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radio failure, hot texas desert and bubblegum

The Texas skies were cerulean blue, and the sun was already blazing in the sky, despite it being only 0830. I was sitting in Dobbs Restaurant in the airport terminal at Fort Worth (Meacham) Airport.

Fort Worth Meacham – Also a Nuclear Bunker!

Breakfast was two cheesy hot dogs, with a side of fries and limitless coffees – all served by Jolene. Yes, I really have known a Jolene, but this lady did not have flaming locks of auburn hair, but a well kept blonde bob cut. Always cheerful, she mothered her “boys” as she referred to us student pilots – whether we were 30 or 70!

I nodded a good morning to Ralph, the helicopter instructor, and was rewarded with a grin.

Ralph was not overly talkative. His tanned face, silver crew cut and the numerous scars on his arms and throat bore mute testament to his previous career in the US military.

He brought his coffee and waffles to the next table, and sat down.

“Morning Ralph” I said, “How’s things?”

“I’m here” was his reply.

Situation normal then.

I had lost ten dollars to Ralph the previous Friday during his regular “Helo Challenge”

Each Friday at about three in the afternoon, Ralph would place four standard road cones on a 30-metre square area of the ramp. He would then invite anyone present to take the challenge. His challenge was that you had to hold the helicopter within the four cones for 60 seconds. He even made it “easy” by controlling the power and height. All the challenger had to do was use one control.

If you won the challenge, he would give a one hour lesson in the helicopter for free.

If you lost, then he kept the ten dollars, and you enjoyed yourself.

Easy right?

So last Friday, I was finished with lessons by noon, and so I had a leisurely lunch at Dobbs, and then sought out Ralph so that I could do the challenge.

A small crowd of students and instructors had gathered to watch, leaning on the chain-link fence. We slowly walked out to the Bell 47 helicopter – Ralph in his old olive drab flight suit, and me in tee shirt and shorts.

The truly iconic Bell 47 helicopter. Flying it is like being a one-armed soot juggler.

Climbing aboard, he explained the controls to me. I was to look after the cyclic. This is the main control column, and is used to steer the helicopter in its lateral sense. Basically, push forward to go forwards, push left to turn left, and pull back to go in reverse.

The collective control and throttle were located between the seats. Pulling the lever up, and twisting the throttle causes the power to increase, and the helicopter to climb.

Ralph would control the rudder pedals – so all I had to do as the helicopter climbed was keep it in between the four cones.

Having been briefed, I knew that I could nail this.

The power came on, and the cabin shook slightly as the surly bonds with earth were cut, and the helicopter rose majestically to about twenty feet.

Looking across at me, he grinned.

“Okay Son”, he said, “You Have it”

“I have it” I responded.

I gripped the cyclic and felt his hold relax. We started drifting left, so I eased the control right.

The infernal machine then leapt to the right like a cricket, and I almost went outside the boundary. I immediately moved the control to the left, and we lurched sickeningly to port, at a rapid rate.

I felt, rather than saw Ralph pull up on the collective, adding power as he did so. The helicopter darted upwards to a safe height.

“Easy son”, he murmured, “Treat her like a woman – Y’all gotta be gentle…”

I continued to wrestle with the machine, but in due course, we skittered out of the defined area, and I had lost the challenge.

“Ah have control,” he said, and he swiftly recentred us in the area. Just for good measure, he made that damn aircraft pirouette, dip and bow.

After we landed, we walked back to Dobbs, and I slapped a ten-dollar bill into his hand.

Folding it swiftly, he tucked it into a breast pocket of his flying suit.

He gave me a penetrating look, jammed a cigar in his mouth and lit up. “Thanks, Son. Now Y’all go and have a nice day”

I had then proceeded to have a very enjoyable weekend with my room-mate, Tomas.

Tomas was Portuguese, and had rented a condo locally, and had bought a car. He was in the middle of a full airline transport pilot course, and he would be living in the US for another few months.

He had advertised for an English roommate as he wanted to practice English as the English speak it, and we hit it off immediately falling into a happy and relaxed friendship.

Having been here for a while, Tomas knew the best places for good beers and good food, and we hit the local bars in downtown Fort Worth, around the Stockyards.

Our late evening visit to Billy Bob’s and my slightly inebriated (well – fully inebriated) state resulted in me being thrown off the indoor bucking bronco and consuming a great number of beers.

Filthy McNasty’s was also a bar we frequented when we visited the Stockyards and is it was at these venues where I probably developed my love of country music.

However, the weekend was now history, and I was looking forward to getting some air under my arse again, so here I was…

I finished eating and concentrated on the task at hand. On the table in front of me was a sectional chart of the Dallas Fort Worth area, upon which was my planned route. This was the biggie. I had completed my qualifying cross country a few days before, and this was a consolidation flight.

Fort Worth-Meacham Airfield – Just west of Dallas, and right next to Carswell Air Force Base, Home of B-52 Bombers.

There on the chart was the simple black pencil line describing my route to Midland Odessa Airport in West Texas, routing via Mineral Wells, Stephens County, Abilene and Big Spring. About 250 nautical miles, and about two and a half hours flying time.

