Monday, June 17, 2013

A WOULD-HAVE-BEEN AIRPLANE CRASH, Chapter Three, “There Is No Way We Can Survive”

The banging engine struggled to continue producing power, we had no forward visibility, and every few seconds a fireball erupted from the engine cowling and lit the night sky in sickening orange and yellow. I asked my friend to declare an emergency to Jacksonville Center, you might recall that only my friend could talk to the outside world through his headset and the push to talk switch mounted on his side of the airplane.

He did as I asked, declared an emergency, and described our situation to the man in a darkened room on the other side of Florida. The controller verified he understood and stated he would guide us to the Crystal River airport 24 miles away. He immediately gave us a heading. When I heard the incorrect sounding numbers I checked the bouncing magnetic compass (our Directional Gyro was powered by engine vacuum and no longer worked), it confirmed my fear, like the control tower in Tampa Jacksonville Center gave us a wrong heading. I asked my friend to tell him it was wrong. The trembling voice that came back over the radio instantly corrected his mistake. In the meantime I was already making a right turn to what I felt sure was the direction of the nearest town. My intuition matched our reality and I quickly rolled out on a magnetic course to the airport.

The sound of the engine was many times louder than normal, probably due the fact that there was an 18 inch diameter hole in the top of the engine through which all but a cup full of oil had spewed. My friend turned to me and asked if we could survive. I switched off the intercom that looped his son in our conversation and explained that we most likely would not survive. I don’t remember exactly, but I suspect I used somewhat more colorful language. If we tried to land in the rough and craggy ocean below, our fixed gear aircraft (the wheels do not retract on this model) would flip us upon impact regardless of how excellent our landing. We would die in the crash or drown. Our other fatal option was the 76 gallons of high octane avgas, which filled our wing tanks, would explode midair. Our aircraft could not glide to the airport without an engine and the likelihood of our mangled power plant continuing to produce power was slim.

There was no good news and I had life or death split second decisions to make.

Tomorrow: Chapter Four, “The Lesser of Two Evils, My Choices”

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Friday, June 14, 2013


We leveled off at 6,500 feet above sea level, tuned our transponder to the assigned code, and switched radio frequencies to Jacksonville Center. My friend made contact with someone sitting in a dark room on the opposite side of the state of Florida and informed him of our course, altitude, and confirmed our transponder code.

The sky was clearing by the minute and the moon shined through the breaks in the clouds more often than not. The west coast of Florida was on our right. Through my right side window I could see the white caps leading the waves below, still crashing in the aftermath of the thunderstorm, which was nowhere in sight.

As a new pilot my friend was particularly diligent as he closed the cowl doors, checked the carburetor heat, leaned the mixture, adjusted the prop’s pitch, and continually scanned the instruments in a prescribed pattern. He was my father’s flight student and had learned his lessons well. It was going to be a clear night and a pleasant ride home. The sky wrapped around us like a black and white translucent security blanket, I crossed my arms and smiled to myself.

Eighty miles north northeast of Tampa, one second we were cruising, the steady hum of the six cylinder two hundred thirty horsepower Continental engine filled the cockpit, and the next instant an explosion slammed the airframe, threw the nose first up, and then down. The propeller stopped for seconds that seemed like an eternity, oil covered the expansive windshield, and for a short time we were partially inverted and the only sound was a second explosion and radio static in our headsets.

I immediately took the controls, pushed the nose down, and righted the wings. The propeller freed and began to turn without my assistance. I pushed the mixture full rich and pumped the throttle. The engine started roughly and with the guttural sound came a third explosion followed by a ball of fire, which erupted from the engine cowling directly in front of the windscreen. Every few seconds thereafter the pattern repeated itself. An explosion, then a ball of fire, which we could somewhat see through the heavy dark oil film that completely covered the Plexiglas. We had no forward visibility, we had lost 1,500 feet of altitude, and we were 24 miles west of Crystal River, Florida with 20 miles of rough water between us and the coast. It was eleven o’clock, Saturday night August 19, 1989. We three were alone.

Monday: Chapter Three, “There Is No Way We Can Survive”

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Many of us have had near misses in our lives. For example, a car runs a stop sign and misses us by an inch. Adrenalin pumps, our heart beats wildly and we repeat our story at least 20 times over the following days. I have had plenty of traffic near misses in my forty plus years of driving. However, the colossal near miss of my life took place in a single engine airplane over the Gulf of Mexico at eleven o’clock a storm scattered, moonlit Saturday night August 19, 1989. We were twenty miles off the coast of Florida when our newly overhauled aircraft engine exploded and caught fire.
In a series of posts during the following several days I will tell you the whole story of how we survived without a scratch. This is my TRUE story!


