“The Right Stuff”

Save the field of sports, aviation seems to stir the imagination of heroes more than most other endeavors. History gives us the heroic likes of Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, St. Exupery, Chuck Yeager, and Colonel Robin Olds. More recent headlines have given us the name “Sully”, which we all know to mean USAir Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. I would guess that, in this era of the 24/7 “fire hose” world of news reports, there might actually be a few folks that don’t know he was the Captain that pulled off the famous “Miracle in the Hudson” ditching…few, but not many. He (and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles…who rode my cockpit jumpseat from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Milwaukee a few months before the accident), “landed” the Airbus 320 in the river after both engines were destroyed by a flock of God’s “feathered aviators”. The entire crew did an outstanding job.

(US Airways flight 1549…I attempted to replicate this in the Boeing 757 simulator about 6 months after the accident. It was at night, and the simulator picture froze at our touchdown…so I have no idea if I was successful or not.)

 The business of coaxing machines to defy gravity has produced many heroes throughout the last 100 years. One usually thinks of the steely-eyed military pilot battling the crippled war machine when the phrase “heroic effort” is mentioned, but as the names above prove, this isn’t always the case. Over the last several decades, I’ve witnessed the feats of brother (and sister) pilots, who far from being famous, had but one thing in common…they were all true heroes.

The following Logbook piece, “The Right Stuff”, I originally published several years ago, but I took it out of the ol’ vault, dusted it off a bit, and put it here. Given the current state of the world we find ourselves mired within, I thought a few yarns about an aspect of the human condition that doesn’t leave us nauseous might be in order. I hope you enjoy it…


“The Right Stuff”

While watching a national news program a few evenings ago, I was presented with the story of a helicopter crash that occurred while covering the annual Hollywood “love-fest” known as The Academy Awards. While in a high hover to allow the cameraman to have a more stable filming platform, the hydraulic system suddenly failed on the FOX 11 news chopper.  As most would surmise, having issues with the engine in any flying machine is cause for concern, however many times it sounds worse than it actually happens to be. With enough altitude (and airspeed) an airplane, and yes, even a helicopter has the ability to glide down to a uneventful arrival. But when things like the hydraulic system quits working, thus severely degrading the ability to actually CONTROL the craft, it doesn’t matter how much engine thrust or airspeed you have available, things are deadly serious. If the correct actions aren’t taken with subsequent haste, and aren’t accomplished correctly, chances are very good that the flight won’t have a happy ending. This was the situation the pilot of the Aerospatiale AS350B helicopter, (tail ID “N500WC”), found herself dealing with on that cool March evening.

(N500WC…the actual machine involved in the crash.)

By all accounts (see NTSB report below), she kept her wits about her, kept the aircraft under control, maneuvered it away from the populated areas, wrestled it back to her airport of departure, and conducted an emergency landing within the boundaries of the airfield. Complicating the aforementioned occurrences, were three very important facts. First of all, it seems that controlling this machine after the failure of the hydraulic system is, by all accounts, like driving a fully loaded dump truck without the power steering! Secondly, (according to the NTSB report) the diminutive stature of this 33-year-old young lady (her height 5’1”, weight 108 lbs.) meant that merely moving any of the four controls required to keep it in the air (right hand on the cyclic stick that sits between your legs, left hand on the collective control lever on the floor left of your seat, and right and left feet on the anti-torque pedals) was going to require a huge amount of effort, and it was going to be needed for an agonizingly long ten minutes.  And lastly, the sun had set an hour or so earlier, so all of this had to be done in the dark of night. As I can attest to, daytime emergencies are one thing, but nocturnal “Maydays” are another animal altogether.

(A view from within the Aerospatiale A350B. In an airplane, the pilot flies from the left seat, in a helo they fly from the right.)

