Proficient Pilot

Christmas tales

December 1, 2006

Retired TWA captain Barry Schiff is the author of several books, fiction and nonfiction.

One of the strangest and most inexplicable events of my flying career occurred on Christmas morning in 1960. I had picked up my passengers at Burbank airport at dawn in a Twin Beech. It was a charter flight from Southern California to Mexico City with stopovers in Mazatlán and Acapulco.

We had flown almost 100 miles and I had settled in for the long flight ahead. Both of the Pratt & Whitney radials were purring sonorously, and each was being fed by its own tank: right to right and left to left. It was a perfect day and a perfect beginning, until a few moments later when both engines failed simultaneously. It was as if a cosmic hand had reached into the cockpit and smoothly retarded both throttles. The power loss was so symmetrical that the nose did not bobble even slightly to the left or right.

I frantically began to check everything I could: throttles, fuel pumps, fuel valves, and everything else that I could think of that might help to restore power.

About 10 seconds later and before I had a chance to do anything of significance, both engines surged smoothly back to life. They ran as if nothing had happened and continued that way for the remainder of the flight to and from Mexico.

(I have been criticized for continuing the flight, and I accept the notion that this might not have been the smartest decision of my career.)

To this day, I have no idea what caused that startling, albeit temporary, power loss. The engines in a Twin Beech operate independently of one another; there is no single failure or system aberration that could cause both engines to lose power in such a manner.

No, I am not superstitious and do not believe in supernatural events. There obviously is an explanation, but I have no idea what it is. Believe me when I say that I have made every effort during the ensuing years to find out what could have been the cause.

Someone suggested that it might have been water in the tanks. But it would have been an incredible coincidence for both engines to fail and recover in such exacting unison.

Another suggested — perhaps with tongue in cheek — that I had flown into a large air pocket, a bubble devoid of air that starved the engines of oxygen until popping out the other side. Sure. The likelihood of that is about the same as diving into a lake and finding a large bubble of air resting on the bottom. The mystery remains unsolved.

A year later, a friend and I were flying an Ercoupe from Santa Monica, California, to nearby Compton Airport on Christmas Day. It had rained the previous day and Compton had a dirt runway. So we flew low over the uncontrolled airport to ensure that the runway had dried out. That apparently was the case, or so we thought.

The touchdown was normal but the rollout was not. As determined by the length of our tracks, we came to a stop in only 80 feet. The thin layer of the clay surface was dry, but this was not sufficient to support the airplane. We had sunk more than a foot into the muck.

A couple of local pilots trekked out to see if we were OK and offered us cups of eggnog. A reporter was soon there to memorialize the event on film. Gee, thanks.

On another Christmas morning a few years ago I was flying my friend Jimmy Barton's Cessna T210, N210JB, to McClellan-Palomar Airport, which is at the northern edge of San Diego. I tuned in the automatic terminal information service and was amused to hear, "Advise, you have Information Yuletide."

Not to be outdone, I depressed the microphone switch and said, "Palomar Tower, this is Cessna Two-One-Zero-Jingle-Bells over the Oceanside VOR with Yuletide." That really started something. Almost everyone on the frequency then and throughout the day got into the holiday spirit using Christmas identifiers instead of the phonetic alphabet, a custom that spread sporadically around the country.

Many of my Christmases were spent on airline layovers in distant and lonely airport hotels, times when the only restaurant within walking distance was a McDonald's or a Denny's. I could at least celebrate having a great job even if it did keep me from home at the most inconvenient times.

My favorite Christmas tale was penned by best-selling author Frederick Forsyth ( The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War). He wrote an aviation story, The Shepherd, as a Christmas present for his wife, Carole.

The short page-turner involves a Royal Air Force pilot flying a de Havilland Vampire from Germany to his home in England at night on Christmas Eve, 1957. While over the North Sea, the pilot experiences a total electrical failure. Fog has formed along the entire route and bailing out into the frozen sea would be as certain a death as going down with the airplane into fog over land. The pilot is concerned that this Christmas Eve is going to be his last.

What happens next is what makes the tale so hauntingly powerful. This is my holiday gift to you. Locate a copy of this small book — it is a fast read — and I know that you will find the remarkable ending both beautiful and unforgettable.

Visit the author's Web site.