My friend, his 15 year old son, and I were scheduled to leave Tampa, Florida much earlier that particular Saturday. I had business in Tulsa on Sunday afternoon and wanted to return to Missouri for a short rest, repack, and departure to Oklahoma. A severe thunderstorm system hung over Florida and much of our return route all day and well into the evening. Finally, at 9:00 PM the sky began to clear. A short conversation with the weather center confirmed it; we would have good weather all the way back to Missouri.

My friend was my partner in the aircraft and a new VFR pilot. We agreed that he would pilot the 1973 Cessna 182 Skylane for the trip home. We had bought the airplane less than a year before and soon after discovered it needed a major overhaul. When our tires lifted off the tarmac in Tampa we had 39 hours on a fresh overhaul by a Federal Aviation Administration licensed mechanic. It is important to note that I am the son of a flight instructor with high time in a variety of aircraft, especially this particular model. My friend and I had previously agreed that, due to my experience, if there was ever a problem when we were flying together that I would fly the aircraft.

My friend settled into the left seat and I in the right, the Tampa tower cleared us for takeoff to the west toward the Gulf of Mexico. A few hundred feet above the runway the tower gave us turn instructions that I should have taken as a bad omen. He directed us to turn to the wrong heading to the south. Our route home was set as north northeast with a single fuel stop scheduled in Birmingham, Alabama. I pointed out the tower’s error to my friend and he instantly relayed the message to the controller.

My friend was our only contact to the outside world. We wore headsets, which allowed us to comfortably talk to each other. To communicate by radio it was necessary for the left seat pilot to key the microphone via a yoke, or steering wheel, mounted button and speak into the boom microphone protruding from his headset. The controller immediately responded to our requested course correction with a new, unapologetic heading. We began a gradual climbing right turn to our course and assigned altitude of 6,500 feet.

I leaned back slightly and relaxed, we were finally headed home.
Tomorrow: Chapter Two, Oh My God, Our Engine Exploded!

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Monday, June 10, 2013


I love the movies! I enjoy movies at home, but I find a good movie playing out on the big screen irresistible. Until the last few years I was occasionally annoyed by a talker, crying child, or a seat back kicker. That is until cell phones and texting became the norm for nearly everyone. Now, nearly every movie I see includes at least one occasion of a text addict with something so important to say or know that it cannot wait. Suddenly a smart phone and its annoying beacon appear like a lighthouse in the middle of a dark room. Yesterday was the epitome of my in theater cell phone experiences.

I immediately knew it was an unusual matinee when cell phone screens continuously popped up in different areas of the theater. It looked like fireflies in mating season as the users sent and read text messages. A person directly in front of me used his phone several times, but the screen was so dim I hardly noticed. However, two empty seats to my right a man in a baseball cap used his phone every few minutes. When he did he held it inches from his nose to read and type, which he did so slowly that the key taps looked like a woodpecker in super slow motion. The screen was bright to the point of being unbelievably distracting.

I endured several instances of this behavior until the cost of admission and my enjoyment of the movie collided with my patience. I leaned over and in a relatively low voice told him that his phone was very distracting and asked him to stop using it. He seemed to ignore me so I raised my voice a bit, increased the sternness of my tone, and asked again. Finally he acknowledged me and put the phone away for the duration of the movie.

The others in the theater must have heard me, but obviously thought my displeasure did not apply to them because they continued to use their phones.
When the credits began to roll the man I had spoken to jumped up and left the theater. I suppose he wanted to avoid me, but I too was happy to not have to deal with him in the light of day.

Leaving the theater I was nearly through the lobby doors when I heard a man call to me. “Sir,” he said as he crossed the ten feet that separated us. Surprised, I stopped. He immediately shook my hand. “Thank you for asking that guy to put away his phone. It was so distracting that I had to shield my eyes with my hand and I did not have the nerve to say anything.”

The grateful stranger made my day. He reminded me that I am not alone in my belief that cell phones have no place in the movie theater. If your message to the outside world cannot wait go to the lobby and focus on your communication. Please do not ruin the movies for the rest of us. It is your right to pay for your ticket and waste it. However, you do not have the right to waste mine.

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Friday, June 7, 2013


The rivalry between the Army’s elite Green Berets and the Navy’s select few Seals is undoubtedly as old as the existence of Special Forces. Both groups are carefully chosen, highly trained, and extremely brave. Perhaps the difference boils down to something as simple as rough march versus grueling swim. I am convinced that if you would ask 100 members of each group what the differences are their answers would be similar regardless of to which group they belonged.

Recent events and news coverage has undoubtedly favored the Seals with the killing of Bin Laden and the making of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.” However, historically we heard more about the Green Berets. In 1966, Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, who was recovering from a leg wound suffered in Vietnam, and Robin Moore wrote “The Ballad of The Green Berets.” Sadler recorded the song and it was a long running hit that year. In the lyrics they mentioned that Green Berets were comprised of the top three percent of those who applied for the program, a fact that holds true today.

