Friday, January 8, 2016

Three Mistakes and You're Out - Almost

While flying for the Forest Service, I had another "adventure."

In order to be at the airport one morning, I had to arise before daylight and drive for an hour and a half. I was assigned a different airplane to fly this particular morning. As I recall, it was a Cessna 180, one that I had not flown before. Each airplane, like a car, has its own set of peculiarities. I had flown this type many times, but I checked this airplane over as usual, including a careful "walk around inspection."

After being given my day's assignment, I was introduced to my Forest Service observer partner whom I'll call Ted (name changed to protect the stupid). We climbed aboard. I cranked the engine and taxied out to the active runway. At this point I realized that in my rush to get going that morning I had forgotten my watch. I mentioned it to Ted as I started to return to the hanger. He said, "No problem, I have a very good watch and I’ll keep track of our time."  Reluctantly I agreed, "Well, OK."

Mistake #1.

We took off and headed out over the forest to look for smokes or anything that might indicate a fire. We checked with each lookout tower as we passed. It seemed each one had seen a suspicious looking plume of smoke which turned out to be false alarms such as a patch of lingering fog or dust thrown up by a truck on a logging road. Checking these out, we slowly made our usual route over the dense woods, deep canyons, and high peaks. Altogether, it was a normal, boring day of forest service surveillance.

 We were cruising at a relatively slow airspeed of some 110-120 mph. As the day wore on, I occasionally glanced at the electric fuel gauges and noted we didn’t seem to be burning up the fuel as much as I expected. Oh well, it was probably because of the lower power setting I was using. I casually mentioned this to Ted.  He looked at his watch and said, "Don't worry, we have plenty of time left." I went along with his assessment.

Mistake #2.

He hardly got the words out of his mouth when I spotted a fairly large plume of smoke. I pointed it out to Ted. He said, "Let’s take a look." We were flying at about 7000 above sea level. As I turned toward the smoke, I noticed we were over a large high mountain valley shaped like a big bowl. The smoke was near the middle of it. As we came over the smoke I could see flames flickering at the base of it.

Ted became very busy plotting the position of the fire. He had me circle the fire as he plotted - around and around and around. I again looked at my fuel gauges. We had emptied one tank and were now working on the other one. I said, "It seems to me we have been out here quite awhile." He again quickly looked at his watch and replied, "We got lots of time yet." I went along with his call.

Mistake #3.

He then said, "I need for you to fly lower in order for me to get an intensity reading on the fire." They do this so they can tell the dispatcher how many smoke jumpers to send out.

I throttled back and descended to about five- or six-hundred feet above the forest tree tops, continuing to circle. He then asked, "Can’t you take us down lower?"

I pulled the flaps down and we quickly began to lose altitude. At about the same time the engine of the aircraft went silent.

Then it caught and ran for a moment or two, then went silent again. Needless to say, I was startled and alarmed!  I quickly scanned the panel, including the fuel gauge. It registered that we had about a third of a tank of fuel. So my mind quickly dismissed the thought of fuel starvation and figured it was something else. This took only seconds, during which time the engine continued to burp and quit and burp and quit. I raised the flaps. Suddenly I had full power again for a minute or two. Each time it quit I would rock the wings back and forth and it would run for a bit. This proved to me that I did have a fuel starvation problem. 

During the couple of minutes this happened I did two things. First, I headed for lower ground which was a wide draw in the bottom of the bowl. This draw emptied into a shallow canyon and this canyon emptied into a much deeper canyon. At the same time I was practically yelling at Ted to give the dispatcher our location and tell him we are having engine trouble and could go into the trees at any time. Instead of doing this, he quickly shoved his boom mike up over his forehead and grabbed at the glove box for a barf bag into which he proceeded to empty the contents of his stomach.

By now my mind is racing in near panic. I thought, "This is just perfect. We are going into the trees and no one will know where to look for us and this joker is too busy filling up barf bags to tell them."

I was still getting little bursts of power so even though we were losing altitude it wasn’t as fast as with a completely dead engine. I flew out of the draw into the shallow canyon and on out into a very deep canyon which gave me a couple of thousand feet of altitude to work with.

