Small Stuff #1

My “Writing” folder contains sub-folder with 18 items I’ve been holding since July, 2009 to use for posts on my website. Yesterday while doing a little digital housecleaning I opened “Small Stuff” and took a trip down Memory Lane as I read each of the articles, most of which I had forgotten about. The first one I wrote based on a Novel-In-Progress Member’s attempt to write about aviation with no personal experience at the controls of an airplane. I’ve never flown a P-51, but in typical fighter pilot fashion, that didn’t stop me from pretending, and in retrospect, I did pretty well. And so, here is the first of my entries, which also represents the first post on my website in way too long.

Note: I have no idea who the NIPer was or if “Moves” was the title of his novel.


The first vibration in the rudder pedals tickled Jake’s feet through the heavy soles of his flying boots.

What the hell is that?

A quick visual scan of the instruments caught the oil pressure needle resting at the top of the yellow arc. He tapped the glass with a gloved finger with the thought that every pilot probably does that in the hope that it’s just a bad gauge, right?

A heavier shudder dispelled that notion.

Is that needle falling farther into the yellow?

His eyes locked on to the gauge, willing the needle to rise. It didn’t work. He eased the throttle back.

“New York Center, Angel Five-One.”

“Angel Five-One, New York, go ahead.”

“Angel Five-One has an oil pressure problem. I need a descent.”

“You declaring an emergency, Angel Five-One?”

“Not at this time, but I can’t stay at flight level two five zero.”

“Copy that, Angel Five-One. Standby.”

Jake hated that word at any time, and especially now. The oil pressure needle had reached the middle of the yellow arc. He throttled back, his mind thumbing through the checklist to the engine failure procedure. “I need that descent pretty quick, Center.”

“American sixteen-fifty, New York, turn left heading three two zero, short vector for traffic.”

“American sixteen-fifty left three two zero.”

“Angel Five-One, descend to and maintain flight level one eight zero. Expedite through two zero zero for traffic.”

Ever mindful of shock-cooling the engine even as it appeared to be failing him, Jake throttled back a little more as he lowered the nose. “Angel Five-One departing two five zero for one eight zero.”

The P-51 accelerated as its designers intended, slicing through the thin air with an easy grace. Jake let the airspeed build until the vertical speed needle touched 3000 feet per minute and then brought the nose up to hold that rate of descent. A solid rumble through the airplane hauled his eyes to the oil pressure gauge.

Oh, shit.

“Angel Five-One is declaring an emergency, New York. Request immediate vectors for landing.” Jake hauled back on the stick, brought the throttle to idle and punched up the nearest airport on his GPS. With the thought of what a WWII fighter pilot would have paid for satellite guidance, he did a fast mental calculation of glide ratio, altitude to lose versus distance to go. “I’m landing at La Guardia with total engine failure, New York.” He dialed his transponder to 7700 and adjusted the nose to settle the airspeed needle on the best glide speed of 175 knots.

 Radio chatter filled Jake’s headset as the controller sent airliners scattering in all directions to clear his path to the airport. His brain automatically filtered out much of this until he heard his new clearance.

“Angel Five-One is cleared to La Guardia via direct, descend at pilot’s discretion. Current weather is wind two seven zero at one six gust two two, visibility five, light rain and mist, ceiling one thousand two hundred broken, five thousand seven hundred overcast, temperature one six, dew point one eight, altimeter two niner seven five. Be advised that a heavy shower just passed over the field and there is standing water on both runways. Arrivals are using Runway Three One, departing Two Two. Which approach would you prefer?”

“Standby, New York.” Jake’s mind chewed all this information into little pieces and tried to digest it. The P-51 hadn’t been built to glide around with the engine along for the ride. Better than a crowbar, but not much. A glide ratio of 15:1 provided a Rule of Thumb: glide 3000′ for every 1000′ of altitude. Comparing distance to go with altitude to lose and a quick glance at the GPS to check the wind direction and speed led to the conclusion that he might be able to reach the field with some altitude to spare. “New York, Angel Five-One, what are the tops?”