In 1968 John Wayne starred in “The Green Berets,” which was popular among Wayne fans and came at a time when the public secretly wanted to know more about the highly unpopular Vietnam War, or conflict as many preferred to minimize its importance. Much later, in 1990, Charlie Sheen made “Navy Seals,” which for me seemed some mixture of comedy and drama. I am a John Wayne fan and not at all impressed by Charlie Sheen and his public idiocy. In this competition I vote Green Berets ten, Seals zero.

The bottom line is, there is no right answer. Love the Seals or love the Green Berets, it does not matter. They are all fearless American heroes who are willing to do whatever it takes and risk everything to defend our nation. Irrespective of my John Wayne preference, I am in the bag for the Green Berets, of whom my son is one, but I am proud of them all.

A few years ago I visited one of the places where the Army memorializes Green Beret casualties. It was an expansive, carefully tended grassy area. Each casualty was honored with a granite marker and a magnolia tree. It was a heartbreaking and prideful experience. It is hard for me, as the father of a soldier, to see or remember these things without feeling a mixture of pride and sadness. What a nation, what a people we are.

“O’er the ramparts we watch,” I am proud to be an American!

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Yesterday afternoon the crowd began to gather, along old Route 66 outside my office, nearly two hours before our fallen hero arrived. It was not an air of excitement or enthusiasm, more one of respect and anticipation. I walked across the street to ask an onlooker when the processional was expected. She was texting with someone who was waiting 15 miles down the Interstate and they still had not passed. We knew they had left the airport nearly an hour before. It was obvious they were moving slowly.

I waited with my own brand of anticipation. My every thought was of gratitude for the young man’s service while relieved that the hearse’s silent passenger did not bear my name.

I was near the overpass, between Route 66 and the Interstate, when they came up the ramp at 3:15. I had expected a small group of cars and one hearse, I was very surprised. I was filled with awe and respect at the scene that unfolded before my eyes. The processional was led by several police cars, fire trucks, something between 30 and 50 motorcycles many of which were flying flags, assorted cars, veterans’ vehicles, and finally a sole white hearse. Fire trucks and firemen lined the overpass, the ladder truck’s ladder was fully extended and flying a giant flag. A small helicopter hovered overhead. People were everywhere.

Overwhelmed, I crossed my heart and did my best to focus on the scene. The firemen stood at attention and saluted, everyone around me crossed their hearts, and not a word was uttered. The only sounds were the rumble of Harley Davidson’s and the helicopter’s rotor beating the air. I trembled.

After they passed, and disappeared from my sight, I turned to walk away. A lone man standing nearby was stock still, his hand locked solidly over his heart. It was as though he was unwilling or unable to move.

A young man made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. He gave all so we can continue to live freely. Most of us will never deploy, we will never go to war. That honor is reserved for a brave few, but we can do our part. We can uphold and defend our freedoms and democracy at home. We can reduce our national debt, increase our GDP, and work together to make our country better.

Today is the anniversary of D-Day. On June 6, 1944 Allied Forces invaded Normandy, France. Yesterday a hero came home to Missouri.

Let us remember why we are free. Let us all respect the incredible cost associated with our way of life. God Bless America!

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

One Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice is Coming Home Today

A fallen soldier, a young man from my hometown is coming home today. Last night I found a post in my Facebook news feed regarding the young man’s arrival from Lambert Field. He will be brought by hearse to the local funeral home. The post invited everyone to line the route with American flags and give this young man the commemorative honor he deserves.

I think this is so wonderful, what we do to support the families of our troops and to remind ourselves of the importance of our soldiers in the world constantly protecting us sometimes at the ultimate price. It gives me cold chills and reminds me once again of how fortunate I have been with my own family members.

Of course there are always those who do not seem to understand. There was a comment on last night’s post from someone who said she could not make the event because she would be on another street. Ours is a small Missouri town and the street she referenced is only a few blocks away from the designated route. I read that and thought it a ridiculous excuse. If you cannot or will not go, do not draw attention to yourself with such a ludicrous/lame statement.

Then there are the crazies from the Baptist Church in Kansas. I have heard no rumblings that they will be here. Probably because of the distance and not enough media audience, whatever the reason I do not want them here. I recognize that our freedom means they can protest whatever they want. However, I would think simple human decency would prevent them, they call themselves Christians, from doing what they do. I often wonder how they would like it if we protested the funeral of one of their children with signs that said things like: “He deserved to die!” They would probably think we were unconscionable, inappropriate, and cruel, hmmm.

Let us pay our respects to our fallen when it is necessary, support our injured at every opportunity, give flowers (figuratively speaking) to those who serve, have served, our nation, and in this month of remembrance and gratitude leading up to the celebration of our independence, let us remember how fortunate we are.

