I received a letter recently from an old pilot friend of mine, who said he had experienced a proverbial “bad day of flying.” After reading his letter, I was left with an impression — while his day was certainly not great, it was a pretty good “bad day” for several reasons. Once I explain what I mean, I think you will understand… and agree.
My friend is retired, and loves to fly. As a result, one of his hobbies is flying around with a banner, towed behind a Bellanca Scout. The Scout is a rugged plane, with tall landing gear that is perfect for unimproved fields, as well as the regular runways. My friend has hundreds of hours in the plane, having flown banners for a number of years. You could almost call him a Scout expert — he had become very familiar with how the plane flew, and how it felt when it wasn’t doing so well.
LET THE PROBLEMS BEGIN
“I took off with a large banner at about 11:15 and was about 1:45 into the flight when the engine began to run rough,” he explained. He took a quick look and all the engine instruments looked ok, but the Scout was shaking a whole lot, and wasn’t giving him any power.
My friend now had two problems — an engine that wasn’t providing power and a banner attached to his airplane that was dragging him into serious trouble. “I found a field nearby, and descended over it to drop the banner that was dragging me down,” he said. As he quickly resolved the immediate threat, noting that in doing so, he managed to drop it without striking any of the cows in (or the houses around) the field.
From here, his job was to regain some altitude and determine what had happened to the engine. “Getting to altitude was going to be difficult as I didn’t have enough power to do that, even after dropping the large banner,” he said. He was getting lower and obviously not going to make the next airport, the closest of which was an aching 7.5 miles away. “I decided that this large field under me near the field that I had dropped the banner into, would be the best to set the plane down.”
From here, my friend had an important decision to make. Either attempt continued flight with a bad engine, or make an off-airport landing while he still had partial power. “I tried to raise Brainard Field with a MAYDAY call, then switched to 121.5 and gave out a PAN PAN PAN and indicated I was going down in the town of Durham, CT,” he explained. “I thought the Mayday was a little too dramatic.”
“Someone did answer me on 121.5 and told me to squawk 7700 which I did; but I was so low at that point that nobody other than an AWACS would have been able to pick up the signal,” he said. Realizing that he was pretty much on his own, he decided that he had to fly the plane. Fortunately, his landing site was close enough to roads and houses that he wouldn’t be lost for days before they found the plane … and him!
OFF AIRPORT LANIDNGS IN THE REAL WORLD
Things in the cockpit were pretty busy at this point. Unfortunately, my friend didn’t figure the height of the trees at the end of the field that he had to pass over. That made his descent into the 1500 long field fairly steep and he used a side slip to drop it in once he got over the trees. “I touched down about mid field and began tapping the brakes on the plane to slow it down, figuring that if I didn’t have enough room to stop, I would intentionally ground loop it,” he explained.
Naturally, the off-field landing gnomes had other plans in mind. “Before I could get slowed down, the damn thing noses over on me in a flash, and I came to rest in a crumpled heap of airplane,” he said. His translation of the effort: Great idea about landing, poor execution. He also added that it wasn’t his best wheel landing either.
AFTER THE BANG.
He could hear the ELT going off in his headset, which was still on his head, despite the fact he was hanging upside down from his belts. “I got out through a window after undoing the five position harness that kept me from eating the dash,” he said, while noting that he got some minor scrapes on his right shin. He had also cut his flight suit while climbing out, but other than those minor scrapes, he was fine. “I reached inside the plane and shut off the mags and master switch and the fuel line, which was a little late, but still a nice gesture.”
WHY NOT KILL THE POWER AND FUEL PRIOR TO LANDING?
“No, I didn’t kill the power before landing nor the fuel,” he explained. “This was a precautionary landing caused by something banging in the engine that wouldn’t allow me to get power.” He did try the Carb heat, which didn’t help. “I didn’t think it would do anything for the banging noise that I was getting or the vibration but I figured that it was worth a shot.” All of this happened fairly fast, so he didn’t have much more time to try the mags, but “couldn’t see how it would run well on one when on both it was banging like heck,” he said.
The aftermath was a bit of a mess. The plane, a Bellanca Scout with a 180 HP engine, was pretty well banged up. While he was crawling out on his hands and knees, several people sprinted over and offered assistance, however, he was already on the cell phone to his boss and wife. He told her to bring him his camera and some film, and to call the State Police so they wouldn’t launch their helicopter for him.
The FAA called and told the fire department not to move the plane. My friend was trying to get the fire department to right the plane, so the fuel wouldn’t leak out and contaminate the field. Because of the fuel leak, someone called the Department of Environmental Protection who in turn called the HAZMAT guys in.
They were going to suck the fuel out of the plane once it was righted but couldn’t get the large hose into the small opening. My friend opened the drain valve on the gascolator for it to drain into a five-gallon pail to help them remove the fuel. The Hazmat guys dug a few holes in the hay field to round up the contaminated dirt up.
SOUND LIKE A BAD DAY? CONSIDER THIS:
- While not picture perfect, the pilot got the plane to the ground in mostly one piece.
- The pilot walked away from the accident, and is flying today.
- The pilot followed his emergency procedures, even calling for assistance on the emergency channel.
- No humans or cows were injured during this off-airport landing.
THERE ARE ALWAYS LESSONS TO LEARN from this kind of event. First off, know and follow your emergency procedures — if you do, you will avoid most of the dangers that come with off-field landings. Second, don’t be afraid to call for help — 121.5 is designated as an emergency frequency for a reason — USE IT. Third, remember my favorite pilot’s adage about landings: any one you walk away from is a GOOD ONE!
Still, my friend had different thoughts: “I have no idea at this time what happened to the engine, but I hope that when it is pulled apart, they find something that says it was not my imagination,” he said. His lesson learned: “The moral of this story is that I should have gone to Martha’s Vineyard for the day in my Debonair and landed on Katama and had fun with the rest of the North East Bonanza Group at the fly-in, instead of towing banners around!“