“Hey Doug, my oil pressure just went to zero.” “Yeah, you just dumped 30 gallons of oil onto the Sierras.”
Those two transmissions marked the start of an exciting half hour. In the lower right section of a Skyraider’s instrument panel there are several gauges for monitoring engine performance, including the fuel pressure, cylinder head temperature, oil temperature and oil pressure. A big 2700-horsepower radial reciprocating engine takes a lot of care, especially when there is only one of them attached to your airplane. The oil pressure gauge is not the kind of thing you spend a lot of time fixated on; the outside world needs attention too, and you really don’t know how often you check the gauges. From my experience that day, I must have looked at it a lot more often than I realized.
My wingman, Doug Haines, and I had left the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada midafternoon on February 24, 1966 for our return flight to NAS Alameda in California. The twoweek weapons deployment was sandwiched in the middle of a short four-month turnaround between two long WestPac cruises, and we were in a hurry to get home. The weather over the mountains was often bad in the late winter, and this day was no exception. The solid cloud layer was built up to 18,000 feet; no problem for the jets, but our propeller-driven planes were from an earlier age, and we were uncomfortable at altitudes of much over 20,000 feet.
After our takeoff and rendezvous, the third plane in our flight noticed an engine problem and returned to the field. The rest of the climb-out was uncomplicated, and Doug was in a loose trail formation. The flight was scheduled for just over an hour and a half, and it was one we were quite familiar with; Fallon was a second home for northern-California-based squadrons. The deployments were fun: several flights a day, dropping practice bombs, shooting rockets, strafing the targets in the impact area—in short, honing skills that we knew we’d be using for real in a couple of short months. Because we had dropped a lot of ordinance during a recent deployment to the Tonkin Gulf, our accuracy was quite good, even though we didn’t get feedback from the Viet Cong. It was helpful to have our hits recorded and radioed back to us after each drop. We were kind to the airplanes too, since we knew these were the airplanes we would be flying into combat for the next eight months.
Large engines need oil; mine had none, so it was only a matter of time until it quit. As I recall, the engine ran for a couple of minutes before the temperature started to rise rapidly. The engine actually ran smoother than normal until it started to come apart and quit. The propeller continued to rotate, which seemed strange. The gearing between the engine and propeller had come apart, leaving the propeller free-wheeling. We were half way across the Sierras and there weren’t a lot of choices to make: keep flying west and review the emergency procedures. I slowed down to the best glide speed and started down. The aircraft had a fairly good glide ratio of about 13:1, 13 miles horizontally for every 5000 feet of altitude lost, and we had a lot of altitude. I could expect to glide roughly 50 miles, and be airborne for almost 25 minutes. I shifted to Guard, the emergency radio channel, and described my situation.
There is a change in breathing that is one of the marks of fear; breathing becomes shallow and rapid, not so much as to lead to hyperventilation and unconsciousness, but enough to increase the oxygen load of the blood and improve thought processes. As we left the Sierras and flew into the San Joaquin Valley, the tops of the clouds began to lower and a few breaks opened up. A quick check of the chart showed several airports that might be within gliding distance, and we quickly decided on Mather Air Force Base to the east of Sacramento. We radioed our intentions, and Doug stayed in a loose formation. There wasn’t a lot of chit-chat; there wasn’t a lot to discuss.
A dead engine isn’t as quiet as one is led to believe. The propeller was spinning and parts of the gear system were still moving. That, coupled with the 140-mile-per-hour wind over the canopy made it surprisingly noisy inside. I don’t recall being scared but I’m sure I was – the years have a tendency to change the memory that way. There weren’t a lot of options available, and none of them was immediate. I could bail out, I could land in a field wheels up, or if everything worked out all right and a runway appeared at the right place and time, possibly, just possibly, I could land on it.
I chose to keep my options open. I didn’t have to make a final decision until later: a couple of thousand feet above the ground if I was going to land wheels up in a field, 1000 feet above the ground to bail out successfully. Certainly my awareness was heightened, and I’m sure my pulse rate was up. I had the Mather TACAN dialed in and kept the needle on the nose, watching the clouds carefully. I needed to get underneath, but if I dropped down too soon I would be wasting energy, and I only had so much left. The descent was not too busy:
maintaining the best glide speed, telling people what was happening, continuing to get closer to Mather.
A normal emergency landing (it’s called a “dead stick landing,” which must refer to the throttle since the control stick certainly isn’t dead!) should begin at 4000 feet above the intended point of touchdown. The 180 is at 2000 feet, and you cross the threshold at about 100 feet and 100 knots. That’s ideal, and it is a procedure we practiced occasionally. I was below 4000 feet when I got below the clouds and wasn’t at the airfield, so that option was out.
However, I could see the field in front of me and the runway was pretty much on the nose. What a wonderful sight: The Air Force had built a runway exactly where I needed one! The final few minutes meant converting the numbers from a circling approach to a straight-in, and it was much more by look and feel than any real calculation and getting clearance from the Mather tower. I planned to release an empty 300-gallon drop tank on final, in case I needed to land on the belly at the last minute; however, I forgot to push in a lock lever and so it didn’t drop when I tried. Fortunately the battery held up and I had communications and navigation throughout the descent. I was cleared to land, “Any runway, any time.”
I dropped the gear and flaps on short final and touched down about one third of the way down the runway. There was just enough speed left to turn off of the runway at the end and park in a taxiway. I exited the airplane and looked it over; except for a lot of oil on the side and bottom it was in great shape. Great news for me, because I was the safety officer and would have had a lot of paperwork to do if it had ended differently. I unloaded my personal gear and took a ride from one of the emergency vehicles that had followed me down the runway. Doug, who had been with me all the way down, checked to make sure I was okay and left for home, about a 20-minute flight.
There is a wonderful relaxation that comes over you after a hectic and dangerous situation is resolved. It happens in a car after a close call. As my event had lasted for nearly a half hour, the letdown was quick and deep. The tower called the truck I was riding in and said, “There’s a navy C1 in the area and he wants to know if you would like a ride to Alameda.” I said that would be great and made arrangements for my plane to be towed to a hangar and secured for the night. The C1 landed and I hopped in. The C1 crew dropped me off at our hangar, and I think Doug beat me back to Alameda by only half an hour.
Why did I lose all of my oil? There is a valve called the pre-oil check valve that is used for circulating warm oil to the engine when the ambient temperature is very low. I had never seen this used, and didn’t even know where it was until one of the mechanics pointed it out to me. Somehow, a safety wire had been left off of this valve and because of the vibration it had backed off, allowing all of the oil to be pumped overboard. Someone who was doing a short investigation had the audacity to ask me why I hadn’t checked the safety wire as a part of my preflight inspection. I laughed, and asked if aside from a mechanic anyone—and I mean anyone—had ever checked the safety wire.
You might occasionally see a Skyraider in the sky’s around Vista. There is one based at the field in Ramona and the owner flies it in local airshows. Another is on the Midway.