According to the NTSB report, she struggled to keep the machine in the air while over many busy neighborhoods. Summoning hidden reservoirs of strength, she was able to return to her departure airport at Van Nuys, but during the maneuver to land the machine, the accumulator (emergency) pressure depleted and the helicopter became uncontrollable. Although she kept many innocent lives out of harm’s way that night, her heroic actions came with an expensive cost. Both her and the cameraman were seriously injured in the accident. Their trauma was cause for alarm, but thankfully, not life threatening.

(The NTSB report…click to enlarge.)

(An Aerospatiale A350B in flight.)

To yours truly, it sounds as if another “everyday pilot” stepped up to the plate, and delivered a heroic performance when the situation demanded such.

Here are three more from my vault of “heroes”. Two I witnessed, and one the world watched with me.

The first feat of heroism we all know about, but I would like to share some of my thoughts regarding the event. A few years ago, a United Airlines DC-10 crew found themselves in a very crippled wide-body airplane, and they accomplished the impossible … they flew an aircraft that was essentially un-flyable to a crash landing that many walked away from. At that point in my career, I was semi-seasoned First Officer assigned to the very same machine for Northwest Airlines (the McDonnel Douglas DC-10), so this accident hit home rather hard for me.

While enroute from Denver to Chicago, they suffered the catastrophic failure of the number two engine while at cruise altitude. On the DC-10, this is the engine at the rear of the aircraft that seems to be embedded in the vertical stabilizer. In most cases, the loss of one engine on a transport category aircraft is nowhere near a disaster, but in this case, it was much worse than just the loss of a single source of thrust. The fact that the hydraulic lines (that power the flight controls for the aircraft) run through the area adjacent to the engine mounting for number two, made it a deadly serious event. When the engine failed, the shrapnel from the failure severed all the hydraulic power to the controls…not good, not good at all. (BTW, all DC-10s have now been fitted with a shut-off valve to preclude this type of situation from ever happening again.)

(United Airlines McDonnel Douglas DC-10. As I’ve mentioned before, this big jet was one of my all-time favorites to pilot. It flew like a dream.)

The Captain of the flight (a gentleman by the name of Al Haynes, now retired) found himself piloting a 500,000-pound collection of metal and humans, with an engine inoperative, and the loss of all hydraulic power to the ailerons, elevators, and rudder. Was this emergency covered in the Operations Manual? You can be sure that separately they are all covered, but does the manual speak to these failures happening ALL AT ONCE? Not a chance. Take a second to ponder that. He had an engine that had violently failed (essentially exploded), he had a complete failure of the hydraulic systems that allow you to control the machine, and just to make matters a bit worse, this is the same system that actuates important things like the wing flaps and the landing gear. Captain Haynes and his crew had a few things to think about; the stricken flying machine; the upcoming attempt at a landing; and of course, the 250+ souls that were sitting on the other side of the cockpit door. Most pilots have a litany of mechanical “issues” to deal with during their career, the vast majority are rather mundane with the occasional serious problem. These folks had a deadly laundry list of very serious issues to overcome; and the clock was ticking. This was a deadly list that the airline industry had never seen played out all at once.  

(A picture of the stricken flight…UAL 232 moments before the landing attempt at Sioux City, Iowa.)

Captain Haynes did precisely what his years of training and experience had taught him to do. First of all, he remained calm and controlled the aircraft to the best of his abilities. He found that by using the two remaining engines (the ones on the wings) he was able to gain a modicum of control. To counteract the yaw, he used them asymmetrically, adding thrust on one side, while reducing it on the other. Also, because they are mounted on the wings forward of the center of gravity, he found that adding thrust would raise the nose of the jet, and reducing it would to lower the nose. With the help of the other pilots (the First Officer, the Second Officer, and a “dead heading” instructor pilot he called forward to the cockpit), their contrived “dance of the throttles” kept them in the air. He then briefed the cabin crew about what had taken place (he gave them the simple “thumbnail version” …the details could wait until later) and more importantly what he expected them to do when they were attempting to land the stricken jet. He talked extensively to the United Airlines maintenance wizards on the radio, and he used the folks in the Denver ATC facility to determine where the closest available (and “usable”) airport might be when it came time to bring this vessel back to Earth. And of course, he talked to the folks whose very lives he had professionally sworn to keep safe. According to reports after the fact from the passengers, his words and his tone were perfect. His strong voice over the P.A. system gave them knowledge, comfort and confidence.

