I Learned About Flying From That: Bayou Ditching

With skill and a bit of luck, this pilot turns a potential disaster into a survivable affair.

I Learned About Flying From That

I Learned About Flying From That

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art,
go to barryrossart.com.**

The morning of June 25, 1994, was exceptionally clear and pleasant in central Arkansas and found me sitting at the end of a very scarce asphalt runway in my robust, aerodynamic Ag Cat. It was 85 degrees F and the winds were calm. I was ready to roll with half a tank of gas and a hopper crammed full with 1,800 pounds of dry fertilizer (urea), waiting to hear that the flaggers were set up and ready in the rice field needing to be fertilized. The location of the field in relation to the runway was such that I decided to take off in the direction heading away from the field. This is very unusual.

While fertilizing earlier that morning, I had come to one familiar conclusion: “It’s going to be a good day.”

The takeoff storm is always a rush. The tight shoulder and lap straps holding me firmly against the seat inside the small cockpit give me the sensation of wearing the very loud machine, which smells of old chemicals and vibrates throughout from the explosive reactions within the nine supercharged cylinders and from the large two-blade prop spinning at 2,250 rpm, churning out 600 willing ponies. When the mood is right, so very right, pilot and machine meld together and become one heart light.

Getting the word over the radio, I cracked the throttle to alert the ponies. The relaxed herd appeared all present and accounted for. The day’s mood was about to change dramatically. With a final, commanding push on the throttle to spin the needles around their arc to the red lines, the ponies snapped to attention — their eyes and ears forward as their nostrils flared and lungs opened wide to gulp and consume their supercharged breath. I released the brakes and the ponies started stampeding down the runway. In no time, with a little coordinated forward stick and right rudder pressure, we were tail up and rolling on the main gear. A brief moment later, I applied backpressure on the stick, and away we went into the element for which we were made.

Crop-dusting is very much a seat-of-the-pants affair. While working the fields, I’m normally too close to the ground to divert my attention away from looking out the windshield to have an intelligible look at the few gauges inside the cockpit. The airspeed indicator and altimeter come to mind, but they aren’t of much practical use in a crop-duster. So the seat-of-the-pants nature of crop-dusting combined with the flight control demands of low-level flying and things being what they are in the cockpit of this Ag Cat, my attention is focused outside the cockpit in a large effort to maintain my line across the field and avoid running into something. There’s a truism among crop-dusters: What you don’t see, you’ll hit.

Time being money, “Charge for the guns!” was the standing work order. Very shortly after we broke ground I rolled quickly into a shallow­-climbing, 40- to 50-degree bank to get turned around about 150 degrees to head for the rice field. I had the stampeding herd firmly in hand in the turn when it suddenly and unexpectedly hesitated. The initial fading of the forward momentum of the machine was rather subtle, but something was definitely amiss. I quickly rolled the wings level and eased the backpressure on the stick to allow the machine to gather itself up and get back to our purpose in life. I gave it a few seconds to allow it to straighten itself out. “C’mon, girl ... ” It wasn’t happening. For some mysterious reason, some of the ponies had decided to abandon the air ballet. And me.

Within seconds, I knew I was in trouble. Really big trouble. The turn was so quickly executed, or perhaps — though unlikely — not executed quickly enough, that when I rolled wings level I was headed in the general direction of the rice field 20 to 30 feet off the ground. But, as fate would have it, there was a house directly in front of me. Just beyond the house was a bayou. With little room or airspeed for maneuvering, I had few options. I pulled the emergency hopper dump handle and felt it go slack, indicating either the cable had broken or the large door at the bottom of the hopper had opened, allowing the fertilizer to dump. I didn’t have time to concern myself with which scenario was in play. That’s all I could do in this regard — pull handle, move on. I quickly went back to concentrating on flying for all I was worth in my efforts to keep the airplane in the air and get it over the house.

I focused on the technical problem and existential situation I was convinced would finish me. “Just keep it off the house,” I told myself. “Don’t make this situation anyone else’s problem and everything will be all right. You knew this could happen. Time to ante up. The world is in order. Now fly like you know how.”

The nose-high, tail-low attitude of the airplane was such that I could no longer see the ground or the house in front of me. I was flying on the ragged edge of the stall and tried to maintain my bearings by glancing out the side of the airplane while I struggled with grim determination to “keep it off the house.” During the wild ride approaching the house, the airplane porpoised up and down as I man­handled it to the limits of aeronautical good sense to keep it in the air. Finally, I merely sensed I had cleared the house. “Good.” My primary objective achieved, I eased up a bit on the rough handling of the old bird.

