There is a large annual airshow in Arlington, Washington that takes place the weekend following Independence Day. I’ve been flying there in my Drifter for the past 15 years. The first time I flew to Arlington, I was with 10 other ultralights. In the years since, sometimes there are four or five, sometimes there are two, and sometimes I fly alone. This year was one of the “fly alone” times for the 250-mile flight. I flew my new Talon, knowing that people would be amazed that they weren’t seeing my Drifter. As always, the airshow was a time for seeing old friends, meeting new ones, attending educational forums, and browsing aviation-related vendor booths.
Sunday morning opened to a low ceiling, so I took my time packing up my tent and other gear. By 1:00 p.m. the ceiling had lifted to 1,500 feet – high enough that I wouldn’t be scud running as I flew south down the Carnation Valley. I love this first part of the flight as I fly low, sometimes as low as 100’, over green pastures, a narrow winding river, and small truck farms. After 30 miles or so, I have to climb to gain altitude to fly through the Issaquah Gap – a pass through hills that are about 1800’ high.
As I got closer to the Gap, the clouds were scattered, with the bases at 1500’, and I couldn’t see the top of the hills. So I decided to go high. I climbed to 5000’ as the clouds began bunching up. I hop scotched around the cloud clusters, always keeping in visual contact with ground. I calculated that my total flight time home would be about 3.5 hours.
As I climbed, the magnificent peaks of the Cascades— Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams—played peek-a-boo with the clouds. The air was smooth and my engine was humming. I looked out and thought of that magnificent flying poem, High Flight by John Magee, Jr., which begins “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” How is it that EVERYONE doesn’t want to fly? Life just doesn’t get any better than this!”
I had been in the air for almost 80 minutes and was already thinking about my refueling stop in Chehalis, Washington, only 16 miles away. As I looked through the holes in the clouds, I saw mostly forested hills. A few green patches of farms, a few ponds. Then, my engine coughed. Sharply. Almost immediately, a second cough…then a third. Then the engine stopped, and there was silence.
I had an excellent flight instructor, and he told me repeatedly, “If the engine fails, try once to get it started. If you can’t restart it – just fly the plane.” “Just fly the plane” means to stop thinking about what might have gone wrong, stop trying to fiddle with wires, knobs, levers —put your full attention to finding a safe landing spot and getting there. So that’s what I did.
I had several conversations going on in my head at the same time. A part of me was noticing (and astounded) that I wasn’t feeling any sense of panic, just a calm assessment of where to land. Another part of me was chiding myself: “You barely know this plane; you don’t know its glide ratio or how it handles without power. What were you thinking, making a flight like this before practicing power-off landings?” There was also a part of me that was actually glorying in the silence. But the main part of my mind was occupied with scanning the terrain and asking “Where? … There? … No…not there. How about there?”
At 5000’, flying over a patchwork of forest with some isolated farms, even what looks like a decent place to land might not be. I’d need to get a lot lower before I could really tell what type of landing spot I’d chosen — yet I was very aware that without power I’d have little possibility of a go-around or finding another spot if a lower view showed I hadn’t chosen well. So I didn’t hurry in making my choice. Then I saw what looking like two adjacent pastures, separated by a narrow paved road. I didn’t see any telephone poles, but knew that I’d have to get lower before poles and fences would become visible. I was so high that I didn’t want to overshoot – or come in too fast. So I began doing a combination of S turns as I put the Talon into a slip.
(For those of you who aren’t familiar with slips: a slip is simply a turn that is stopped by the rudder. The aileron holds the bank while the opposite rudder keeps the nose pointed in the other direction. This drag-producing condition significantly increases the rate of descent without increasing airspeed.)
The closer I got, the better my chosen field looked. It was a field of standing hay. No fences or poles that I could see. I set up for landing. Now my mind was saying “I sure hope you’ve figured this out right. It’s not a very long field, and if you come in even a little short you’ll be right in the trees. Won’t it be ironic to ALMOST make the field?” I shoved that thought out of my mind.
I came in about 10 feet over the road. Touch down was fairly straightforward – absolutely no problem. The standing hay (which was about three feet high) grabbed the plane and brought it to a halt in about 40 feet! Being in a tail dragger, my nose tipped forward and lay quietly in the hay. It was absolutely quiet. The hay moved gently in the breeze and the scent was strong in my nostrils. I got out of the plane to assess the damage, and found that there wasn’t any – except a mangled pitot tube (which is under the nose pod.) I stood in the quiet and debated what to do next.
In my next post, I’ll write about how the hay field owner reacted, how I got the Talon home and the cause of the engine out.