There I was...
Thinking, “what a beautiful day” – a solid blue sky and the tranquility of near silence as the wind softly whispered past the cockpit... Wait a minute! There's something wrong with this picture! This isn't a glider. This is a twin-engined Beech 18.
It all started earlier, when I was "volunteered" to do a test flight. It was November 12, 1968 and aircraft 2313 had just come out of maintenance after a major inspection and an engine change. At the time I was an instructor in the Royal Canadian Air Force, at #3 Flying Training School, at RCAF Station Portage La Prairie, where advanced training in multi-engine and instruments, to wings standard, was conducted. We taught on the venerable Beech 18 Expeditor (C-45), or as it was descriptively and affectionately known by several other names: Exploder, Bug Smasher, Wichita Wiggler, Wichita Ice Magnet, to mention a few. Normally, test flights were done by the Base Test Pilot, but due to the high flying rate on a training base, the maintenance turnover was usually too much for one person to keep up with, so line instructors were frequently assigned to the overflow.
The only photo we could find of the Portage La Prairie Expeditor flight line was this shot taken in 1967. It shows the Golden Centennaires' Avro 504 performing a demonstration flight during Canada's Centennial celebrations. Photo via Bill Ewing
In this close-up, we see an Expeditor in all its glory and warts, and the typical prairie landscape. A check of the author's logbook reveals that he flew this particular aircraft (2340) many times. Photo: DND
Normally this would be done solo, but on this particular trip I was to be accompanied by one of the maintenance technicians, whom I call, “Alabaster Bob” – for reasons you will discover later. This fellow really didn't like flying, but technicians could get hazard pay if they flew in a calendar quarter. My right seat passenger hadn't flown in several years, but he needed a wallet implant.
While signing the aircraft out of Repair, I discovered that the test flight would be quite routine, except the starboard engine, which had been replaced, would have to be feathered and restarted as part of the check.
Departure was normal from Runway 31R and we climbed to the north. My plan, for the feathering check, was to climb to a safe altitude over the abandoned wartime MacDonald aerodrome a few miles north, but well outside of the congested Portage circuit. MacDonald was used for weekend sports car races, so hay bales often littered the runways. But, in the case of an emergency, better to hit a moveable hay bale than an irrigation ditch in some farmer's field. My right seat companion didn't seem to be enjoying the trip very much or feeling very comfortable, being in the air. Little did he know what was yet to come – nor did I.
RCAF Station MacDonald, Manitoba during the BCATP years. Photo via Flight Ontario
As we reached 4000 ASL (3200 AGL) and almost MacDonald, about the same time, I lowered the nose to let the airspeed build up and brought the power back to a cruise setting. After trimming, I started the "level off" check. Just as I got into the check, the right fuel pressure warning light came on – I swear it looked as big as my fist and as bright as the sun. The right engine immediately started to wind down. OK – Control, Power, Drag. A full FMS check was redundant as the problem was obviously lack of fuel pressure. My immediate assessment was fuel pump failure – new engine, bad fuel pump. OK, the aircraft is under control with my left leg straight out, stuffed into the rudder, now power. As I advanced the left throttle, I experienced the strangest sensation. It was as if the throttle was disconnected – nothing was happening. My attention to the tachometer was distracted by another flashing light – the left fuel pressure warning light! It, too, was now glowing brightly! I now had a matched set of bright red lights and the left engine was winding down.
We were now in a Beech Glider!
I immediately set up a forced landing pattern for
MacDonald and declared a mayday to Portage, advising them where I would likely be putting down. It was at this point that I looked over at my companion to see him white as a sheet and not a single part of his body was moving – Alabaster Bob! I reassured him (or at least tried) that we were safely in a pattern for MacDonald.
Now back to my windmills. Nothing made sense. The mixtures were rich and the mag switches were on, confirming my assessment that the problem was obviously fuel starvation, but what was the chance of coincidental fuel pump failures. I looked down and confirmed that the tank selectors indicated that I was still feeding off the main tanks, each of which had lots of fuel and fed its own engine. Nothing made sense, so I started switching tanks randomly and started pumping the manual wobble pump for all I was worth. I hadn't feathered or shut off the mags yet, as I still had enough altitude to give me time to attempt to get these windmilling fans turning again under their own steam. Lo and behold! They started running! But, I didn't know why – or for how long, as I had now selected the joint-feed nose tank, which had little or no fuel. My sense of relief was exceeded only by my confusion and uncertainty. Nothing made sense.
Since they were running at the moment, I decided to use them to gain altitude (as we were down to 3000 ASL), all the while, staying over my haven of MacDonald. I climbed to 5000 ASL and figured that I could make it back to Portage. If they quit again before a third of the way back, I would turn around and head back to MacDonald. I advised Portage Tower of my intentions, requesting a straight-in downwind landing. No way was I going to fly any farther than I had to, so a full circuit was out of the question. In addition to giving me priority to the runway and the circuit, Tower had alerted the crash trucks and asked if I wanted them at the runway. I declined, since if I made it to the runway there was no problem, but if I force-landed off airport, I wanted them to come directly from their station on the north side of the base, not from way out in the middle of the aerodrome.
The short transit back seemed an eternity and I spent it alternating my gaze between the engine instruments and spotting potential forced-landing fields. I stayed clean and at altitude as long as I could and then did an "elevator descent" with everything hanging. With the extra altitude and the tailwind we landed quite uneventfully half way down the 8000 foot runway 13R. Even while taxiing in, Alabaster Bob never twitched a muscle and just stared straight ahead.
