It was a day like any other day, except I was there!
by Steve Barber
My apologizes to Walter Cronkite in the title, but this is a little story of what can happen – and how best to prepare for it if in fact it does occur.
Saturday, March 28th, 2009 – Jason Somes in the F6F Hellcat, Ken Gottschall in the A6M-3 Zero and I, your trusted story teller, in the F8F Bearcat – had just finished our final formation fly-by at the close of the Riverside, California Air Show and turned west for home, Camarillo, California.
Ken, being chosen as lead in the Zero, had dialed up So Ca Approach. We were assigned our squawk code, and requested a climb to 6500 feet. Our selected route of flight would take us northwest until over the 210 freeway, then almost due west, direct to Camarillo Airport. Our formation was somewhat spread-out in trail after our final pass, as we had all settled down and were selecting climb power, cowl flap positions, oil-cooler door positions, temps and pressures. Once these items were satisfactory, it was time to level out in cruise.
With Ken handling the radios and squawk codes, Jason and I were free to look around and enjoy the ride. We were cruising in loose formation with me in the Bearcat as #3 on the left and in trail of #2. A few minutes after our turn westbound, I felt that the engine was not “feeling” right. What do I mean by not “feeling right?” I can only tell you that I sensed a decrease in horsepower. I scanned all of the gauges and all readings appeared normal. Oil pressure, oil temperature, manifold pressure, R.P.M.’s. I was about to key my mike and ask my wingmen if they noticed anything.
Before I could do so, Ken called me to say, “Bearcat, you are really putting out black smoke!” My first thought was that the AMC on the carburetor had failed and gone full rich – which might explain the black smoke. I’ve had this happen on other round engines, and you can help it by manually leaning way back on the mixture control. I tried this and nothing changed, neither in the smoke volume, as verified by Ken and Jason, nor in a perceived increase in engine power by me.
We were coming up on the Rose Bowl at about this time, and Ken had called So Ca Approach to tell them one of our flight was having a problem and at the same time he had come close to me to check underneath to see if he could possibly tell me anything about what was happening to the Bearcat. As he was telling me what he was seeing (very heavy black smoke), my engine really started unwinding. Ken said it looked as if I went into reverse as he went way in front and under me. So Ca Approach wanted to know my intentions. I said, “Land at Burbank now!” They asked me “what runway do you want?” I replied, “what are the winds?” They came back that they were out of the south. I said “I’ll take 15.” They replied that I was cleared to land on any runway. Now all I had to do was make it.
Steve is trying to fly the Bearcat to Burbank Airport to make an emergency landing. I should add that while all this was going on, I had begun a shallow climb while the engine was still making some power. If I remember correctly, I got to just a little over 7000’ when the engine quit making any noticeable power, and down I came. So Cal Approach called to give me a squawk code – which I entered on my transponder as up to then I was on standby on the transponder as Ken was Lead and squawking for the flight. I remember at the time feeling irritated that I had to change my focus of making the airport to enter a code on the transponder. Funny how you remember things at this time of high stress.
When the engine began losing major power, the smell of hot oil permeated the cockpit, and I was ready to start hitting the fire bottles that Ken Kramer and crew had installed in the Bearcat – utilizing 3 separate Halon bottles. Engine fire is a big problem in the F8F due to the fact there is no real firewall, and the aileron control rods are directly behind the engine and would be the first to fail in event of a major fire.
Ken Gottschall then called to tell me that the engine was now putting out white smoke in large amounts. Shortly thereafter, the smell of hot oil was replaced by the smell of hot metal. Now I’m thinking, “Great, if I bend this airplane Ken Kramer, my brother Gary, Joe Peppito, and the rest of the Wing will kill me if I survive!”
