Time: Mid 1970’s
Place: South West of the Airport
Players: Some unknown (but very lucky) DC-3 pilot.
It was an early spring morning. There was virtually NO visibility, to use the trite term it was socked in. It had been raining off and on for a week. The corn fields west of the airport were mud, a person would sink to their knees if they were to stand in one location. There was almost no traffic, getting a plane on the ground was virtually impossible in the poor conditions. Unless of course the plane is out of fuel. In that case the plane will land. Gravity always wins. It’s easy to see where this story is going.
A hapless pilot flying a DC-3 was coming down from Chicago delivering freight that morning. The DC-3 he was flying was developed in World War II, it is a big noisy lumbering plane with a cavernous cargo hold. The power is supplied by two massive radial engines with a huge appetite for gasoline and oil. The flight was from Chicago to Lafayette Indiana and then on to Indianapolis. The pilot had intended to top off the fuel at Lafayette but that did not happen. It was unclear if he just forgot or ground crew did not get the instructions, but the fuel did not get pumped into the aircraft fuel tanks at Lafayette.
The Lafayette weather was marginal and the pilot did not notice the potential fuel issue until he departed Lafayette. He did not want to return in the poor weather for fuel. Indianapolis is a short hop and the fuel gauge was low but he thought there should be enough fuel. The DC-3 is a big, slow, and very noisy aircraft and the pilot had a lot of time to watch the fuel gauge dropping like the one in my 1975 Dodge 440 engine RV going uphill in a headwind. At about the 1/2 way point he realized the fuel would be critical and there was no choice at that point but continue and hope his fuel estimate was correct.
On his arrival in the approach zone he advised Approach Control he was low on fuel and needed a direct approach. Getting a direct approach was not a problem, very few fools were in the approach zone that day. When asked if he wanted to declare an emergency he replied “no”. In reality what purpose would that serve? So far so good. He turned on the ILS, started the approach, at this point he must have concluded there would be no second approach. When the fuel gauge is on empty FINAL APPROACH takes on an entirely new meaning. I wonder if he had a plastic Jesus on the dash?
Imagine for a moment you are in the pilot’s seat. As you look out it appears that all the cockpit windows are spray painted with a thick coating of white paint. The gas gauge is on “E” and you know it to be true. On each side you have two huge radial engines gulping gas at an enormous rate. In front of you SOMEWHERE is an airport and under you there is the unknown. How far it is to a hard surface, or tree, house, telephone pole or wires would be a wild guess. One engine quits, then the other, there is nothing but the rush of wind to replace the deafening noise. Imagine the taste of fear.
He did an experienced pilot would do in that horrible situation, he slowed the DC-3 down as slow as it would fly without falling out of the sky. I personally do not know just how slow that is, but a DC-3 has huge wings and flaps, there is a lot of surface area to produce lift. At that point he was committed to land, gravity can only be delayed. Under him he must have seen some muddy fields and no large structures and slowed the lumbering DC-3 to near stalling speed. It came almost straight down, more falling than flying, and sank into the mud, nosed over, then tipped back, the tail wheel sinking down into the mud. There was no damage to the plane or the pilot other than possibly some soiled under garments.
I went out later that day to look at the crash site, if one could call that a crash. The huge old plane was sitting in the middle of a field that could not have been much more than 2 acres in size. The field was a square area about 300 or 400 feet on each side and fenced in on all sides. Looking at the “crash site” it looked impossible for the aircraft to be where it was. It took days and much in the way of heavy equipment to extract the DC-3 from the mud bog without damaging it. They had to remove a section of fence to get it out. The pilot must have had the airspeed almost at a stall and dropped the old war horse down in the mud like a parachute landing. I imagine he would agree that it is much nicer to land on an airport. If you have enough gas to get to an airport.