Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mongoose, Part IV



I realize that writing a story in installments, as I’m doing, loses readers when I wait so long between posts. Apologies and promises to be more prompt. Here’s the continuation of Mongoose.


Twelve pilots took their seats for the briefing. Most of them had back-seat riders sitting in. Backseaters are not allowed in official airshow events, but since the show did not formally begin until 1pm we were allowed to take them. Mongoose would lead the flight on the annual veteran’s hospital memorial fly-over. He broke the group into two flights of six aircraft. He would lead at the point of the first six. I was number two on his wing. Alabama Girl’s owner, Mike, would go in my back seat. My friend Dave from Tucson would ride with Mongoose. The briefing lasted half an hour and then we went to mount up.

As I was strapping in something happened that was damned near a déjà vu experience for me. A golf cart bearing a couple of AirVenture workers stopped and they yelled up to me. “Stand down. The airport is closed. We’ve had a crash.” I looked around and saw the other pilots dismounting.

I immediately remembered that day years ago at an airshow near Birmingham. We were mounting up for the opening fly-over—eight ships with Mongoose leading. I was about to put on my helmet when I happened to look to my right just in time to see a departing Bonanza roll abruptly left and nose into the ground. I yelled to Mongoose who was mounting up that I had just seen a crash. We all dismounted and took our van to the air boss’ stage. He verified what I saw.

The Bonanza was one of several planes that had been flying passengers on short hops all morning. The passengers paid a small fee that went to a charity. The Bonanza pilot was trying to get in one last flight before the airshow started. Later we learned he ran out of fuel. He kept his nose too high, his airspeed bled quickly and he stalled. He and his passenger—a dad and a youngster—were killed. The wife and mother saw it all.

The vision of the Bonanza going down has joined a sinister repertoire in my memories that replay from time to time, and I suppose I will never be rid of them. I was glad I didn’t see the crash at Oshkosh. We dismounted and gathered to hear what happened. A “Breezy” had crashed on runway 36R. Later we would learn it was fatal for its pilot, who inexplicably lost control while landing. This seems to be a common scenario at Oshkosh. Pilots get so distracted by the world showcase airshow and all its glitter and busyness and forget to control their airspeed.

If you’ve seen a Breezy you know that there is no protection
Breezy
for the pilot in an impact because there is no cockpit. I once flew one. I was sitting far out on the front end of a long boom with only a few instruments clustered in front of me. The engine is a “pusher” mounted aft of the pilot seat. Even though I was strapped in, I was so scared to bank the plane I tended to skid it around turns with rudder. That very plane crashed a couple of years later killing its owner.

An hour later Oshkosh’s east-west parallel runways opened. 36R remained closed for the accident investigation. We mounted up. Taxiing out, we took the 12 Yaks and Nanchangs down “fighter row” with jets of many ages and makes parked just a few feet on either side of our wingtips. I thought a brake failure here would do some expensive damage to those parked jets. I watched my air pressure very closely.

We took off into a gloriously blue sky, joined up and headed northwest to the VA hospital complex. We made two passes over it with smoke. In the briefing we were told to look good because the fly-overs would be telecast throughout the hospital. After the fly-overs there would be no time for further play because the delay was pushing us against airshow time. Mongoose headed for home plate. Ten miles out we switched to tower frequency and got more bad news. Oshkosh airport was once again closed.

The tower was not clear in telling us why. Whether it had to do with the previous accident or a new one, we didn’t know, but I suspected something new had happened. Mongoose took us overhead the field and out over Lake Winnebago to wait out the closure.

The wait was too long. We burned deeply into our fuel circling the lake. Guys got tired and butt-sore. We were all in loose formation to minimize the fatigue. Mongoose called the tower about every ten minutes to get an update. Each time the tower told us he had no information. Each time the conversation between Mongoose and the tower got testier. It was clear that the frustration in both our leader and the tower was building.

After a few circuits my flight—the one Mongoose was leading—lapped the flight behind us and settled in behind them. Most of us had spread out a few hundred feet but one guy in the flight out front was out about a quarter mile. This irked me because I had to constantly keep turning my head away from my leader in order to keep the roamer in sight. A guy who strayed that far out is liable to do anything—he bears watching.

As time and our fuel burned on I became more peeved at that guy and even at his flight leader for not ordering him back in. I tried to remember who he was. He might be that new guy who showed up. He was relatively young, and the questions he asked in the briefing revealed his newness to formation operations. Suddenly Mike yelled, “WHAT THE HELL IS HE DOING?”

I looked back toward the guy. His plane was in a steep bank away from the formation diving toward the water. I saw him get smaller and smaller, then disappear. Someone else in the formation told the front six leader that his number six had gone down.

A few long seconds later number Six came up on the radio flustered. He had lost sight of the flight and broken out. We all knew he lost sight because he was too damned far out. Furthermore his breakout procedures were non-standard and dangerous. His flight lead coached him back in and told him to stay closer.

I took in a deep breath, shifted uncomfortably in my seat and told Mike, “I think we are in for a very interesting and hot de-briefing.”

But before our wheels touched terra firma—wherever that might be—more fit would hit the proverbial shan.

Me in front and Mike in back of Alabama Girl, smoking up the Wisconsin skyscape.

Photo taken by Dave in Mongoose's back seat over the VA hospital.






Update: I have returned to the realm of commercial aviation, flying part time for the forestry service hunting wild fires. I'm also consulting for an engineering firm that builds and installs underwater turbines for small communities. The idea is to keep retirement interesting, and it is working. But I've got to find more time to write a couple of book-length works I've started.
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