “6” was a challenge for both the instructor and the student. This airplane was the advanced trainer flown by Air Corps aviation cadets in the advanced phase of training during WWII. Teaching cadets to fly that powerful machine was “slow-going.” When the WWII generation of pilots started flying the “6,” they had already accumulated 140 hours in primary and basic trainers, and were reasonably competent pilots. In “Advanced," most of us soloed the “6,” after two or three dual flights. So, it it is easy to understand why we had qualms about this “straight T-6” program. It was pretty well accepted that the instructors learned as much as the students during the initial phase of the program. We found, through experience, that it usually took about twenty hours of dual instruction before a student could be safely soloed. By the beginning of 1953, the Air Force realized that a smaller, less powerful airplane was needed for initial flight training. We instructors had recognized that from the beginning. I should mention that most of the instructors had been Air Force, Navy, or Marine pilots of WWII, and most of them needed a job; some like myself, desperately. The contract school at Malden had come into being shortly after the beginning of the Korean War. The Air Force had designated nine civilian contract primary pilot training schools at various locations throughout the southern United States. The school at Malden hired its first group of instructors in early July, 1951. I was in the second group and arrived at Malden in late July. After a few flights at Malden, we traveled to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama for about a month’s refresher and standardization training in the “6.” In some respects, it was like going back to our old aviation cadet days. After completing the training at Craig, we returned to Malden to start training student pilots in Class 52-G.

I can still remember arriving by bus just outside the main gate of the base early one cold November morning in 1951. I was carrying two old suitcases which contained most of my worldly possessions. I walked down a street toward the flight line and saw a fire station. I walked in the door and told the firemen that I was a newly-hired flight instructor and asked directions to the briefing building of Class 52-G. They told me how to get there and asked me if I had eaten breakfast. I said that I hadn’t, so they gave me a good meal of bacon and eggs.

After breakfast, I walked into the 52-G briefing building and was greeted by the guys I had flown with at Craig.

That morning in November, 1951 was the first day, of the first year, of the sixteen years I spent as a flight instructor in U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army Civilian Contract Primary Flying Schools.

Now, to resume my story and move forward in time to early February, 1953. The Air Force had finally, and belatedly, decided that primary pilot training should begin in a less complex airplane. So, the Piper Airplane Company at Lockhaven, Pennsylvania had been given a contract to provide a small fleet of Super Cubs for each of the nine contract schools. Malden instructors were in the process of ferrying these new airplanes from Lockhaven to Malden. About a third of them had already been delivered.

One day, our flight commander called three of us aside and asked us if we would like to ferry the next three Cubs back to Malden. We jumped at the chance. It meant drawing per diem for several days and getting away from the routine of instructing. We looked on the trip as something of a “lark.”

The three of us who made the trip were Harry Gourley, Tom Spencer, and myself. All three of us were WWII Army Air Corps pilots and were members of the Air Force Reserve unit at Scott AFB. We drove to Scott once a month for reserve training.

When the day of our departure for Lockhaven came, we boarded a bus for St. Louis, wearing our flight coveralls and carrying our parachutes. The only other items we carried were small bags and our shaving kits. Upon arrival at the bus depot at St. Louis, we caught a cab to Lambert Field to catch a TWA flight to Pittsburg. The airliner was a Lockheed Constellation. When the time came to board, we walked out to the airplane in our flight coveralls, carrying our parachutes over our shoulders. The passengers glanced at us with obvious curiosity. I should mention that the Air Force Regulation governing us required that we wear parachutes, even when ferrying civilian airplanes.

