Coming down the hard way

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Coming down the hard way

A retired Marine and airline pilot1 pal sent me a link to a YouTube video of a fatal crash dur­ing the filming of "The Flight of the Phoenix."

I hadn't seen it, and what really caught my eye was the way the plane reacted during the mishap... I'd experienced something eerily similar 61 years ago this week.

The family was in our Bellanca Cruis­aire returning from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for Christmas on East Main.

While there was snow all over the East, as we headed out over the Island, both Mitchel Field and MacArthur Field (both still military at the time) were operational.

Suffolk County AFB (as Gabreski Airport was then known) had demobilized2 in '46, and al­though my father, as active military, had the courtesy of the facility if needed, we never did.

Since it was still daylight, we saw tracks in the snow at the little aerodrome to the North3 where we usually tied down, and decided to stick to our plan to land there.

It had no tower either, just two guys standing before the old hanger waving at us. Although I was just past 8¼ years old, it sure looked like a "Hi, nice to see ya" kinda motion rather than the ol' "don't land here" wave-off!

As we touched down, there was a little "lurch" move and I heard by father bellow "Heeeeerrre we go!" and the next thing I know I'm hanging upside down by the single rear seatbelt shared with my younger sister.

Gale has always been very decisive and at age 6½ years moved much more quickly than she was able to process information.

What she gathered was that she was upside down, and that she didn't like it. So she hit the belt release.

She was prepared while I, still remarking to myself on the inverted view of people running out from the hanger, wasn't... and dislocated my right shoulder when I hit the overhead at an awkward angle!

As we made our way off the field, we realized that we were on a crust of frozen snow over 10-11 inches of "base," and that the tracks seen weren't in the snow, but on top of it!

They'd been made by a little Aeronca Chief on skis! The surface could support the little two-seater, but the instant the Bellanca's gear hit the crust, it broke through and arrested all for­ward motion... of the gear!

Our momentum propelled the rest of the plane nose-down and over onto it's back4.

(The identical action, but on water.)

The propeller had been broken, the Omni radio antenna strung atop the fuselage was crushed, and some fabric was lost off one of the wing tips, but nothing structural or major.

Personal injuries were minor: my shoulder, my mom's wrenched neck, my father's right knee impacting with an auxiliary radio slung be­neath the instrument panel.

(My sister, the speedy little snip, had neither mark nor ache from the event.)

Ten days later we flew Bellanca NC74408 out of the same aerodrome and back to Kansas where, for the first week of school in 1949, I either skated or sledded to third grade, 'cause the crust topping the snow there was signifi­cantly thicker!

But that was our Christmas in Westhampton Beach in 1948.


The pilot in the YouTube video which recalled this event, was an archetypal early hell-for-leather flyer named Paul Mantz, who, for all his movie credits, asserted "I'm not a stunt pilot. I'm a precision pilot."

I did a quick IMDb look-up to see what else Mantz had done and learned that the crash in which he was killed, happened nine years to the day after my father was killed while flying solo back to active duty in Detroit.

He was in a Beechcraft Bonanza, and got into some bad weather upstate in, of all places, a town named Dunkirk.

  1. Rick Carr, who uttered perhaps the three most celebrated words in the history of aviation emergencies... but, I promise, "all that later."
  2. There was no control tower but there was a small maintenance operation there.
  3. Later referred to as "the coke plant" after the Coca Cola Bottling Company bought the property. The hangar was razed in 1983, and a new structure built. It was later taken over by Suffolk County Water Authority.
  4. I've never tipped another turtle since then!


1. Shepard M. Scheinberg said...

It was fated that you would survive that crash and enthrall us all of these years with your perceptive reporting and great sense of humor.

Why Shep, thank you! And a best of the Season to you and Linda... however warm you are at the moment!

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