Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Illegal Landing

Hopefully you've read my intro about Emergency Landing Prep. That will give you background on this first in my series on emergency landings.

In the early days of aviation, emergency landings were common, mostly because of the unreliableness (new word) of the engines. As time passed and engines improved, the unplanned landing became less common, though still a distinct possibility even to this day.

My first experience of this alarming event was shortly after I learned to fly. I was flying a Piper Cub on my way from Ft.Worth, Texas, to Lewiston, Idaho. I was about halfway between Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado, when my engine begins making funny sounds and losing a bit of power. I immediately went through the check list and found when I switched from both magnetos to the left magneto, the engine nearly quit altogether. I quickly switched back to both and kept my eyes peeled for a likely landing place.

I had been flying about a thousand feet above the ground and now little by little I was losing altitude. Fortunately, the engine kept producing some power until I made it to Stapleton Airport at Denver. Denver is something over 5,000 feet above sea level and when I arrived, I could just barely maintain 5,400 feet, which was well below pattern elevation for Stapleton. Not only that, the engine was beginning to misfire.

In those pre-radio days, controlled airports - that is, airports that had a control tower - used a system of light guns. A tower person would aim his light gun at the airplane and by the use of different colored lights he could signal instructions to the pilot. The receiving pilot would waggle his wings in acknowledgement. I knew how to read the light signals, but I was so busy trying to keep my little ole plane in the air until I reached the runway that I just ignored the steady red light aimed at me - a signal that I was not to land at this airport.

I only had one thing in mind and that was to get this cotton-pickin’ aeroplane on the ground at the nearest runway. What I didn’t know was that it was prohibited to land at Stapleton unless you first had radio contact.

I had no radio.

I also didn’t know that they had two parallel east-west runways. One was for departing airplanes and one was for landing aircraft. I was a very young feller, a rather new pilot still wet behind the ears, had an ailing engine on my hands, and I didn’t stop to check what was legal and what was prohibited.

I plunked my little Cub down on the wrong runway where some airline-type airplanes were waiting to take off. I figured I would be bending the rules a bit, but I didn’t care. I was just glad to be safely on the ground.

That evil person in the tower followed me with that blasted light gun, giving all kind of signals that I didn’t understand. I still had enough engine power to taxi up to one of the large hangers where I could see some tie-down ropes located. I shut down the nearly dead engine, opened my door, and slipped out on the pavement. My knees were a bit wobbly, but at least I was safely on the ground and glad to be there.

As I was walking toward the office of one of the fixed-base operators there, a fellow came to meet me and said, “You are wanted on the telephone.”

How strange. I didn’t know anyone here. How could they be wanting me on the phone?

I said, “O.K.” and began telling him I had a sick plane and would he have a mechanic look at it. He sort of grinned and said, “Yeah, we can handle that, but I think you had better answer that phone. It’s one of the tower operators and he sounded a bit hot.”

I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end nearly blew me away! He gave me a dressing down that I remember to this day some 62 years later. He blistered my ears like a Marine D.I. He was talking loud and fast and using words that I had never heard. He kept repeating something about writing me up and that he was going to have my license not only revoked, but burned!

Finally he stopped yelling and ranting long enough for me to tell him, in a quivering voice, that my engine was sick and was just barely keeping me in the air and I didn’t have time to make proper arrangements for a legal landing. He seemed to calm down a bit and asked how old I was. I gave him my age. He said, “I want to talk to that mechanic that’s with you.”

The mechanic had opened up the cowling on my plane and was peering inside and shaking his head. I told him the Tower Man wanted to speak to him. He took the phone and I could hear the conversation.  The Tower Man asked him if there was something wrong with my engine. The mechanic answered, “Yeah, I’ll say there is!” He chuckled and added, “I don’t know how he got here. One of the magnetos has come completely off the engine and is lying in the bottom of the cowling. The other one is loose and would have soon fallen off too.”

The tower man asked to speak to me again and this time he was more professional sounding and said, “O.K. kid, I am not going to press charges on you because it sounds like you had an emergency situation. But when you get ready to leave this airfield, be d--- sure to call me on the phone so I can direct you safely out of here. And by the way, don’t come back here unless you have a radio in the plane!”

I answered “Yes Sir! You can depend on it.” I felt like I had been talking to God. He put such a fear of Tower Types in me that I avoided airports with a tower for years afterwards.

I have had many, many emergency landings since that long ago day, but few have stuck in my mind as firmly.

Happy landing!

And as we used to say, may your takeoffs and landings be of equal number!

1 comment:

  1. After a scenario like that, I'd prolly have just walked home. I'm a chicken. :D