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I am confident that there is no American, of a sufficient age, who does not remember what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I departed Lambert St. Louis airport that morning enroute to Cape Town South Africa. My flight was nonstop to Atlanta where I was to meet an associate and fly together to Cape Town. My plane landed in Atlanta at the same time as the first plane impacted the first tower in New York.

At the gate and in the concourse I neither saw nor heard anything, the news was still not out. In the South African Air lounge I settled in with a cup of rich black coffee to watch the news. As I sat down I saw the second plane crash into the second tower live on CNN. I frantically tried to call home, but it was too late all of the phone lines were busy. My experience of being deserted on an urban island began.

My friend arrived from Detroit, I filled him in and we watched in horror as the events of the day played out before our eyes. Within hours the airport was closed, our luggage was already in the belly of our departing aircraft, where we were informed it would stay, and we were on our own. Outside the terminal it was a mad house; not a single taxi was available. With the help of a couple of Ben Franklins we commandeered a limo and made our way to a restaurant somewhere between the airport and downtown Atlanta. We discussed our options over a half-hearted lunch and finally decided to try and wait out the air travel shut down. We located a hotel and with only our carry-on’s, we checked in.

The next couple of days were identical. We met early for breakfast, discussed our options, watched the news in the bar until noon, ate lunch, and discussed our options. We spent the afternoon and evening in exactly the same pattern. We never ventured out of the hotel. We called rental car companies to check car availability and we waited. Finally on Thursday morning the news came through that the airport would likely open that day. We hurriedly packed, checked out, and shuttled directly to the airport. We arrived to find yellow crime scene tape still sealing the doors in giant X’s. Through the glass we saw encouraging activity inside. We pulled the tape down and the airport was officially open.

After several stages of unusual activity we boarded our scheduled flight to Cape Town and departed Atlanta. Ours was the first commercial flight to leave the continental United States. By the time we reached the African continent we were informed that our plane was being diverted to Johannesburg. We never did find out why.

We spent ten days in Africa. There were plenty of questions regarding what we had seen and how it made us feel. In retrospect the whole trip to Africa feels surreal and I recall the conversations as more polite than probing.

We returned to the United States on schedule. I remember the news regarding our campaign to find the perpetrators, the Dow Jones’ devastated stock values, and the ghost town, which was the Atlanta airport.

I thought a lot about what I would do when I returned home. I considered how I might make a difference. Admittedly, the fact that I am a Missourian from a small town played greatly in my thought process. “After all,” I considered, “how can I possibly make a difference?” When I arrived from the St. Louis airport I went straight to my place of business where an employee meeting had been organized at my request. I announced additions to our benefits program and vacation packages. I told everyone that we must stick together and look to the future. I reminded them that we are Americans and above all we survive and prosper. I am sure I used the word persevere.

Later I learned what else I could do when my brother, son, and nephew were all sent to the Iraqi battlefield.

911 changed me, I remember it well. We are Americans, we are free, and we do have a responsibility to protect ourselves and our country. In the face of our enemies, both foreign and domestic, we must not allow them to negatively affect our financial markets, hamper our trade, or change our society. We must not allow them to send us frightened to cover.

Together we must preserver!

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star

Monday, June 3, 2013


In my blog entry last Wednesday, “Our Veterans Stories, Our Span of Wars,” I wrote about the deployment of my immediate family members. However, I goofed. I failed miserably because I excluded a very significant family member and his service. My nephew, actually my favorite nephew (as he aptly programmed his contact information in my cell phone and I happen to agree) deployed to the Middle East where he flew numerous helicopter missions as Pilot in Command of an Army gun ship. My omission of this information in my original post was one of those things you do without realizing what you have done and when you finally remember, you feel awful. Well, I officially feel awful.

My nephew is truly a special person in my life. I was eighteen when he was born. He was my parent’s first grandchild. He is a handsome, intelligent individual with beautiful, bright children of his own and excellent parenting skills. Off and on over the years we have spent good amounts of time together. When he was a baby and I lived in the University dormitory he came to stay occasionally. We always had a great time and in many ways we grew up together. I watched him become the man he is today and wow am I proud of that.

When he returned from deployment he brought home an American flag, with which he flew a mission, and gave it to me. I keep it at home in my library and count it among my most cherished possessions. Like my father, son, and brother, I am proud of my nephew’s willingness to risk his life in the service of our country. He came home safely and I thank God every day that he is in my life.

I regret having omitted such an important person in my original post. I liken it to leaving your child behind at a gas station. Today I carry the burden of bad uncle and will work hard to do better in the future. In addition I have many other extended family members who served our country. Uncles and cousins on both sides of my family did their duty. I am and shall always remain proud of them all.

Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Elizabeth’s Secrets
Dark Star