“Delta twelve-twenty, New York, can you give me a tops report?”

“Ugh, sure, New York, tops on our departure were about fifty-five hundred. Good luck, Angel.”

“You get that, Angel Five-One?”

“Copy.” Jake’s current heading of 090 degrees direct to the airport made runway 04 the best choice to minimize maneuvering. He selected the approach page for La Guardia and found an ILS to runway 04. That would mean landing with a left quartering tailwind, not the best choice, but trying to extend his glide to better align with the wind and not being able to make it would be far worse. “ILS to zero four, New York.”

“The ILS is set up for Two Two, Angel Five-One. I’ll try to get it switched.”

“Roger that.” Lots to do, not much time to do it. The oil pressure had dropped to nearly zero, but the engine hadn’t yet seized. If the wind-milling propeller came to a stop, the stationary blades would add a huge chunk of drag and Jake’s glide figures would be shot all to hell. He followed the remainder of the checklist to secure the engine by placing the throttle in cutoff and turning the fuel selector off. He’d kill the master switch before landing, but he needed electrical power from the alternator now for the instruments. If the engine seized, the battery would take over until it died, unlikely in the airborne time he had left. He trimmed the airplane to hold 175 knots and engaged the autopilot, a modern addition to ease the pilot load on long flights in an airplane that no longer engaged in dogfights and ground attacks against an enemy determined to bring it down.

Heading mode kept the nose pointed at salvation as he selected the ILS Runway 04 from the approach page of the GPS database for La Guardia. A single punch of the direct-to button brought up a list of navigation fixes remaining on his route. He ignored all but the final fix for the instrument approach, highlighted the name, and entered it. An updated course line appeared on the moving-map display from his present position to the fix, but he didn’t select the navigation mode and fly toward it. The fix was about six miles from the runway, and if his calculations turned out to be optimistic, no options existed for extending the glide in a metal bathtub, even one as graceful as the P-51 Mustang.

A plan of action developed against the backdrop of radio chatter until Jake decided to take advantage of a procedure known as a single frequency approach. This request put him in contact with one controller, who would accomplish the coordination required to clear Jake’s flight path all the way to landing roll out. Especially in the crowded airspace around New York City, changing frequencies could wear out the fingers of two crewmembers and drive a single pilot to distraction.

Jake remained pointed at the airport for now on a course offset fifty degrees from the runway heading. He’d face a crucial decision at about ten miles from the field, to either turn right toward the final approach fix for the instrument landing and intercept the final course to land straight-in, or continue overhead the field and spiral down on top of two runways, taxiways and infield areas clear of major obstructions for a landing. This would require descent in the clouds from about 5500 feet to clear air below the broken ceiling at 1200 feet, at which time he would be faced with no more than half a minute to pick a touchdown point and put this powerless beast on the ground.

“Angel Five-One, New York Approach, radio check.”

“Five by five, New York, how me?”

“Loud and clear, sir. You are cleared to land at La Guardia. Are you still planning for Runway Zero Four?”

A glance at distance to go and altitude and a bit of old math resulted in, ” I think so — oh fuck me!”

“Say again, Angel Five-One?”

The prop ground to a halt as twelve pistons seized in overheated cylinders deprived of oil for too long. Four enormous blades came to rest in a perfect “X.” It got much too quiet. The Mustang sagged as the airspeed reacted to the increased drag. Jake lowered the nose to maintain best glide speed and replied, in clear violation of standard communications procedure, “I said, ‘Fuck me.’ My engine just seized. This will be an overhead approach, and I’ll pick the best runway when I break out.”

Silence, then, “Copy that, Angel. Emergency crews are standing by.”

I hope the hell so. He settled into the seat cushions, hauled the shoulder harness and safety belt straps as tight against him as they would go, and clicked off the autopilot. The cloud tops seemed to be rushing at him much too fast, but the airspeed indicator read 175 knots, just what he wanted. He didn’t look at the vertical speed indicator, which told him nothing that he could do anything about.

