Never Again Online: B-25 adventure

October 2, 2002

Heavy rains forced the cancellation of Sunday's performance for the Wings Over Houston airshow at Ellington Field. The deluge continued for another two days, which prevented most of the vintage warbird fleet from leaving. Indeed, the rains and flooding were so bad that local animals started to line up two by two, and I looked around for a guy named Noah.

On Wednesday morning the rain finally stopped, the clouds became scattered, and the wind became calm. It was at that time that I, along with our World War II PBJ (PB meaning patrol bomber and J denoting an aircraft manufactured by North American) crew, made plans to fly our blue U.S. Marine gun-nosed version of the Mitchell B-25 back to its home at Houston's William P. Hobby Airport. Our airplane was owned by a local air museum and we were its caretakers, protectors, financiers, and crew. On this flight, I acted as copilot, Billy was our pilot, and Mark was our flight engineer. Our preflight inspection was completed and nothing was found amiss. Because our bird had been forced to weather the rain unprotected on the ramp, we performed our preflight and engine runup with extra care. Particular attention was given to draining the fuel tanks to be sure that there was no water contamination that might cause a loss of power or the engine to fail completely. No water was found.

The two Wright R-2600s started without problem and our magneto and manifold power checks were within tolerances. The taxi to the runway was also uneventful. Our crew safety procedures included watching the exhaust stacks for excessive or off-colored smoke as well as listening to the sounds of our motors on start-up, runup, and during taxi to verify that all was well before taking the runway. Again, nothing appeared or sounded amiss.

As the copilot, I was charged with working the radios. I asked for and received our tower-to-tower special clearance and our squawk code. We were then immediately cleared for takeoff on Runway 35 and instructed to turn to a southwesterly heading of 220 degrees after departure.

William P. Hobby Airport, our destination airport, is the second largest airport in Houston and is only six miles west/northwest of Ellington. It has four sets of runways: 30L/12R, 30R/12L, 35/17, and 4/22. The airport is always busy with commercial and private traffic. On this day, for traffic flow purposes, air traffic controllers were directing Hobby traffic from the east and southeast to fly southwest of the airport and then north for a right base to the parallel southeast runways.

Once on Ellington Field's Runway 35, Billy advanced the throttles to takeoff power and we began our roll. Engine temps, pressures, sights, and sounds all seemed normal until the landing gear was in transit and we were out of runway. It was at that time that the right engine began to lose power, started cutting out, and began puffing white smoke.

Billy and I reminded each other that above all we would fly the airplane. As I raised the flaps, I started to troubleshoot the problem as the old bomber struggled and clawed at the sky to gain altitude. The Mitchell weighs more than 25,000 pounds and its controls are mushy at slow speeds. Moreover, although very capable of single-engine flight, it must be flown with care to avoid loss of VMC (minimum control speed with the critical engine inoperative).

Neither Billy nor I identified the problem as we leveled at 1,000 feet, the minimum pattern altitude for Hobby. Geographically, we were now at the midway point between Hobby and Ellington. At this point we would have to make a 180-degree turn to go back to Ellington, but only a 90-degree left turn to go to Hobby — so we elected to head to Hobby for a straight-in approach for Runway 22. At this point Ellington Tower acknowledged radar contact and instructed us to then contact Hobby Tower.

I acknowledged the changeover and informed the Hobby Tower controller of our poorly performing engine and asked for a straight-in landing clearance to Runway 22. To my surprise, the controller directed us to fly south of the field to join the flow for the Runway 12 parallels. Having heard the controller's instructions, Billy flew a course that placed us in a left upwind for Runway 22 at the numbers. Pinching myself in disbelief, I again explained to the controller that our misfiring engine was a very real concern to us and that getting our bird safely on the ground quickly seemed like a good idea.

The controller gave us the same instructions as before and added, "What are your intentions?" I felt stupid at that time for not being more assertive because we missed the opportunity for a straight-in safe and uneventful approach to Runway 22. Remembering the proverb, "Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me," neither Billy nor I wanted to pass up the next simplest way to a safe landing. Hearing the controller's last question loud and clear, I responded, "We are declaring an emergency and want Runway 30L, the long one." Billy nodded in agreement.

Upon hearing our emergency declaration, the controller immediately cleared us for Runway 30L and routed other traffic away. We elected 30L and not 30R because it was longer. Our plan was to land one-third of the way down the runway because we knew many engine-out landing accidents occur because the pilot either undershoots or overruns the runway, and this would give us an adequate margin of error in both respects.

The new clearance placed us in a perfect short right base for 30L. Turning to final, we dropped the gear and verified it was locked, went to one-quarter flaps, completed our landing checklist, retarded the throttles, and glided under idle power to touchdown about one-third of the way down the runway. The tower controller asked if we needed any assistance and I informed him that we did not. We were then switched to ground and cleared to taxi back to our hangar with our two fire truck escorts.

After shutdown we thanked the fire department crews for just being there and they thanked us for not putting them to work. I next telephoned the tower to thank the controller for his hint to declare an emergency ("What are your intentions?"). We were not required to write any reports about the incident, but I gladly would have, as I believed our actions, though slow, were prudent and justifiable.

A subsequent mechanical investigation of the right engine revealed that the electrical harness was the culprit. Its wire insulation was old and brittle. That condition allowed the rain to saturate the conduit and short out the mags. The harness was subsequently replaced and the engine ran normally.

In hindsight, there is no question that I learned several flying lessons from this experience. First, I learned that insulation on wires gets old and needs to be closely inspected to ensure its weather integrity. Second, I relearned that, per FAR 91.3, although we call the person on the other side of the radio a controller, in an emergency the pilot is the real controller of the situation and has the last word. Third, I learned not to delay declaring an emergency if you have one. You avoid making your situation worse by making the emergency declaration early. Declaring an emergency quickly may eliminate the need for a written report while a delay that makes the situation worse may require one. And finally, I learned not to fear the report in the first place.

J. Gary Trichter is a lawyer who lives in Houston. He is a 2,000-hour pilot who holds airplane CFI, CFII, and MEI ratings; LOAs (letters of authorization) for T-28 and HA200 aircraft; and a helicopter private pilot rating.

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