I woke up early on Monday morning. The previous Friday afternoon I had been forced to land my Jabiru J250-SP light sport airplane in a Texas cow pasture when the engine quit. My friend Bill and I had flown to Tyler, TX, to visit childhood friends John and Becky. I tried to focus on having an enjoyable visit all weekend but the time had come to do the hard work of doing something with the airplane.
It was 5:00AM. I got thinking about how to move the airplane. Local rancher and fellow pilot Joyce Wilson, who was one of the first on the scene on Friday afternoon, had told me about a mechanic who might be able to fly right into the field and do the repairs on-site. I suspected, however, that the engine had seized up and couldn’t imagine replacing cylinders or the crankshaft while the cows looked on. And even if it could be fixed, I wasn’t real crazy about taking off from the cow pasture with an untested engine and having my only recourse for another failure be yet another risky off-field landing.
The more I thought about it, the more things I realized that I had forgotten to do. I hadn’t tried to pull the prop to see if it would even move (I suspected it would not). I hadn’t checked the oil to see if there was even any there (I suspected there was not). I had never tried to restart the engine — neither in the air nor after we had landed.
It was more likely that the plane would have to be trucked out. To do so, the wings would have to be removed. It’s a simple airplane, so I suspect removing the wings isn’t that hard. I had the service manual with me (we light sport owners travel with our service manuals, since we’re rare and it’s unlikely the shop at any airport we land at will have seen airplanes like ours before, let alone have a service manual). Surely the wing-removal procedure is in there somewhere. With the right tools and maybe six or seven helpers, I could probably remove the wings and push the plane up onto one of those flatbed tow trucks — assuming I could find someone with tools I could borrow, find six or seven helpers willing to drive a couple hours to the middle of nowhere, direct the tow truck driver to a place I can’t get to myself, then get him to drive four hours to the service center in Wichita Falls, TX.
I don’t often avail myself of our church’s prayer request email group, even though I run the list myself. But this morning it seemed like a good place to start. I literally had no idea where to begin. So at 5:30 AM I fired off a request for prayer that I’d be able to figure out the best way to get the airplane out of there. Having laid the groundwork for the rest of the day, and wanting to clear my head, I put on my running clothes and set out on a 7-mile run.
Bill was having breakfast when I got back. I had to drop him at the airport sometime before his 11AM flight back to Cedar Rapids. I wanted to call the Jabiru factory as soon as they were open, and I also wanted to call the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and ask their advice. And a chance call from Becky’s brother and fellow pilot Dave the night before had resulted in the suggestion to call my insurance agent. He thought they might cover the cost of moving the airplane.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and my iPad and headed to the back porch to start making calls. AOPA was not as helpful as I thought they’d be. In the past, they have provided a wealth of knowledge anytime I had a question about legal issues, medical certification, buying or selling an airplane, and more. My main question for them was how to deal with the FAA. The sheriff had called the FAA on Friday, and the representative from the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) had already been in touch with me, telling me not to move the airplane until they could inspect it. This didn’t seem right. Since there was no property damage on the ground, no significant damage to the airplane, and no injuries, there was no reason they should even have been called in the first place. I wanted AOPA to clarify that for me. Unfortunately, the best they could do was refer me to my insurance agent, who they said would be more familiar with procedures in this situation than AOPA was.
My insurance company wasn’t open yet. So I grabbed a few things I thought I might need when I got to the airplane, and Bill and I headed for the airport. My Navigon GPS program on my iPad sent us on the most bizarre route to the airport I could imagine, but we arrived around 9:30 and I said goodbye to Bill. I hoped his trip home would be less eventful than our trip down here.
By now the insurance agency (AOPA Insurance) was open, so I called and talked to Shelley, our agent. She wasn’t sure why the FAA was involved nor why they wanted to see the airplane. She said she’d send the claim through to our insurance company (USAIG) and they would contact me. I explained I was on my way to the airplane and it would be nice to hear from them soon so I could decide how to proceed.
Joyce had emailed me directions to her “Circle WC Ranch”. I figured I needed to go there first so that she could tell me how to get to my airplane. She had offered to loan me some tools or anything we needed to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t sure yet what was going to happen when I got to the ranch, or when we got to the airplane, but it was a 2-hour trip to the Circle WC so I figured it couldn’t hurt to head that direction.
On the way I called Jabiru to see if they had suggestions for transporting the airplane and to find out if their dealer in Wichita Falls was the right place to have the plane taken. Dad and I had talked about taking the airplane all the way to the Jabiru factory in Shelbyville, TN for repairs. I talked to Ben Krotje who recommended Lone Star Retrieval (LSR) for moving the airplane. I finally had my first hint on how to get the airplane moved. And he suggested calling US Aviation Group in Denton, TX (north of Dallas) for service instead of going all the way to Wichita Falls, TX (northwest of Dallas).
