I Learned About Flying From That: Putting Training to Work

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It was a beautiful day for flying. The takeoff from Waco Regional Airport in Waco, Texas, was routine and uneventful as I turned onto a northwest heading as indicated by the GPS. I had reduced from takeoff power to about 2,450 rpm and about 24 inches of manifold pressure. As I was leaving 1,500 feet and exiting Waco tower's airspace, tower advised us to contact Fort Worth Center. I switched over and made the call.

"Fort Worth Center, Bonanza 9792R with you, 1,500 climbing to 2,500."

After getting an acknowledgement, I began adding about an inch of manifold pressure when I heard a sound similar to a shot from one of those Roman candles that we played with as children. The sound was followed immediately by a puff of white smoke from just behind the propeller and then — no sound.

We had just become a glider.


It had been a normal July morning in New Braunfels, Texas, just outside of San Antonio. It was hot and humid with lots of puffy clouds after the morning low clouds had burned off. I had left my home and driven to the airport where the 1960 M35 Beechcraft Bonanza that I had just taken delivery of three months earlier was hangared.

My trip that morning was to fly to Waco and pick up my friend and ­fellow pilot David McClendon for a trip to Jacksboro, Texas. Dave was going to see his old friend Steve ­Bernstein, the owner of Jacksboro Nautical Aero and the designated examiner for the school. I was going to help out at the school, see my friend Bren Slaton, the school's chief pilot, and do grunt work for the weekend, hoping that, if I begged enough, I'd get some time in the 1946 Aeronca Super Chief floatplane.

The flight to Waco had been predictable, although bumpy at 2,500 feet. The Bonanza ran great and the GPS took me right to Waco. Always looking for an opportunity and hearing little traffic on the frequency, I contacted Waco Approach and asked for a practice IFR approach to Runway 19.

I didn't have a safety pilot and couldn't put the hood on, but it would be good practice to shoot the approach VFR for the procedures. Waco Approach obliged, I didn't embarrass myself, and I landed and taxied up to Texas Aero, where Dave was waiting. Without shutting down (I had just read an article about the difficulties of hot-starting fuel-injected engines), I motioned Dave to climb aboard.

As Dave got situated, I taxied back out to Runway 19 and advised tower we were ready to go. Tower confirmed I wanted flight following to 21F (Jacksboro). I advised affirmative, which later proved to be a good decision. If I don't file IFR, I always request flight following just for help with traffic avoidance as well as to stay sharp on radio procedures. Rolling out onto 19, I applied power and the Bonanza leapt into the air. We were heading to Jacksboro.


"There goes the engine," I told Dave on the intercom as I began a right turn back in the direction of the airport.

"There!" Dave said, pointing at a green field at our 1 o'clock and 2 miles out. Dave, who owns a Starduster and is a pilot himself, knew what we were in for.

"OK, that's where we're going," I replied as I began setting up for an off-airport landing.

We later determined that Dave's choice was the only place we could have gone; everything else was covered in mesquite trees and scrub brush.

As all this was taking place, I realized I should probably let someone in authority know what had happened.

Calling Fort Worth Center, I said, "Mayday, mayday, 92R just lost the engine and we are going down."

Center advised that there was an airport at our 12 o'clock and 5 miles. Since we were only 1,500 msl (1,000 agl), I told Center that we couldn't make that and would be attempting an off-airport landing at our present location.

Center advised that it was notifying emergency services of our location. Now, if you have never heard someone say that to you while flying an airplane, it will get your attention.

At less than 1,000 feet agl, we had little time to begin setting up the aircraft for an off-airport landing. I picked my spot in the field where I wanted to touch down, hoping, if I made that spot, I could stop before we got to the fence at the other end. I held airspeed while setting up for a left downwind to landing. As I came abreast of the end of the field, I turned onto a descending base leg, and that's when I saw the high lines. All I could remember was what my good friend and instructor, Bren ­Slaton, always said when we practiced this or any other maneuver: "The three most important things in flying are ‘airspeed, airspeed and airspeed.' If you have airspeed, you have a lot of options. Without it, you have none."

On final approach now. Holding my landing spot in the same position on the windshield. As we approached the high lines, I fought the instinct to pull up. I had to keep the nose down to maintain airspeed. We cleared the high lines on speed and target; the field looked to be smooth. Knowing that Beechcraft had originally designed the landing gear on this airplane for grass strips and that I had the field made, I reached over and put the gear down. Not wanting to be distracted from flying the airplane, I asked Dave to verify that the gear was down by checking the lights and looking at the visual indicator under the panel. I heard the gear motor whine as the gear started down.

On short final, Dave called, "Gear down." We were committed to the landing.

That's when I saw the cows.

Covering the entire left side of the field was a sea of cows. We had not seen them before because the small field we were trying to get into was a maize field. If we didn't want Bossy in the cockpit with us, it was time for another decision. On the right side of the field next to the road, there were no cows. I carefully sidestepped to the right. Airspeed on target; landing spot on target; no cows. Here we go.

Very short final, slowing, no time to do anything except maintain ­directional control and not stall the airplane. Master off, door open, going into the flare, I could hear the maize hitting the wings as we settled in; I got the nose high, the mains were on the ground, and I was trying to hold the nose off until it came down on its own. We could see only green now, and the maize stalks were flying by at a terrific speed. Yoke was all the way back into my chest and we were starting to slow. Would we stop before we hit the fence on the other end of the field? Finally, we did indeed come to a stop. Everything was quiet; I glanced over at Dave who was just staring at me.

"Good job, good job!" he said, as we both began shutting down the aircraft.

Intent on shutting down and getting out, our heads were down inside the aircraft. When we looked up, we were surrounded by cows! It seems they thought it a wee bit unusual that this big metal object was now in their field.

Within minutes, a McLennan County Sheriff's helicopter was overhead. We waved to those inside that we were OK as they continued to circle, marking our position for the volunteer fire department, which arrived about 10 minutes later. Fire Chief Shawn ­Massie was most helpful in seeing that we were OK and uninjured. Wanting to find out what had happened to the engine, I opened the cowling. Two large holes in the engine case were evidence that we had suffered a catastrophic engine failure.

We notified the FAA by cellphone at the scene, who asked the law enforcement official on site to verify that there was visible fuel in the tanks, which he confirmed. As if the two holes in the engine and an airplane covered in oil weren't enough. After getting approval from the feds to move the aircraft, I contacted my insurance company, which made arrangements with Dallas Air Salvage to move the aircraft to Texas Aero in Waco to begin replacing the blown engine. The good news was that there was no damage to the aircraft other than the blown engine, which did damage my checkbook. That Bonanza is one tough airplane.


Even though I have flown for over 30 years, I continue to train. With the help and guidance of my instructor, Bren Slaton, I have practiced for this day on countless occasions. As the emergency unfolded, it was as if Bren were in the cockpit with me whispering in my ear what to do (although whispering isn't exactly his style). I can remember when Dave spotted the field, I clearly heard the word commit in my mind. Once I had decided that this was the field, I was committed to getting the aircraft on the ground safely in that field. I did not second-guess myself and I put all my focus on that field. Next, I kept telling myself that airspeed is life and as long as I had airspeed, I had options.

So the next time someone asks you why pilots practice the same procedures over and over again, have them give me a call. I'll be happy to explain it to them.

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