The Dawn Patrol

Take time to peel a banana.

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Marvin Story’s Graham Lee Siemens-Schuckert sits forlornly after he was forced to put it down in a harvested cornfield.

Fly the plane! Fly the plane! Fly the plane!

Over the past 30 years of flying, I’ve talked to many veteran civilian instructors and military pilots about their emergency training. I’ve run into them at just about every airshow The Dawn Patrol has ever appeared in. Every one of these veterans of thousands of hours in the air basically said to do the same thing when something untoward happens. They all said they trained their students to follow the three most important rules in an emergency:

Rule One: Fly the plane.

Rule Two: Repeat Rule One.

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Rule Three: Repeat Rule Two.

One veteran instructor with over 23,000 hours added a little addendum. He said, “If it’s a twin-engine aircraft you’re in and you haven’t trained for emergencies, the remaining engine will take you to the scene of the crash.”

When Dick Starks lost his engine on takeoff in his Rumpler Taube replica, he ended up pretty much in the middle of the ready-to-harvest corn off the end of Runway 3 at beautiful Liberty Landing International Airport. It was late August, the temperature was 99 degrees, and the humidity was off the charts. This shot shows the crash crew has one wing off and are carrying it out of the corn from the crash site on the left.

But when all else fails, the words of the great Bob Hoover are so, so true: “If you’re faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”

Now, let’s go back to the rules. Rules One, Two and Three are pretty much universal. It’s after Rule Three that there are different interpretations of what to do next. Let’s talk about Rule 4C for civilian use and Rule 4M for military.

The former USAF F-100 pilot I talked to said that after fulfilling rules One through Three, he instructed his students to “Take the time to wind your watch” (Rule 4M).

One experienced civilian instructor I talked with said, “Take the time to peel a banana” (Rule 4C).

Under questioning, they both said it meant the same thing: Not following Rule 4 (either version) could cause the stunned pilot to immediately shut down the good engine, pull the fire bottle handle on the good engine, feather the prop on the good engine, etc. The list is endless. There’s a whole litany of things that pilots have done immediately following an emergency that turned out to be the wrong thing to do. You need just a few moments to analyze the problem and determine the right thing to do under the circumstances.

The Taube’s crash site. The landing gear was toast, but the wings were undamaged. Jerry Sharp, Dick Starks, Dick Lemons and Cathy Seybert get ready to try to lift the fuselage up to the back of Jerry’s truck.

There’s Always an Exception

No doubt about it, Rule 4 is a very wise rule to follow. However in certain circumstances, at least when The Dawn Patrol is involved, Rules 4C and 4M do not apply. They need to be interpreted somewhat differently.

Almost every time, our emergencies happened at a very low altitude. I’ve talked to just about every WW-I replica pilot I know who’s a member of The Dawn Patrol Combine Service (“No crop too tall”), and they all pretty much said the same thing.

Dick Starks was not a happy camper after his “corn on the Taube” adventure. He was thinking that five years of work just got flushed away. The plane was back in the air in 10 months, with a new engine, cowling, prop, and flew in airshows for two years before he decided, in a momentary lapse of reason, to build another plane. The Taube was donated to a museum.

Marvin Story, a Combine Service veteran with several oak leaf clusters, told me in an email about his whifferdills: “Dick, both of my engine failures were at pattern altitude. I had enough time to wonder how hard I was going to hit and how much I was going to tear up. Everything happened under 1000 feet agl.”

Just about everyone’s Dawn Patrol emergencies were at pattern altitude or lower. In our lightweight, super-draggy, blunt-nosed, wire-braced little WW-I aircraft, when you lose power, you’ve got to dump the nose right now (think of a 30- to 40-degree dive). You’ve got to get some speed quickly, so you can make some kinda flare for landing. If you don’t have enough energy stored up for the flare, you’ll just mush into the ground and tear up your plane.

The Liberty Landing crash crew from left to right: Jerry Sharp, Joyce McAlpin, Sharon Starks, Cathy Seybert, Dick Starks.

In other words, when the engine quits, throw out a brick and follow it down. Stretching a glide in one of these birds is very chancy. These planes stop flying quick! If you’re lucky enough to have some altitude when you lose it, you can maybe choose the scene of the crash—but it’s gotta be close by and directly underneath you.

In all my interviews with Dawn Patrol Combine Service veterans, all we had time for was Fly the plane! Fly the plane! Fly the…Crunch!

We didn’t have time to look at our watch or even open the refrigerator door to get the banana. It was drop the nose, hope for airspeed, and pray for a flare to a soft landing.

My Latest “Holy %&#@” Adventure

It happened on takeoff. It was just perfect at Liberty Landing International Airport. We call days like it “a Nieuport day.” In other words, it was severe clear; winds zero, gusting to two; and temperature a perfect 72 degrees. The only fly in the ointment was that the airport was surrounded by enormous fields of eight-foot-tall corn.

Butch Witlock made the CNN nightly news when he dropped his Graham Lee Nieuport 12 in another field of eight-foot-tall corn.

I’ve been in corn before in my Taube, and it was a life-altering event. Take my word for it: You really don’t want to crash in corn! First, those rock-hard ears of corn will really tear up a plane. Second, in a 40-acre field of eight-foot-tall corn, if you’re “lucky” and “skilled” enough like I was to crash in the exact middle of the field, you’ll get totally lost trying to A: find your way out, and B: find your way back to your plane after you’ve gotten out. Trust me on this one!

Anyway, I shoved the throttle in, and the mighty Valley Engineering 2010cc VW engine bellowed in rage and away we went. Yee-Haw! Just as we passed over the departure end of Runway 3, with about 40 feet of altitude, my windshield suddenly went opaque, as if I was in the middle of a Missouri frog-strangler rainstorm.