While I was on the phone with Ben, USAIG (my insurance company) called to tell me who would be the adjuster on my claim. It was 10:50 AM, a little over an hour since I had called my agent. I called the adjuster who said I could expect a call from “Richard”. When I asked who Richard was, he said “Richard is with Lone Star Retrieval. They will be retrieving your airplane and trucking it to the shop.” Now we’re making progress.
Twenty minutes later, Richard called and asked where the plane was at. He said he was putting together a team and they would be on-site in three hours. I asked him to have them call me once they’re on the road so I can give them detailed instructions on how to get to the airplane once I figured it out myself.
I love it when a plan comes together.
I called Joyce and told her we had a plan. She was finishing up some work on the ranch but said she was available the rest of the day. I should just come there and she’d have her ranch manager give directions to the LSR crew.
After stopping for gas and lunch on the way to the Circle WC, I arrived around 2:30. The LSR crew called just as I got there. Ranch manager Jeffrey gave them instructions on how to navigate the farm roads to get to an intersection where Joyce and I would meet them. We figured we had some time before we needed to leave, so Joyce showed me around the ranch.
The Circle WC looks to me like one of those weekend hobbies that gets out of hand. It started as a place to get away from work on the weekends but had grown into a business of its own. They offer commercial wild boar hunting and would like to expand into deer hunting. In addition, they entertain industry writers and other media reps who come to learn about Wilson Combat’s products. To support all of this they needed a lodge to house people overnight. The lodge has three bedrooms, each with their own bathrooms, a kitchen and bar, a spot reserved for a pool table, and a room to show off the Wilson’s taxidermy collection of animals taken from around the world. (I believe Joyce called it the “Dead Zoo”.)
I could’ve spent more time there but the business of the day was moving an airplane. Joyce said she’d go with us. In addition to the fact that she was the only one of us who knew how to get to the airplane, she reminded me that deer season had opened on Saturday, and that the deer hunters “aren’t necessarily the friendliest people in Texas”. Especially when you’re making all kinds of commotion and scaring off their prey. Not only were some of the hunters on her land, but she carries a pistol and knows how to use it.
We headed to the end of the 3-mile “driveway” to meet Steve. It was 3:00. Daylight Savings Time started the day before, so we had one less hour of daylight than the day we landed. I didn’t know how long it took to disassemble an airplane, but I guessed it might be longer than what we had left in the day. And we still had to get to the site.
The LSR truck was pulling up to the intersection just as we arrived. Joyce was leading the way and I followed in Becky’s SUV, which I had borrowed for the day. Steve was driving a tow truck pulling a flat bed trailer. He had just one other person with him, whose name I don’t recall. Both Ben (from Jabiru) and Richard (LSR) were sure that two people was plenty. Didn’t seem right to me, but they were the experts.
It was a 35-minute drive to the airplane, through two locked gates and miles of gravel roads. There was a shorter route, but it apparently involved crossing a rickety bridge, and Joyce didn’t think it was a good idea to drive a truck across it.
Steve complained about the loss of daylight and wondered why Richard had thought it was a good idea to send them out on this job so late in the day. But he got to work right away, removing the dozens of screws that hold the various fairings on the airplane. He had a bag of little cloth bags with drawstrings. All the screws for a particular fairing went into a bag, then the bag was tied to the fairing and the fairing placed in the back of the airplane. Very organized.
Meanwhile Joyce had donned a pair of work gloves and leapt onto the back of the truck to retrieve buckets so we could drain fuel. Other Guy removed the sump drain from the left wing and started draining fuel. I felt bad that I wasn’t doing much to help, but I figured these guys knew what they were doing and I’d just be in the way.
To satisfy my curiosity, I tried pulling the prop. It was locked up tight. I checked the oil. It looked like there might be a little bit right on the tip. Hmmm. Maybe the lack of oil wasn’t the problem.
About an hour after arriving on site we were ready to remove the wings. Steve removed the nuts from the two bolts (TWO bolts!) that hold the wings to the fuselage. Other Guy supported the wing tip. Joyce was already supporting the flap. (Once it was disconnected from its shaft at the fuselage it had a tendency to bang into the rear window.) It took some pounding to get the forward bolt out, but within a couple minutes the wing was free. I held the strut while Steve removed the bolt that attached it to the wing, and the three of them carried the wing to the back of the trailer. MUCH easier than I thought it would be.
The left wing was significantly easier to remove. The bolts came right out and within just a couple minutes it, too, was on the back of the truck.
