No Substitute for Military Experience

Commentary by Command Chief Warrant Officer Five Dean Stoops, Kentucky National Guard

NOTE: The Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office became aware of a civilian aviation incident that involved one of our senior leaders in the organization. The office approached this individual and asked him to recount this event in a commentary for both our young aviators as well as the fact that it’s a pretty cool story.

CW5 Stoops Aviation Incident

Before becoming the KYARNG CCWO, CW5 Stoops was the Senior Standardization Instructor Pilot for the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade and Aviation Standardization Officer and Accident Investigator for the National Guard Bureau. (photo submitted by CW5 Dean Stoops)

LAST MONTH, fifteen Kentucky Army National Guard aviation Soldiers were recognized for their collective combat and domestic aviation operations experience, and how that experience benefited our nation and the citizens of Kentucky. That article prompted me to reflect on how my 36 years of Army aviation training and experience most recently benefited me and Cindy, my wife of 35 years, in a very direct and personal way.  In fact, if not for the knowledge, skill, and abilities gained through my military training and experience, we might not have survived what I can only describe as ‘A high adrenaline producing moment.’

Click HERE to view all pictures from this story.

As Soldiers occasionally called upon to perform hazardous missions, we rely on our training and experience to overcome any and all obstacles, to come home safe. However, rarely do we anticipate utilizing those skills and that experience in our everyday personal life; particularly in a way that means the difference between life and death, or at the least serious physical injury.  A few months ago, I came face-to-face with such an event and I attribute my years of military training and experience, to Cindy and I being alive and well to enjoy the 2015 Christmas holiday season with our family.  Before I begin this story however, I must preface the tale with the introduction that underpins the beginning of most stories told by fisherman and old aviators – There I was!

It was Friday afternoon on the 27th day of November 2015, the day after Thanksgiving, when at approximately 3:05 p.m. I uttered those fateful words of distress – Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!  I had mentally and physically practiced this phrase thousands of times – and the position report that should follow any emergency declaration – since my earliest days of flying as a student pilot, but this time it was not a practice emergency landing, nor the final maneuver of a pilot check ride.  This time it was for real.

As you would hope on any flight in an airplane, the previous 3 hours and 40 minutes were uneventful. Not being too interested in the technical aspects of flying, Cindy occupied her time reading as she usually does while our two small dogs slept most of the flight.  Bubba in the back seat, and Charlie in her lap.

CW5 Stoops Aviation Incident

Preflight checks completed, Dean and Cindy say their farewells to “the kids” prior to leaving Jacksonville, NC on their return trip to Frankfort, KY. (photo submitted by CW5 Dean Stoops)

Being an avid pilot and having an airplane in the family since I was a young boy, Cindy and I elected to fly my dad’s Cessna 175A Skylark to Jacksonville, NC to visit the kids instead of spending 12 hours on the road each way. We had taken many trips in the family airplane over the years, but this was the first long flight I had flown in nearly six years.  So imagine my relief when after traveling nearly 400 nautical miles, and over rugged mountainous terrain in a single-engine airplane, we were finally home, or so I thought.

Planning for a straight-in approach to runway 25 at Frankfort, Ky., I reduced power over the Lexington airport and began a slow descent from a cruise altitude of 4,500 feet to Frankfort’s traffic pattern altitude of approximately 2,000 feet. Upon reaching 2,000 feet I leveled off and completed the required before landing checks.  This included setting the fuel selector from LEFT tank which I had been in for the last 30 minutes – to BOTH tanks, set the fuel mixture control to RICH, and verifying the carburetor heat control was ON.  It should be noted that during the flight I set the fuel mixture control to lean out the fuel-air setting for optimal engine performance.  In addition, the right tank was burning fuel faster than the left tank so I had to balance the fuel several times during the flight by running on the left tank.  This is common for this airplane and among many Cessna high-wing single-vent fuel tank systems. Each tank was showing 1/4 full which is what I expected it to be upon landing.  The Pilot Operating Handbook for this airplane says when full, the two overhead wing fuel tanks contain 42 gallons of useable fuel for all flight modes.  It also says that at 3000 RPM the engine will consume 10 gallons per hour.  This was confirmed during our flight to Jacksonville, NC several days earlier so based upon my preflight checks, I knew I had 4.2 hours of fuel available.  I knew I would be landing at the required 30 minute fuel reserve, therefore, I had no concerns about fuel leading up to the descent and preparation for landing at Frankfort.  I also make it a habit to turn on the carburetor heat during reduced power descents to prevent carburetor icing, so the carb heat was already on, which I again verified during the before landing check.

We were now only a few minutes away and 10 miles east of our final destination preparing to land. I had just closed out with Lexington approach control who I had been in radio contact with for the past 30 minutes, and checked the automated weather reporting service at the Frankfort airport, but I had not yet changed to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) at Frankfort.  This turned out to work in my favor because the CTAF radio is not always manned at Frankfort.

