by L. D. Alford
The night was as dark as pitch as Captain Mac and Lieutenant Dean guided the C-45 Beechcraft over the swamps of southern Louisiana. The winter of 1958 saw a lot of cold wet fog and low ceilings, and this night was no different. The cabin of the twin-engine Beechcraft was loaded with six navigators on a training round robin from Keesler AFB. They had made the turn point at Houston and were on the return leg to Keesler. Clouds softly battered the windshield, and Mac was tired. Their crew day had been short, barely 6 hours, but they made a late takeoff, and the clock read twelve o’clock midnight. The old Beechcraft flew along smoothly at 11 thousand feet, not quite as high as they could get with their load of gas and a cabin full of six people.
The take off and first portion of the flight was uneventful. Rain was falling at the base of the clouds and freezing in the layers, and until Captain Mac climbed the old C-45 above 5 thousand feet, they were picking up some light ice. Luckily, they hadn’t found any thunderstorms embedded in the clouds. Captain Mac took a quick look in the back. “Yeah,” he thought, “It was a little quiet back there.” All but one of the navigators was fast asleep. Mac nudged Lieutenant Dean and pointed back into the cabin. Lieutenant Dean laughed out loud, but Mac put his finger to his lips and shushed Dean with a sardonic smile. "I guess it’s about time to head back to Biloxi, Mississippi," he said out loud.
Lieutenant Dean was just about to make a snide retort to Mac’s statement when his eyes widened suddenly. All at once, an explosion rocked the small plane. The nose pitched down and yawed to the left. They heard a zing of shrapnel off the fuselage, and Mac’s side window was covered with dark fluid. Mac immediately threw in all the right rudder the C-45 would take and pulled the nose up a little. As he scanned the instruments he confirmed what he already knew, the left engine had failed. "Feather number one," growled Mac.
Without looking to see if Dean followed his order, Mac turned his head to scan the left engine, and he gasped as the engine caught fire with a roar of combustion. To clear his vision, he looked back into the cockpit, away from the inferno. Mac couldn’t get the plane to level off. With full power on the right engine, the airspeed just kept bleeding off. He had two clear choices: stay level and stall out or let the Beechcraft descend. He relaxed the controls, let the airplane accelerate to the best lift over drag speed 1, and took a second look at the burning left engine.
"The engine won’t feather," groaned Lieutenant Dean.
"Try again," said Mac between clenched teeth.
"I’m trying, I’m trying."
The left prop still turned. It threw a spiral of burning oil back over the entire aircraft. The flames were bright enough to read a newspaper in the cockpit, but the light was so bright, Mac could barely read the instrument panel.
"Turn all the cockpit lights on bright, and feather that prop; we’re losing altitude," said Mac.
One of the navigator’s stuck his head into the cockpit and said, "Anything I can do?"
"Yeah," said Mac, "Get your parachutes on, and put ours at the front of the cabin. If you see two thousand feet, get out!"
As the navigators rushed around the small cabin getting into their parachutes, Mac and Dean sat in almost silence and racked their brains for some way to get the left prop to feather. Mac changed the flight conditions, airspeed, made gentle turns, the altitude continued to decrease on its own—nothing would convince the prop to rotate into the low-drag position. At the same time, Dean kept pushing the feather button and resetting the circuit breaker. He tried everything to feather the prop and put out the fire. The fire still raged, and Mac’s side of the aircraft was getting a little hot.
Mac said, "Dean, don’t let the navs open the cabin door until just before they have to jump; they’ll barbecue otherwise." Mac stared back into the cabin, "Any of you jokers know where we are? I’d like to put this aircraft down in a hurry."
The wakeful nav brought his chart up to the cockpit door. "We’re right here," he said pointing to the chart. "Lake Charles is the closest runway and they have a GCA2."
"They have the slickest runway in the United States too." As almost an afterthought, Mac said, "Thanks, nav. Dean, get Lake Charles on the radio; we’re less than 30 miles away."
