Two Piper Cubs on a Grass Strip. Painting by Kerrie Shiel (my wife). Click the image to buy your own print of it.
In truth, I don’t actually remember my first flight. You see, I was just a baby whom Mom held me in her arms while Dad piloted the Stinson that he and Uncle Tommy owned. So, I’m going to have to skip that one. I’m also going to skip the seemingly interminable flight in a C-54 from Guam to Hawaii and then on back to the good ol’ USA at the end of the Korean War (Dad, a WW II navigator, had been recalled to navigate WB-29s through typhoons roaming the western Pacific during that conflict).
My first true recollection of the magic of flight came later.
In the summer of 1955, Dad decided to do some private flying out of a small grass airstrip in Mississippi. He hadn’t flown as a pilot since before his recall. We were at Biloxi while he completed his electronic warfare officer (EWO) training at Keesler AFB. After checking out in a Piper J-3 Cub and regaining his long-unused piloting skills, he offered me a ride. Eight at the time, I thought it sounded like a great fun. Of course, I hadn’t taken into account my brother Bruce, then closing in on three years old. The little rat had a fit when I climbed into the seat and he realized he’d be left behind on the ground. He wanted to go, too.
And as usual, he got his way.
Dad undid my seat belt, plopped the toddler in my lap, and fastened us in together. A hot, muggy day on the Mississippi coast in a Cub bouncing through thermals is probably not the best introduction to the wonders of aviation. Add a squirming, whining toddler on your lap and…well, you get the idea.
I remember being on the verge of throwing up through the whole flight.
But as the countryside unrolled beneath us, something clicked in my junior brain: this was the way to see the world.
A short while later, Mom decided she would get her private pilot’s license, too. In retrospect, I suspect it was more to please Dad than because she really wanted to be a pilot on her own.
Within a few weeks, she soloed in the Cub. I remember Dad, Bruce, and I standing along that grass strip watching as she completed the obligatory two touch-and-go landings followed by full stop landing, the latter involved some interesting non-standard gyrations and bounces. But she successfully brought the Cub to heel, taxied up in front of the WW II-era hangar, shut down the engine, and sat there as we gathered round to congratulate her.
Mom climbed out through the Cub’s big clamshell side door and stood there for a moment. My recollection is that she seemed just a bit shaky, but maybe that recollection is due mostly to my own excitement.
A few weeks later, after a couple more flights with her instructor pilot (usually referred to as an IP — “eye-pee”) and one more short solo hop, her IP suggested to Dad that Mom really needed some practice on her simulated forced landings. He said they could save a few bucks if Dad took her up and let her work out the techniques before her next dual lesson.
Dad agreed, thrilled I imagine that the IP entrusted that bit of training to him. In all truth, Dad always did consider himself God’s gift to powered flight. I’ve only flown with him once since that first flight, in my own 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ out of Hondo Airfield, Texas, in 1975. Despite having not flown anything for quite a few years at that time, and probably having less than total 1,000 flight hours in his logbook, he did a good job with the Champ.
Anyway, one weekend afternoon a few days later Mom and Dad drove over to the grass strip to launch into the skies for that recommended forced landing practice.
Pilots practice forced landings, of course, in preparation for one of those unfortunate days when the engine decides it’s done flying for the day while you’re still airborne. Pilots are taught always to keep an eye out for a field of some kind where they can glide their powerless aerospace vehicle to a controlled and, they hope, safe landing.
During training, the IP will, without warning, pull the throttle back to idle and announce, “Forced landing.”
A student pilot, if he has been paying attention, already knows which field to head for. In reality, more often than not, the whole thing takes you by surprise because, well, just flying and navigating is using most of your brain’s synapses, at least during early training. So, you scan the area around the plane while slowing to the published best-glide speed (defined as the airspeed that yields the least altitude lost per distance traveled, in other words it’s the speed that gets you the farthest over the ground before you impact that ground you’ve been cruising around gawking at). Finding a suitable field that you’re sure you can make, you trim the airplane to hold your best-glide speed and determine the best way to get down there in one piece.
Usually, the worst choice would be a field dead ahead and close to the limits of the distance you glide. What if you miscalculate, or you find an unanticipated headwind and can’t quite make it? No, far better to pick a field close by and set up an approach pattern that will leave you with some excess altitude as you turn toward final approach. Trust me, it’s much less nerve-wracking to lose that extra altitude on final than to turn final and realize you screwed up and can’t quite make it to that nice, level field you’d selected but, instead, are faced with dropping into the big drainage ditch just short of it.