Oh; one last “small” detail …. Due to the damage to the control surfaces after the center engine failed, they were finding that they had success turning the aircraft in only ONE direction…to the right. About the only thing working in their favor so far was the weather. Mother Nature was giving them clear skies and calm winds. They would need both.

(The ground track of United Flight 232…they accomplished a single left turn, but lots of turns to the right.)

Even with all of the adversity and deadly tasks to accomplish, he and his crew maneuvered the stricken aircraft to a crash landing at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa. Unfortunately, there were fatalities (including, I think, the “deadheading” pilot), but many survived….and are alive today due to Capt. Haynes and his crews’ heroic efforts. To say that their performance is legendary within my industry, is a gross understatement. 

(God bless folks like Al Haynes (and his crew), they leave very large shoes for those like me to fill. IMHO, it’s a miracle that anyone survived…but, due to the heroics of folks like Capt. Haynes and his crew, they did.)

Side Note: Within a few months following the accident, I found myself in the Northwest Airlines DC-10 simulator doing my annual check ride. After the “testing” part was finished, the instructor asked the Capt. and myself if we would like to see what the airplane was like to fly without hydraulic power to the flight controls. Of course, we said yes! Using his instructor control panel in the back of the simulator, he turned off all hydraulic power, allowed us to use all three engines (instead of just the two that Captain Haynes and his crew had), and positioned us on about a twenty-mile final approach to runway 30L in Minneapolis. He hit the “un-pause” button on his panel, and turned us loose to see if we could reproduce what they pulled off in Sioux City. I’m not ashamed to say that neither one of us could get anywhere near the runway on several attempts (I did manage to land the aircraft once on the big interstate highway that runs adjacent to the airport property)! To say it was unbelievably hard wouldn’t begin to describe it…and we weren’t faced with the prospect of the “ultimate failure”. Heroic indeed.


The next tale of heroism takes place over the North Atlantic on a routine crossing from North America to Europe. I was still a First Officer flying the DC-10, and this trip started out just as hundreds of others had. We were busy for the first hour or so, then the boredom of accomplishing routine tasks (done countless times) set in. The weather across the “the pond” this night was benign at our cruising altitude of 33,000 feet. We were far above a solid deck of clouds, the moon was big and bright, and the air mass over the Atlantic was producing a mostly smooth ride.

One of the “routine tasks” that take place during the hours over the water is making radio position reports to ATC folks back in Gander or ahead in Shannon. This can (at times) be a rather large pain in the posterior.  (Side note: nowadays, most of these reports are made automatically with the electronic ACARS equipment) The task of communicating by radio while flying over the ocean is quite different from a journey over most landmasses. Since VHF radios are rather limited in their reach, and operate within “line of sight” parameters, they cannot be used to talk to ATC over the vast distances of water. For that we use old-style, “old technology” High Frequency radios. These HF contraptions are a throwback to an earlier time…the frequencies are static filled, hard to understand, and distorted by many things (including sunspots). Think of the old black and white movies showing the “museum piece” propeller plane, over the jungle, with the pilot uttering phrases like, “Come in Rangoon, come in Rangoon…do you hear me Rangoon?” Without question, due to their limitations, there is a bit of an “art” to be mastered to get these things to work correctly. It does take some practice with the help of a person that’s actually used them before, but in the end, they get the ATC job of traffic separation accomplished.

 (A photo of the North Atlantic “Tracks”…or NAT Tracks as we call them. They are the “highways in the sky” as it were, and they change daily according to winds/weather/turbulence.)