A fairly simple straight line flight? Maybe…

Maybe not.

A considerable portion of the flight would be flying over the Texas badlands – desert with no real navigational features. The landscape littered by “nodding donkey” oil rigs, and tumbleweed.

A bit of a hostile environment for a student pilot with a total of only 30.8 hours in his logbook.

My first flying logbook. I am now working on filling up my seventh…

It was June 19th 1991, and I had been here for 26 days, fulfilling my life ambition of learning to fly.

After almost a month of living in the USA, I was now virtually a native and could shop in the local mall without adult supervision, and order beers without help in the local saloons.

Shiner Bock – the local brew of choice.

Now, not many people would consider taking a six-week break in Texas, as there are not a lot of attractions to pull in the average tourist. Lots of research had revealed that this was a very cost-effective place to learn to fly.

The Dollar – Pound Exchange rate was two to one, and aircraft rental was insanely cheap. Combined with the consistently good weather in Texas during the spring and early summer, I could probably come home with a pilot licence.

I was making good solid progress and my instructor had built steadily on my previous gliding experience, and as a result, I had soloed in just 8 hours.

My first solo was a bit of an event in itself. Fort Worth Alliance Field has two parallel runways, each 3353 metres long, and 46 metres wide. I had flown there under supervision that morning and did a reasonable join, flew a standard circuit, and landed without either bending the aeroplane or compressing my spine.

Bill appeared happy with my performance, as he asked me to park the aircraft but not shut it down.

I did as he said, and as soon as we had come to a stop, he was out of the cockpit like a jackrabbit, yelling to me that I should do three circuits, land, take off and then come and pick him up.

I didn’t have time to be nervous; With a dry mouth and only slightly trembling hands and sweaty palms, I taxied back to the holding point.

Air Traffic laconically cleared me to “Take the Active” and I swung out, over the numbers and the piano keys, and gently came to a stop on the centreline.

The runway disappeared into the heat shimmer, and my heart was pounding in my chest.

“Cessna 714 Hotel November, Clear Take Off, Runway 34 Right, wind is 320 at 5 knots”

“714 Hotel November rolling” I croaked, pushing the throttle fully forward.

The little Cessna 150 leapt forwards – alarmingly quickly without Bill’s six foot two frame in it.

I eased back on the yoke, and the ground fell rapidly away, and I settled the aircraft into a gentle climb. Why was my mouth so goddam dry?

I turned gently into the pattern, The view was simply marvellous without Bills not unsubstantial bulk in the way.

The crazy thing was that as I was levelling off and turning into the circuit, I could still see the runway stretching away in front of me. Looking down, I could see an American Airlines 767 taxing out to the other runway – a weird omen, as I was to start working for the mighty American from Heathrow once I returned from Texas to the UK.

I duly completed my three circuits, and Bill appeared to be happy with my airmanship. My cheeks were aching, and it took me a second to realise that I had been smiling solidly for a whole half hour!

Not many student pilots get to share the pattern with heavy commercial jets, and the local area was packed with B-52 bombers operating out of Carswell Air Force base, so a good learning environment.

On my return to Meacham Field, I underwent the obligatory ceremony following my announcement that I had soloed. Instructors, fellow students, and the salesgirl form the Longhorn Pilot Shop all helped to cut the back out of my tee-shirt, and write the date and my name on it whereupon it was pinned to the ceiling with countless others.

So here I was about to launch off on another epic voyage of discovery.

My aircraft was booked for 1100, so I kicked back for a while with some of the other students and watched the shool aircraft plod dutifully around the circuit.

Eventually, the time came, and I wandered to the operations desk to book out my aeroplane.

By a strange quirk of fate, the aeroplane allocated to me was N714HH, the identical sister to the aeroplane in which I soloed. Good Omen!

Or so I thought…

Cessna N714HH – An Honest Airplane that Looked After me on my FIrst Solo.

I signed for the aircraft and walked out to do my preflight. Bill had already checked and authorised my flight plan and was happy that my calculations and headings and my fuel planning were all correct, so it was just a simple matter of flying the route.

Swiftly completing the external inspection, I jumped aboard and rapidly conducted the pre-start checklist. The engine started at the first turn of the key, and I called Meacham ground for taxi permission.

It wasn’t long until I was sitting on the end of Meacham’s Runway 34, its 2287 metres of concrete baking in the sunshine.

Cleared for take-off, I opened the throttle and a few seconds later I was climbing out with a gentle left turn to pick up the westerly heading that would take me to Mineral Wells, and then onwards to Abilene.

The aircraft bucked about in the low air turbulence, but once I climbed above 3000 feet things settled down a bit, and I began to enjoy the flight.

Just over twenty minutes later, Mineral Wells appeared out of the scrub, and I checked off the waypoint on my flight log.

An hour and six minutes later, I landed safely at Abilene and taxied up to the parking. I needed a pee and to check the fuel levels.

After servicing the aircraft and attending to my bladder overfull warning light, I called Air Traffic and requested permission to taxi. The response from the tower was very scratchy and almost inaudible. I had to repeat my request and readback several times before I was happy that I was authorised to move.

