Dead Stick

Dead stick is a term used by pilots when the engine quits or loses enough power that it no longer creates thrust to keep airflow going over the wings creating lift to keep you airborne. You will be looking for a place to set her down; her being an over loaded spray plane. Crop Dusters experience it frequently as they are on the edge during take off with an overloaded aircraft on a short runway and they quit, on take off, often enough to keep you vigilante.

I’ve put a few down for different reasons and normally if there is any kind of airport near by that’s where you head to. County roads, smooth spots in the desert; smooth can be deceptive at a 120 mph and in a hurry to get her down. Short hay fields that have been recently cut and not over run with bales of hay work too.

The second year that we were here in Mountain Home my boss sent me an aircraft that was TBO; Time Between Overhauls. TBO can vary from engine to engine, with the 1340 Pratt and Whitney it was 1200 hours of flight time. The engine had 1200 hours on it when I picked it up at Rosalia, Washington the spring of 1989.

We work in extreme summer temperatures here in Mountain Home Idaho June through August with daytime highs over a 100 degrees. I know that there are places hotter but it’s hot enough that day after day of applying dry fertilizer in those temps take a toll on engines, pilots and ground crew.

It was early afternoon mid August and I was just finishing applying dry fertilizer to sugar beets. I was flying south along the west side of Mormon Boulevard, Little Valley, when the old girl started knocking and oil came pouring down the right side of the aircraft leaving a heavy smoke cloud to track my flight.

There was no question as to what was happening so I reached down and flipped the fertilizer gate adjustment block out of the way and started dumping fertilizer at a rapid rate. I pulled up over the power lines that were on my left and headed towards the Little Valley emergency airstrip south of Bruneau Idaho along the east side of Highway 51. I figured it was less than 10 miles away.

If anyone ever tells you that Radial engines will fly with a cylinder out trust me, they have probably never experienced that; maybe just read it somewhere. The don’t completely quit but they don’t fly very well. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to make it to the airstrip.

I was looking for a field to set it down and just under my left wing was a recently cut and baled alfalfa field. I had to do a 360 rather low level and come in over a set of power lines and get stopped before a huge drain ditch on the east end of the field. The wind was strong enough out of the east to determine my approach.

I slipped it over the lines and 3 pointed on the field getting her stopped handily before the drain ditch. I swung the aircraft around and taxied back to the west end of the field as that was the best access and we would be in the next day to repair the aircraft and get back to work.

One of the local Mennonite farmers saw what happened and came to check  on me. I got a message to my ground crew and they picked me up and I was able to get to a phone and order a cylinder from Gustin’s Aviation out of Lewiston Idaho. They air shipped it and it was at the Boise Airport at 10:00 the next morning. I don’t recall which cylinder it was but one of the lower 3. The Pratt and Whitney 1340 is a 9 cylinder Radial. It wasn’t the main cylinder, had it been the engine would have stopped completely. It is beyond the scope of my ability to explain the mechanics of a Radial engine but you can research it and get an idea how it works and the technology of the Radial engine ERA is what enabled Lindbergh to fly the Atlantic non stop. It’s also the WW2 ERA of fighter and bomber aircraft of all the countries involved in that war. The Radial engines of WW1 were a bit different than those of WW2.

The following day after picking up the new cylinder at Boise, myself, one of my loaders and my 13 year old son went out to the hay field that had served as my emergency landing strip and put the new cylinder on. The damaged one was broken from spark plug to spark plug over the head of the cylinder. No compression there but a nice escape route for oil.

After putting the new cylinder on and torquing it down we topped the engine off with oil and did a run up checking mags, oil temp and pressure. After cycling the prop when all looked good I pointed it east and flew out of the hay field walking out of there nicely. The wind was 15 mph out of the east and the plane was empty except for pilot and enough fuel to get to the Flying H road where I had a loading truck and some fuel available; that was closer than the Mountain Home Airport and I was low on fuel.

The outside air temperature gauge in my Aircraft was sitting at 117 degrees when I took off. Granted some of that was residual heat from the sun beating down on the airplane but it was hot just the same.

The engine was showing 1600 plus hours on the tach so I was 400 hours over TBO. It has always registered in my mind that that was an extremely poor decision to start a 400 hour plus season on an engine that was timed out. I was working for someone else so I had two choices, either do the best I could or refuse to fly the aircraft under those circumstances. Crop Dusting is not very well regulated in many areas and those circumstances would have shut a part 135 operator down as you have broken the law.

We fly so close to wire so to speak in Crop Dusting that taking unnecessary chances adds to the extreme risk that we are already working under. It doesn’t mean that being proactive with maintenance and safety issues that we will eliminate all risk but a “Dead Stick’ could end up with a totaled aircraft or a dead pilot.

Joy was pregnant with our 6th child that summer so being a young widow with 6 kids wouldn’t have been and ideal situation for her.

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