June 6, 2001, was an interesting day. A day that will live in my mind forever.
The PT13D with its nine-cylinder Lycoming engine had just undergone an annual. The day was clear and beautiful, but winds from the north at twenty knots, with gusting, would get a Stearman pilots attention. Retired Marion County Superior Court Judge David A. Jester, a fellow pilot, called me at my law office and cajoled me until all resistance was finally gone. Why not take a break in the middle of the day for the sake of practicing intense crosswind landings in a Stearman? Besides, since he’s a Senior Judge, I might have a case in his court someday -surely I’m kidding. The fact is he knows I’m easily dissuaded from hard work.
Prior to the annual I had noticed an oil leak coming from the low right side of the Stearman cowling. ‘Rocker box gaskets again’, I thought, and after the usual 000 sandpaper, a piece of glass and two gaskets, I thought the problem solved; however, this time the leak seemed too persistent. Anyway, old radial engines are supposed to leak, aren’t they? So, away we went on our flight with destiny.
Episode – Part One
After our usual pre-flight inspection, the Judge and I elected a crosswind take-off and a route that turned to the north taking us over a lake in our community. At about fifty feet over the water the Judge ask several legitimate what-ifs’, all relating to ‘lost an engine. . .’
After several fascinating hypotheticals relating to water landings in a Stearman and stories about how those guys in Texas water ski with a Stearman, apparently touching down on water and powering-on across the surface, we elected to head to John Marshall’s grass strip southeast of Indianapolis. En route the weather was good, the flying was perfect, the engine was humming and all was good. In fact, perhaps fortuitously, at 2000 feet (1100’agl) we leisurely discussed what one would do in the event of losing an engine.
As we crossed Interstate 74, suddenly and without warning, telltale vibrations put both pilots on edge. As an aside, a friendly farmer on the ground heard a loud pop. In the cockpit, we heard nothing and felt nothing other than vibration as the number five cylinder left the airplane.
The mind’s thought processes are fascinating at the time of imminent engine failure in a single engine airplane. The overwhelming recurrent thought I had during the course of this was ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me’. The engine continued to vibrate and the Rpm’s dropped to idle.(Apparently, once a Lycoming engine throws a cylinder all fuel pressure induction is lost and idle is about as accurate as you can describe power output of the engine.) I can still recall looking at the right wing and the front cowl flooding with oil and that it reminded me of some old John Wayne movie of years past. I remember my brain instructing my left hand to shut off the magnetos and at the same time responding to the Judge’s inquiry, in as calm a voice as I could muster, “We lost an engine and we’re going to land”. (My lovely wife later pointed out to me that, when you say you lost an engine in a Stearman, you mean THE engine!) At about the same time I caught sight of Marshall’s grass strip. It might as well have been a thousand miles away!
Because of recent substantial rains, water was standing in most fields in the vicinity and there was city development to our left and interstate to our right, so a turn to the north to a freshly planted soybean field was our only option. Our altitude and the wind prevented any reasonble attempt at circling our landing spot. While the landing was not quite as straight in as in a normal flight, a short right base and a gradual left turn to aim for the high ground in the soybean field made for a largely uneventful landing. With twenty mile per hour plus winds coming out of the north, our touchdown was barely noticeable.
I have to say that the feeling one has after losing an engine, with the anxious “what-ifs” and “what will happen”, plus the overwhelming pleasure and gratitude one has for being back on the ground after the experience, is beyond expression. The judge, as I remember it, had a cigar going about two nanoseconds after he removed himself from the cockpit . I recall handshakes, pats on the back and expressions of ‘glad to be alive’, amidst our joy of surviving this mishap.
After the joy had settled, our observations of the Lycoming 225 revealed that, in fact, the number five cylinder had left the airplane and that all of the cylinder base nuts had sheared. Upon reflection, the situation reminds me of the country music song, ‘I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then’; namely, that about the only weak link on the Lycoming 225 is that the cylinder base nuts have a bad habit of loosening. As a result, those in the know recommend that the cylinder base nuts be re-torqued every 75 hours. Of course, there are those who maintain that that process is problematic because of the fear that the cylinder bolts will be stretched and be further weakened by continuos re-torquing. But that is a discussion for another time.