This leaves the airline crew with two VHF radios not being used for ATC communications. According to ICAO (International Civil Airline Organization) regulations, one radio is tuned with the universal emergency frequency of 121.5 MHz, and the other is tuned to a common “chatter” frequency.  On most crossings you’ll hear other air carriers on the “chatter” frequency. relaying their turbulence reports; which route their flying (or track as it’s called), their altitude and position, etc. It’s actually very useful information, for occasionally the oceanic weather forecasts can resemble the work of a deranged mystic reading tea leaves. Very rare is the flight where the emergency frequency is not silent for the entire flight (either over land or water). On this night… that would change.

We were bound for Glasgow from Boston, and as we neared the coast of Ireland, we began to hear aircraft ahead of us, talking on frequency 121.5 (again, used for emergencies only). This took all three of us a bit by surprise, so we sat up straight and began to listen in earnest. We were only hearing the airliners transmissions toward an unknown aviator, and not the responses. Even with only half of the story unfolding, we could tell that something was very wrong. The more we listened, the more we began to put the pieces of the picture together. They were talking to a young man that was ferrying a Piper Seneca (small, twin engine aircraft) across the ocean from North America to Europe; and he was in serious trouble. He was at much lower in altitude than we were (meaning he was down in the clouds), and he was having trouble staying airborne. One of his engines was running rough, and the cold/wet clouds that he was flying through were producing ice accumulations on the wings and the propellors. This was causing him two rather large, rather serious problems. Ice accumulating on the props drastically reduces their efficiency as does an ice buildup on the wing surfaces. Without speed and lift, gravity begins to win the battle to stay in the air.

More than one catastrophic airline accident has been attributed to ice on the wings and engines…most notably the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River shortly after departing the airport in Washington D.C., on a cold/snowing day back in January, 1982. (Side note: I was flying that same day for the small regional airline, and took a rather lengthy delay in Ft. Smith, AR to have the airplane de-iced [seems the entire eastern half of the United States was blanketed in bad weather]. During the delay, a businessman-type passenger decided to take 5 minutes of his life and rip the young Captain [yours truly] a new orifice because of the delay. He took up a position “in my face”, yelled a lot, wildly gesticulating his arms, and all because he was going to be late due to my “needless delay” to have the ice removed from the machine. I’ve often wondered if he turned on the TV later that day, witnessed the carnage of the Air Florida crash, and had any misgivings about giving me such a rotten time for saving his/my life that day…probably not…lol.)

(The aftermath of Air Florida Flight 90…the industry changed MANY things about operations in icing conditions following this accident.)

So, our young pilot in the Piper was losing power and losing lift, and again that meant one thing…the machine was going to descend whether you wanted it to or not. He was still a few hundred miles from Irish landfall, so descending was not in his plans. If things didn’t change quickly, his flight would end in a night “ditching” in the frigged North Atlantic. If he survived the “water landing” (not very likely), then nature would take its course; the cold water would rob the heat from his body, he would become hypothermic and he would tragically perish…not a nice ending to the story. I can assure you that every flight crewmember that either talked to this young man (or like us, were merely voyeuristically listening), knew the consequences of what was taking place, and we all pictured ourselves in his dark, cramped, lonely cockpit feeling what he must’ve been feeling.

(Piper Seneca II…a beautiful machine to be sure.)

Each air carrier that passed over him fielded a voice of reassurance and compassion, with the occasional technical suggestion offered up. And with that, the young man was aware that others knew of his plight, but this wasn’t getting the job done. As we closed our distance on him, and started to pick up his terse replies, we could tell that fear was beginning to take hold, and we knew that the next step in the evolution could spell his death. If panic followed…as it many times does, his chances of surviving this night was somewhere on the order of nil.