Before I shut down, a gaggle of technicians descended on the aircraft en masse and wanted me to duplicate the situation, which I did – both engines immediately quit. They were baffled. Join the club! By now my bladder was working overtime, so I left the team to do their job – mine was over. In order to make room for the technicians who came on board, Alabaster Bob, without a spoken word, had already vacated the right seat and the aircraft – at warp speed. I never saw him again and I don't imagine he has ever flown again to this day.
I heard later that it took this team of very long-in-the-tooth experts over an hour to realize the source of the problem. The fuel selector indicators had been installed backwards. The left and the right are mirrors of each other and the left one had been installed on the right side and vice versa. Apparently the technician who installed them, when asked later, said, “I had one in my left pocket and one in my right pocket and I simply installed them that way.” While I thought that I had taken off on the main tanks, I had in fact had both engines feeding from the single nose tank, which normally wasn't filled for local flights. Having to frequently fly from either side, and since the selectors and indicators are mirrors of each other, I had developed the habit of visually confirming selections rather than memorizing the position of the selector levers. This safety measure was undone by the reversed installation of the indicators. In subsequent research, I discovered that several years earlier, as a result of a similar incident, the Canadian Forces Flight Safety Directorate had written an article recommending a modification of the indicators by having the mounting holes drilled offset, so that each could be installed on the correct side only. The modification was never done, most likely because the Beech was slated for retirement for many years (in fact, it was retired in 1970, a year and a half after this incident). This one almost got “retired” early.
This excellent photo shows the cockpit of a pristine Expeditor. While there are many variants of Expeditor cockpits, this one, for the most part, is typical. (The author assures us, though, that those that he flew in the RCAF didn't have high-quality leather upholstery, armrests, or cup holders.) In this photo the fuel selectors can be seen in the foreground, at the bottom of the centre console, below the throttle quadrant. At a quick glance, one can see the ambiguity of the design. The fuel selector handles, which on some aircraft point to the tank selected, in this case are only handles, while the tiny stubs of the same colour are the actual pointers. The mirroring is also evident, as in this case both selectors are selected to the nose bladder tank. It then becomes obvious that installing the background indicator plates on the wrong side could create the hazardous situation this story tells. Photo by Mark Carlisle
It was during post-flight reflection that the scariness of the situation came to light – if there had been 5 gallons less, I would have had a double engine failure on take-off. If there had been 10 gallons more, I would have switched back to what I thought were the mains for the return transit, circuit and landing, which would have resulted in double failure on final. If there had been 15 gallons more I would have completed the flight and signed the aircraft off as serviceable and the next students getting the aircraft would have had the double failure on take-off.
I had always flown with the premise that if one engine failed, they could all fail, particularly if finger trouble was involved. Although it was not on the syllabus, I always taught my students this. They would get used to having one engine pulled on them during multi-engine training, until one day when I would pull both and watch them go into shock and freeze, not knowing what to do. Having made the point, I would simply tell them to remember what they did when flying single engine. Their reply was usually, "Oh, yeah." They would then immediately relax, set up a forced landing pattern and start the FMS check. That day, with Alabaster Bob, I learned from my own teaching.
At our flying school there was a humorous "Certificate" presented to instructors when they left the unit. It was titled the, A
rder of A
anipulators. I display mine proudly because, that day with Alabaster Bob, I earned my AHFOAMlAM!
By Vern Vouriot
About the Author
Vern Vouriot served in the RCAF/CF for 30 years. Most of his flying time was gained in Anti-Submarine Warfare, flying the Neptune and Argus. On retirement from the military, he moved on to a position as a Civil Aviation Inspector with Transport Canada, flying the King Air. Vern is now fully retired, living in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here the author is in the cockpit of a T-33 Silver Star in 1962, while he was undergoing the advanced jet phase of his training, having completed Primary Flying Training on the Chipmunk and Basic Flying Training on the Harvard. It was here, at RCAF Station Portage La Prairie, that he was awarded his RCAF Pilot Wings. Photo via Vern Vouriot
In the main photo, taken in 1966, the author stands in the centre, in the lighter grey flying suit, with (most) members of Crew 6 of 407 (MP) Squadron. The photo shows the P2V-7 Neptune in the background and a munitions trolley carrying a Mk 54 Depth Charge on the left, and a Mk 43 Torpedo on the right. Crew 6 was the best crew in 407 Squadron and the best crew in the Commonwealth. Being proudly displayed is the Fincastle Trophy attesting to that. While the author wasn't part of Crew 6 when they achieved the coveted award, he felt very honoured to shortly thereafter be awarded command of such an excellent crew. Crew 6 went on to continually prove their superiority in many operational and exercise instances later.
INSET: A 1962 portrait photo taken in Summerside, PEI, of the author, as a freshly minted Flying Officer, in his best dress uniform, displaying his hard-won RCAF Pilot Wings. At the time the author was undergoing operational ASW training on the Neptune at 2(M)OTU. Photos via Vern Vouriot
At RCAF Station Comox, BC, the author proudly stands in front of his trusty and much loved steed, the P2V-7 Neptune, wearing RCAF Battle Dress uniform, circa 1966. The author is ecstatic over the recently announced decision, after 43 years from the date of events in this story, to revert the Canadian Forces air force element to it's original and rightful designation -- ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE. Per Ardua Ad Astra! Photo via Vern Vouriot