Adventure flight to Tallahassee Long-EZ, Varieze and other Burt Rutan Aircraft

Long-EZ flight to Tallahassee, interrupted

Al Hodges

Christmas 1993 will remain my most memorable Christmas forever. For two hours, I fought head winds, clouds, and scattered showers before landing the Long-EZ at Vandenberg Airport in Tampa, normally one and a half hours flight time from Miami. My son, Chuck, joined me to continue the flight to Tallahassee for Christmas dinner with my daughter's family. I give thanks to all South Florida residents who pay horrendous tolls on the fully paid bridges and Turnpike Extension. Our pork barrel politicians use these funds to build roads in North Florida, excellent roads such as Florida 361 heading northwest out of Steinhatchee. A broken valve from the Long-EZ's Lycoming 0-235 L2C, a very reliable engine, passed through the exhaust pipe and broke the propeller. This required finding a landing spot very soon. Florida Highway 361 is straight as an arrow for about three miles. The power lines follow the tree line, well away from the road at the edge of a wide cleared area extending for fifty to a hundred feet on each side of the pavement. State Road 361 is the longest and a better runway than available on most Florida airports.

A tremendous vibration followed a bang about two minutes before I planned to head across the Gulf of Mexico directly to Tallahassee. Due to the cold weather and head winds, we were fairly low at 4,500 feet. The vibration continued until I shut down the engine and slowed the aircraft to stop the wind-milling propeller. I circled north of the town preparing to land almost straight into the wind on Highway 361. I have often commented that the two reasons pilots with serious problems never call on the emergency radio frequency of 121.5 is (1) the pilot is busy, and (2) the people listening can't help anyway. However, with seven to eight minutes until landing, and nothing to do but circle down, I decided to send out a Mayday message. (I had never done this before.) The State forest area around Steinhatchee is lonely country.

After tuning the transponder to 7700 and the radio to 121.5, I broadcast two Mayday messages telling where I was and my intention to land on the road. The transponder light remained a steady green, but I heard no radio response. Around two o'clock Christmas afternoon, most people were enjoying their families and Christmas dinners. There was not one vehicle in sight as I came in on final approach. A pair of wires crossed the road, but there was room to go under, and I made an uneventful landing. As we rolled to a stop and eased off the road, a pickup pulled up. A young couple, driving to Perry, Florida, offered us a ride for the 42 miles to civilization. After tying down the plane to a couple of pine trees well off the road, we headed to Perry in the back of the pickup. This was the first year for a long time I enjoyed the gorgeous color of fall leaves after the first frost. Near Perry, Chuck's mobile phone picked up a station, and he called my son-in-law in Tallahassee, who drove the hour to Perry to pick us up.

While waiting at the airport Fixed Base Operation (FBO) office, I thought someone might have heard the Mayday, so I called the Flight Service Station (FSS). "Weather briefer, can I help you?" inquired a charming voice. "Is this the Flight Service Station?" I asked. "Yes it is." "Good, I had to set a plane down on a road and..." She interrupted, "Are you N829CL?" "Oh, oh", I thought. "Yes," I said. "We heard you but you didn't seem to hear us. Also, FSDO heard you, Miami Center heard you, and a commercial airliner heard you. The Center radar showed you 15 miles northwest of Cross City Airport. Where are you now?"

This explained the steady green light on the transponder. Then, I remembered that I had lowered the radio speaker volume in order to chat with Chuck as we flew toward Tallahassee. In case of a real problem, we know the emergency radio system works. Having given the Perry FBO phone number, I sat down to wait for my son-in-law. The phone rang, and the FBO manager asked, "Are you Mr. Hodges?" "This is the FSS. The Supervisor wants to talk to you." He asked, "Do you have property damage or injuries to report?" "No injuries nor damage to the aircraft; it was an uneventful landing." He adds, "The Sheriff's Department reports an aircraft on the road." "OK, I'll call them, but it is well clear of traffic."

"911," answers the Sheriff's Department Dispatcher. For a moment, I am startled, but conclude that in this remote area, the same phone number probably reaches 911, the Dispatcher, and the Dog Catcher. "I landed a disabled airplane on Highway 361 a couple miles northwest of Steinhatchee. The FSS mentioned the sheriff reported an aircraft on the road. However, we pushed the plane into the edge of the woods and tied it to the trees. It is well clear of highway traffic." "Fine," he answered, "I'll radio the Sheriff. Give me the phone number where you are ." I sat down again, and the phone rang. "Mr. Hodges, it's for you." "This is the Sheriff's Department. How long will the plane be there?" With no plan of action, I had no answer, but I said "It will take at least a week to get a propeller." "We'll try to keep an eye on it and prevent vandalism." I hadn't thought of this possibility. Others were quick to remind me.

