Multiengine Adventures

** Bob McSwiggan and Martha during recurrent
training in Griffin, Georgia.**

(March 2012) Weighing five pounds fewer than I had three days before we began training in the steamy heat of south Florida, I finally breathed a huge sigh of relief. Bill Conrad had just told me I'd passed the type rating and multi-ATP check ride in the Lockheed 18 Lodestar. As we took the runway at Pompano, he put his huge left arm around my sweat-soaked, T-shirted shoulders (which, today, politically correct persons would probably call "inappropriate") and with a big grin said, "You're a good little pilot. Just take me back to Lauderdale."

Of course, I should have known better. One of Bill's mantras was that every time you take off in a multiengine airplane for the rest of your flying life you're going to lose one of the engines. You don't know which one will fail or just where it will happen, but you'd better be thinking and planning because it will happen.

But all I was thinking about was, thank God, it was finally over and I'd be buying everybody a round of salty dogs at the cabana bar that night. This single-pilot-certificated Lockheed with its two R-1820 Wright engines (also used on some DC-3s) could be a handful, but I was OK with it — heck, we hadn't made a takeoff or landing with both motors running in the last three days. So, basking in glory and foolishly relaxed, I came up with 42 inches of MP, accelerated normally, checked everything in the green and let the tail start to fly. Holding it on the mains until V1/V2, I rotated and pulled the gear up when we had a positive rate of climb and had run out of usable runway. The gear was still in transit when the left engine abruptly quit and I snapped out of my self-congratulatory euphoria: "Check mixtures, props, throttles (fly the airplane between each step) and pitch for Vxse; identify (keep flying the airplane); verify ... feather (be sure you get the correct button); check for feather; check for fire; review emergency checklist ..._ fly the airplane_!

And then I yelled, since we didn't use headsets, "You miserable son of a bitch!"

It was the best lesson he could have taught me, and I’ve never forgotten it. Well, OK, I needed — and got — a refresher some years later with Bob McSwiggan in a loaded DC-3 coming off of LaGrange, Georgia. I’d forgotten the massive amount of rudder required when an engine (again the left one) on a Goon suddenly fails at low speed, so I instinctively cranked in right aileron along with full right rudder to counter the left roll and yaw. Not only won’t that work, but the adverse aileron yaw and additional drag also make a bad situation infinitely worse; it’s the difference between flying and not flying because you’re going nowhere but down and in a deadly cross-controlled configuration.

Bill Conrad, Hector Villamar and Bob McSwiggan — all icons — taught me everything I know about big, round-engine airplanes, supplemented over the years by some first-class freight dogs like Don Shewmaker, Dick Zerbe and Kevin Uppstrom. Bill, an early Pan Am pilot, had an operation called Airline Training Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and achieved some fame with aircraft modifications like the Conrad 9800 Twin Beech conversion. He and Hector are gone, but Bob, who did FAA contract DC-3 training for years at Griffin, Georgia, and operated a Part 135 freight operation, is still actively flying out of Clayton County (Tara) Airport just south of Atlanta. I don’t know about Hector and the feds, but Bill Conrad and Bob McSwiggan occupy a special place in my heart — fine pilots, good friends and always gloriously embroiled in fierce battles with FAA bureaucrats.

Instructing and examining in multi-engine airplanes — from DC-3s to Piper Seminoles — are in the same league as working on high iron or rigging dynamite charges in old coal mines. The dismal accident statistics plus economics and efficiency make it obvious why simulators are the standard for training not only in the air carrier world but also throughout the industry ... except in vintage aircraft. When a nonpilot pencil-pusher in the FAA’s Chicago regional office demanded I use a simulator for DC-3 recurrent training, it took several weeks to convince her there was no such thing.

When I joined the dark side, the multiengine and instrument privileges on my CFI were “grandfathered” from the old days when they weren’t separate ratings. I’d probably instructed in multimotored flying machines a grand total of 10 hours. And, no, I don’t remember if the feds picked up on that. But six years at the West Chicago and Indianapolis FSDOs taught me lots about the art and science of conducting multiengine check rides — mostly Part 135 proficiency and competency checks in stuff like Beech 18s, Navajos and twin Cessnas. An innate sense of self-preservation, the skill of the (mostly 135) applicants and the grace of God got me through that period without hurting anybody or bending any metal.