After Harry, Tom, and I got to our seats, and in view of the fact that we had already aroused a lot of curiosity, we decided give our follow passengers another "jolt." We meticulously inspected our chutes, put them on, and with worried looks, carefully adjusted them for a snug fit. I wish I could have made a video of the looks and actions of our fellow passengers. Everyone nearby, stood up so they could observe our antics. After we had gone through the “chute-donning routine,” we began talking about airliner crashes that we knew about. We conversed in a voice volume about the level that a Kentucky hill farmer would use to call his hogs. Presently, the first officer came walking down the isle to our seats. Harry, whom Tom and I had designated as our flight leader and spokesman, gave the concerned co-pilot a long spiel, winding up with a a quote from a fictitious Air Force Regulation that required us to wear our parachutes any time we were flying, even as passengers. I’m not sure the co-pilot believed Harry, but he walked back to the cockpit.

The TWA flight continued on to Pittsburg where we caught a commuter flight to Lockhaven. After our arrival, we took a cab to the Piper factory and met a Piper company official. Harry gave him an Anderson Air Activities check to pay for the three airplanes and completed the required “paper work.” Since it was now late in the afternoon, we stayed overnight in a nearby motel.

About nine the next morning, we took a cab to the factory, pre-flighted our airplanes, and checked the weather. The weather conditions directly to the west, on the route we planned to fly, were marginal, low ceilings and light rain. However, the forecast was “clearing from the north.” Phillipsburg, which was north of our proposed route, had broken conditions. We considered delaying our departure another day, then decided to fly south a few miles, then west through a small valley and continue to the area south of Pittsburg, where the current conditions were reasonably good. From there we would continue on to Wheeling, West Virginia for our first fuel stop.

So we took-off and headed south, with Harry in the lead. After a short time, Harry headed west up the valley. We were flying in drizzling rain under a low ceiling. As we  flew up the valley, the terrain continued to rise, so we were soon at about two hundred feet AGL. We should have made the standard “one-eighty” and returned to Lockhaven, but like damned fools, we continued on. Now, the light rain turned to light snow. We were reaching an area where the valley was becoming somewhat wider and there were few small cultivated fields visible. We were flying in a “string formation” with Harry in the lead, Tom second, and I was last. I decided that it would be a good idea to apply the carburetor heat (I should have had it on “full” from the beginning of the flight). Almost immediately after I applied the heat, the engine went, “BLUB, BLUB” a couple of times, then quit. So, there I was, in light snow, with a dead engine, at about two hundred feet, over terrain with a few small scattered fields. Now things happened fast, and I guess habit and training took over. “Lady Luck,” my old “fall-back gal” also entered into the equation. I was flying west into a light headwind. There was a small corn stubble-field at about my “two o’clock” position. The field had low weathered furrows that ran east and west, and had a moderate up-slope toward the west. Automatically, I made a right forty-five degree turn toward the field and as I rolled out, flared and touched-down at quite a slow groundspeed, going up hill between the furrows. Harry and Tom had disappeared in the snowy skies to the west.

Well, I sat there in the cockpit for a minute or two, then got out and opened the cowling. The carburetor was covered with melting frost. I climbed back in the cockpit, waited for a few minutes, then energized the starter. The engine started and ran fine. I shut the engine down again and walked through a low area, toward a farm house that was about three hundred yards to the southwest. The ground wasn’t particularly rough, so I decided to taxi my airplane to the low area about half way to farm house, and park it. After I parked it, secured the controls, and chocked the wheels with a couple of small logs, I walked to the farm house, carrying my chute. I knocked on the front door, and a middle-aged farmer came to the door. (Now, this part of my account sounds like a story out of a nineteen-twenties’ boys pulp flying magazine.) To continue: I told the farmer what had happened, and that my airplane was parked in his field. I asked him if I could use his telephone. It was about noon, and the farmer had been eating dinner. So, when I asked to use his phone, he immediately invited me in to join the his family at the dinner table. I accepted with alacrity and I don’t think I ever ate a more delicious fried chicken dinner. After dinner, I asked the farmer the location of his farm. He said it was about five miles northeast of Ebensburg. Then, I called the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol and reported my forced landing, giving them the condition of the airplane, myself, and where I was located. The Patrol officer then said that there had been two other forced landings about five miles west of the farm I was calling from. He said that one of the pilots was named Harry Gourley and then told me to come into Ebensburg and check in at the town’s leading hotel. I then called a cab, traveled to Ebensburg, and joined my two buddies at the hotel. That night, we consumed a sizable quantity of “IRON CITY BEER,” and a rusty old brew it was.