I should have recognised the early indications that all was not well. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of hours of flying experience behind me, I would have checked and resolved the problem before getting airborne.

Not back then with so few hours.

So, I happily launched into the bright blue yonder, climbing up to a comfortable altitude. The sky was bright blue, and hurt my eyes, despite wearing my green aviator sunglasses. The desert scrub below was a myriad of browns and ochres, with washed-out looking vegetation.

The radio was quiet, but not unexpectedly so, as this was a bit of a remote area. Basically, there was no one out here to talk to.

Eventually, I could see Midland Air Park just ahead, so I selected their VHF radio frequency and gave them a call.

“Midland this is Cessna November Seven One Four Hotel Hotel inbound to you with information Golf, request altimeter and airfield traffic”

Static filled my headphones, but I gave them two minutes, then tried again, repeating the call.

Again, no answer. I began to have misgivings. I would have to land without a radio.

My God! I had read about this, but never done it.

I dialled 7600 into my transponder so that ground radar would know I had no radio and then flew cautiously into the pattern. I made blind calls but received no response.

I scanned the sky for other aircraft, but the circuit pattern was empty. Peering down at the ground, I could see no aircraft moving around, I decided that it was safe, so I continued with my approach, and landed safely.

I taxied up to the deserted Terminal, and shut the engine down,

Climbing out, I could see the place was deserted. Being a Wednesday afternoon, I could understand the lack of aircraft.

I wandered around and eventually spotted a guy in overalls working on a car outside a semi-derelict hangar.

I explained that I had a problem with my radio, but he was unable to help; there were no engineers around, and he was only there to work on his car.

I considered my predicament. I had tried repeatedly to get the radio to work. I had re-set the circuit breakers, and checked the security of the antenna. Nothing seemed to solve the problem.

The trouble was that without obtaining a radio clearance, I would be unable to enter the controlled airspace surrounding Abilene. This meant that my pre-planned and direct routing back to Meacham would not be available.

Under FAA regulations, as a student pilot, my instructor has to authorise each solo flight.

I called Bill at Meacham from the payphone in the pilot lounge. I explained what had happened, and he told me to plan a new flight and submit it to him over the fax.

I had already replanned, and I would follow the Santa Fe Railroad Northeast as far as Sweetwater, and then dog leg further North to avoid Abilene’s airspace. I would then continue east via Mineral Wells, and recover back to Meacham Field.

It was late afternoon as I departed Midland Air Park, and from 3,000 feet I soon spotted the railroad track, and dutifully followed it, watching the lengthening shadows as they crawled across the landscape below.

I slowly passed a freight train, which seemed to be a mile long. It took me a good few minutes to overtake it.

I was getting mentally tired by now, and the gloom was now chasing me. I had not undergone any training for flying at night, and whilst it was crystal clear, I had read that perception during landing can be distorted considerably.

I was now starting to wish fervently that I was on the ground, as it was now dusk.

I could see Mineral Wells coming up, and I made the decision that I was not prepared to fly onwards to Meacham, a further 35 miles away. The decision made, I felt much better, and re-focused on the task at hand, to land without breaking the aeroplane.

I made my landing safely, still making the required blind radio calls.

I shut down and using the payphone, I called Bill to let him know where I was. He agreed with my decision to divert, and arranged for another instructor to fly out to pick me up.

About 40 minutes later, I saw the lights of an approaching aircraft, which landed and swiftly taxied over to where I was parked.

Teri, one of the instructors got out, and came over to me, as the other aircraft backtracked and took off heading east.

“What’s the problem dude?” She asked me.

I explained the scratchy radio at Abilene and the actions that I had taken to resolve the issue.

She thoughtfully chewed her gum, then blew an expert bubble, which expanded to an obscene size and then popped.

Leaning into the cockpit, she turned the master switch on and switched the radio master on. Sure enough, there was nothing but static.

Reaching under the instrument panel, she pulled both of jack plugs connecting my headset and microphone out, and then pushed them back into the sockets.

The Cessna 150 instrument panel.

Trying the radio again resulted in clear sounds.

I felt hugely foolish.

“I’m sorry to have dragged you out here – I could have done that”

“Uh-huh” she replied. “At least you can log another 30 minutes dual night flying – look on the bright side”

I flew us back in near silence, still feeling that I had been a bit of an idiot.

Teri obviously sensed this, as she slapped my right thigh, saying “Dude, Y’alls instructor should have suggested this, as it’s happened before!”

The lights of Meacham were now sliding under the nose towards us. Happily, I didn’t make too bad a landing for my first one at night. Maybe a little harder than I would have liked, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Fort Worth Meacham at night.

So, What did I learn?

I learnt that when a problem occurs, you should check every part of the system, and not assume that pulling circuit breakers, or recycling equipment on and off will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

I also learnt that more experienced people may not always offer the correct advice, as they too may make assumptions that checks that are obvious to them may not be so obvious to anyone else, and therefore won’t have necessarily have been conducted.

Lastly, I learnt that pink bubblegum bubbles that burst can stick long blonde hair very effectively to Dave Clark headsets.

Go Well…