Around the Airport

Monday, July 14, 2014

Engine Failure During Oshkosh Photo Shoot

This is from an AOPA shoot.  The article never made it but the photos show
up all the time in AOPA material.  Mike Fizer was photographer.
I love doing aviation photo shoots.  Up ten, down ten, five back, twenty forward, straight ahead, whatever the photographer wants I’m there to give it to them.  It’s not easy to capture images of rare planes and playing an active role in the process is extremely satisfying.  Look at any great aviation photo you took part in and you remember the effort involved. 
My first Oshkosh photo shoot.  There's also a story to go with this one but that is for
another day.  Paul Bowen photographer.
First, in order to capture the best aviation photos an almost mythical level of convergence is required.   Two planes with closely matched performance, one of which must have a few specific traits that make it perfect for shooting air to air photos, must be available.  During that window of aircraft availability, you must also have good weather conditions during specific hours of the day.  Next you need a photo ship pilot that understands what is needed for a photo shoot; good lighting, backdrop placement, formation flying, and the size opening from which the photographer will be shooting.   In the same plane with that pilot you need a photographer skilled in catching action in an environment where lighting changes substantially every five seconds.  Finally, in the plane being photographed you need a pilot that understands photography and has formation skills.*  Sounds easy right?  Unfortunately, there is yet another factor that comes into play.
This is from an EAA photo shoot.
What if the subject aircraft is a very rare flying machine?  At that point, the chances of pulling everything together in one spot in the sky, at the same time, become astronomical.  It’s the reason EAA takes several years’ worth of photos during Oshkosh.  They get’em while the getting’s good.   A few years ago, on a particularly beautiful evening, I was taking part in one of those shoots.
I remember that day clearly.  Having participated in many of the sessions through the years, this time I asked the photographer if we could go last to get the best light.  He agreed and a few hours later we were over a lake capturing images.
I took this photo at Deer Run Airpark.
The plane I was flying, a rare Stearman C3B, had really caught the eye of the photographer.  At the time, it was one of the most beautiful planes flying.  For that matter, it still is.  Something about it just pops and people naturally find it attractive.  Because of that we stayed a little longer on station to get maximum camera time.  Flying over the middle of the lake though, where many of the shoots take place, was something I had refused.
When you play the role of photo subject pilot there are many factors you must consider.  Knowing the plane didn’t climb well on hot days, part of my planning had been to have minimal fuel.  If we were going to be anywhere near the lake, I wanted to be able to climb as high as I could as quickly as I could and get the maximum performance from the plane.  Being light was critical to that.  But don’t get me wrong, minimal doesn’t mean empty.
My fuel planning went like this; primarily, the airplane would be at a high power setting most of the time.  We’d be climbing enroute to the photo shoot location.  Once there, the prop would be set to achieve maximum rpm.  This would offer a quicker throttle response while also making it easier for the photographer to capture a full prop disc blur.  It would also mean a higher fuel burn due to the rigors of jockeying to achieve whatever the guy behind the camera wanted.   We’d be there a maximum of 45 minutes and then we’d make a mad dash to Wittman Field trying to get there before it closed for the evening show.   On top of that I’d add 45 minutes worth of fuel to allow for fudge room and reserve.  And yet, that’s not everything I considered.
From the Oshkosh shoot.  Chris Miller was the photographer.
The Stearman I was flying had two fuel tanks.  One was up high in the center section and one was down in the fuselage.  Considering everything the photographer may want, plus the fact I would be working with minimum fuel, I put all of the 100LL, except what I needed to get to the air to air location, up top.  This would give me an additional level of comfort by ensuring I would always have gas higher than the carburetor and a few gallons left over in the fuselage for an emergency.
If you think that sounds like an extreme amount of fuel planning, maybe it is.  I don’t know how others handle it but I can tell you that engine failures have almost always been, and continue to be, due to fuel starvation.  Even the much maligned OX-5 was actually reported by aviators of the day to most commonly quit due to fuel issues, not mechanical.  Therefore, in my mind, fuel considerations are always critical.
Finally, there was one other thing to consider.  While I circled waiting for my photo slot, I knew the photo ship would check in.  When they did, I told them I would not be able to go out to the middle of the widest part of the lake but that I would gladly fly over other parts of it as long as we were a little higher.  The extra altitude was to ensure gliding distance to land in case of an engine failure.
Discomfort, doubt and distraction are not things you want to experience during a photo shoot.  Being sure I could focus on the other plane without worrying about fuel or going into the lake would make everything work much better.  We agreed on an altitude and before long the camera was filling up flash cards.
Forming up on the photo ship I had one last question, “At our current speed, how long would it take us to get to the field?”  The guys gave me their answer, I compared it to my estimate which was based on a higher speed, split the difference, and then gave them my bugout time. 
Amazingly all the important points converged.  My estimated maximum time on station fell exactly on the point I felt we’d need to leave to get back to the field before it closed.  I gave them the time and asked them to let me know when we were ten minutes from that.
Pointed into the sun, out of the sun, high and low, we flew.  180’s, 360’s, and even 270's were among the turns we made and sometimes it was just a few degrees.  “How far out over the lake would you be comfortable”, they asked.  I looked around, told them that if we were 500’ higher I’d be up for the middle, and we agreed to climb.
Leveling off we found it nice up there.  By chance, that extra altitude took us through a thermal layer and dropped the temperature several degrees. This made everyone much more comfortable.  A few circuits later we were all in a good mood and I took a quick glance at the timer.  To my surprise, we had already been in the shoot for almost an hour.  Thankfully though, getting to the shoot had not taken as long as planned so the numbers still worked.  But just to verify my time piece wasn’t fooling me**, I asked, “What time is it”? The photo ship responded, “We have a few minutes left to play around if you’re up for it”.  So on we flew; all of us working hard to catch a few bonus shots.
