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The Bent PropThe Bent Prop

A Mississippi Delta taleA Mississippi Delta tale

This story — like many expense accounts — is true "to the best of my memory." But don't try this at home. Thirty years ago, in the Mississippi Delta, I was on final for a grass crop-duster strip in a Luscombe 8E.

This story — like many expense accounts — is true "to the best of my memory." But don't try this at home.

Thirty years ago, in the Mississippi Delta, I was on final for a grass crop-duster strip in a Luscombe 8E. That antique Luscombe — with its two seats, tiny tailwheel, and 85 roaring horsepower — was a true corporate aircraft for my employer, Kimmel Aviation. We used it to call on crop dusters, to whom we sold airplanes, insurance, and parts. It also was good at teaching humility to pilots, as the quality of landings in the little beast varied inversely with the size of the crowd watching.

As I was on short final, a Stearman loaded with fuel and insecticide pulled onto the opposite end of the runway with obvious intent to take off straight toward me. I knew the pilot couldn't see me over the nose, and wasn't looking for me anyway. Still, it looked like I had plenty of time to land, stop, and get off the runway before he ran over me, so I continued.

As I touched down, the Stearman began to roll toward me with its big, round Pratt & Whitney engine filling that entire end of the runway. No problem. As soon as I got slowed down, I headed for the grass just off the left side of the runway. The throttle was all the way back and the Luscombe was almost stopped when I hit the pothole hidden in the tall grass.

"Almost stopped" is not "stopped." Ever so quickly, the wheels of the Luscombe came to a sudden stop. Ever so slowly, the rest of the airplane continued to move forward. In slow motion the tail began to rise, the nose began to dip, and it dawned on me that Newton's law about bodies in motion remaining in motion was about to be illustrated dramatically.

Now, the proper procedure for that situation is — in retrospect — quite clear. The pilot should pull back on the stick and firewall the throttle. The resultant airflow would — maybe — force the tail down and nose up, turning the entire incident into a nonevent.

That's the proper procedure, but I defy anyone to figure that out on the spur of the moment. I surely didn't. I sat there fat, dumb, and happy (not) as the propeller hit the ground.

The result was almost funny. One prop tip hit the famed Mississippi mud and stuck there. The airplane came to rest with tail up and nose down, held in that position by that one prop tip in the mud.

I climbed out with a total lack of dignity. The crop duster who owned the place — Bubba Lee Wainwright, I will pretend his name was — came over, eyed the slightly bent prop, spit tobacco juice on the ground, and uttered a line I will never forget. "Back before everybody knew so damned much," he said, "we could'a fixed that prop right here on the spot."

"How," I asked shakily, "would you do that?"

"With a two-by-four and a big hammer," he answered.

Well, this was one of those ag aircraft operations with three Stearmans flying and three more hanging from the rafters in various stages of repair or disrepair. The owner had a couple of fingers missing. This was not, to say the least, a NASA operation.

Still, those old-timers in the business knew a lot, and I had developed a great deal of faith in their aviation lore — particularly when it came to getting an airplane to fly one more time.

"Uh," I asked wisely, "could you still do that?"

"Yep, but I ain't guaranteein' nothing."

He got a huge rubber hammer. Another fellow and I held the two-by-four on edge along the shiny side of the prop while Bubba Lee eyed the prop from all angles. I remember noticing that the other fellow was well braced and leaning hard on the two-by-four. At that moment Bubba Lee hauled off and hit the black side of that prop a blow that bounced me about two feet back and rang that Luscombe like the Liberty Bell. The next time he swung, I, too, was well braced.

After the second swing, Bubba Lee allowed as how he reckoned that was about as good a job as he could do on that prop. Then he gave me my directions: "You do a full-power runup. If it vibrates, shut it down — fast. If it don't vibrate, go on and take off, but keep them wheels right down in the cotton, so you can jam it back on the ground if it gets to shakin'. And good luck!"

I did just what he said. By the time I got it off the ground I was shaking so hard myself that I couldn't tell what the airplane was doing. It seemed smooth enough, however, so I flew it on home.

The next day, I reported to our shop foreman. He chewed me out big time. Said I was a damned fool, the prop probably had a hidden crack, and I was lucky to be alive. He yanked that prop off and sent it to the prop shop at Memphis, where it was inspected to a fare-thee-well. Not only was it not damaged or cracked, but also the shop could not improve on the job Bubba Lee did with his hammer and two-by-four.

Our shop put that prop back on the Luscombe and it flew for years.

Ralph Hood, of Huntsville, Alabama, is an aviation speaker and writer who has been flying for more than 33 years and has amassed more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating.

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