A plane in pieces af­ter be­ing struck by a whirling pro­pel­ler

MAYBE “LUCK” IS JUST AN­OTHER WORD FOR “WHAT HAP­PENED”

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Peter Gar­ri­son

Some­one once sug­gested that if you want to know how you would feel cross­ing an ocean in a sin­gle-en­gine air­plane, you should just fly out to sea for a cou­ple of hours and then turn around and come back. There’s some­thing about be­ing out of sight of land that, to para­phrase Sa­muel John­son’s re­mark about the prospect of be­ing hanged in a fort­night, “con­cen­trates the mind won­der­fully.” It also gives new mean­ing to ran­dom en­gine sounds.

My erst­while fly­ing com­pan­ion Nancy — she has now changed her mind and sworn off fly­ing in any­thing smaller than an A320 — had a strict rule that all fly­ing in which she par­tic­i­pated had to have a clear pur­pose. It couldn’t just be friv­o­lous, like go­ing up on a beau­ti­ful af­ter­noon to en­joy the sights or “dance the skies on laugh­ter-sil­vered wings.” You had to be go­ing some­where. Fly­ing out to sea for a cou­ple of hours just to find out what “au­to­matic rough” sounds like wouldn’t cut it. For some rea­son, I share her view of that par­tic­u­lar ex­per­i­ment, though I don’t know why. I have flown sin­gle en­gine across the At­lantic and the Pa­cific, and even Lake Michi­gan, but I would feel un­easy fly­ing two hours out to sea for no rea­son at all.

I guess Nancy’s idea was that you shouldn’t be in­so­lent to­ward the uni­verse. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris. Hubris at­tracts the at­ten­tion of ir­ri­ta­ble gods. Niobe boasted of her many and fine chil­dren only to have Apollo and Artemis kill them; Arachne claimed to be a bet­ter weaver than Athena, and was trans­formed into a spi­der for her pains. Those tales from mythol­ogy arise from some an­cient su­per­sti­tious stratum in our brains that warns us not to tempt our luck.

Luck is no­to­ri­ously fickle. An­other of those use­ful Greeks, the law­maker Solon, told wealthy King Croe­sus, who thought him­self the luck­i­est man alive, that no man could be counted lucky un­til he was dead. In other words, you never know un­til it’s all over when your luck might turn.

Good luck or bad? It’s of­ten a mat­ter of fram­ing. In 1982, I was hold­ing short of a run­way when an out-of-con­trol Cessna 210, pro­pel­ler whirling, slammed into me, cut­ting my air­plane to pieces. I emerged un­hurt. A lo­cal news team soon ap­peared, and the re­porter asked me if I didn’t feel lucky.

This was an odd ques­tion, it seemed to me. I was ob­vi­ously the un­for­tu­nate vic­tim of a very costly ac­ci­dent. An hour ear­lier, I had had an air­plane; now I didn’t. But the re­porter was look­ing at it dif­fer­ently. From his per­spec­tive, I had sur­vived an air­plane ac­ci­dent, an oc­cur­rence so re­li­ably fa­tal that I was ex­traor­di­nar­ily lucky just to be talk­ing to him.

An­other dose of mixed luck be­fell me one day at 11,500 feet over Cal­i­for­nia’s

cen­tral val­ley. I was cruis­ing hap­pily in fine weather when sud­denly gray smoke started pour­ing out of the cowl­ing. I could see it plainly, since the cool­ing air out­lets were on the sides. Con­vinced I was on fire, I shut off the fuel, popped the air­brakes and pointed the nose down­ward. A con­ve­niently empty road pre­sented it­self, and in four min­utes I was on it.

The air­plane was cov­ered with oil. Drip­ping onto the road, it made a Mel­mothshaped stain. I soon found the prob­lem: A line de­liv­er­ing en­gine oil to the tur­bocharger had bro­ken off, squirt­ing oil onto the hot turbo. It had made tons of smoke, but luck­ily no fire. No oil to speak of re­mained in the en­gine.

