Benefits of Hangar Flying
by: Lawrence V. Drake
Like most pilots, I enjoy hangar talk. About the only thing better than flying is sitting around with other pilots and trading yarns about flying. Some stories are purely for entertainment, while others are filled with valuable instruction. I recently heard an amazing tale of survival from a veteran pilot with decades of experience.
Bill Burton hosts the Tampa Bay Flying club from his string of T-hangars on the grass airstrip known as Airport Manatee. I stumbled upon Bill while visiting the airport for the first time. He was leaning on his Aeronca Champ, talking propellers with a local pilot. My inquiry about the flying club led to several hours of wonderful intrigue.
Many decades of flying under our collective belts, Bill is in his eighties, and me entering my seventies, provided a barrel full of fodder for tale swapping. Particularly since we are both die hard tail-dragger pilots who love tube and fabric machines. Bill is an active flight instructor with hangars full of projects including his latest, a beautiful J-3 restoration. He has a long list of classic and home built aircraft he turned out over the years.
Sitting at a folding table in reclaimed swivel chairs among a clutter of aviation history, Bill’s natural instructor instinct dominated the conversation as he shared his views on everything from three point takeoffs to lazy eights. The conversation eventually led to emergency landings, something both of us have experienced a few times. It was then that Bill told a story that bears repeating. His unique solution to a serious situation could save lives. What follows is a recounting of events as told to me.
“I was on a flight back from the Bahamas to Miami in a Cherokee 180 with two passengers. Flying over that long stretch of water gives you a lot of time to think about how to handle a ditching if the engine ever quit. I had made the trip many times so when the engine abruptly went silent, I already knew what I had to do.”
After unsuccessful attempts to restart the engine, checking fuel, switching tanks, turning on the fuel pump, pumping the primer, and so on, Bill said the reality set in that they were going to get wet. “I knew that if I ditched in a normal landing configuration, upon hitting the water the landing gear would dig in, and the plane would flip upside down. With only a single door to exit through, and the wing now above us while we we’re under water, made it unlikely that all three could get out alive.”
He picked up the small model he had on his table as a prop for teaching students. He flew the little plastic aircraft to the tabletop and flipped it over to illustrate a straight-forward ditching.
“Now, I figured if I could get the airplane to come in sideways like this,” he retrieved the model and began his decent again, only this time in a serious side slip, “the wing would make the first contact and prevent the airplane from flipping over.”
The model hit the table wing first, tried to flip, but settled back, right side up.
“If I slipped to the left, that’s the side opposite the door, the left wing would hit the water first making the right wing come down hard and possibly fold up. That would make it impossible to get out of the door, so I had to slip to the right.”
Once again, the model slid sideways to the table, striking the surface with the right wing, slapping the left wing on the table, and then bouncing back to land right side up.
“Altitude afforded us a little time in the air. I had my right seat passenger unlatch the door and wedge her shoes in the opening so the door wouldn’t jamb closed on impact. The airplane was equipped with life jackets, so we put them on and got the inflatable raft ready. I was able to radio our situation and location.”
The plastic model took its position at the top of the glide slope to demonstrate the actual event.
“I put the airplane in a hard slip, left rudder pedal to the floor, right wing down, nose up, and as slow as I dared.”
The model skidded almost sideways down to the table.
“The right wing hit the water, the airplane lurched up smacking the water with the left wing, then settled back down, pretty as you please, and floated right side up. We got out onto the wing as quickly as we could, pulled out the raft and inflated it. We were in the raft before the plane sank away.” Bill leaned back in his swivel chair looking at the model on the table. “We barely got our feet wet.”
As luck would have it, Bill was able to splash down within sight of a fishing boat. A few minutes in the raft and the fortunate three were hoisted aboard, safe and sound.
Bill pointed out that his approach would have been different in a high-wing aircraft. A flip upside down would put the wing below the cabin and the passengers hopefully above water, albeit hanging from seatbelts.
This story, while offering great advice for ditching a low wing aircraft, also serves to demonstrate how important planning for the unthinkable and the unlikely is to survival. Bill’s shared experience further illustrates the value of hangar flying. We may participate for the pure entertainment or ego pumping, but the activity is a learning event as well.
Thanks, Bill, for sharing… and many more years of happy flying.
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Photo by: unkown