A pilot in the FBO said, "It didn't used to be, but there are some bad characters in this area. You can expect vandalism." The next person to enter the office heard the story, and added, "You have a lot of parts on that plane that would fit an airboat." Then the FBO owner, known to run one of the best radial engine overhaul shops in the US, commented, "You had better put a 24 hour guard on that plane." Then I started to worry. Every person we met had commented on the danger of theft and vandalism. I needed to do something, soon! Luckily, there was an EAA chapter in Tallahassee.

Early Sunday morning, December 26, I called a fixed base operation at Tallahassee Airport to inquire for information on any EAA members known to them. They referred me to Col. Harry Harper, former president of EAA Chapter 445, who referred me to Richard Ledson, an EAA member and owner of Aero Associates, Inc. Typical of EAA members, Rich listened to my tale of woe, and asked, "Can you meet me at the airport at in 35 minutes?"

We hooked up his trailer, loaded carpeting, tools, foam, a six pack of Coca Cola, and headed toward the Long-EZ, one hundred miles away. Off came the wings and canard, and we rolled the fuselage on the trailer. Finally satisfied the parts were cushioned and would not shift , we returned to Tallahassee, a three hour drive with the loaded trailer and a few stops. Three of the stops were for the van engine electrical problems, one for an oil fire beneath the van with 26 gallons of high octane gasoline in a fiberglass airplane a few feet back, and another for a trailer tire blowout (without a spare). The last two hours of driving on a busy highway at night with a tricycle gear trailer did relieve the monotony of the drive. The Cokes helped stop the fire; they spray well when shaken, not stirred. On Monday, December 27, during the engine inspection, an odd noise came from cylinder number three. Rich Ledson determined that a valve had side movement and the exhaust valve was not seating properly. However, cylinder number four was responsible for the emergency landing. The valve was missing. There were gouges in the piston and the top of the cylinder. The scarred, broken propeller was evidence that the valve had exited through the exhaust.

For a long time, I have wondered why anyone would design a plane with the propeller in the front, where it is less efficient. Even the Wright Brothers moved the prop up front soon after the 1909 crash of the Military Flyer. Research would probably discover the Flyer lost a piece of metal from the engine, breaking the propeller. After the crash that killed Lt. Selfridge and injured Orville, no cause was ever given for the crash. Orville's only statement was "the propeller broke." Now I understand why propellers are up front. Sorry, Pusher Lovers. This was the first flight in the Long-EZ after the sixteen hour trip to Kitty Hawk for the 90th Anniversary of controlled, heavier than air flight. No one appreciates EAA membership more than I. Every time I have had a mechanical problem or weather damage, EAA members pitched in to help make it possible for me to fly again. Without the EAA, there would be little flying for me. For most pilots, not flying is about as bad as life can be.

ADDENDUM Approximately ten minutes before the engine failed, my son, Chuck, commented on the fantastic reliability of aircraft engines. We did some mental arithmetic of the number of engine revolutions during the previous 880 hours of operation at 2,650 rpm. Over 130 million revolutions is an impressive number! (And examination of the engine gave evidence of a false engine log. The wear and tear of the engine indicated over 2,000 hours, not 880 hours of use!) This 1993 engine failure was the second for Chuck and me. In 1965, my two sons, Chuck, 11, and Bob, 9, and I visited the World's Fair in New York. Then we continued on to Boston for an American History trip in a Franklin engine powered Cessna 170. We departed from Norwood Airport for the trip back to Florida. As I reduced power following the take-off, part of one cylinder wall blew out and broke off the intake manifold, causing a total loss of power. Ahead were houses and more houses, so I turned back, hoping to reach the airport. Three possible landing sites were in front of me, (1) the airport, but too far to be sure of clearing the chain link fence; (2) a dirt road, but as I headed for it, a car approached; and (3) a small, neighborhood shopping center parking lot. I selected the third choice, the parking lot. After pulling up to clear the roof of a house that suddenly appeared, I stalled high, slammed into the ground, and the wing tip hit a light pole. The aircraft spun around and was twisted into scrap aluminum. We walked away unhurt, primarily due to the amount of energy absorbed by Steve Whitman's invention, the metal landing gear used by Cessna. On Christmas Day, 1993, Chuck commented, "Well, I was less scared this time than that time in Boston." He had more reason to be scared in Boston. That was my first engine failure.