Then we heard the voice of an angel. What happened? Were we all hearing something imaginary? The cockpit crew of another flight near us (a USAir flight) did something that most probably saved this young man’s life. They called one of their cabin attendants up to the cockpit, put her on the radio, and she began to talk to him. She sounded like she was from somewhere in the south, with that beautiful, slow “homespun” accent of hers. We all pictured her as young and beautiful, for her voice was from out of a dream. It certainly didn’t matter if that description was accurate, it only mattered that our brain told us it was. She started with the mundane…” What’s you name sugar? Where ya’ll from?” Within a few short minutes she had calmed him down, and she slowly started to steer the conversation in the correct direction. “Honey, have you leaned out the mixtures on those little engines of yours? How ‘bout those little de-ice boots on the wings…are they working?” (I’m fairly sure the pilot-types in the cockpit were feeding her the questions and/or the suggestions that followed, but maybe she had flying experience…it sure sounded like she knew her stuff.) “Have ya’ll tried descending just a wee bit to find warmer air?”

Within a few minutes she had him thinking clearly again. They talked of many things…home, family, etc. and her calm demeanor was just what was called for.  His thinking cleared, he started to become proactive with his situation, and we knew this because his tone sounded far different than it had just a few minutes before. The fact that this young lady promised to meet him for a drink in Shannon when he landed may have had something to do with his attitude. I don’t recall everything that was said, but she “spiced” up the conversation just enough to make him (and all of us listening) want to thank her.

So, on a very cold, very dark night over the North Atlantic, two pilots and one young lady did a heroic thing; they brought hope to what may have become a hopeless predicament. (Side note: I checked all the news reports the next day from my hotel room in Glasgow searching for information on his flight; but nothing. I guess I’ll never know if that young man in the sick Piper made it to Shannon for that drink with an angel…. I sure hope he did.)


The last story involves heroism, and what I think many times is its close cousin…Lady Luck. I was in my last year of college, and was building my flight time by riding with my dear friend Rick on his night freight runs out of Dallas’s Love Field. We were landing about sunrise one morning, when this tale unfolded before us. I was still fairly new to aviation with just a few hundred flight hours, so the thought of staying up all night slugging it out in the weather in a light twin-engine airplane was WAY cool. “And they actually pay you for this?” My, how times have changed…lol.

As we checked in on the radio with the ATC Approach Controller inbound to Love Field that morning, his reply to us was a rather cryptic, “Stand by, we have an emergency in progress.”. We were both “bone tired”, but hearing these words acted like a jolt of caffeine, and we immediately sat up and listened intently. The controller was working two different frequencies (quite common when the air traffic is low…like right after dawn), so we were only hearing him talk to the emergency aircraft on the other frequency, and not their replies. We heard him say, “Understand, you’re going down…. the emergency equipment is on the way.” Not good words to hear no matter what the situation. We were not only concerned for the safety of the pilot and/or passengers, but we were monumentally curious as to what the heck just happened?

At about that time in the flight, the “cryptic” controller handed us off to the ATC folks in the Control Tower, and they directed us to enter a visual pattern for runway 13L and cleared us to land. They weren’t saying anything about the emergency, and we weren’t about to ask. After we landed, we taxied to our home base freight ramp, and shut the machine down. We quickly went through the steps to “put the airplane to bed”, and approached the first ramp worker we could to get the word on what happened.

(Runway 13 Left at Dallas Love Field. Picture about two miles off the other end of the runway and a bit to the right…that’s about where we found the airplane.)

This was what they knew of the event, and passed along to us. A Piper Navajo was inadvertently filled up with jet fuel instead of normal Avgas (aviation gasoline). And since a non-jet, reciprocating engine can’t run on the equivalent of kerosene (jet fuel), the obvious happened shortly after the airplane took off. On departure, at about 1000’ above the ground, both engines suddenly stopped…as in quit, stone cold dead! The airplane was now a glider, and it went down somewhere in a nearby neighborhood. Rick and I looked at each other with wide eyes of shock, and muttered a somber “no sh*t”. We quickly found out which local neighborhood, got in his truck, and raced right over there.

(A Piper Navajo Pa-31-350 “Cheiftain”. A “cabin class”, reciprocating engine, light twin aircraft…. seats two pilots, eight passengers…as my previous blogs have told, it was my first “mount” out of college on a night freight run. This one apparently had issues with it’s landing gear…looks like this pilot also did a great job of keeping it in one piece.)