Best rate of glide speed in the Bearcat is 140 knots clean – that is gear and flaps up. Now I’ll tell you this, it is amazing how fast that Bearcat can descend with a slowly turning propeller, and the short wingspan of this aircraft. I was turning downwind for runway 15, and my altitude was about 3000’. I selected gear down, as I was afraid of the engine seizing and then having to do a manual extension of the gear with little time to do so. Boy, did this increase the rate of descent! Just as I passed the runway touchdown zone I turned base. “Still high,” I thought, I selected 20 degrees flaps. What I noticed was how, with the gear down, flaps at 20 degrees, and the propeller barely turning, the trajectory was that of a “greased crow bar.” As I remember it – the biggest problem I was having was maintaining 100 knots once the gear was extended.
While I was concentrating on arriving at the airport safely, Approach called me several times to contact the tower. Now folks, the last thing I was going to do was take my eyes off of my landing area, distract myself with any non-essential items, so I did not answer them. Again, going through my mind was, “Boy, I’ll bet the tower or approach will be pissed at me!”
I had by this time cranked in full nose up trim and the stick was still nose heavy. In very quick order, I pulled back to round out the landing, the airplane arrived solidly on the runway in a three-point attitude. At the same instant the Bearcat touched down, the propeller seized. I turned off the mags, mixture to idle cut-off, master switch off – while I was rolling out on the runway. I knew they had closed the airport to other traffic for my landing, and my intent was to clear the runway if able to on the roll-out. As I made a right turn off of the active runway, a fire truck was entering right where I wanted to clear the active beyond the “hold short line.” The fire truck saw there was no fire, guessed what I was trying to do, and put his truck in reverse. However, by this time I had begun braking, seeing him coming at me. Long story short – I didn’t make it totally clear of the active runway.
I rechecked the switches, un-strapped, unplugged and jumped out. The fire trucks were checking the aircraft over and found no fire, and waited around for 20 minutes just to be sure.
A few more items I’d like to relate to the readers of this narrative: my wing-men did all the right things. First, they alerted me to my aircraft smoking. Secondly, they coordinated with Approach and relieved me of most of the radio work. Third, they followed me down all the way to my touchdown in case I needed any help. And lastly, they landed after I was safely on the ground to check on me and the aircraft.
Things I could have done better: if you are flying formation, fly forward enough so that lead can just look out to see your position, and give you a heads up if he sees anything wrong. I was too far back at first trying to figure out if I had a problem. Secondly, as I was down to 1600 R.P.M.’s, I didn’t try to pull the propeller back anymore than where I had it set. As this was an Aeroproducts propeller, oil was not necessary to govern R.P.M.’s – as long as the engine was still turning. Therefore, I might have picked up a little better glide ratio. Lastly, Jason tells me I didn’t land on the center-line of the runway. Picky…picky!
Make sure your plane is fully serviced! I had 17.5 gallons of oil on departure from Riverside, and once the problem started up to the landing, all of the oil was gone! This occurred in a time of less than 7 minutes! Just imagine what could have happened if I had flown with minimum oil. Failure could have occurred much sooner – without the landing option I had. Oil pressure and temperatures were all in the normal range until the last 3 minutes.
Kudos to So Ca Approach for a very professional job. Ditto to the fire department at Burbank Airport and to all of the airport personnel for the friendly and professional way that they dealt with me. And lastly – to Millionaire Aviation, who assisted us with towing the aircraft to a safe parking area. Speaking of the tower (remember Approach telling me to contact them) – the airport manager asked that I call them as they wanted to talk to me. He gave me the number and as I dialed my phone I thought, “Here comes my ass chewing.” When the tower chief answered he asked if I was the pilot, and I said “yes.” He said, “Great job, sir! We’re glad you are all right.” Talk about class – my thanks to all for a wonderful assist.
Editor’s Note: I can speak for the whole Wing when I say we all let out a huge sigh of relief to hear that Steve was down and safe in Burbank!
When I teach transition into high performance fighters (for that matter any aircraft) – I harp at the students: speed and altitude are your friends! You can be low to the airport environment, but you either need to have the runway made or be going at the “speed of stink.” You can be slow, but you better be high if you need to translate that altitude to speed. Nothing gets me harping on pilots more than a long drawn-out final, with gear and flaps down. You have no chance if the worst happens. Speed is life, and in our high-performance aircraft, you can take that to the bank!