The plane continued to descend. Between calls on the radio, Lieutenant Dean pressed the feather button and the circuit breaker. Captain Mac now started to watch the right engine. To slow their descent, Mac kept it laboring at full power, and the oil pressure and engine speed were way out of limits.
"The best it can do," he murmured with a shrug.
Dean came back with a vector to Lake Charles, "The weather is 600 and 13 with rain and fog. Good enough to make their non-precision approach."
"Did you declare an emergency?" asked Mac.
"You bet, boss. I got us a reservation. That is, if you can keep us up long enough to use it," he sighed.
They dropped through 4000 feet, the wing still an inferno, and the rain began to fall. It sizzled on the hot metal.
"We’ve got to get this prop feathered," gritted Mac.
"3500 feet, Boss. We’re dropping like a rock," said Dean.
With their descent, the voices from the navigators in the back of the plane dropped to silence. They waited with their parachutes on, and watched the nav station altimeters in the cabin for 2000 feet. The flames flickered on their faces, and outlined fear on some and hopeless determination on others.
* * *
Meanwhile… just entering the pattern at Lake Charles was a lone B-47 Bomber. This six-engine smaller brother of the B-52 started the flying day with a take off from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. Hours before, attempting to find an approach or weather that would allow it to land, it diverted from Mountain Home. Mountain Home was completely socked in. The crew made two unsuccessful approaches to minimums at Raleigh, North Carolina. Raleigh was socked in. Afterwards, B-47’s pilot and navigator reviewed the weather around the nation and diverted again, this time to Lake Charles. The B-47 had been flying at max range4 for the last two hours, and this was their last chance; the fuel was below minimum5, and they used their only approach drogue chute6 for Raleigh. Gun-shy from too many unsuccessful approaches, the pilot was sweating even what should be an easy approach to 600 and 17. He figured they had enough gas for only one try, but he hadn’t declared an emergency—yet. “Better to look good than declare an emergency when you didn’t have to,” thought the B-47’s pilot. The crew of the B-47 listened to the discouraging conversation between the burning Beechcraft and Lake Charles Approach. They were concerned but more worried about making their own landing in one piece.
* * *
Passing 2500 feet, Lieutenant Dean finally coaxed the left prop’s electric feather motor to work. With a shudder, the C-45’s windmilling left propeller rotated back to low drag, and the engine slowly stopped turning. Oil gradually stopped flowing from the engine, and in a few moments, the rain and wind-blast drowned out the fire. The laboring right engine finally arrested their descent and Mac leveled the Beechcraft at 2000 feet. Mac heard some scrambling around the back, and he yelled into the cabin, "Everyone sit down. We’re level at 2000. No one will be making a nylon landing tonight." To Lieutenant Dean he said, "If they open that door, we’re goners. With the additional drag on the left side, I don’t think I’ll be able to maintain directional control."
Captain Mac couldn’t climb a single foot higher; he had in full power, almost full right rudder, and the left wing banked up ten degrees to keep flying long enough to stagger to the approach8 at Lake Charles. Right at the seven-mile descent point, he turned onto GCA final and held right above the controller’s glideslope9.
"Beautiful intercept, Mac. Cutting it close aren’t you?" commented Dean.
"That’s what all the training’s for," smiled Mac without taking his eyes off the instruments.
As they started down final, Lieutenant Dean called Lake Charles Tower, "Tower, emergency Beechcraft on final approach. Are we cleared to land?"
"One moment Beechcraft. B-47 this is Lake Charles Tower. I have an emergency Beechcraft on final. Go around and contact approach control."
The B-47 pilot sounded desperate, "Tower, B-47 going around. I am declaring an emergency for fuel. Contacting approach."
Captain Mac was involved with his own emergency, the C-45 flew great going down, but Mac couldn’t reduce power without the plane sinking like a stone, and the right engine was near red line. "The right engine’s starting to smoke a little Boss," said Dean, "I think its time to stop fooling around and get this baby on the ground."