Episode – Part Two
At first blush the landing site, out in the middle of nowhere, seemed to be a big problem. In the end, however, if one had to go down in a field, in a Stearman powered by a Lycoming 225, I couldn’t have picked a more perfect place.
The wonderful elements of luck and coincidence that culminated in the removal of the airplane from the site, all in a matter of one hour, in retrospect, seems a miracle. It happened that a pilot owned the land wherein I landed, a pilot farmed it, and the wonderful law enforcement officer who came to the scene was a pilot and an old friend. Further, the location just happened to be within eight miles of a grass strip owned by Jim Sollenberg, a very accomplished IA and one of the most knowledgeable experts on Lycoming engines in this part of the country. Fortunately, he also just happened to have a brand new set of pistons for a Lycoming 225 on the shelf at his facility, since I elected to do a complete overhaul of the engine.
Before that realization, however, I faced the disconcerting thought of disassembling the airplane (after I had spent years in fine-tuning the rigging). I was anxious to see if there was any possibility of towing the plane to a safe facility, but we found the area was laced with small country lanes insufficient in width and lined with trees, which left only I-74 as a possible route. When the law enforcement officer, Indiana State Tooper Sam Maldonado also a fellow pilot, asked how I would like to remove the airplane, I responded by saying, ‘We would like to tow it down I-74’”. (I was just kidding, of course). Much to my amazement and surprise, Sam said ‘No problem’.
So, with the tail wheel of the Stearman nicely secured in the tow dolly for a John Deere sprayer,courtesy of Jim Jacobi and a fellow pilot, we towed the Stearman, tail first, down I-74, at forty miles per hour, to the place it was to be fixed. Now, there is another interesting aspect to that part of the story: would you believe that a Stearman’s wings take up both lanes of an interstate road and completely shuts down an interstate? I have to tell you that when we reached our exit at Shelbyville, and the trucking population had passed, I can honestly say I had never seen so many middle fingers before in my entire life!
In any event, an engine removal, overhaul and re-assembly later, my old Stearman is in the air again, flying and sounding better than ever. And, by the way, that ol’ judge still is flying with me! (“You just can’t teach old judges anything! “. . . . his words.)
I have often wondered what if the cylinder had decided to exit the airplane while we were about five feet over the water. (By the way, I don’t fly that low over the water anymore.) The question I have for those reading this article is whether anyone has made a water landing in a Stearman and, if so, how it was done and what was the outcome. It occurs to me that a tail-low landing into the wind, with the mains two feet off the water, allowing the tail to drag the front end into the water may be the best possible scenario. I would guess that the Stearman will go over on its back, hopefully without too many bad consequences to the occupants, but I am uncertain of the dynamics of all of that. If anyone has an opinion on this issue I would appreciate hearing it. The other scenario would be to literally smooth the wheels on the water and allow speed to dissipate with the force of the water, as in a normal landing. It occurs to me that that kind of water landing may be less forceful, but again I am merely speculating.
The one thing I’m thankful of is that I am not writing about that episode.
In summary, I have boiled the experience down to the following:
- Flying low over anything but a runway is dangerous.
- Cylinder base nuts of a Lycoming 225s need to be handled with tender loving care
- Going backwards down an interstate in a Stearman, particularly at road level, is not appreciated by truckers
- It is impossible to imagine how good it feels to successfully land an airplane after an engine failure, before you do it
- Old retired judges will do anything for excitement; must make them think they are still in a courtroom, and
- I still don’t know what happens to a Stearman when you have to land it in water – and unless someone can tell me, I hope I never do.
I am hopeful that one of these days I will locate the cylinder that left my airplane. If that cylinder does surface – hopefully, not through some farmer’s combine – it will certainly make quite an interesting conversation piece for my desk.
I just received a call from Martin Fall, owner of Post-air in Indianapolis reporting that a farmer has found a Lycoming cylinder. With some fast talk, I may yet have a conversation item for Galesburg. Maybe it should be a trophy for the Great-American Stearman Race.