Concentration zoned Jake into the myopic world of the instrument panel as the cloud tops swallowed him up. Turbulence rattled the airframe with sounds he’d never heard with the engine operating. He didn’t particularly like hearing them now. As the GPS indicated zero miles to go, he eased the stick left with a little left rudder and entered an easy turn with about twenty degrees of bank. The ideal objective: break out below the clouds at twelve-hundred feet above the ground, over the approach end of Runway 04 and on a heading of 040, followed by a left 360 degree descending turn to a touchdown in the first three-thousand feet of the seven-thousand foot runway. Passing 4400 feet, he decided to leave the electrically operated flaps up until landing was assured but get the inoperative landing gear down early. Minus the engine-driven hydraulic pump, the gear became a set of muscle-powered wheels. He broke the safety wire, rotated the emergency handle and began turning it.

The procedure seemed to be taking forever. Jake cranked the handle as fast as he could with eyes fixed on the attitude indicator and airspeed to maintain the spiraling descent. The increased drag required about five degrees more of down pitch. A quick glance at the GPS screen showed .2 miles to La Guardia, probably to the geographic center of the airport. When the handle lurched to a stop, he shoved in left and then right rudder to yaw the gear into the mechanical locking detents. Three little wheel symbols appeared behind glass windows by the gear handle and confirmed success. Now if he could just put them on some hard concrete.

The world outside of his cockpit and the white, bouncy cotton surrounding it suddenly gave way to a view through a rain-streaked windscreen of a grey, dreary, and most-welcome scene: the murky waters of Flushing Bay, concrete ramps, taxiways, terminal buildings, two very wet runways in a “V” and the long lines of red rotating beacons of airplanes queued up in a standstill of anticipation waiting for the big show.

Jake’s brain instantly absorbed the updated information, processed it, and made the decision: Ignore the flaps and go for Runway 04. With the left wing blanking his view of the approach end of the runway,  he maneuvered toward a base leg to reach a point ninety degrees off of runway heading. As the runway came into view over his left shoulder, the words “too high/too fast” trumped his previous decision to ignore the flaps. He removed his left hand from the throttle (why was he still holding onto the damned thing, anyway?) and selected full flaps. The whining electric motor, pitching-down nose, and deceleration confirmed movement. When the runway end passed underneath the nose, Jake glanced at the airspeed, adjusted the nose up slightly to drop off a little more excess speed and picked out a point down the runway as his and no one else’s.

I’m going to chop a piece out of the asphalt when this is over and take it home to put on my mantle. 

He was settling onto the flare with a grin on his face when the gust hit him. The sudden increase in left quartering tailwind amplified Jake’s groundspeed and tried to shove the Mustang’s nose to the left. He added right rudder to counter the movement and align it with the runway, along with left aileron to bank into the crosswind and kill any drift. He let the left main wheel touch down first, added more aileron into the wind and rudder away from it to settle the right main wheel to the runway, and then eased the tail down. His view of the world ahead was now confined to the massive engine cowling. Peripheral vision picked up the clues needed to keep the pointy end of the Mustang lined up with the runway.

When the next gust hit him, the tires hydroplaned in a lake of standing water and the resulting slide to the right put Jake in the passenger’s seat. He felt the jolt crossing into the grassy infield and the hard swerve as the right main tire dug into the mud. The Mustang yawed to a stop in a spray of dirty water, the windscreen filled with the view of a Boeing 757 waiting patiently for termination of the emergency and normal airport operation.

Jake stared, not believing he was down safely, with little apparent damage, and his eyes zeroed in on a cabin window of the Boeing. A child stared back, mouth open, his hands pressed against the glass, one holding a toy airplane. It looked like a P-51 Mustang.

Laughter filled Jake’s oxygen mask. “I hope your engine works better than mine, young fellow.” 

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