So RV-3 flight number one ended as planned on the wide runway at our neighboring airport. With a recent cold front passage, the winds were gusty and building, so we activated our contingency plan, tied the airplane down, and head home in our ground vehicles. The forecast was for the winds to drop as the day went by, so we re-planned for a 1500 (lcl) gathering time, and sent the team home for a few hours. When we got back together, the weather was great, so we launched for the flight we had planned – basically, a twenty-mile long “race track” for engine break-in. All went well until I had to make this call…
“OK, I've just lost power – going for a good glide speed.” Test Director Steve, riding in the right seat of the chase plane, responded in a calm voice “Copy that, lost power – I’ll listen, you talk.” No hint of panic in either voice, but then, you have to understand, Steve and I have worked together, often sitting side by side in missions and training, for close to 15 years. We have handled THOUSANDS of simulated emergencies and failures – along with a few real ones. We know how each other thinks – and we were prepared. I calmly worked through the standard power loss checklist – the Whirlwind kept going round and round, but I had no throttle response. I switched tanks several times, tried the boost pump, played with the throttle and mixture – no joy.
“OK chase, I’m descending through 3,000, and nothing’s working, I’ll keep trying – see if we can make the Creasy strip (private field of a co-worker).” While Steve was checking the GPS, I already realized this was too far to reach. We were going to have to find a place to set down off-airport.
OK, so hold that thought. This was not the first time this scenario had run through our mind. In fact, we were over my regular practice area – A spot I know upside down as well as I do right side up. There was a reason we were here – miles and miles of cultivated fields, criss-crossed by oil-field roads. The east-west highway is often sparsely-traveled, and there are few power lines. It also wasn’t an accident that we had a chase plane. No, they weren’t there to play Yeager games – they were there to communicate, keep me on plan, and keep my location in sight – in the air – or (as now appeared likely) on the ground. We were about fifteen miles from home base, and ground radios just don’t reach that far. Speaking of ground radios, our ground team was on standby for just such an event. After helping make sure that I launched with my checklist complete, they had gathered up the extinguishers and other standby gear and headed back to our home field – with radios and cell phones ( with GPS) in hand. The mission was thoroughly briefed – right down to who would do what in the event of an off-airport landing. No one really thought we’d be there – but preparation and years of training are hard to beat.
“OK Steve, I’m through 1500’ – we’re going to have to put down. I’ve got a gravel road running north-south, intersecting the highway, a mile west of the big antenna. I’m in good position with plenty of energy – I’ll land to the south.” Truth be told, these oil field roads are better than a lot of gravel runways I’ve seen. And frankly, it was wider and more open than our home airpark strip – longer too! I picked my spot to allow plenty of room for an under- or over-shoot, and dropped the flaps. This would be my second landing in the RV-3…but it seemed to fly just like an RV, so I figured I’d fly it like one. As I rounded out in the flare, Steve called that they had me in sight – I called that I was down and safe, totally undamaged, and would get on the cell phone to the ground guys. I kept the radios up as Louise and Steve circled overhead and I pulled off my helmet to use the phone. Oh yeah – we had the cell phone numbers of everyone on our team right on the briefing card. The ground crew was surprised, but calm, and I gave them the GPS coordinates off the G3X before shutting it down to save the battery. Then I realized I had Google Maps on my Iphone as well….and cell towers everywhere. I put my helmet back on and told Steve the cavalry was coming, that Chase was released, and they should call when they were down to see what the next need was.
To shorten this long story, it was too close to sunset to make an effective effort at fixing anything that evening, and Steve (Test Director) quickly vetoed any thought of further flight that day – citing my own preflight plan that said we’d take our time and be methodical. Besides – no night flying in Phase 1! I had about a forty minute wait for the ground team to arrive, and before it got dark, I had already figured out what had brought us down – at least I was pretty sure of it. But the darkness and caution made the prudent move to tie things down for the night and come back in the morning. The cars on the highway passed by without slowing, blissfully unaware of the airplane sitting a quarter mile up the side road. When the team arrived with tie-downs and covers, we closed “Junior” up for the night, and were happy he was safely out of sight behind a HEAVILY locked oil-field gate. We figured we’d be out of there first thing on Sunday morning, and figured no one would be by in that time – and we were right.
This morning, we showed up at the crack of dawn, and easily got Junior going. No damage at all – no dents, no chips, no rocks in the wheel pants. We had spent a couple of hours overnight talking through the most probable cause I had figured out, and the ramifications for further flight. All agreed that it was safe to fly him out (and by ALL, I mean some pretty experienced flight test safety guys), so that’s what I did. Beautiful morning – but we scampered right home for further inspection and testing.
OK, so here are a few key points from the story. First, preparation. Second, preparation. Third….MORE preparation. We didn’t take anything for granted, and when we had a problem, we were ready to handle it in as routine a matter as possible. Test flight routine – take it seriously, and plan for all reasonable eventualities. Lots of folks just kick the tires and light the fire. They are referred to as daredevils. The flight test folks I have known and worked with? We can be pretty boring. Pedantic. We do briefings.
We think about putting the pilot’s jacket in the baggage area because it can get pretty chilly out there on a lonely gravel road….and we carry cell phones and radios to make it less lonely. And the next morning, we have all the people and airplanes still around to fly again.
Oh yeah, Junior flew three times today – once to get home, then (after thorough examination of the cause) twice more to continue engine break-in and to get some fuel.
The cause of the forced landing? Well, let’s see what you can come up with. It was a single screw backed out about ½ turn. One of those thousands of pieces that go in to making up an RV. We’d like to think that we can catch them all – but nobody is perfect. This was a builder error. Flight test makes allowances for that. I was the builder. We are prepared.
Anyone want to guess about what screw?