It was a nasty early winter day in the Florida Panhandle, withfog, 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 aproficiency check-ridein the near future.
[ Note : I had loggeda thousand hours in this airplane toinclude a combat tour, so non-currency wasnt because I wasn'tgetting airborne, but because I was testing the A-26 and flying T-Birds.]
Idrove outto Hurlburt and checked the weather. The current cloud ceiling was below IFRminimums, but the low ceiling was forecasted to improve. And aftera boring hour or two, theceiling raised to the 200 foottake-off minimum.The weather at Eglin AFB wasidentical and it was forecasted to remain above minimumsfor the next hour.The nearest alternate was somewhere inEast 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 lotof other aircraft were already waiting down belowI wouldbe hanging up there for a long time while waiting fora GCAradar-assisted landing.
I know the aircraft doesn't know dark and wet, but that is not a happy thought for a fighter pilot who dislikes night flying . and hatesweather flying.
With a mild case of vertigo building because with my attention was diverted while ' hanging ' on the guages, andI'd been slow in trimming off theradial'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, theEngine Failure Light blinked RED. Then it stayed on as STEADY RED.
Instantly,my mental cobwebsvanished and all of mysenses came on full alert !Steady red meant there wereenough steel particles in the engine oil to short out two special electric contacts inthe engine's oil sump. The engine wasn't necessarily going tolock up right away, but you needed to get the bird on the ground. Real quick.
Since I was justdroning 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 landingat Eglin.From the wet side of the Eglin's beach front, I wasvectorednorth to where I now planned to make a tight finalturn on to the North/South runway.
Then theAT-28B's engine QUIT !
It stoppedrunning altogether !And Iwas now somewhere overFort Walton's down-town. Abandoning the aircraftwould likelytrash outhomesandprobably kill a few people.
Itdidn't bode well for me at all.I was now down to 1,500 feet. Of course, theplane
had no ejection seat. That close to the dirt,goingover the sidedidn't look too good.
On the other hand, you recall the drill : (1) canopy open (2) raise the seat (3)get the flapsout 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-stickairplane'sdownside vector and mydisorientation in the surrounding dark clouds.
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 ATCmy 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." AndI radioed : " I'm 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 overcastright over the tail fin of a parkedB-52. What fantastic luck ! I'd popped out of the night soup at less than a football field's lengthover SAC's AlertonEglin's north end.
After aquickdescendingrightturn and I stuck the airplane ona taxiway. Soon after touchdown on the taxiway, the engine sputtered and came to life. Instead of getting towed,I taxied it in [ with theControl Towerpeoplewatching suspiciously.]
Now for the rest of the story.
The next morning, maintenance personnel checked over the engine, replaced the contaminated oiland did some run-ups. On the other hand, they couldn't seem to find anything wrong with it. Question : if you'd been me, wouldn't you've just loved hearingmaintenance's investigative finding : CND ![ Could Not Duplicatethe problem.]
They asked me lots of questions. But they were convinced I'dmade up the red light story to get apreferential landing slot, thenI'd alsofaked 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 useall of Eglin's 15,000 feet of runway on take-off.Good thing thathe did.
At full power [ 52 inches ] the enginedestroyed 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. Gladhe paid attention.
' Pete ' Piotrowski
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