Chuck, breaking off a relationship with a girl friend, was receiving heavy criticism from her unhappy mother. After the engine failure, the mother commented, "I put a hex on you, but I didn't mean to cause that!" Within 24 hours of the 1993 engine failure, Chuck's memory made several adjustments. The vibration period extended from a minute or so to several minutes. The highway became very narrow. The length of the straight section decreased. Trees became larger and closer; the electrical power lines moved nearer the wing tips. The pair of wires crossing the highway multiplied into a family of high tension wires. But his comment of "You made a good landing," remained consistent. On Sunday, Highway 361 traffic was busy as we loaded the plane on the trailer. There were many shiny, new pick-up trucks with chrome plated dog boxes in the back . This was hunting season. Numerous beautiful, high quality rifles carried by well dressed hunters emphasized the serious dedication of these rugged North Florida sportsmen. But a couple inconsistencies remained. During the trip back to Tallahassee, I commented to Rich, "You know what surprised me, no one stopped to talk or offer to help." Silently, I pondered, "How can they afford those new pickups, hunting dogs, and rifles in such a desolate area? How can anyone make a living here?" A few days later, while relating the Christmas weekend events to a friend in Miami, I mentioned Steinhatchee as the location of the engine failure. He said, "Oh, I know Steinhatchee. Some time back, half the town was thrown in jail for drug smuggling." It seems I was not the first pilot to enjoy the use of such a fine runway in the middle of nowhere.

On January 4, 1994, during a discussion with a Lycoming O-320 equipped Long-EZ owner in Vero Beach, I mentioned Steinhatchee. He said, "Yeh, there was a scandal a while back about that road. It was built by the State DOT for dope smugglers; that's why the DEA put that aerostat blimp near Cross City and Steinhatchee." It is possible that the 7700 transponder code transmission and the Mayday broadcasts saved my plane from being cut up by the DEA before I could move it to Tallahassee. I related the Vero Beach version of the reason for such a great highway in nowhere to people in Tallahassee. They quoted the politicians' version. "The reason it is such a great runway is because the State built the road to make it easier to catch the smugglers." Sure!

My other son, Bob, is a pilot and lives in San Diego. He has a strange sense of humor. Bob's wife, Lois, does not like flying in any aircraft, regardless of size and power. Her comment was, "See? And it could have been worse." Bob answered, "Every bad happening has some good. I do not like Christmas. If they had been killed, for the rest of my life, I could say the reason I don't like Christmas is because I lost half my family on Christmas day in 1993!" For some reason, Lois and her parents did not smile. I guess they like Christmas. If you ever need a great airport with limited services, visit Steinhatchee International Airport, ten feet above sea level and 15,000 feet long. The runway is approximately 320/140 degrees, with lights available by previous arrangement. Expect no customs delays. In case of unexpected official vehicle traffic, you have a choice of side roads as random exits from the landing area. You can land your DC-6, unload, and take off without turning the aircraft around. While discussing this incident with an FAA inspector, I mentioned the confusion I probably created because no none knew a shipment was arriving, who was using their airport, and the sheriff had not been paid. The FAA inspector said, "The Sheriff is in jail, too. They have a new one, now." I hope this is the last entry concerning this incident. It wasn't the last entry, after all. In late 1996, Chuck called from his office in Brandon, near Tampa. He had just treated a patient, who was unusually nervous. Chuck, trying to calm him with conversation, asked about his hobby, fishing. The patient mentioned he didn't do much line fishing, just shell fish. Chuck asked, "Oh, you go up to Appalachecola?" "No. I go to a place you probably never heard of, Steinhatchee." Chuck mentioned he had heard of Steinhatchee. Then, after three years doubting my reports of the reason for the road, he said, "My father has a conspiracy theory about that road. He thinks it was built for drug smugglers." "Your father is right," answered the patient. "Many people in that area are now in jail." It's nice to see your children grow up, and how much smarter the parents become with the maturity of the children.

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