A nanosecond later I tasted and smelled hot oil. A nanosecond after that, my pucker factor peaked, and I sucked up half my seat cushion. The third nanosecond had me dumping the nose to a level flight attitude.

Sharon Starks (in blue) watches as the crash crew pulls her Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane back upright after her trip in the beans.

Rules One through Three automatically came next. Rules 4C and 4M went right out the window. I wasn’t looking for a banana. The only thing I saw in front of me was an enormous field of ready-to-harvest corn, filled with rock-hard ears of field corn. I wasn’t winding my watch either. But I was thinking, my engine is still running and the oil pressure is still in the green. I decided to try to make it back to the field if the engine could just hang in there. If I did make it back, a new engine is a bolt-on affair. A crash in the corn was at least a year-long repair—if a repair was even a possibility.

All this thinking and feverish activity took no more than 4 or 5 seconds. I cranked the Gray Falcon into a tight left 180. Keeping my left wing out of the corn, I went into a very tight left downwind for Runway 3. I kept it tight, so if I did go into the corn, I’d at least know where I was.

The engine was still running, but my face was dripping oil. Pucker factor parameters were being rewritten constantly as time slowly passed. I reached the downwind end of Runway 3 and made my turn onto a very short final. I lined up to land. The engine was still running strong. The landing wasn’t pretty, but nothing fell off the plane.

Then like an idiot, I calmly taxied back to the hangar. I didn’t even think of shutting the engine down. I was so glad to be on the ground I didn’t think. Ankle-deep adrenalin was sloshing around in the cockpit.

My oil-coated plane was getting a lot of attention as I taxied in. The usual crowd of airport bums was waiting as I shut it down. There was a long silence. I released my belt and shoulder straps and stiffly clambered out of the plane. I took a few minutes to spit out the remnants of my seat cushion.

Jerry Sharp (aka The Liberty Landing International Airport Rapid Response Crash Recovery Team) hard at work towing Sharon’s Morane out of the beans.

Looking for Clues

It didn’t take long for the crowd of airport bums to start crawling all over my plane, trying to see where the oil leak was located. I had oil on my wingtips. The fuselage was soaked all the way back to the tail feathers. I was soaked all the way down to my tail feathers. My white silk scarf was so oil soaked, Sweetie took a look at it and declared it a total loss.

A quick check of the dipstick showed I’d lost about a quart of oil. There was still enough oil in there to assure me that I’d been really lucky. I couldn’t believe a single quart could make that big a mess.

The really big unanswered question was where was the oil coming from? Inquiring minds wanted to know. The engine and plane were covered with oil from the prop on back. There was even oil on the prop.

Dennis Brooks finally found a tiny scrape/hole in the oil pressure cooler line that passed behind the prop hub. A small piece of prop bolt safety wire had over time slowly worn a small groove into the oil cooler hose. It finally opened a very tiny pinhole. Under 40 to 50 psi oil pressure, oil spewed out with a vengeance.

So, problem solved. It was sheer dumb luck that it happened when it did. If I’d been up there at a thousand feet or higher, I would have run out of oil and frozen the engine. Then I’d just be part of a pile in the middle of a field.

At that time of year, all of the fields were ready to combine. There was actually no real place to put down except the road running by the field, which I might add, has been used several times. After the crops are harvested, you have literally square miles of smooth emergency fields.

It took us several days of repeated washings with Dawn dishwashing soap to get all the oil off the plane. A new oil cooler line was installed, and the little piece of errant safety wire was bent back to where it was supposed to be. The plane was ready to go again after a week of cussing and cleaning.

Sharon’s Kolb TwinStar MK-II floats over the field with its Valley Engineering Big Bad Twin barely working.

More Engine Problems

Another Liberty Landing International Airport Combine Service oak leaf cluster owner is my little love muffin, Sharon. She’s had three adventures in her Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane-Saulnier Parasol. All but one was caused by mechanic error. And, before you ask, I’m her mechanic.

The two fuel system screw-ups were my fault. Pilot error was the other one. Every time, it was classic Dawn Patrol: Fly the plane! Fly the plane! Fly the…Crunch! She never had time to peel the banana.

Now, back when we had the Rotax 503 in our Kolb TwinStar Mark II, we were having a mysterious ailment that let you fly for five or ten minutes, and then for no reason or warning, the engine would suddenly just flat quit. (Turned out to be a temperature sensitive spark coil.)

The Kolb is a much different animal than her Morane or my Nieuport. They both have little wings, blunt noses, struts, and flying and landing wires. The Kolb has great big barn-door wings and is about the same weight as her Morane.

When you lose the engine on the Kolb at any decent altitude, you’re in a big old slow powered glider. After you’ve followed rules One through Three, you’ve got time to check your watch, wind your watch, go to the fridge, get out the banana, peel the banana, eat the banana, and then you’ll still have to make some “S” turns to lose altitude so you can make the runway.

The power-off Kolb TwinStar is a totally different can of beans. Kolb “surprises” happened about eight times to Sharon and me before Jerry Sharp (The Rotaxman) figured out the cause of the engine failures. By then we’d had enough excitement and had dumped the 503 and installed a much more reliable Valley Engineering Big Bad Twin 50-hp four-stroke engine swinging an Alaina Lewis-built Culver Prop.

2016 was a heck of a summer here at Liberty Landing International Airport. We had very little flying due to extreme high heat, wet-wool-blanket humidity, record-setting rains, and days and days of high winds. But once fall came along, we finally got a break from 90-degree days and were able to get some flying in—and fortunately, no one had to worry about peeling a banana or winding their watch.

This adventure will definitely continue.


Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 2001 Bax Seat Award “for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight.” Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.

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