MY FLIGHT OF ERRORS
By Jack Payne
One August day in 1954, my wife and three year old daughter were going to Cleveland, Ohio, with my aunt and uncle to visit relatives. I couldn't go along this time because of vacation differences.
After their arrival in Ohio, the family decided to have a picnic in Rocky River Park and my wife wrote me of their plans. That was too much for me, I telephoned and told them to meet me at the Brooklyn Airport Southeast of Cleveland, on their way to the picnic. My cousin, Don and I were flying out Saturday morning in my Taylorcraft.
Now, before I go any further, let me point out that I have been a pilot since 1939, flew fighter planes in W2 and spent two years flying in the Pacific theater, all long over water flights from Island to Island. I've flown many miles and many hours cross country and quite a few in this very airplane so that this flight was nothing to worry about as far as I was concerned. Don, though only 15 at the time, had flown with me frequently and used to read the maps and check our course for his own amusement.
Our plans were to take off at seven A.M. Saturday morning, our course was a straight line on the charts from Murchio's Airport in Preakness, N. J. to Jersey Shore on the Susquehannar River in Pennsylvania, then to Brooklyn Airport in Ohio. With check points every ten minutes all the way and refueling at Jersey Shore we would have a wide safety margin.
The airplane was the only unpredictable thing in the whole plan as it was old before I bought it and I flew it a lot. It's fabric was old out airworthy, it had no radio or lights, only basic instruments and it's engine was tired out. The engine had short pieces of rubber hose to connect the intake pipes to the cylinders, four altogether, and each one was directly behind the exhaust stack for the cylinder it supplied, The heat from the exhause would slowly make the rubber hard and brittle so that the engine vibration would shake pieces off now and then, causing that cylinder to lose power which in turn would make the engine vibrate more, shaking more bits of the rubber lose until that cylinder wouldn't fire at all. I knew this, so I carried several extra lengths of hose with me, plus the necessary tools to install them.
Saturday morning we took off as planned, seven A.M. we crossed the field at 1,500 feet on course. The day was sunny and clear, we hit our first check point on time and on course. Each successive check point was perfect until we got over the Pocono Mountains, there they were rather vague but I stayed on course as best I could with the compass. At any rate we soon saw the Susquehanna River ahead, we were to cross just above Shickshinny, then just fifteen miles further, cross over a railroad south of a town called Benton. On reaching the Susquehanna River I looked down and saw a power house to my left, I told Don and he said, "Yes, that's where it is, we're right on course. But, we were north of course about five miles, that power house should have been on our right side!
The time was due for the railroad to appear but it wasn't there. Well, maybe the wind has picked up a little,I thought, we're still on course according to the compass. I was right to a certain extent as the wind had picked up, but from the southwest not the northwest as it was earlier, thus we were drifting north even though we were on our compass course therefore went north of Benton and the railroad, out into rather flat farm country with no outstanding land marks either on the chart or on the ground. My plan was simple now, the Susquehanna River lay to the south of me, my time flying since we crossed it above Shickshinny would put me somewhere near Eagles Mere so to turn to the southwest I should hit the river at it's bend near Muncy, Pennsylvania. But alas, I didn't know about the southwest wind shift, in fact I never even thought to check the ground for signs of smoke or other wind direction indications. The fuel was getting low, in fifteen minutes we should be landing at Jersey Shore for gas according to my original plans, but we shouldn't be too much longer. As I thought every thing over, it struck me funny, getting lost and confused only a short trip from home, with all solid ground under me. In the Pacific we didn't have a check point all the way out or back and never had any trouble but this situation was getting worse fast! The engine was losing power, maybe it's just carburator ice, I put the carburator heat on but that only made it worse. It was what I feared, those intake pipes were starting to leak. Well, we should hit the river very soon but it wasn't in sight yet! The gas was getting lower and power was failing. We would have to land soon so I started watching for a really good field to set down in, one which we could make a normal landing and takeoff from. Then, the river appeared ahead and a big bend indicated that we were right where I had anticipated. The bend didn't look to be as big as it showed on the chart but it must be the right one, there was no other bend like that except at Danvill which was twenty miles southeast of Muncy. We came to the river and turned right just as it indicated on the map then we saw what looked like an airport on an island. That must be Montoursville, the chart showed Montoursville on the mainland but this island must be it. One thing you are taught when learning So fly is to believe the chart not your own interpretation of it -- the chart is exact. But I just went ahead and assumed that I was right. We landed on the island which I thought was Montoursville, put one new rubber coupling on-the intake system, gassed up at a self service gas pump but never looked for a verification of where we were. We took off and started along the river to the west, I thought, but we were actually flying south with the wind from the southwest. According to the chart and the wind direction I thought we had, the compass should have read northwest but it read southwest, again I figured something was crazy, not me, so we continued along the river in the direction I thought would take us to Jersey Shore where I would pick up our course and check points again and continue on to Ohio.
Nothing along the river and ground below agreed with the chart, the wrong railroad tracks were down there, the towns were in the wrong places and finally there was a big city. Now that should not have been there at all, not according to my chart and that broad highway, it looked just like the Pennsylvania turnpike, that was ridiculous, the Pike was seventy miles south of where we were but it even had rest areas on it.