The next morning, at what we thought was a reasonably early hour, we had breakfast and then grabbed a cab. We drove first to Harry and Tom’s airplanes, then proceeded to the farm where my plane was located. I walked to my plane, pre-flighted it, and started the engine. Harry and Tom had “fired-up” their crates, flown to my location and were circling overhead. To the north of where I was parked, and just beyond the field where I had landed the day before, there was a hayfield along a rounded ridge that ran east and west. Harry and Tom had obviously reconnoitered the terrain and were making low-level passes along the ridge from east to west. There was a moderate wind from the west. Tom made a landing on the east end of the ridge and then immediately took-off again. I didn’t understand why he didn’t stay on the ground until I taxied up to a take-off position on the east end of the ridge. I should mention here that the ground near where my plane was parked seemed to be frozen solid, but as I taxied up along the side of the sloping ridge to a take-off position, the ground became increasingly soft and muddy. Now, I realized why Tom had made such a prompt take-off.

Well, I continued taxiing toward the position from which I could make a take-off to the west. The mud was beginning to “ball-up” on my wheels, and it took more and more power to keep moving. Finally, I managed to get to a take-off position on the east end of the ridge. My wheels were really “balled-up” with mud now and had sunk into the soft surface of the ridge almost up to the metal on the wheels. Harry and Tom were circling overhead. They had a grandstand seat to observe my crash, and I was beginning to think I was going to do just that! As I made my “run-up,” I seemed to settle even deeper into the mud. After I had reached the point in my procedure where there was nothing left to do but apply the the power for take-off, I thought to myself:

(1) if I “chicken-out” and don’t take-off, I will probably the cause of a situation that will result in all three of us being fired by Anderson;

(2) if I crash on take-off, the other two guys will probably be fired by Anderson for their part in getting us into this mess; or

(3) if I am able to make the take-off, join up with my two buddies, and continue on, we will all be “home free” and no one back at Malden will be the wiser.

So, there really wasn’t any choice: I had to attempt a take-off. At this point in my flying experience, I really didn’t know the performance capabilities of a Super Cub. If had the Army L-19 experience behind me, that I did have twelve years later, I would not have hesitated. As it was, there was a big question mark in my mind. I didn’t have much confidence in being able to fly that crate out of the mud hole I was in. What I needed right now was a good stiff jolt of 100 proof bourbon!!!

Well, the time had come. I slowly and smoothly opened the throttle to full power, holding enough back-pressure on the stick to keep the tail down. The cub started moving, slowly at first, then faster and faster. The wheels were throwing big gobs of mud up on the lower surface of the wings. The floor of the cockpit was a mess, covered with a mixture of mud and cow manure, deposited by my boots. That poor little Cub looked like it had been on the Western Front. Once that Cub started moving,  there was no stopping it. I doubt if my round roll was seventy-five feet; it might have been fifty. So, “I learned about flying from that,” as the saying goes.  

The remainder of the flight to Malden was uneventful. We refueled at Wheeling, West Virginia and Evansville, Indiana. We then continued on west and landed on a small airport near the Mississippi River that had a motel. The next morning, we made the short flight to Malden Air Base. Since my Cub was so covered with mud, inside and out, I parked at the wash rack and shut down my engine. One of the wash crew came over to my Cub and said, “Where the hell have you been with that airplane?!”

I declined to answer, on the grounds that it might incriminate me!!!

© 1998-2005, Fred Carl Gardner, All rights reserved.


Other stories by Fred Carl Gardner:

A SHAVE-TAIL PILOT'S FIRST FORCED LANDING

CLASS 42X

A YEAR IN THE B-29 “SUPERFORTRESS”  


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