CW5 Stoops Aviation Incident

Crossing from Tennessee to Kentucky at Pine Mountain. Not a good place to make a forced landing. (photo submitted by CW5 Dean Stoops)

After completing my before landing checks and upon reaching 2,000 feet I applied power to level off, but something was wrong. The engine started to sputter and run rough.  It was at this point I muttered under my breath, “Something is not right.”  Cindy said, “What do you mean”, and I repeated my statement.  Thinking I may not have set the fuel selector properly, I visually and physically rechecked it, but it appeared to be OK.  The engine was still running rough and would not produce full power, so I also rechecked that the fuel mixture control was set to RICH, which it was, the carburetor heat was ON, which it was, and that the magneto switch was set to BOTH, which it was.  Any one of these controls not set in the proper configuration, could cause the engine to run rough, however, everything was set properly.  By this point I knew we were in trouble and that I needed to make a decision fast about my next course of action.  Could I make the airport which was only about 8 miles away, or should I make a precautionary landing before the engine quit all together?  What if the engine quit short of the runway and over the city of Frankfort?

NOTE: To listen to the ATC Audio of the event, please click below.

 

I pumped the throttle several times and got only partial power of approximately 2400 RPM of the 3100 RPM that was previously available during cruise flight. I manipulated the throttle settings for about 15 seconds, but still could not make enough power to sustain level flight.  The engine was still running rough and would not make full power, so I considered my options which included flying over the city of Frankfort to try to make it to the airport, or to make a precautionary landing under partial power in a field to minimize any danger to people on the ground.  Still having partial power, I decided to land before the engine quit entirely and told Cindy we were going to have to make a precautionary landing off the airport.

Dean and Cindy at Galt House

CCWO Dean Stoops and his wife Cindy watching Thunder Over Louisville from the Galt House Hotel. (photo submitted by CW5 Dean Stoops)

Doing as she had been briefed many times, Cindy started pointing out open fields on her side of the airplane. I had already picked out one on my side though that appeared flat and long enough, would allow for a landing into the wind, and was near a road and a house. Cindy had Charlie, our five pound white maltase in her lap, so put him in the back seat with our other dog, Bubba, tightened her seatbelt, and took off her glasses just as she had been briefed.  I started a hard left turn to the cow pasture I had selected, changed back to the Lexington approach control radio frequency which was in standby mode, and made my first distress call, advising of my position and that I would be making an emergency landing off the airfield.  I considered briefly whether or not to change to the Frankfort airport CTAF frequency, but quickly discounted that option as useless.  After all, I did not know if anyone would be monitoring that frequency and Lexington approach control should still have me on their radar and could initiate search and rescue.  I was at about 1,500 feet MSL (mean sea level) now, or 800 feet AGL (above ground level), and working toward my recommended glide speed of 80 MPH, however, the field I had selected was at my 4 to 5 o’clock position. Because of this, I continued my hard left turn, then back to the right to line up into the wind for a southwesterly landing into the field.  In short order the engine quit and the propeller stopped.  It was dead quiet except for the noise of the airplane gliding through the air.  My worst fear had come true, the engine was dead.  I was about 500-700 feet AGL, had no power and was making a dead-stick landing off airport.  I made my second distress call to Lexington approach and used those bone chilling code words, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY for the first time.  I was slightly relieved to know the controller heard my transmission as I remember her advising me to report when on the ground, if able.  This is a standard and common reply to an aircraft in distress preparing to make in imminent emergency landing, but I also couldn’t help thinking the last two words of that reply were not very comforting.

At this point, all I could do was to ensure we made the field, a cow pasture located approximately 4 ½ miles east of Frankfort at the intersection of Georgetown Road and Woodlake Road. I was confident now that no one on the ground would be hurt, but couldn’t help thinking to myself “can I land the airplane without hurting Cindy, my wife of nearly 36 years, or our two dogs.”  I was comfortable with my glide airspeed of 80 MPH and glide angle to the cow pasture, but had not yet set the flaps for landing, so I applied 20 degrees of flaps, then 30, then tried to go to 40, but could not get the manual flap lever to lock in at 40 degrees.  Setting the flaps to full down was important.  It would allow me to slow the airplane down to about 60 MPH without stalling.  I tried again, but still no luck at locking the flaps at 40 degrees, so I settled for 30 degrees since the ground was fast approaching and I was running out of time.  It was only after thoroughly reviewing both our actions during this emergency that I discovered why I could not get the flaps to lock in at 40 degrees.

Following a casual ‘after action review’ with Cindy on the way home that evening, I concluded that my right arm travel was restricted because, not wanting to see the “crash”, she closed her eyes and buried her head behind my right shoulder. Without realizing it at the time, her upper body was inadvertently restricting my arm movement preventing me from getting the manual flap lever into the 40 degree full-flaps position.  This proved to be inconsequential because the approach worked out well, and I made what was probably one of my smoothest and best airplane landings ever, although at the time I was deeply concerned about keeping the nose wheel up to prevent it from digging into the ground which could cause the airplane to flip over.

