SportFlyer Fly-In, Engine Out

May 4, 2002

SportFlyer (27XS) airport — 3 miles north of Brookshire, Texas — had announced a fly-in on Saturday, so we decided to, uh, fly in and see what it was all about. We even decided we were going to enter at least one of the contests they were offering, to find out what that was all about, too!

The contests were not going to start until about noon, so we took our time getting ready, making sure all was checked out on our planes, then finally headed that way around 10:30am.

The air was very hazy and smokey, but if you looked hard, you could see blue sky above and white clouds around… but it was hard to see them without really trying.

Our usual visual landmark for trips to SportFlyer was the power plant at Smithers Lake, but today we couldn’t see it until we were within 2 miles of it. We could hear on the radio that most general aviation wasn’t flying today. We, of course, stayed close to the ground and didn’t have any problems.

Just before we got to the power plant, Jim took this photo of me, flying over a forest.

I usually pass the power plant on the left (to the west of it), but today I decided to go around to the right (to the east) to see what it looked like from that angle.

I realized that Jim has gone the usual route — to the left of the lake — and it wasn’t too long before I lost him completely. We could still talk on the radio, so neither of us was worried. Just after the lake, I spotted this old silo.

Then, later, I over-flew this barn and corral where it looks like some serious horsing around was going on! (For you non-Texans, that was a joke… this is a very typical scene in rural Texas.)

Just as I was about to cross Interstate 10 (about 8 miles out from SportFlyer), I spot Jim at my 9 o’clock, so I radioed him and gave him my position. He spotted me at the same moment, so we cruised into the SportFlyer pattern together.

The fly-in was still a ways from gettings started, but there were some busy-bees who had started cooking burgers and hotdogs for lunch, and, well, I can’t thank ’em enough! It was great not to have to worry about getting hungry… there was absolutely no danger of that!

At some point before the last contestants arrives, I took this panoramic shot of the planes and the hangars on the west side of the airport. Keep in mind you’ll have to click on the photo to see a larger version of it!

After stuffing our faces and belly’s, we watched the organizers rally everyone together and discuss the details of the first event, the bomb drop from 100 feet. I’ve never dropped anything from a plane before, so I listened intently. After a bit of discussion, I decided my best strategy was to not go first. That way I could watch “the pros” and learn from their techniques (and mistakes).

Well, it didn’t help much… my ideas about the behavior of falling objects only applied to round, heavy object, not light, odd-shaped object that got blown around by the wind! I didn’t do very well… we’ll leave it at that.

Here is the winner on one of his drops. Look close and you’ll see the paper bag filled with flour.

On this drop, you can see the judges on the ground, dodging the bag.



The next event was the “spot landing” event. After some direction was provided, we saddled up and came around the field, low and slow. The idea is, just as you get to the “spot” you cut your power, and drop right on it. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. On my first approach, my mains touched down 20 feet away… I was going too fast and simply misjudged it.

My second pass was much better… I was going just above stall, holding it just a foot above the turf, but suddenly I stalled and touched down way short.

My third pass was just like my second, but I managed to keep my airspeed up enough to avoid the stall, got just to the line and, boom, cut the throttle, pushed the stick forward, and, BINGO!, right on the line! Wow. I was more surprised than anyone else!

Jim and I both realized that the day was pressing on, and it was later than we thought it would be by this point. We had heard rumors of rain in the area, but it was still so hazy, you really couldn’t make much of a judgement. So, we told the organizer that we were going to bail and head for home.

Just then, the third event started: the torpedo run. We decided we’d watch the first group of planes do the run, then we’d take off between groups. It was fun watching the torpedos being dropped, and kind of wished we were staying. But a few minutes later we were in the air.

I took off first and managed to get a picture of SportFlyer (looking north) as I headed south. If you look close, you’ll see the planes lined up on the west side.

