It was a nasty early winter day in the Florida Panhandle, with fog, drizzle, and occasional rain as its norm. I had been directed to fly an AT-28 B [ Navy trainer converted to fighter with nearly P-47 performance ] from Hurlburt to Eglin AFB and get the aircraft there on that day.
The ferry flight would allow Eglin maintenance people to modify it for flight tests with improved weaponry to be used in Viet Nam. I was chosen for this mundane ferry because I was about to go non-proficient in the airplane. When I completed the flight, I would avoid a proficiency check-ride in the near future.
[ Note : I had logged a thousand hours in this airplane to include a combat tour, so non-currency wasnít because I wasn't getting airborne, but because I was testing the A-26 and flying T-Birds.]
I drove out to Hurlburt and checked the weather. The current cloud ceiling was below IFR minimums, but the low ceiling was forecasted to improve. And after a boring hour or two, the ceiling raised to the 200 foot take-off minimum. The weather at Eglin AFB was identical and it was forecasted to remain above minimums for the next hour. The nearest alternate was somewhere in East Texas, so I made sure the aircraft’s gas tanks were topped off.
And beyond that ? Well. No guts. No glory.
I filed the clearance, cranked, and taxied to the end of the runway. ATC then cleared me for take-off, then directed me to hold at 9,000 feet just north of Eglin to await further clearance. A lot of other aircraft were already waiting down below. I would be hanging up there for a long time while waiting for a GCA radar-assisted landing.
I know the aircraft doesnít know dark and wet. But that is not a happy thought for a fighter pilot who dislikes night flying . . and hates weather flying.
With a mild case of vertigo building because with my attention was diverted while ‘ hanging ‘ on the guages, and I’d also been slow in trimming off the radial’s torque. [ Note : Think manual trim wheels. Think of not having a handy little trim button to flick with your thumb. ]
While turning and climbing in the soup toward an Eglin holding fix, the Engine Failure Light blinked RED. Then it stayed on.
Instantly, my mental cobwebs vanished and all of my senses came on full alert ! Steady red meant there were enough steel particles in the engine oil to short out two special electric contacts in the engine’s oil sump. The engine wasn’t necessarily going to lock up right away, but you needed to get the bird on the ground. Real quick.
Since I was just droning around and waiting up there, in a perverse way, it seemed to offer a tiny bonus for me . . I got to jump in front of the line.
I called ATC, declared an emergency, requesting a priority landing at Eglin. From the wet side of the Eglin’s beach front, I was vectored north to where I now planned to make a tight final turn on to the North/South runway. Then the AT-28B’s engine QUIT !
It stopped running altogether !
I was now somewhere over Fort Walton’s downtown. Abandoning the aircraft would likely trash out homes and probably kill a few people. It didn’t bode well for me personally at all. I was now
down to 1,500 feet. Of course, the plane had no ejection seat. That close to the dirt, going over the side didn’t look too good.
On the other hand, you recall the drill : (1) canopy open (2) raise the seat (3) get the flaps out of the way by lowering them, then (4) unstrap and try to dive under the elevator, while (5) quickly pulling the parachute’s D ring to accommodate the dead-stick airplane’s downside vector and personal disorientation in the surrounding dark mass.
Although I attempted air start . . after air start, the airplane and I just kept heading down.
After declaring a couple of Maydays, I had already told ATC my engine had quit and I’d asked for a vector to the center of Eglin’s north/south runway hoping I’d find a clear area when I broke through the overcast. ATC gave me the vector I asked for and cleared me down to just 500 feet. I thought,” Hey you idiots . . the engine’s dead.” And I radioed : ” Iím coming all the way down to the ground. Tell Tower to get the fire trucks ready. I’m carrying a full load of fuel.”
I busted through the overcast right over the tail fin of a parked B-52. What fantastic luck ! I’d popped out of the night soup at less than a football field’s length over SAC’s Alert on Eglin’s north end.
After a quick descending right turn and I stuck the airplane on a taxiway. Soon after touchdown on the taxiway, the engine sputtered and came to life. Instead of getting towed, I taxied it in [ with the Control Tower people watching suspiciously.]
Now for the rest of the story.
The next morning, maintenance personnel checked over the engine, replaced the contaminated oil and did some run-ups. On the other hand, they couldnít seem to find anything wrong with it. Question : if you’d been me, wouldn’t you’ve just loved hearing maintenance’s investigative finding : C.N.D ! [ Could Not Duplicate the problem.]
They asked me lots of questions. But they were convinced I’d made up the red light story to get a preferential landing slot, then I’d also faked having an engine failure.
They scheduled a test hop. And before the hop, the maintenance test pilot called me to check on what’d really happened. Half-believing me, he planned to use all of Eglin’s 15,000 feet of runway on take-off. Good thing that he did.
At full power [ 52 inches ] the engine destroyed itself . . literally tearing itself apart under the cowling. But with plenty of runway ahead of him, he was able to put the plane back on the runway.
Short flight. Glad he paid attention.
‘ Pete ‘ Piotrowski