A doubt lingers because we know that mechanical things fail, people make mistakes and aviation, like the sea, is inherently unforgiving of failure or mistake.
That thought was on my mind recently when we took off from Burlington, Vermont, aboard a classic old airplane, a twin engine DC-3 built in 1945. Less than three hours later, in a flash event, both the failure and the mistake happened at the same time.
The flight left at first light on a cold but clear morning in early April. I was the co-pilot sitting in the right front cockpit seat and happy to be there; in fact I had waited more than 60 years to be there. We were flying northeast toward Goose Bay on a trip that was to be the first leg of a planned journey across the North Atlantic to deliver the airplane to its new home in Russia.
After crossing the broad reach of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we flew towards the Labrador border over a long stretch of still frozen Canadian wilderness. My immediate duty then was to mentor the man in the left seat. He was the plane’s new owner, a Russian businessman and amateur pilot named Yevgeny Barsov, who was getting some practice at flying the airplane by hand.
Without any warning the left engine began loudly complaining with a series of pops, chuffs, backfires and vibrations, all the while steadily losing power. As the engine failed, the airplane slewed around to the left and started down. Yevgeny, who had no prior experience with that kind of failure or its consequences, was quickly losing control. In a few seconds we went from level flight to an unrestrained dive that was taking us down toward a rocky ridge just below.
I said, “I’ve got it,” as I pulled the nose up, pushed the right throttle forward, rolled out of the turn, and cranked in some rudder and elevator trim; all to get us back to straight and level flight again. By that time Mike, the DC-3’s captain who was sitting in the cockpit jump seat just behind us, was between the pilot seats and moving the left throttle, propeller and mixture levers in an attempt to find a combination of settings that would get power back.
Mike found a sweet spot, a reduced power setting where the vibration stopped and we were still getting some thrust out of the left engine. A visual inspection showed no fire and the oil pressure held steady. We elected to keep it running for the generator, hydraulic and vacuum power it was giving us. We were definitely in trouble and it was time to get on the ground soon, but where or when? We made a quick decision to divert to the last airport we had seen on the coastline many miles behind. I began a slow, shallow turn to reverse course.
Flying with less engine power, the DC-3 could make only about 120 mph airspeed, enough to stay in the air but not enough to get anywhere fast. On the long flight back the way we had come, I kept a lookout over the endless forest that rolled off to the horizon in search of places to put down if we had to, all the while listening intently to the sound of the right engine. The only clearings were a few frozen lakes, nothing else. How strong was the ice this late? Winter was almost over. After about 40 anxious minutes, the airport we were looking for gradually came into view. Mike got in the left seat and made a perfect single-engine landing at Sept Iles, Quebec.