“Do you have anything else you’d like to try or a specific photo you’d like to get”, they asked, obviously trying to use every minute of photo time available.   I suggested some odd attitudes and we agreed I would put it in a hard slip and see how it turned out.  Cranking hard right aileron and left full rudder, I worked the controls to hold a maximum slip throughout a 360 degree turn.  Coming up on a complete circle I heard them say,  “Roll out”.  Then they started to tell me what we’d be doing next.  It was something about straight but I didn’t really hear it.   The engine had gone instantly silent.
When I say instantly silent, I mean, the powerplant went from maximum climb power to completely dead in a fraction of a second; a blaring exhaust note to chirping crickets faster than I ever thought possible.
Instantly every powerplant control was full forward, carb heat was pulled and tanks switched as I strained to see forward.  “Where’s the shoreline”, I thought.  “HOLY CRAP, I CAN’T MAKE THAT”, my mind raced.  “Great, I’m going to be the second guy to die in a lake in as many days***”, was the next thought to go through my mind.  “Why isn’t this thing running”, I asked myself.  “This plane can’t die in my hands” was my next thought.  I looked again, adjusted my track toward the nearest point, and watched to get an estimate on our maximum potential dead-stick distance.  I had already put the bottom of the top wing level with the horizon for maximum glide when I looked up to see the photo ship pulling away.
“Should I tell them; no you have other things to do”, went the inner voice.  “Why isn’t this thing running!?”  I checked all the controls again and switched the tanks back to my original configuration.  “COME ON BABY; RUN!!!”.  Again I adjusted for land and pondered the situation at hand.
That’s when I began preparing for a crash.  I quickly pulled the extra cushion out from behind me to place it in front of the panel for impact, tightened the harness to the point of cutting off circulation, and planned for when I would accept reality and shut everything off.
Just then my head jerked back and my ears struggled with sensory overload.   BLAAAAAAAAA” came the engine back to life.   It didn’t wind up.  It came just as it had gone; straight from crickets chirping to wide open quicker than I ever thought possible.  “What the hell”, I wondered.  And in that instant my eyes fell on something I had seen but never truly saw.   I was dumbfounded and relieved.  How could we all have missed that?  Then I heard a radio call.
Note the single fuel line coming down from above.
Fairly far away by now, for the second time, the photo ship was asking if there was a problem.  Trying to play it cool and relax myself at the same time, I responded, “No, I just dropped my goggles in the floor.  Pull it back and I’ll catch up”.  We were heading for the shore.  That was good and since I had realized what happened, I didn’t want to freak them out and cut the shoot short.  Thankfully we were almost done.
A few photos later the adrenaline wore off just as the folks in the photo ship offered their own surprise, “Hey, we ran late, how fast can that thing go?”  “110 wide open, how late are we”, and I looked at my clock.  I couldn’t believe what time it was.  There was no way we could make it.  I’d be landing elsewhere and finding a ride.  Would Ginger have her phone on?  Fortunately, in recent years I had pointed out the field where I’d be landing.  If I could get her a message I was sure she could find me.
You can see Oshkosh just under and to the left of the plane.
Then the photo ship said, “Hey we need you to fly straight at the field as fast as you can while we call ahead; we’ll fly on you”.  At this rate I was going to land right at thirty minutes fuel.  “Hey guys, you need to tell me if there are going to be ANY holdups.  I’m running thin”.   “No problem, aim for a direct midfield downwind and go fast.  We’ve been cleared in.”  That was the exact moment I watched my “alternate” go by.
Looking again at the clock, I just couldn’t see it happening but the guys stayed positive.  Then, as if everyone who had anything to do with flight operations knew we were coming, the radio came alive with precise directions to follow without response.  I turned tight base, final, and rolled immediately off the runway so a 195 could land tight behind me; on his heels was the photo ship.  Then came the call.  I can’t remember the exact wording but over the radio I heard someone say the airport was closed.  As I taxied to park the airshow was in full swing.
This was a modified downwind/base/to final.
So what had caused the engine to quit?  It was me.  Well, to be fair to myself, it was the convergence of many things.  Fuel planned to the minute, a late day photo shoot, the photographer’s desire to get the most shots possible, a fuel tank designed at the factory for a gentleman flyer, and me operating it almost 75 years later like it was designed for aerobatics.
Having flown the plane all over creation, it was hard to believe I had never noticed something that was literally right in front of me; something nobody else had noticed either.  Yet why would they?  They all flew it straight and level.
The design of the Stearman C3B top tank fuel line take off was typical for the era.  Placed aft and in a fuel bowl, it was designed to accomplish two things; catch fuel contaminants and ensure fuel supply in flight.  There was just one problem with it.  If you were running off the top tank, it wasn’t full, and you flew for an extended period of time in a maximum slip, the fact it was ALSO built into the middle of the tank meant you could starve the engine of fuel.  Ooops.
Yep, drive all the remaining avgas to one side of the tank and it is possible to unport the fuel from the fuel line.  Having just gone a full 360 on edge, sometimes working all factors to achieve even greater but momentary angles of bank, I had done just that.
Arriving back at Vintage Parking, Ron Alexander, the owner at the time, and Ginger were waiting.  I remember Ron looking at me a little funny when I handed him the seat cushion that was still out in the cockpit.  Ginger had something for me to drink.  At the time though all I could think about was filling the tanks to see how much fuel was remaining.  Had I made a mistake in my planning?
Watching the gallons tick by one after another after another, I anxiously awaited a number set in my head.  Five gallons away from it, someone said something to me, I looked away and SPLASH, everything within ten feet was covered in fuel.  Imagine a large capacity Piper Cub tank going from empty to full in under a second and that’s what you had.  That was good news; the plane still contained a little more avgas than originally planned and I couldn't help but laugh. A few minutes earlier I was sweating the possibility of too little fuel; a few minutes later I was dripping from having too much.
Back on the ground in the last light of day.