The crew had placed the wings on the back of the trailer. I had assumed we would tilt the trailer and just push the fuselage up onto it. With the wings in the way, that would be impossible. Before I had time to think about it, Steve had pulled the truck over to the far side of the airplane and backed it up so the hoist was over the airplane. They attached straps to the main spar tabs and simply lifted the entire fuselage with the hoist and backed up until it was over the truck. It was almost as if they had done this before. (LSR is known for their ability to disassemble and move Learjets from wherever you are to their service center in Wichita, KS. I have a feeling they could move my little plane in their sleep.)
In the process of loading the wings onto the trailer, I noticed the lens was missing from the left wingtip position light and there was some paint scraped from the leading edge of the wing, as if we had struck something when landing. I had no recollection of hitting anything at all during our landing. I thought maybe the damage had actually occurred during our fuel stop, or perhaps one of the many cows who had been hanging out at a safe distance watching us load the airplane had attacked the airplane in the three days it had been sitting there unattended. To rule out the latter, I reviewed some pictures I had taken right after we landed. Sure enough, the lens was missing in those pictures, too. So the cows were off the hook.
To satisfy our curiosity, Joyce and I retraced our landing path. A couple hundred feet from the airplane we discovered a rather large thorn bush with a freshly broken branch. Lying on the ground next to the branch was the lens. Mystery solved. Apparently we struck this bush and it was stout enough to peel the lens off the position light and do some damage to the wing tip.
This resolved a feeling I had during the landing that we were skidding sideways to the right. Apparently the impact with the bush was strong enough that it turned us slightly left. Immediately after hitting the bush we went over a small hump and were briefly airborne. From our tracks on the ground, you could see that we were turning left after the hump.
I collected the lens as a souvenir and we returned to the truck, where Steve and Other Guy had finished tying everything down. Exactly twelve hours since I had sat in bed wondering how in the world I was going to move the airplane, and only two hours after arriving on site, we were done.
I headed back to Tyler and the LSR crew took the airplane to their warehouse in Dallas, then to US Aviation in Denton the next morning. I stayed in Tyler the next day to consider my options. At that point I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in Texas until the plane was done or go home and come back later. After talking to Scott at US Aviation, it was clear it was going to be at least 3 weeks before the airplane would be done. While John and Becky had extended an open invitation to hang out at their place, that would be a little too long. So I arranged a one-way car rental back to Cedar Rapids.
Wednesday I picked up my rental car and drove to Denton. I was able to catch Scott just before he left for the day and we took a look at the plane. He had opened the cowling just to see if there was anything sticking out of the engine, but had found nothing. He was going to have to open up the engine to figure out what was going on.
The next morning I traded my Tyler-to-Denton rental car for a Denton-to-Cedar Rapids car and made the 839 mile trip home in 12 hours, including two quick stops for gas.
When my engine quit at 4500′ my reaction was “now comes the easy part”. It’s the same now. The plane has been in the shop before with serious engine issues. Getting it there was hard. Getting it fixed is easy.
Flying it again, especially at night or over inhospitable terrain, will be unnerving. But I plan to make some improvements to our checklists and our preflight inspections and to never fly if I suspect anything might be wrong. I had ignored a mystery oil streak in Springfield. Never again.
I want to thank my friends at Cedar Valley Bible Church for their prayers on Monday morning. The retrieval plan just fell together. Whether it was directly the result of divine intervention or just life revealing itself moment by moment, having the the support of the folks at home definitely relieved the stress.
My passenger Bill handled the emergency situation with aplomb. He offered suggestions for where to land, was ready on the flap switch, and served as our designated pray-er while I was occupied with flying the plane. He was calm and didn’t add to the problem by being a distraction or requiring any kind of reassurance. He even paid for the fuel in Springfield. Can’t ask for a better passenger than that.
John and Becky and their daughter Katy put up with me for a couple extra days, loaned me a car which I promptly drove through all kinds of dust and gravel, and made me chocolate mint cookies — all while dealing with John’s health issues which were the reason for my trip in the first place. I love you guys.
And I can’t thank Joyce Wilson enough. She probably thinks she didn’t do anything. But throughout the weekend she was my ace in the hole. She went out on her own and tied down the airplane when we were expecting some wind and adverse weather. If I needed a mechanic, she knew who to call. If I needed tools, hers were at my disposal. When I needed to find the airplane again, she knew how to get there. If a deer hunter gave me crap, she was there to back them down. She had her work gloves on before the LSR guys, and instinctively knew what they needed and was there to hand it to them. If you’re going to glide your plane into a cow pasture in Texas, point the nose at the Circle WC Ranch.