A SHAVE-TAIL PILOT'S FIRST FORCED LANDING

by Fred Carl Gardner

 FAAAce@aol.com

Fred Gardner (standing)

USAF Primary Flight Training

Evenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas

Fall, 1942


As a newly-minted second lieutenant with shiny new silver wings, I was assigned to the 741st aircraft maintenance squadron at Gardner Army Air Field near Taft, California. How I happened to be assigned to Gardner is another story. It was fate and fate is mysterious and beyond human understanding. My job title was Assistant Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Officer. My boss, Captain Gillespie, a grizzled old former master Sergeant, was not a rated pilot. In this situation, all the test flying was my responsibility. This kind of test flying was pretty tame, since it consisted mainly of flying BT-13's and AT-6's after maintenance had been performed. The test flights usually lasted about an hour and a half and included the standard school maneuvers, i.e., stalls, spins, and acrobatics.

In addition to test flying airplanes which had undergone maintenance by mechanics of the 741st, I would occasionally get a call from the Sub-Depot, which was located, on the other end of the flight line, requesting that I test fly one of the airplanes which had been overhauled by the civilian mechanics of that unit. Well, everything went smoothly for about a month. Then one day, a civilian supervisor at the Sub-Depot called and said that he needed a test flight on a BT-13 which, had received a major overhaul. I caught the line taxi, which was known as the Shrimp Boat, and soon arrived at the Sub-Depot. The civilian supervisor greeted me and pointed to the BT. I performed my usual visual inspection, then strapped myself in the cockpit. Prior to engine start, I went through the standard procedure of checking the controls, including the proper movement of the trim tabs. Even though I was just a wet-behind-the-ears shave-tail, I knew which way the elevator trim tabs were supposed to move when I rolled the trim wheel. Sure enough, the trim tabs were rigged backwards. In the air, rolling the trim wheel forward or backward would have an effect opposite of that desired. I climbed out of the BT, waved the supervisor over to the airplane, then demonstrated the faulty rigging of the elevator trim tabs. I couldn't believe it when Mr. F.M. (feather merchant), contended that the trim tabs were rigged properly. Well, I knew something about airplane structures and controls, having gone through the Army Air Corps Airplane Mechanics School just prior to joining Aviation Cadet Class 43-D.

With this highly technical aeronautical background, I proceeded to give the F.M. a short course in the aerodynamics of trim tab function. During the same time period, circa 1943, all able-bodied men not in uniform were “feather merchants.” Well, Mr., F.M. was finally convinced and the BT was rolled back in the Sub Depot Hanger for “a re-rigging job.” I returned to the 741st line shack via the Shrimp Boat. The next morning, Mr. F.M. called and said the BT was fixed and ready for a test flight. I grabbed my chute and again rode the Shrimp Boat to the Sub-Depot. My BT was parked in front of the hanger. Mr. F.M. assured me that everything had been taken care of and that the BT was cright as rain.” After the trim tab episode the day before, I had a gnawing suspicion that the BT wasn't that right. The mechanics of the 741st, whom I had grown to admire and trust, had a saying, “No airplane worked on by the feather merchants of the Sub-Depot is fit to fly.” I should mention that I took the mechanics along with me on test flights whenever I could and gave them “stick time” and a few acrobatics.

Now, the time had come to fly, so I took off and climbed to about seven thousand feet. I began my standard flight test maneuver sequence with the power-on stalls. Next, came the power-off stall series. Well, the first stall of the series put an abrupt end to the test flight. I had cleared the area, throttled back, and pulled the nose up to a three-point attitude. I got a good indication of a stall, with no unusual break, either right or left, then lowered the nose, and applied power for a recovery. To be more accurate, I advanced the throttle. Of course, I expected a smooth response from the Pratt-Whitney R-985, but what I got was a series of coughs. At first, I wasn't really concerned. I thought I had let the engine get a little too cool. After returning the throttle to the idle position, I re-applied it, this time more slowly. Again, all I got was a few hoarse coughs, the kind of sounds I would imagine that a T.B. patient would make in the final agonizing throes of his disease. Again, I throttled back. The engine ran fine at idle throttle setting. Several more times, I very slowly advanced the throttle. Each time, the engine's response was the same, a series of hoarse coughs. By now, I was down to about six thousand feet and some distance from Gardner AAF. I figured I had enough altitude to make the field so I took that option rather than setting up a forced landing pattern for a likely area of desert more or less directly below me. That was my first mistake. I was fooled by the fact that I was getting some power from the engine.