Actual engine failures — the “no, I didn’t do that” variety — are rare, although I’ve experienced no less than 13 in DC-3s. A few were sudden, catastrophic events, and the others were precautionary — “let’s shut it down before it eats itself.” In the long list of wonderful things about round engines, reliability isn’t at the top.

It was a Labor Day and I was at Skydive Greene County Airport in Xenia, Ohio, for a multiengine test in a Beech 18 with a young man named James Laine. Jim West, the skydiver, rigger, mechanic and pilot (and absolutely magnificent human being) who has operated 7OA7 since 1961, and who had recommended James for the check ride, wasn’t around that day. I was a little concerned when this nice guy presented a logbook with maybe 100 hours total time and five dual instruction in a Twin Beech. But I launched into the oral and was impressed — he knew a lot more than I did about this H-model Beech: limitations; engine; fuel; electrical, landing gear and flaps systems; weight and balance; performance charts; and normal and emergency procedures.

We headed out to the airplane, which, like most jump-club ships, wasn’t exactly a cream puff. James clambered around like a monkey on the preflight and settled familiarly into the left seat. He deftly started the sometimes temperamental R-985s, and, as we taxied out to the end of the long grass runway, I said, “James, how much time do you really have in this thing?”

“Well, I’ve been helping Jim with the maintenance and flying jumpers with him since I was 12.”

I don’t remember the actual sequence of events, but we took off and climbed southeast for some airwork. We didn’t perform the required engine shutdown — actually feathering the engine — because James said the accumulators weren’t charged and a restart was “iffy.” I justified this decision because he flew the airplane and handled the simulated emergencies so well. Plus, he was leaving the next day for California to train with a big jump team for national competition and this was his last chance to complete the multiengine ride.

Close to the runway on approach at Greene County, I told James to go around and failed the left engine on the “go.” As with all DC-3s and Beeches, I carefully and slowly retarded the throttle and prop to 15 inches and 1,500 rpm to simulate zero thrust, treating the engine as gently as possible. This airplane had three-blade Hartzell props, and, in horror, I saw the left engine come to a stop with the blades fully feathered.

James went through the “engine failure on takeoff” checklist memory items like a pro, cleaned it up and held the airspeed and heading, and I fished out the checklist.

“No, I didn’t do that, James; let’s climb to 2,500 feet msl and we’ll get it started again.”

Well, he was wrong about a restart being “iffy”; it was, in fact, impossible, and I was faced with a dilemma. See, I wasn’t supposed to be at Skydive Greene County flying that Twin Beech on Labor Day. Earlier check-ride dates had been postponed by weather and mechanicals, and my boss had refused to authorize the overtime for me to work the holiday. James had his heart set on completing the check ride before he left so I went on my own time ... and I’d be in big trouble (again) if my boss found out.

I wasn’t about to risk a single-engine go-around if we screwed up the approach and debated whether I should take the controls and head to nearby Dayton or Springfield with really long runways. But then the FAA would probably find out and Jim’s airplane would be stranded at another airport. James said this was no big deal; they’d had problems with that prop before and he’d landed single-engine more than once.

“OK, then, it’s your airplane; go for it.”

We hadn’t completed every required task in the Practical Test Standards, but after this perfect single-engine approach and landing I had no qualms about telling him he’d earned the rating. We secured the airplane, discussed the ride and finished the paperwork, and I said, “Congratulations; be careful; have a great time in California, and, oh, have Jim call me about that engine!”

The next day James left on his California adventure. Jim called and promised they’d take care of the problem, and I promised one of our airworthiness inspectors would be up to check. Then two weeks later he called again. A Twin Otter in California, carrying the jump team James had joined, had crashed on a climb-out. Two jumpers had gotten out and survived. James wasn’t one of them.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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