Now I began to wonder if maybe I was mixed up a little so we turned around and started back up the river to try to find a town displaying a sign readable from the air. There at a bend in the river was a town, and right on the edge of the bank was a railroad station. As they told us in the Air Force, just buzz the station, read the name and you know where you are. Here was the ideal spot for the procedure.
We came in low along the river bank, there was the station and the name of the town but we couldn't read it. We tried again. Again we couldn't read the name but as we pulled up Don saw a big fence or building wall with the name Duncannon Mills" on it. The chart had no town by that name along the river we were supposed to be flying. Wow if we had just unfolded the chart and looked, we certainly would have seen what was happening, but we didn't. I was already planning the nasty letter I was going to write to the Coast and Geoditic Survey about the accuracy of their charts, none of which had ever been, even a little, wrong before.
We elected to fly back to the island, where we had gassed up earlier, to land and try to figure out where we were. After landing this time a young lady came out of a nearby house to greet us. We filled the tank with gas again and then very casually asked, "this is Montoursville Airport, isn't it?" The answer came as an awful shock to me, "No, this is Sunbury Airport." With that Don and I opened the chart to it's full size, spread it on the turf and looked for Sunbury. There it was on the Island just like it was supposed to be, there the whole string of errors fell into place and it all was so stupid. There was the bend in the river we hit, north was the one I thought we had come to, south along the river we had followed was the railroad we had seen and a town called Duncannon, Harrisburg, and the turnpike, everything was in the right place.
Well, it was noontime now and we were due in Ohio, so we walked to a town called North Umberton which was just across the bridge from Sunbury Airport, found a phone and called my wife in Cleveland to tell her not to meet us as we had engine trouble and would return home. I would never tell her what really happened.
We had a bite to eat at a small restaurant then went back to fix that engine. We pulled the cowling, two connections were very bad, one on each side. The one on the left side looked charred so I looked at the exhause stack and saw that it had burned through. There was a hole in it close to the cylinder head about a half inch long and a sixteenth inch wide which let the hot flame from the cylinder reach out and burn the rubber connection on that intake all to pieces. To replace that connection would be a waste of time, it would be only a matter of minutes after the engine was started that it would burn again and then the flame from the exhaust would be blowing into the open intake, full of nice rich gasoline mixture. We had to fix the hole in the exhaust, but how? We looked around the Island for something, anything, to try to plug that hole. Since our search turned up nothing better than a piece of asbestos we went back to the plane and tried to get it around the exhaust to stop the leak. I had some safety wire in my box of parts, so with that I was able to fasten it securely. I replaced the intake coupling and the cowling, then we took turns cranking the engine. After about twenty minutes it started but only three of the four cylinders were firing. We certainly couldn't take off that way, the Taylorcraft would use a lot of runway with all it's power but with only three cylinders working it would never get off. I shut off the engine and we set to work to find which cylinder was not working and why. I pulled the prop through and found no compresson on one cylinder, but which one? I removed a spark plug from first one then another cylinder, each time pulling the prop through until on the left rear cylinder it made no difference whether the plug was in or out. That was the one we had just been working on. Off came the cowling again, but what could we do about this? Was it a valve sticking open, a broken piston or a broken valve spring? When the cylinder head came off and we saw what our trouble was we just sat down on the grass and looked at each other. The cylinder head was cast of Aluminum, the valve seat was hardened steel. The hot head didn't cool as fast as the valve seat. The valve was open with no pressure on the valve seat; it fell out and hung around the valve stem. With the aid of a screw driver, sticks and a stone or two we managed to hold the valve open and line the seat up with the hole it fit into in the cylinder head, but to press it in the now cool head was another thing. With a long stick across the head, a short one on the vaive and some safety wire to hold the end of the long stick to the stud holes on the edge of the head, as a fulcrum, we tried to press the seat in. It started to go, with Don hitting the lever at it's pressure point and me pushing the lever, the seat went in, then with the corner of the screw driver and a rock I poened the aluminum head tight around the valve seat. As long as the engine was running I figured the seat would stay in place.
After reassembling the engine, getting the asbestos back over the hole in the exhaust stack and putting the cowling back on, things began to look brighter. Our chances of getting home with the airplane looked very promising.
This time the engine started rather easy and ran smooth. I figured a course to an airport in New Jersey then home to Murchio's Airport. I planned on landing at McAdoo to check the asbestos around the exhaust to see that it wasn't leaking. After all, it was all mountain we would be flying over and any engine failure would be very inconvenient to say the least.
We took off and climbed to 2,000 feet and started for home. As we reached McAdoo, the engine was running perfect so I went right on to Blairstown Airport and landed there. Mr. Landers, who ran Blairstown was a friend of mine, in fact it was he I bought the airplane from.
We had a coke and cleaned up a bit but I never told "Lany" what had happened that day nor, after we landed at the home field and several people asked if we had a nice trip, did I ever tell them anything but that we had a very Interesting trip.