Captain Nixon and Another Close One at Shannon

October 6 2009

Arlie: Sixty-one years ago yesterday I almost died. I talk to my co-pilot, Captain Robert Voss, every year on that anniversary.

NJM:  How about some more detail?

Arlie: It was the first flight across the ocean for this Constellation model.  At 9:18 pm October 5, 1948, while I was taking off from Shannon Airport in Ireland, all electronic instruments went out; when we reached an altitude of 800 feet we were in the process of turning and climbing.  

The chief air traffic controller saw the plane dive behind a 30 foot high dike, presumably into the Shannon River. Concluding that all were lost, he burst into tears, put on his hat and went home. It wasn’t until the next day he learned we were safely in Paris.

NJM:  Didn’t he call for help?

Arlie: No. Why should he? He thought we were all dead. Back then there was no dialing 911. There was nothing to be done. Anyway, subordinate air traffic controllers remained on duty.

NJM:  How did you avoid crashing into the river? And how did you get to Paris with no instruments?

Arlie: I thought you might ask that. In order to explain it, I’ll have to give you a little history lesson. The very first time I flew a plane was in July, 1935. It was a Curtis Fledgling and had a total of 3 instruments – tachometer, oil pressure gauge and non-sensitive altimeter.  Later models had the needle, ball and air-speed indicators.

The last prop plane I flew for the airlines had more than 100 instruments.  The co-pilot had his own duplicate set of instruments and both pilot and co-pilot executed his own visual scan patterns. In this way, early changes in engine, instruments and exterior conditions were more likely to be detected. 

Everything unfolded much faster than I am able to tell you about it. We reacted too quickly to think in words.

At any rate, we began what seemed to be a routine take-off. Then around 800 feet we started turning to a compass heading of 150 degrees which would take us to Paris.

Captain Voss first noticed that the compass wasn’t working. We were now in a steep turn with the nose and left wing going down. I could tell he was mentally processing ahead of me, so I said, “You fly it”. He rolled it out of the turn, but it was still going down. The air speed was still 20-30 mph above the red line (the point at which the wings may come off). By now I had mentally caught up with him, so I said, “My plane” and pulled back on the yoke as hard as I could. It took a fraction of a second for the co-pilot to release his hold. Momentarily the two of us pulled back full force at the same time and nearly pulled the wings off. That maneuver popped out 58 rivets.  Captain Voss said “needle, ball and airspeed”, as a reminder that these instruments did not need electronics to function.

Finally we began to climb and the air speed was a comfortable 120 mph. Once we reached an altitude of 3,000 feet the instruments began to function normally.

An inquiry was held once we arrived back in New York. It took three days of testimony and investigation to determine the cause of this malfunction. Earlier models of the Constellation had two power packs available. The efficiency experts decided that only one pack would be necessary on this model. After the hearing, all of these planes were equipped with an additional power pack and there were no more instrument failures – at least not due to this factor.

The efficiency experts had also wanted to eliminate the needle, ball and airspeed indicators on this model. Thankfully, the pilots union had stood firm and required that these instruments remain.    

Arlie is a frequent guest at the Ponca City Aviation Booster Club Fly-In Breakfast held on the first Saturday of every month. Please stop by his table and say hello.


Copyright © 2009 Nancy J. Mayfield
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