Finally Ted got himself together and called the dispatcher in Grangeville and gave him to understand our emergency. The dispatcher laconically replied, "Well, tell him to land at Moose Creek."

I thought, "You idiot, that is 20 miles away! I’ll be very lucky if I can keep this machine in the air for five miles."

I knew that the canyon I was in emptied into the Selway River canyon and suddenly I remembered that two or three days before I had been flying over the Selway River in this area and had spotted an old abandoned Forest Service landing strip alongside the river. I remembered thinking sometime or other I might need to land on this strip and so I had gone in and landed there just to check it out. (The Lord sure looks out for idiots!)

Very shortly I sailed out into the big, wide Selway canyon, still steadily losing altitude. But by rocking the wings I was getting a short burst of power to extend my glide. I wasn’t exactly sure which way to turn to get to the strip, but was pretty sure it was to my left so turned in that direction. I came around a bend in the river and there it lay--abandoned, overgrown with weeds and small brush, but believe me it was beautiful.

It was one of those one-way strips which meant I had to go down stream past the strip and make a 180 degree turn and land going up stream. I was down to about 400 feet above the river and knew it was going to be close. I nursed my altitude like a miser nurses his money and prayed that I would have enough. As I came abreast of the strip going down stream, my engine fired its last shot. It was dead stick from here on in.

I made the 180 degree turn as carefully as I could and as I rolled out of the turn I remembered there was a small knob of a hill directly at the near end of the strip. At this point I could not see my strip because of this knob-like shoulder off the canyon wall. I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to clear it.

I was flying at half flaps and when I got within a hundred feet of the knob, I grabbed the flap lever and pulled full flaps. This had a slight ballooning effect and lifted me over the knob and there was the beautiful strip directly in front of me. I managed to set down with very little trouble from the weeds and low brush. We rolled to a stop and I sat there for a few moments thanking God for the help.

I looked at Ted and he didn’t seem the least bit excited as if he did this every day of his life. He was talking on the radio to our dispatcher saying, "Yeah, we landed at the old Shearer strip on the Selway. No problem. Yeah the engine quit for some reason, but we made it down OK." He then turned to me and said nonchalantly "What do you suppose is wrong with the engine?"

I dawned on me this clown didn’t have the least clue that we had run out of fuel. Realizing my stupidity could cost our company the Forest Service contract, I muttered, "I don’t know - might be fuel pump."

The word was passed along to my company boss, Frank, back in Grangeville and he said he would be in to pick up Ted and then we would see about getting the plane out. My boss soon appeared coming up the canyon in another plane. He landed, but rolled to a stop at the opposite end of the runway and got out and messed around the plane for a few minutes, making me wonder what he was doing. Finally, he climbed back in his plane and taxied up to where we were and got out.

Frank was not a talkative man. He said a few words to Ted and told him to go head and get into his airplane and he would take him home. Ted did so. As soon as he was out of ear shot, Frank turned to me and growled, "You [expletive deleted], you ran it out of gas. Does the observer know that?"

"I don’t think he has a clue," I replied.

"Good! I am going to take him out of here. I have left some five-gallon cans of gas down at the other end of the strip. After we are gone you can walk down there and get them. If you have any more trouble, call me on our frequency and I will bring a mechanic back with me."

Without further adieu he took off. I managed to pour one of the cans of gas into my ship, then I cranked it up and taxied down to where the other cans were hidden in the weeds. I poured the four remaining cans into my plane and flew home.

Frank never told the Forest Service honchos that one of his pilots was dumb enough to run a plane out of gas over the back country. It would have likely caused him to lose his contract with them.

Because of Frank and my good buddy Buck Erickson I became "famous" for this little episode. (Not a good kind of fame either!)

Like Buck said, "Roberts, only you and God know how you managed to stay out over the forests of Idaho well beyond the length of time it takes to use up the fuel, land dead stick on an abandoned strip, and never scratch the paint on the plane - WITH a passenger on board as a witness!"


  1. I just think I'm a very blessed gal to have a grandfather who is still alive after all these hair-raising adventures! :D

  2. Great story - and I reminder to all you young pilots to always be thinking about where to land in an emergency (even one of your own making)!