Wednesday, April 4, 2012

'Bill Robbins and The Hay Bales'

Hello again everyone! I'm pleased to add another story from Randy Sohn today for all to enjoy...:)

I need to hunt up one of my old logbooks from back in the earlier days of North Central Airlines. Not the earliest days (I wasn't around back then) when the fleet initially consisted of just the Lockheed 10s. Later came the DC-3s and then later again, the piston-engined Convair 340s and 440s. When I was hired in 1960, the fleet was made up of over thirty DC-3s, plus the first five Convairs that'd been acquired the previous year when Continental had decided to start disposing of that portion of their fleet. Anyway, I'd just like to find out what DC-3 I was flying along with Bill Robbins on that day – so long ago – when we went round and round the airport at Mitchell, South Dakota.

Ah-hah, here it is in one of my logbooks – N-17312 – back in 1961. The day before that, I see we'd flown the venerable DC-3 N-21728, company #18, later destined to become the world’s highest time airplane at the time we donated it to the Henry Ford museum. Around 86,000 hours at that time, a two-owner airplane, just Eastern Airlines and us. Anyway, I'd love to be able now to interview a few of those passengers, just to see what their impressions might have been of that whole operation.

Picture this scenario. Bill and I'd just left Huron that day. A short climb and we leveled off enroute to our first stop at Mitchell, just a short jaunt some forty-one miles down the James River to the south. Not too much of notoriety to be observed in Mitchell, unless you count the "Corn Palace". Mitchell's visibility was obscured in all quadrants by fog; the report we'd been given upon departure indicated a visibility of less than half a mile. Back in those days we very seldom cruised much above the prescribed MEA (minimum enroute altitude). This day was no exception to the rule, a leisurely 145 knots at about 3,000' or so. Every foot of altitude we'd reach at cruise needed to take into consideration the physical considerations of our passenger's ears during the subsequent descent, about 300' per minute was our desired rate in the DC-3's un-pressurized twenty-six passenger cabin.

Approximately halfway between the two towns, we radioed the Mitchell station, inquiring as to how the weather – and especially their visibility – was now? Any improvement? A short wait ensued while the station manager physically stepped outside the terminal building onto the ramp to again survey the weather and take a visibility check. His discouraging reply over the airwaves informed us that it didn't really look too good, sky conditions remained an indefinite 600' but the visibility had recently improved to (ha-rummpf) one-half mile. Unh-huh! S-u-r-e! Well, one thing's for sure, with the total lack of wind – which in itself was helping to cause the fog – any runway was legal for our landing – or attempt! I didn’t know it at the time but this apprentice was very shortly going to participate in – and learn from – the rare opportunity of watching a consumate master plying his trade.

Bill and I briefly reviewed with each other our recollections of Bob Johnson's recitation of the permissable weather minimums at last year's annual ground school. As best both of us understood the Federal Aviation regulations Bob had so carefully explained, the 600' didn't technically constitute a ceiling because of the modifier "indefinite". Also, according to the "sliding scale" interpretation (400' and 1 mile, 500' and ¾ mile or 600' and ½ mile) allowed by our airline's operations specifications, we could legally conduct the approach and landing. Only problem – how were we going to be able to locate the runway's end in time and in a position to accomplish a safe landing? Oh well, let's give it the old college try! If we aren’t able to land, then we can always say we tried and go on to our next scheduled stop – Foss Field at Sioux Falls. After obtaining our clearance for the instrument approach from the Minneapolis air traffic contol center we were all set for the next events in this show.

Bill slightly rolled the elevator trim forward and – smoothly and almost imperceptibly – adjusted the pitch to begin an unhurried descent. I busied myself tuning and identifying the appropriate ADF (Automatice Direction Finding) radio beacons that Bill had asked for. He had quickly determined that an approach from the northwest quadrant afforded us the best possibility of a successful outcome, considering the lack of geographical and man-made obstructions on the north side of the airport. As soon as this duty was finished, I had time to again peruse the Jeppesen approach chart, studying and rechecking all the details that would need to be committed to memory – or at least available in a flash if the captain should ask! Our descent continued while I routinely advised the Mitchell station of our fuel on board upon our estimated arrival. While Bill leveled off at the minimum prescribed altitude, I held the small plastic checklist in one hand while completing the familiar "In-Range" checklist prior to commencing our approach.

A few short minutes later, we watched the rapid reversal of the ADF needle, indicating our position as being directly overhead the station. Bill smoothly applied left aileron to reverse his course towards the desired outbound heading, all the while descending to our procedure turn altitude. He languidly called for "Gear Down " and silently held up his index finger to signify his desire for the flaps to be extended to the ¼ position. I complied with these commands and again referred to the checklist to complete the "Before Landing" portion. Now, everything's done and all's ready for whatever comes.

An adequate time spent flying outbound and now a turn back in a southerly direction. After intercepting the prescribed inbound bearing towards the station, Bill again descends towards the minimum altitude allowed for this approach. I again consult the Jepp approach chart to recheck that altitude – so far, so good – all's well. Bill mutters to me "Looks like we may get in, I can see some ground below out the side window". I concur in this observation, having noticed the exact same thing outside the window on my side of the cockpit. Leveling at the 500' above airport elevation required for a circling approach at that airport, Bill again speaks to me out the side of his mouth "Sure wish we could see what's up ahead, the runway’s gotta be there somewhere!" I nod a quick assent with this wish, frantically staring ahead as hard as I can, in the vain hope that the very intensity of my gaze might help in this hopeless quest. Alas – to no avail – all I can really see is straight down to my side, this cloud condition is truly indefinite! If we don't see the runway v-e-r-y soon now, we're gonna be too high for a successful landing. All of a sudden, looking downward, I see the end of the runway appear and then rapidly go by, 500' below us. I glumly inform Bill of this, his reply is the very model of succinctness. "Unh-huh, we'll have to do it again".