We arrived at the scene roughly forty-five minutes after the accident had happened. Turning the corner, what we saw caused both of our mouths to drop wide open. We expected to see the twisted parts of what used to be an airplane, all smoldering in the ashes of a past conflagration. But no, that’s not what we witnessed.  There, in the middle of an elementary school playground, was the Piper Navajo….and it was all in one piece! It was flat on its belly at the end of a rather ugly looking gash in the schoolyard grass, but (sans the bent props), it didn’t look bad at all. Talking to the police officer on the scene, he told us that no one had been injured, but all four of the passengers had been taken to a local hospital to be checked out.  Wow! OK, we learned of the aftermath, but what about the “crash”? We naturally started pumping him for information, and as he stood there, still shaking his head with disbelief, and he relayed the story given to him by the pilot.

After both engines quit, he spotted the schoolyard at his 1 o’clock position. He quickly came to the conclusion that it was his only hope of a “dead-stick” landing, but as they got closer (and lower) he realized that they were going not going to make it…they were going to hit short. He decided to purposefully impact on the roof of the house across the street in an attempt to get some “bounce” from the impact. What he did next was either the “ballsy-ist” pilot move I’ve ever heard of, or just plain old “dumb-assed luck” (I’ve been thinking about this one for over forty years…. And I’m still not sure). He positioned the airplane to impact on the down slope of the house (the impact caught the roof on fire), and it somehow propelled them just enough to clear the chain-linked fence at the boundary of the playground, and the machine “pancaked” into the schoolyard. So far so good, but at the end of the playground stood the most menacing, huge, set of super-badassed (made of railway ties) monkey-bars in the history of the world! If they slid into that contraption, it would’ve been all over…lights out…fini….” thanks for playing”.  His luck held, and they stopped roughly 50’ short of it all.

(Picture this playground setup, only the apparatus was MUCH bigger, and built far more ruggedly.)

So, was it a supreme case of good luck? Was it an unbelievable feat of aviation skill and heroics?  I guess I would have to say it was a bit of both. Without a doubt many bad things could have happened; had they hit the upslope of the roof across the street…or had he attempted this an hour later, the schoolyard would have been full of kids, and definitely had they slid another fifty feet…. again, “stick a fork in em, they’re done”. But nope, none of that happened. They all walked away.

Oh, and when we quired the policeman as to what happened to the pilot…. he just smiled and pointed to an all-night bar that was a block down the street. We were tempted to head over there and buy him a whiskey (or three), but thought better of it. He had been vividly shown his mortality on a bright blue, sunny Texas morning, and he needed to be left alone with his thoughts. What I may not have understood then, that morning in Dallas those many years ago, I clearly understand now. He was a hero yes, but in his eyes…he was something else, something far more important than that…he was just plain alive.

(This is not the “open all night/dive bar/beer joint” that the pilot checked in to…but it does have the same curb appeal…lol.)


So those are but a scant few of the heroes (and heroic actions) I’ve witnessed in my life in the clouds. I hope you enjoyed them. Never lose sight of the fact that in reality true “heroes” surround us each day of our lives. Some wear badges, some wear scrubs, some wear helmets, some wear the title of “teacher”, and sometimes they simply wear jeans and the faded t-shirt of a parent while hugging on their 5-year old little angel.

God bless the humans (pilots and otherwise) that step up daily and do heroic things for the rest of us, they truly have “the right stuff”.

Till later,



2 thoughts on ““The Right Stuff”

  1. Sherry Magee says:

    Excellent work. Definitely the positivity that we all need , especially now. Thanks again for sharing your talent with the rest of us!


  2. Kind words…thanks. Seems like the planet’s last trip around the Sun (the year 2020), has been an emotionally exhausting one for almost all of us. The pandemic, socio-economic strife, political upheaval, and that time-honored steamroller known as “life” took a toll on darn near every person I know/love. Sometimes, just a smidgeon of “goodness” from the human race reminds us all that every sunrise is indeed worth seeing…
    Thanks again for the nice words.


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