Never Again: One of those nights

A repair creates an emergency

September 1, 2013

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It was Christmas Eve 1971 and my wife, Christiane, and I were starting out on a 1,000-mile trip from Austin, Texas, to visit my family for the holidays. I had located a new Grumman AA-1A in San Antonio that would take us there.

After we leveled out at 7,000 feet, I finally began to relax. The first two hours were straightforward. Center had brought us down to 5,000 feet, and as we approached the VOR that marked the last leg before a fuel stop in Alexandria, Louisiana, Chris asked what we would do in the event of an engine failure at night. I explained that we would ask center for a vector to the nearest lighted airport, then glide there and land.

Less than five minutes after her question, the whole airframe shook with a tremendous bang, followed by unbelievable vibration and noise.

I yanked the throttle back to idle. It seemed as if the whole aircraft was shaking violently six inches in every direction. I knew I had to get the engine stopped completely, but at the same time I had to get that vector. I pushed the mic button and cleared the frequency with a few “Maydays,” and pulled the mixture back—there was no change in the vibration with the engine dead and windmilling.

As I told Center that we had just experienced a complete engine failure and needed a vector to the nearest lighted airport, I started to bring the nose up to slow the airplane down enough to stop the prop. The AA-1A stalled and fell off into a quarter-turn spin before I could recover—plus, the prop hadn’t stopped. I tried it three more times before I was successful, each attempt followed by the Grumman stalling and trying to fall off into a spin.

I was scared. A better word would be terrified. Center told me to turn to 120 degrees. I started a right turn.

“You’ve turned too far!” The calm, authoritative voice didn’t come from the loudspeaker, but from the right seat. Chris repeated the heading, and I turned back toward it. Center came back with the information that the assigned vector was to Polk Army Airfield in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and our distance from it was 20 nautical miles. The Grumman had a glide ratio of under 10 to 1, so, with an altitude of less than a mile, it was clear that we were not going to make it. I told him that making Fort Polk was impossible, and that the best thing that he could do for us was to make sure that someone would be looking for us—and that they knew approximately where to start looking.

At lunch that day, a friend who also was an A&P had gone with me to the airport to look at the airplane. It had fewer than 50 hours total time, so I had not been too concerned about its airworthiness, but during a walkaround, Gary had pointed out a large nick in one of the propeller blades.

The nick had been dressed out with a file to a smooth cavity with the radius of my little fingertip, and was about three-eighths of an inch deep. There was a logbook entry noting the repair, signed by a certified mechanic.

The “bang” must have been the propeller failing as a result of a stress crack originating from that nick. We could barely see the silhouette of one blade. Bumping the starter carefully brought the other blade into view, and it was noticeably shorter.

Center handed us off to Fort Polk Tower. After establishing contact with Fort Polk, I repeated my request that they have somebody start looking for us as soon as they lost radio contact.

The altitude was down to 1,500 feet, and there was nothing but blackness below us. The fear began to come back. I couldn’t simply sit and wait, so I decided to see if I could use just enough power to drag us on to Fort Polk. I hit the starter to get the prop windmilling.

The results of that attempt got my complete attention. The vibration was worse than I remembered, and I was certain that if I allowed it to continue, the engine mounts would fail and the engine would separate from the airframe. I felt that it was going to be better to go in under control rather than out of control. I was back to the routine of stall and spin recovery to get the vibration stopped, but this time under 1,000 feet.

In the midst of the second prop-stopping, stall/spin recovery exercise, I saw something I couldn’t believe. We were over the end of the runway.

I called tower and told them that we had the airport in range. The airplane was directly over the threshold with the runway heading 90 degrees off to the right. I made a steep left turn to get in a good position to start the final approach, then another 180 to head back toward the runway on a short final. I called tower and asked for the length of the lighted runway. There was no answer.

Something was wrong. This was not Fort Polk. It was simply a runway, and a very short one at that. I was almost at the threshold of a runway that was 2,700 feet long, and still at almost 500 feet of altitude.

Years of glider flying began paying off. I put the Grumman into a full slip, and it came down like a brick. Touchdown was at about the one-third mark, and we came to a stop 700 feet later. I picked up the mic. “Is there anyone on this frequency that can relay a message to Fort Polk tower?” There was a pause and the deep, measured voice of a professional pilot came out of the dark. He guessed, correctly as it turned out, that we had landed at Leesville Airport, 10 miles short of the goal center had set for us.

I had been challenged to use many of my skills that until this point had only been practiced to improve general pilot proficiency. That night, knowledge and skills with stalls, spins, slips, dead-stick landings, stopping the prop—and even radio procedures—prevented one of “those nights” from becoming a fatal evening.

If you are a new pilot, think about it when you are out in the practice area. If you are an “experienced” pilot, ask yourself how long has it been since you practiced some of those old skills.

Beverly Howard lives in Austin, Texas. He has more than 9,000 hours, including approximately 4,500 hours in gliders.