The field was long and a fairly hard-packed grassy cow pasture, with two debris piles and a ditch running along the left side which I managed to miss. We were fast approaching the end of the field where there was a wire fence, small trees, barn and old silo. I applied the brakes as expeditiously as I could, while trying not to lose breaking action by sliding on the grass.  The plane finally came to a full stop about 200 feet short of the end of the field and the previously noted obstacles.  Whew!  We were down safe with no injuries to us and no damage to the airplane.

Almost immediately a white suburban and motorcyclist pulled up next to us to see if we were OK. It was the property owner, and a neighbor who had witnessed the emergency landing and came to render aid.  Cindy emerged from her protected position from behind my right shoulder and gave the good Samaritans a thumbs up, while I made radio contact with a commuter airplane requesting that they advise Lexington approach that we were down safe, no injuries and no damage to the airplane.

During the 30 minutes or so that followed, I remained busy communicating with overhead airplanes dispatched to check on us, and filing an initial telephonic report with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We also received assistance from a Lexington Metro Police helicopter that landed to check on us, and the Franklin County Sheriff who was dispatched to render aid and secure the site.

CW5 Stoops Aviation Incident

Dick Stoops cleaning the #1 cylinder exhaust valve guide. He said repairing and replacing the #1 cylinder exhaust valve “Was like performing heart surgery through someone’s belly button.” (photo submitted by CW5 Dean Stoops)

A post-flight inspection an hour later by my father Dick Stoops, the airplane owner and a licensed FAA Airframe & Powerplant mechanic and Authorized Inspector, verified no damage to the airplane, fuel remaining in the wing tanks, proper operation of the engine ignition system and carburetor heat system. However, a full power check revealed that the engine would only produce a maximum of 2400 RPM when it should be producing 2900-3000 on the ground.  He determined there was some unknown mechanical problem and would not be flying the airplane out of this field that day.  Nearly dark now, the airplane was secured and arrangements made with the property owner to return on another day for further mechanical diagnosis.

CW5 Stoops Aviation Incident

One of three intake manifold gaskets that had deteriorated allowing air to be sucked into the cylinder. (photo submitted by CW5 Dean Stoops)

Like any pilot forced to make an emergency landing, I was anxious to find out what the problem was. And, while I couldn’t rule out pilot error initially, my military training and experience as an Aviation Safety Officer and Accident Investigator, told me to be patient, for I knew it could take several days or weeks to find the root cause of the problem.  Further mechanical diagnosis over the following six weeks by me and my dad, revealed that three gaskets that seal the gap between the intake manifold and the cylinders had deteriorated to the point that excess air was being sucked into three of the six cylinders. This caused the fuel-air mixture to burn leaner and hotter than normal.  The resulting hotter than normal internal cylinder temperatures was not detectable during the flight and had no apparent effect while operating at high RMP during cruise flight.  However, during the last two minutes of the flight when the throttle was retarded to descend, the resulting reduced compression and cooling temperatures caused the #1 cylinder exhaust valve to stick in the open position. Further diagnosis revealed the #4 and #5 cylinders were producing very low compression and also leaking from the exhaust valves.  Although these two valves were not stuck or frozen, the cylinders were not producing any compression. They required overhauling and replacement.  We were able to repair the frozen exhaust valve on the #1 cylinder without replacing the cylinder.  Ultimately, Dad and I were able to complete all repairs in the field and Dad flew the airplane out of the field site on Jan. 5, 2016, more than five weeks later.

In retrospect, the aggressive S-turn maneuvering I did to set up for the precautionary landing probably contributed to the fuel un-porting in the fuel tanks and caused the engine to quit on short final. It was either that, or the engine was receiving more air than fuel and flamed out as a result of the lean fuel-air mixture.  If I could have landed straight-ahead, or could have left the throttle in the full power setting rather than idle, I may have been able to sustain some power for the approach and precautionary landing.

CW5 Stoops Aviation Incident

Dean and his dad, Dick Stoops, a FAA Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic/Authorized Inspector attempt to diagnose the cause of the engine problem that led to the emergency landing. (photo submitted by CW5 Dean Stoops)

My family and I are all thankful no one was hurt and that if we had been injured, we would have had immediate assistance thanks to the overwhelming effort of the Lexington Approach Control facility who initiated search and rescue procedures, and to the property owner and neighbor who arrived immediately upon our landing.

While I cannot discount the possibility of divine intervention in the successful outcome of this incident, I do know if not for the knowledge, skills, abilities, and judgement gained through my nearly four decades of training and experience with the Kentucky National Guard; Christmas 2015 and future Thanksgiving holidays for my family could have forever been marked with a cloud of sadness.

I’ve always had faith that my military training and experience would see me through any difficulty. However, I have never needed to apply that knowledge, those skills and abilities, or apply that judgment so directly, in my personal life.  For me, the overarching takeaway, is to apply what you learn through your military experience to your everyday activities.  Be deliberate and disciplined in what you do, in all aspects of your life, including your family recreational and travel activities.  You never know when your military training and experience will preempt a mishap or pull you through, should an emergency occur.

Now that the airplane is fixed, Cindy and I plan to fly to Jacksonville, NC in June.