Somehow, I managed to get way ahead of Jim, so he “put the pedal to the metal” and tried his best to catch up. We were steering way clear of the Richmond/Rosenberg area… the haze was still with us, and we didn’t want to have to deal with all the towers and other elements of a congested area.

As is typical, I see a tractor… this one is mowing very tall grass, and the egrets are circling and landing and munching on the various critters the tractor is revealing.

I also spot a stand of trees, left in the middle of a field. I silently saluted the farmer who decided to keep that bit of shade around for a while longer.

Just a mile before we crossed Highway 59, Jim calls out a “May Day” on the radio. I’m at about 500 feet, and he’s down at about 200 feet and appears to be slowly descending. He gets back on the radio and says he’s losing power.

I think we were both transmitting on top of each other, because he missed my suggestion to land on a road that was just in front of him. But he was a bit busy, trying to fly the plane and figure out what to do. Only a few moments later he announces that the engine is okay, again.

I was just about to thank the stars that his problem wasn’t more serious when he announced again that he was losing power. This time, he was sure it wasn’t going to get going again, so he spotted a field and headed toward it. I looked around, too, and knew he picked about the best spot that was available to him at his altitude and speed.

I circled as he approached the field, but because of my turn, my wing blocked my view for the last few seconds. When I finally leveled off, I saw the plane in the field, looking a little tipsy. He radioed that he was down, and was okay (WHEW!) but that the landing gear was broken.

I was, of course, thankful that he was okay… that was the most important thing. But I also knew we had some logistical problems. The most immediate was: he had driven us down to Bailes that morning, and he had the only key to the car. I knew that I had no choice but to land somewhere and get the key.

I started circling again, but there did not seem to be any place in the immediate area for a safe landing.  (Those fields may look smooth, but they aren’t.  Plus they have lots of holes, ant mounds, etc.)

So I started spiraling outward, looking here and there, but not spotting much. Finally, after I was about a mile away from his location, I saw a trail running beside a field, used by tractors to get to and from their work.

It looked long enough, and it looked pretty level, so without thinking any longer, I did a very quick approach and landed. Now, later on, Jim pointed out that he was impressed that I landed on such a narrow path… but until he said it, I never did notice how narrow it actually was. Well, I was very fortunate in that the wind was coming straight down this pathway… any kind of crosswind may have landed me in trouble!

After I landed, I was no longer able to reach him on the radio, so I used my cell phone to call him. Luckily, we both had them, and they were both working. I told him how to get to my location. He said that a woman who lived across the street from the field he was in had offered to drive him over to me.

While I waited, I called John Wall and told him the situation. John had done ultralight retrievals before and had a flatbed trailer that was ideal for this kind of thing. After a bit of discussion we decided it would be best if Jim came back with me in my RANS.

Shortly after I hung up with John, a van approaches and Jim hops out, thanking the lady for the ride. We talk a little and then I tell him that I think he should fly back with me. He didn’t even consider that possibility and so had not brought his headset with him. Regardless, he decided to go ahead and fly back with me.

I taxied the plane to the end of the dirt road.

Jim grabbed the tail boom and swung the plane around 180-degrees, into the wind. It was now that I noticed the telephone pole at the end of the path. It also seemed that the path had shrunk considerably, especially when I considered the gross weight of the plane had just gone up by a large factor.

Gulp! My head told me I’d make it, but after being a bit shaken by the events that had just unfolded, I was a little uneasy. I knew from past experience that I needed at least one notch of flaps for lift off with two people… and it wasn’t optional, it was necessary. I knew I’d make it, but it was a windy, gusty day and it wouldn’t be fun. I held the brake, swallowed hard, and pushed the throttle forward, all the way. A moment later, the plane was roaring and I released the brake. Off we went!

I was a bit too anxious to lift off and probably pulled the stick back too soon, but the plane still managed to lift off. The right wing was apparently right at stall, and so we drifted right, over the field, so I leveled off and waited. And waited. That telephone pole was coming up awful quick. But finally I knew the airspeed would let me pull back on that stick, and slowly, slowly, we gained 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet… we cleared the pole and the telephone line by about 20 feet. But we weren’t out of the woods yet.