So apply the aileron and power, retract the gear and flaps and go back to do the whole procedure all over again! Climbing back for a second attempt, Bill advises me that this time we'll move slightly over according to our indicators on the instrument panel and – hopefully – be in a slightly better position to attempt the landing. So we faithfully retrace our earlier steps and the approach. About this time the airport station agent radioed us that he'd both heard and saw us go by overhead on the first approach. Bill opined that this really doesn't do us a lot of good! I concur. The results on this second attempt? The same, except that we both are able to see the end of the runway go by as we fly over it. But this time Bill divulges a little bit of his plan of action for the subsequent attempt to salvage this operation. We'll not be making the complete missed approach since the approach isn't the problem, rather it's knowing where the runway's end is – in time to safely land!

So we remain overhead the airport at the allowable circling altitude while Bill applies aileron again to enter a downwind leg on the east side of the airport. He knows from prior experience just where the east boundaries of the airport lie and the surrounding topography. Applying this knowledge, he establishes the downwind leg at the proper altitude and what he feels is an adequate distance offset from the runway so as to permit another turn to a base leg and a subsequent alignment. Talking only slightly to himself, I've never known whether he meant for me to hear – or not – he conducts this airborne tour of the airport. The only problem I can see (or can't) is that the runway is stubbornly hidden from view – somewhere off to our left in the fog. No matter, he knows exactly where he is! Presently he turns to the base leg, quietly muttering over some observed details on the ground in the fields below us. All the time retaining our circling altitude, never gaining or losing a foot of this precious commodity. He knows full well that I'll warn him – instantly – if he does! Never varying his bank angle a degree he continues on around a semi-circle base leg, US Navy style, until he is back on the runway heading. He again speaks out of the corner of his mouth at me, his wide-eyed (but not yet totally capable) assistant. "Lem'me know just as soon as you see the runway!" "Yes'sir!" We both see it at the same instant, off to our left at an angle that makes it impossible to attempt a landing. He doesn't miss a beat, or lose a foot of altitude, just keeps chugging away with his airplane at an airspeed of 90 knots.

Flying overhead the runway some 500' below us, he asks what I saw on my side during the base and final leg. I quickly tell him what I'd observed. He nods his head and tells me that he'll increase his bank angle some five degrees on the next base leg and we'll see how we do with that change. Another turn to the downwind leg, a studied observation on his part of the ground below, followed by another turn with a slightly steeper bank angle on this base leg. As we continue this turn to the final approach heading he commands me to quickly tell him what type of hay bales I observe in the field below. Hay bales? I look again and then quickly describe them as being the conventional rectangular shape. He says, "OK, good, I'm looking at some Allis-Chalmers round type bales over here off to my left, I think we're still gonna be just a tad too far to the right to land!" Surely enough, he's right, when we finally see the runway appear, it's still at an angle off to our left but not so far this time!

This fact seems to bring him cheer as he suddenly demonstrates another facet of the continuous thought process required of a captain. He asks, "What time are we scheduled out of Mitchell?" I hurriedly consult my omni-present clipboard and the schedule I had hand lettered on it earlier, prior to our departure from Huron. I provide him with the answer to his question and he then reminds me that we are operating on a "through clearance" from the Minneapolis Air Traffic Control Center. Briefly, this means that we are authorized to proceed from Huron to Sioux Falls with an enroute stop in Mitchell – but – we must be off of Mitchell by a certain time or our clearance becomes void. And – this time is rapidly drawing nigh, considering all the time we've expended making lazy circles in our attempt to land at Mitchell. No mind, first things first, opines Bill. He tells me that our next circle will be our last, if we can't land this time we'll just give up and go on to Sioux Falls. Then he briefs me to watch very carefully outside as we make our next base leg and turn to final, and to let him know the exact instant that I spy round hay bales under my side window. He'll then align us with that fence line between the two fields, with round bales to our left and square bales to our right. This fence line will lead us precisely to the runway's end and a safe landing. I do exactly as he wishes and excitedly inform him when I spot the two different types of bales. He turns to the exact runway heading and for the first time, holds up his hand with three fingers indicating a desire for ¾ landing flaps to be extended. At the same time he makes a slight reduction to the throttles and begins a glide angle above the fence line. Voi-la! Success! There's the runway end, appearing precisely where it should be, centered under our pathway! Magic! A slight chirp-chirp as the tires kiss the runway and Bill says, "Tell the station we're on and they’ll need to call Minneapolis Center and get a revision to our off time, we're gonna be a little late departing from here."

A thought – albeit decades later – about the present day advantages of having a PA system to keep the passengers informed. I have to wonder just what we – or Bill – would have announced over it as we made those five circles around the airport. Nothing dangerous about them, but how would they have been perceived by the present day air-traveler? I have to admit, I don't know. We've gotten so used to announcing all the myriad situations we may encounter in an aerospace contraption that spans distances of thousands of miles and in which I may haul over four hundred passengers at one time. Today it'd probably be unheard of to make that number of circles around an airport while contemplating our landing. Back then, however, it was probably a different story. I've talked to a number of the flight attendants that flew the Convairs to the bitter end, out on the prairies. These holdouts were often referred to as our "Convair Queens". They liked that "one girl-one airplane" existence. They insisted that the average passenger out in the Dakotas or Nebraska was far more easy to please, to serve and to deal with than any of the modern day city dwellers we've encountered much later in our life out flying the line.

Randy Sohn - 1999 ©

1 comment:

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