I left the air­plane in the mid­dle of the lit­tle-trav­eled road — it seemed to me that it was most con­spic­u­ous there, and there­fore least likely to be hit — and hitched a ride to the near­est town. The first car to come along con­tained a trio of strait-laced Latina women; they de­lib­er­ated for some time about the pro­pri­ety of tak­ing an un­known man aboard, but fi­nally bought my story, for which I had, I thought, very con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence. In Dos Pa­los, I found a pi­lot who gave me 8 quarts of avi­a­tion oil and a ride back to the air­plane with some tools. We did a tem­po­rary re­pair to stanch the bleed­ing and stop the turbo from spin­ning with­out oil, and re­placed the lost oil in the en­gine; then my bene­fac­tor went on his way.

I’d been think­ing that I would fly down to the next air­port, Coalinga, and land to check the in­tegrity of the re­pair. But it was dusk now, and so I pushed the plane onto a bare patch be­side the road. I spent a starry night, some­times doz­ing in the cock­pit, some­times loung­ing on the wing, some­times chat­ting with pass­ing high­way pa­trol of­fi­cers who turned out to be pi­lots or with field work­ers who brought me a din­ner of can­taloupe mel­ons and salsa.

I was back in Los An­ge­les by 10 the next morn­ing.

Good luck or bad? It’s usu­ally bad luck when part of an air­plane breaks, but that failed fit­ting had given me an un­com­monly in­ter­est­ing night, full of emo­tion and mystery and the slowly wheel­ing Milky Way and the kind­ness of strangers, a night I have never for­got­ten. That’s the et­y­mol­ogy of “ad­ven­ture” — some­thing that just comes to you, un­in­vited.

Some­times luck is pre­cisely tar­geted — some­thing unusual that ar­rives just when it’s needed. One of those strokes of luck prob­a­bly saved my life. It was dur­ing a pe­riod of ill-ad­vised ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with my first home­built. For some rea­son I got the idea I ought to mute the ex­haust, and I built two muf­flers con­sist­ing of con­cen­tric tubes, the in­ner one per­fo­rated, with fiber­glass pack­ing be­tween them. I slung them un­der­neath the belly, con­nected to the ex­haust pipes by short lengths of spi­ral-wound flex­i­ble stain­less-steel tub­ing.

They were made of alu­minum be­cause I had been told on good au­thor­ity that the gases leav­ing the ex­haust were 500 de­grees Fahren­heit or so, which alu­minum could tol­er­ate. But that was for an open pipe. I failed to con­sider that en­clos­ing the flow in muf­flers might raise its tem­per­a­ture con­sid­er­ably.

And so it did. I was at about 300 feet over a land­scape of rail­road tracks, power lines, trucks and cars when there was a loud thud and the en­gine lost power. But there was still a lit­tle left. I limped around the pat­tern with­out gain­ing an­other inch of alti­tude. As I turned base, smoke be­gan ris­ing from the right side of the cabin floor. By the time I was on the ground, it was get­ting hard to breathe.

What had hap­pened was that my muf­flers had lasted about half a minute be­fore col­laps­ing into solid plugs of crum­pled alu­minum and glass fiber. Not a wisp of gas could get through them. But the flex­i­ble steel link on the right side had cracked — or maybe it al­ready had a crack — and just enough ex­haust leaked from that crack to keep the three cylin­ders on the right side of the en­gine work­ing. The jet of ex­haust gas from the crack burned a hole in the cabin floor.

It’s said that luck fa­vors the pre­pared, but some­times luck just fa­vors the stupid.

From the re­porter’s per­spec­tive, I had sur­vived an oc­cur­rence so re­li­ably fa­tal that I was lucky just to be talk­ing to him.

A ques­tion worth pon­der­ing: Is it luck­ier to sur­vive a plane wreck or not to have one in the first place?

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