Clear of the house, the tops of the trees and bayou were quickly approaching. I flew into the trees at an estimated 65 to 70 mph with my eyes wide open to savor my last moments. “I’ve got to see this! This is unbelievable! Am I dreaming?”

What was left of the 600 ponies drove the big prop round ’n’ round, slicing into the spring foliage. It sounded like a weed whacker on steroids. Then the engine abruptly went quiet. The prop hit something big and solid and came to a sudden stop. I looked down and noticed I still had a hold on the stick. “I won’t be needing this anymore,” I thought and turned it loose. Even while being held snug by the four-point harness, I held on while waiting for what I had concluded to be the inescapable termination of my life this beautiful June morning.

Tree branches were snapping and scraping against the engine, fuselage and wings. The scraping created a screeching sound similar to running fingernails across a chalkboard as the airplane-turned-inept-bulldozer pushed its way into the treetops and started to somersault tail over nose. I then realized that I was not falling very fast. Miraculously, my demise was looking less than certain. Being good at math, I started “recalculating” the odds. With considerable surprise and optimism, I told myself, “You just might make it!”

I now started looking around to see if any dead snags would pierce the cockpit and perhaps skewer the happy-go-lucky pilot-turned-reluctant-passenger as the airplane continued flipping over in a noisy, but relatively slow, descent. Finally, the mangled-­but-still-intact winged chariot hit the water with a splash and inverted, slightly nose low.

As is the practice of pilots flying Ag Cats with no air conditioning, I flew with the large left cockpit window off to provide a poor boy’s version of this modern convenience. It definitely helped to keep the heat inside the cockpit within tolerable limits during the hot summer days. But with the cockpit window removed, the cockpit immediately filled with water. A brief, panicky physical reaction to the sudden, unexpected aquatic environment ensued as I struggled to get my head out of the water and get a breath. I had no idea how far underwater I had plunged. I just knew I was upside-down and underwater in an Arkansas bayou with an Ag Cat strapped to my back.

The personal dialogue started up again.

“Think, David! You have about 20 seconds to figure this out. OK, first things first. Get out of the harness.” I reached up to the single-point buckle and released it. The harness turned me loose and I floated away from the seat. I had the sensation of being in an Olympic-size pool. Being a good swimmer, I felt comfortable in this environment. “OK, you’re upside-down. Now get yourself into a ball and rotate yourself right-side-up.” During the righting process, I somehow managed to avoid hitting or getting tangled up with anything in the cockpit as I fanned my arms to complete the maneuver while watching swamp funk float past my face. The personal dialogue continued throughout the maneuvering. “Now where’s that hole? There! The light! Put your hand into the light!” I extended my arm toward the light, grabbed hold of the edge of the cockpit frame and started pulling myself toward the window opening. As I pulled my head through the opening, I broke the surface of the water, coughing and gasping for breath.

After I caught my breath, I felt for pain from any injuries while the rest of me floated inside the airplane. Everything seemed in working order. Still floating inside the airplane, the image of and a conversation with a toothy 10-foot alligator came to mind. “Nicely done, Dave! No, really. Bravo! I mean it. Now all you have to do is get by me.” That mental picture livened things up a bit. Having survived ’50s technology in such a dramatic fashion only to end up as alligator fodder in an Arkansas bayou would clearly qualify as an “ain’t that a bitch!” moment. I got busy doggy-paddling, breast-stroking and pulling my floating remains through the window opening.

Free and clear of the airplane, I stood up, took off my helmet and started sloshing my way to shore through the crotch-high water. I made it to shore looking like what I appeared to be — a disheveled, dripping wet, I-damn-near-drowned pilot.

Some people had seen me fly into the bayou. While sloshing to shore, I could hear them squealing their truck tires desperately trying to locate me. I shouted, “I’m OK! I’m OK!”

Amazingly enough, it wasn’t long before the EMS personnel and their lifesaving red truck showed up. Though I was feeling fine, I was instructed by the individual whom I was working for at the time to go to the hospital and get checked out to be on the safe side. “Fine.”

While sitting on the padded bench inside the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the female EMS gave me a puzzled look after she had finished taking my vitals. “Your vitals are all normal,” she told me. “Heart rate, blood pressure … all normal.” I looked at her and smiled. “Why not? This is the easy part. The hard part is over. I made it.” Not feeling much worse for wear, I smiled all the way to the hospital. I had some bruises on my shoulders from the harness, but that was it. Not a scratch, not one scratch. They gave me a tetanus shot all the same for good measure.

The old Ag Cat did what it was designed to do (to protect the pilot), and I did what I was supposed to do (fly a flyable craft as far into the accident as possible). I kept my head about me and I was lucky to boot.

It was a good day indeed.

I slept like a baby.