Well, that’s because, directly in front of us, were some woods. Due to a gust, we momentarily dropped below the tops of the trees and had maybe 20 seconds before we hit them. Although I knew having the flaps on would help me with gaining altitude, I also knew that without airspeed, I’d never get that altitude. So, I made a snap decision and released the flaps, and put them at notch zero.

If the air had been calm, I would have left the flaps on, but because it was gusty, I decided I couldn’t risk the plane suddenly dropping due to wind shear and figured that airspeed was my best friend. It was only 2-3 seconds after I released the flaps that I gained 10-15 mph more airspeed. I then felt more secure in pulling the stick back and we cleared the trees by about 20 feet.

I’m sure there are those who will argue that I should have left the flaps on… that even though I was going slower, the extra lift would have kept me just as safe from wind shear. Maybe. But it didn’t seem that way to me at the time. Regardless, my method worked.

Jim had to hold his hands over his ears for the remainder of the flight. We had no way to communicate other than hand signals (but luckily we had both been scuba diving together before, and were able to communicate somewhat with hand signals we had learned to use when diving). He was doing okay, and I had my hands full. After what had just happened to him, I was very nervous about the same thing happening to me. I had to keep my rpm’s up a little higher than normal because of the extra weight, and that made the CHT run about 25-degrees hotter than normal. And I was sweating it.

But, we finally got back to Bailes… I made a straight-in approach, landed and taxied to the hangar. We quickly helped John get his tools together, put my plane away, then hopped into Jim’s car and led John to the crash site.

It was only about 30 minutes before sundown when we got there, so we had to work fast. Or, rather, I should say, John had to work fast. Neither Jim nor I knew much about taking a Challenger apart, so we merely served as go-fers for John while he worked.

The lady that had given Jim a ride showed up with her daughter, and watched for a few minutes.

Jim was pretty upset, as you can imagine. But he and John worked at taking the wings off. About an hour after we got there, with the sun below the horizon, John was nearly finished.

With the help of Brett — the lady’s son — we got the wings into the back of John’s pickup truck, and picked up the fuselage and put it on the flatbed trailer.

It had been a long, long day, and we were exhausted.

After returning to Bailes, we parked the trailer in the back. We were all too tired to do much with it at that point. The wings went into the hangar, and we locked it up.

The next day, Jim went back out to Bailes and they got the fuselage off the trailer and into the hangar. Now the rebuilding can start.

It’s easy to sit here and write down a description of the events of the day, but it’s hard to really express everything that goes into the experience… even the bad experiences have a good side: Jim did an outstanding job of bringing down his craft, safely. As a friend noted: “I hope when my time comes I can do as well… there’s a big difference in setting up for a planned simulated power off and a real, sudden engine out with no prior notice.”

And how admirable is it that John Wall stops everything he’s doing to effect a retrieval? It all could have been so much worse, so much more work, more money and effort expended. But because of good people, and good training, at the end of the day, everyone went home and went to sleep in their beds. That is what is so incredible.

— Robert


Several people have expressed that the story needs some closure… i.e., what happened next? So, here’s a brief mention: My brother, Jim, survived the incident without a scratch, but, as you can imagine, his psyche was a bit battered.  Time is good at healing wounds, so both plane and pilot recovered at about the same time, and Jim is happily flying again.

The cause of the engine-out was a crankshaft failure, a relatively rare occurrence. A new crankshaft was provided by the engine manufacturer at no cost to Jim, and it was subsequently installed by John Wall.

Over time, Jim has regained his confidence in his engine, and — as you can see from the Texas-Flyer stories — has been happily venturing across this great state of Texas in his Challenger. Both he and I look forward to many, many fun days ahead, exploring more of the Lone Star State!

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