For normally aspirated engines (pilot-speak for an engine with a carburetor rather than fuel injection), you have to periodically “clear” the engine during extended glides. Clearing the engine consists of advancing the throttle sufficiently to a low-cruise setting and then pulling it back to idle. This accomplishes two things: one, it helps to prevent the build-up of icing in the carburetor that might result in engine failure; and two, it ensures you that the engine is still operating and will accelerate for the climb-out from your approach to the chosen forced-landing field. Oh, you didn’t think this forced-landing practice continued all the way to touchdown, did you? During routine training, the IP will direct the student to initiate a go-around and abort the approach, typically at an altitude from which the IP can ascertain whether the student could make a successful touchdown and from which a safe acceleration and climbout can be completed.
Unless briefed otherwise, when the IP reduces the throttle to idle he is also responsible for activating the carburetor heat (which diverts heated air to the carburetor to combat that previously mentioned carburetor icing). Carb heat provides no absolute guarantee of keeping ice out of the carburetor, and its effectiveness does depend on the atmospheric conditions (temperature and humidity, for example).
Okay, enough explanation. Back to that story about Dad giving Mom some forced landing practice.
While they went out to the field to fly, I stayed home to babysit Bruce. Although I was only eight myself, this wasn’t as dubious as it might sound. We lived in government housing, albeit located off base, in a duplex. The officer and his wife who lived in the other half of the duplex (whose name I don’t recall) agreed to keep an eye on us until our folks returned. As I recall, one of them popped in frequently to make sure everything was copacetic and I hadn’t succumbed to the temptation to throttle the little jerk.
So, Bruce and I watched TV and ate whatever sweets I could find in the kitchen. The folks had assured us they would call us when ready to leave the airport and would be home in plenty of time to make dinner.
Dinner time came. No folks.
I figured maybe they’d had car trouble of something.
A half-hour past our usual dinner time. Still no folks. And no phone call.
I went next door and asked our duplex-mates if they knew what was going on. The wife took me back home to wait with Bruce in case they called there. Meanwhile, the husband called the airfield. A short while later, he came over and had a whispered conversation with his wife. Then they broke the news.
Seems Mom and Dad had had an accident while flying the Cub and had to land in a muddy field some miles from the airfield. They were both okay, but wouldn’t be home for a couple of hours yet.
The nice lady fed us and assured us Mom and Dad really were just fine. She said they had to take care of some paperwork because the government officials (doubtless the FAA) needed a full report.
When they finally did get home, mud still covered their clothes. Mom went straight to the bathroom for a soak in the tub. Dad explained to me what had happened, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t until years later that I actually understood it. He also told me the Cub was pretty beat up, and he planned to drive out to the field where they’d put down and help the owner of the flight school get the Cub onto a trailer.
What actually happened that day serves as an object lesson on why it can be dangerous to provide flight instruction if you have not been properly trained as an IP. It also points out the importance of a good preflight briefing so both student and IP understand their respective responsibilities during both normal and emergency situations, including simulated forced landings.
Dad had pulled the throttle to idle and announced, “Forced landing.” What he failed to do was turn on the carburetor heat, assuming Mom would do that since she was flying. He also neglected to clear the engine during the glide, again assuming she would take care of that. The field she selected looked fine from the air, flat and clear of obstacles. On short final at about 300 feet altitude, Dad directed her to go around. She advanced the throttle…and they both heard the engine cough a bit before going silent. Dad took control and continued the approach and touchdown.
What they couldn’t see from the air, in the late afternoon’s long shadows, was that the chosen field was mostly mud from recent rains.
Mud deep enough to hide tree stumps.
Dad flared for landing. The mud sucked the little puddle-jumper deep into it. The tail started to rise in an incipient nose-over.
That’s when they hit the tree stump.
The stump ripped off the right main landing gear and brought the Cub to an abrupt stop within a few feet, propeller nose down in the mud. After determining that neither of them were injured, they crawled out.
Into mud well above their knees.
They struggled out of the field. Many years later, I learned that Mom, in no uncertain terms, repeatedly stated that she would never again fly with him no matter what, while they made their way slowly to the gravel road on one side of the field. By the time they got there, the sun had set and the Mississippi mosquitoes had come out to feed. This did not improve Mom’s outlook one bit.
They flagged down a passing car, and the driver took them to a nearby gas station. From there they called the airfield, and the owner said he’d pick them up straightaway. While waiting, they called our neighbors, deciding it would be best to explain the situation to them rather than get me worked up on the phone.
That night was when I first realized that aviation can be dangerous. But it was far from the last time I dealt with its dangers and their aftermaths.
Oh, and Mom never did fly in a lightplane again, with Dad or anyone else.