"Beechcraft, you are cleared to land, winds are 150 at 10 knots."
Mac had one chance to put this bird down on terra firma—no chance of making a go-around out of this approach.
Like Mac planned, they broke out just above the glideslope, "Dean, gear down."
Lieutenant Dean threw down the gear. The gear whined out and locked, "Gear down, Mac."
Mac overboosted the laboring right engine to stabilize and break the descent rate. In driving rain, they slid the last ten feet in a crab and touched down heavily smack daub in the center of the runway. The runway was covered with standing water, and near the midfield taxiway, the Beechcraft finally stopped fighting a light skid. As they came to a slippery stop, Mac let out a long sigh of relief.
* * *
"B-47, Lake Charles Approach Control, Emergency Beech C-45, on final approach, turn to heading 270 and climb to 1500."
Like chilled oil, the B-47’s captain forced himself to follow the controller’s instructions. As he pushed the power up and raised the gear and flaps, his voice was a caustic rasp on the radios, "Lake Charles Approach, B-47 declaring an emergency. I am indicating zero in all tanks."
His hands shook on the controls; the B-47 has a disconcerting quality that at high power settings you can see the fuel gauges decrease. As the pilot pushed the throttles forward, he couldn’t see the slightest movement on the needles.
Approach control broke through his dark thoughts, "B-47, you may have to go around again. We still have the C-45 on the runway. He can’t taxi off."
"I can’t go around. Get that plane off the runway!" yelled the B-47’s pilot.
* * *
Captain Mac couldn’t get the Beechcraft to taxi off the runway. With full right rudder, full right brake, and using the right engine for power, the runway surface was so slippery, the aircraft would only turn 360s on the centerline: Mac laid rubber donuts right before the midfield taxiway. He’d turned three of them, and the plane wouldn’t move forward an inch. “This blasted runway is just too slick,” Mac thought as he went around the fourth time.
"C-45, taxi off the runway!" called the tower.
"B-47 on final, get that plane off the runway!" yelled the B-47 pilot.
"C-45, get off the runway!" screamed the approach controller.
Captain Mac made another donut and decided this wasn’t going to work. He shut down the right engine, it was red hot anyway, and said, "Dean, let’s get out of this bucket of bolts."
Lieutenant Dean was incredulous, "You can’t leave it here," he said, "We’re too far down for the B-47 to hop us."
"I’m not leaving it here. Get those other jokers out, and let’s push her off the runway into the dirt."
Dean rounded up the six navigators, and they all tumbled out of the C-45. Captain Mac directed them, four to a side, and they pushed the twin Beechcraft into about a foot of goo off the edge of the runway. As they turned the aircraft back 30 degrees to clear the runway edge, they heard the screech of the B-47’s brakes. The B-47 rushed past right behind them. Its wing just cleared the C-45’s tail. Wheels and tires smoking, the big jet screeched to a halt right at the end of the runway. Out of fuel, one by one the engines flamed out.
The firetrucks, split between the two aircraft, finally barreled down the runway toward the C-45. Captain Mac stood shifting his feet back and forth in the deep mud. The muddy water ran over the tops of his new boots. His aircraft was darkened along the whole left side, the right engine smoked, and some of the metal still burned a dull red. "Flag down one of those firetrucks, Dean," he said, "After this, I deserve a ride into Base Ops."
This is a true story. The wakeful nav was my father-in-law, Billy Gene Nix the worlds wisest old crow and the man who knew more about the B-52 than any man alive. This was the story he told me. I embellished it with knowledge from my father and my own experience. My father is an experimental test pilot. He flew both the B-47 and the C-45. All three of us have flown into Lake Charles. I can attest, it is the slipperiest runway in the United States. You see, I am an experimental test pilot too, and although, I have never flown a B-47 or a C-45, I understand the consternation of both pilots. I have been there myself.