Random Acts of Luckiness

Maybe “luck” is just another word for “what happened."

surviving a plane crash
A question worth pondering: Is it luckier to survive a plane wreck or not to have one in the first place?Peter Garrison

Someone once suggested that if you want to know how you would feel crossing an ocean in a single-engine airplane, you should just fly out to sea for a couple of hours and then turn around and come back. There’s something about being out of sight of land that, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s remark about the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight, “concentrates the mind wonderfully.” It also gives new meaning to random engine sounds.

My erstwhile flying companion Nancy — she has now changed her mind and sworn off flying in anything smaller than an A320 — had a strict rule that all flying in which she participated had to have a clear purpose. It couldn’t just be frivolous, like going up on a beautiful afternoon to enjoy the sights or “dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” You had to be going somewhere. Flying out to sea for a couple of hours just to find out what “automatic rough” sounds like wouldn’t cut it. For some reason,

I share her view of that particular experiment, though I don’t know why. I have flown single engine across the Atlantic and the Pacific, and even Lake Michigan, but I would feel uneasy flying two hours out to sea for no reason at all.

I guess Nancy’s idea was that you shouldn’t be insolent toward the universe. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris. Hubris attracts the attention of irritable gods. Niobe boasted of her many and fine children only to have Apollo and Artemis kill them; Arachne claimed to be a better weaver than Athena, and was transformed into a spider for her pains. Those tales from mythology arise from some ancient superstitious stratum in our brains that warns us not to tempt our luck.

Luck is notoriously fickle. Another of those useful Greeks, the lawmaker Solon, told wealthy King Croesus, who thought himself the luckiest man alive, that no man could be counted lucky until he was dead. In other words, you never know until it’s all over when your luck might turn.

Good luck or bad? It’s often a matter of framing. In 1982, I was holding short of a runway when an out-of-control Cessna 210, propeller whirling, slammed into me, cutting my airplane to pieces. I emerged unhurt. A local news team soon appeared, and the reporter asked me if I didn’t feel lucky.

This was an odd question, it seemed to me.

I was obviously the unfortunate victim of a very costly accident. An hour earlier, I had had an airplane; now I didn’t. But the reporter was looking at it differently. From his perspective, I had survived an airplane accident, an occurrence so reliably fatal that I was extraordinarily lucky just to be talking to him.

Another dose of mixed luck befell me one day at 11,500 feet over California’s central valley. I was cruising happily in fine weather when suddenly gray smoke started pouring out of the cowling.

I could see it plainly, since the cooling air outlets were on the sides. Convinced I was on fire, I shut off the fuel, popped the airbrakes and pointed the nose downward. A conveniently empty road presented itself, and in four minutes I was on it.

The airplane was covered with oil. Dripping onto the road, it made a Melmoth-shaped stain. I soon found the problem: A line delivering engine oil to the turbocharger had broken off, squirting oil onto the hot turbo. It had made tons of smoke, but luckily no fire. No oil to speak of remained in the engine.

surviving a plane crash
From the reporter’s perspective, I had survived an occurrence so reliably fatal that I was lucky just to be talking to him.Peter Garrison

I left the airplane in the middle of the little-traveled road — it seemed to me that it was most conspicuous there, and therefore least likely to be hit — and hitched a ride to the nearest town. The first car to come along contained a trio of strait-laced Latina women; they deliberated for some time about the propriety of taking an unknown man aboard, but finally bought my story, for which I had, I thought, very convincing evidence. In Dos Palos, I found a pilot who gave me 8 quarts of aviation oil and a ride back to the airplane with some tools. We did a temporary repair to stanch the bleeding and stop the turbo from spinning without oil, and replaced the lost oil in the engine; then my benefactor went on his way.

I’d been thinking that I would fly down to the next airport, Coalinga, and land to check the integrity of the repair. But it was dusk now, and so I pushed the plane onto a bare patch beside the road. I spent a starry night, sometimes dozing in the cockpit, sometimes lounging on the wing, sometimes chatting with passing highway patrol officers who turned out to be pilots or with field workers who brought me a dinner of cantaloupe melons and salsa.

I was back in Los Angeles by 10 the next morning.

Good luck or bad? It’s usually bad luck when part of an airplane breaks, but that failed fitting had given me an uncommonly interesting night, full of emotion and mystery and the slowly wheeling Milky Way and the kindness of strangers, a night I have never forgotten. That’s the etymology of “adventure” — something that just comes to you, uninvited.

Sometimes luck is precisely targeted — something unusual that arrives just when it’s needed. One of those strokes of luck probably saved my life. It was during a period of ill-advised experimentation with my first homebuilt. For some reason I got the idea I ought to mute the exhaust, and I built two mufflers consisting of concentric tubes, the inner one perforated, with fiberglass packing between them. I slung them underneath the belly, connected to the exhaust pipes by short lengths of spiral-wound flexible stainless-steel tubing.

They were made of aluminum because I had been told on good authority that the gases leaving the exhaust were 500 degrees Fahrenheit or so, which aluminum could tolerate. But that was for an open pipe. I failed to consider that enclosing the flow in mufflers might raise its temperature considerably.

And so it did. I was at about 300 feet over a landscape of railroad tracks, power lines, trucks and cars when there was a loud thud and the engine lost power. But there was still a little left. I limped around the pattern without gaining another inch of altitude. As I turned base, smoke began rising from the right side of the cabin floor. By the time I was on the ground, it was getting hard to breathe.

What had happened was that my mufflers had lasted about half a minute before collapsing into solid plugs of crumpled aluminum and glass fiber. Not a wisp of gas could get through them. But the flexible steel link on the right side had cracked — or maybe it already had a crack — and just enough exhaust leaked from that crack to keep the three cylinders on the right side of the engine working. The jet of exhaust gas from the crack burned a hole in the cabin floor.

It’s said that luck favors the prepared, but sometimes luck just favors the stupid.