I kept assuming that there was a small piece of foreign material in the carburetor and that it would soon pass on through. Then, the engine would start running normally. That assumption was my second mistake. I was now on an east heading with my nose pointed toward the base leg of the south runway at Gardner. I felt sure I could glide to some sort of base leg and land somewhere on the field, if not on Runway 18. During my glide, I was constantly applying and retarding the throttle and the engine was continuing to respond with asthmatic coughs. Frankly, the coughs were beginning to sound like the mocking laughter of Satan. Needless to say my adrenalin was now pumping at an accelerated rate. I experienced for the first time in my life, a strange apparent slow-down of time. It seemed that everything was happening quite slowly and that I had all the time in the world. To continue my story, I approached the field at an altitude that was clearly too low to set up a base leg for Runway 18 or any part of the field. Now, I had maneuvered myself into a situation where there was only one, option -- set up a final approach into the south wind and land on the best terrain available. Since I was approaching the west boundary of Gardner Field, and was losing altitude rapidly, I had to turn onto a final approach immediately. I did that very thing and my final approach path was through the south take-off air space. (At Gardner, south take-offs were made on Runway 18 and also on a hard-surfaced mat that ran north and south.) This allowed several take-offs to be made simultaneously. So, there I was, on a power-off final approach through the takeoff legs of several BT's. In my mind's eye, I can still see the startled expression of a cadet as I glided past him at a distance of about ten feet. As I mentioned earlier, everything seemed to happen very slowly. If there is, a psychologist among my readers, please explain this phenomenon. Now, to get back to my final approach. I was gliding toward the south edge of Gardner, which was bounded by a cyclone fence about ten feet high, topped by three strands of barbed wire. I continued to apply and retard throttle.

This throttle pumping gave me a little power between engine coughs. I was approaching the cyclone fence rapidly, trying to stretch my glide to clear the barbed wire. By sheer luck, I timed the small bursts of power just right. Miraculously, I just cleared the wire, touched-down three points on the rough desert surface, and rolled to a stop. My engine was idling smoothly. As I sat there, rather surprised to get down in one piece, this remark came through my headset, “All right, shut down your engine.” It was the control tower. I obeyed the order, climbed out of the airplane, walked fifty feet away, and sat down on my chute.

A short distance to the northeast, at the south end of the flight line, was the line shack of the 741st maintenance squadron. I thought that someone would surely come running out to my airplane, but there wasn't a soul in sight. I continued to sit on my chute in kind of reverie, having a sweet vision of Mr. Feather Merchant sizzling in the depths of hell. After about half an hour, a jeep rolled up. It was Lt. Col. Harlan. He was the same age I was, twenty-four, and very conscious of his rank. He stopped the jeep, got out, and walked to the airplane without saying a word, or even looking at me. He climbed in the cock-pit and started the engine. It idled smoothly. Now, he gave me a look, that only a rank-happy, twenty-four-year-old colonel could direct at a very junior shave-tail. I knew what he was thinking: Why, you poor sad specimen of a pilot, there's nothing wrong with this airplane.

I couldn't let him continue thinking that so I walked over to the BT and climbed up on the wing. Disregarding rank, and without saying “Sir,” I said, “Open the throttle.” That, he did, and the engine responded with a consumptive coughing spell. The sound of that coughing was sweeter to my ears than the song of a nightingale. If my rough landing on the desert surface had somehow resulted in a correction of the engine's problem, the colonel would surely have had me court marshalled, or at the very least, had me re-classified and sent to the walking army.

Fickle Lady Luck. This time, she was kind to a poor benighted shave-tail pilot.

© 1998, Fred Carl Gardner, All rights reserved.


Other stories by Fred Carl Gardner:

A FORCED LANDING IN THE ALLEGHENIES

CLASS 42X

A YEAR IN THE B-29 “SUPERFORTRESS” 


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