Note: This story covers just one piece of my part in the shoot. It doesn't cover attending the briefing, cleaning the plane, getting out of Oshkosh during the event, and more.  Earlier I discussed what it takes to get everything together for such an operation.  Now think of all the issues the photo ship pilot may have had to deal with on that day; fuel, maintenance, scheduling, communication with other aircraft waiting in the air for their turn in line, etc.  Then there are all the issues the photographer may have had to deal with; having all the equipment in place and ready, flash cards handy, equipment failures, other cameras with different lenses arranged within reach yet secured from falling out the door, turbulence, and so much more.  If you think about all that could go wrong and all there is for everyone to do, when you see photos from a shoot that produced stunning images you begin to realize how special that moment was.

*In rare circumstances, if you have a bad subject pilot but excellent photo ship, photo ship pilot and photographer, you can still manage to get quality shots.  But again, that’s really rare.  
**I had a clock fool me once, just once.
***During the previous day, a Piper Cub had crashed in Lake Winnebago and both people inside were killed.


With the well known PT series Stearman, the problem I had was
rectified by taking fuel from all four corners of the tank.
Thanks to Mike Porter for the photo.

2 comments:

Ken Bittner said...

Rich,
Thanks for another glimpse into your life.
You have that gift of making one feel...no, I'll speak just for me...you make me feel like I'm right there with you (in this case, wondering why the hell did it quit?) by the way you write.
Thanks for sharing...your stories and your gift.
Ken

Anonymous said...

Flew the C3B just before Oshkosh still in great shape. I won't repeat your fuel issue. Good reminder I am glad I read this
Mike George

Current Owner