When my editor texted me in Israel about a ride with the Phillips 66 Aerostars on Thursday at SUN ‘n FUN, she didn’t ask if I wanted the ride, she asked if I’d be back in time for it. Even if being at the Media Center at 7:30 a.m. required mainlining caffeine, I was all in.
Photographer Matt Genuardi loaned his GoPro. So, jet-lag gave way to Extra 300L thrills.
Alicia Herron, who writes for the AOPA Air Safety Institute, and Josh Flowers, who runs YouTube Channel Aviation 101, were revved about flying with the Aerostars. Josh had a case full of cameras to document his ride. The fourth rider was Jamie Allison, Brand Director for Phillips 66 Lubricants.
Jamie was the only non-pilot in the mix. None of us flinched at signing the liability waiver. No one backed out after Pilot Jerry ‘Fossil’ Molidor’s safety briefing that included a warning about the red ejection levers on the $25,000 canopy. But there’s something about getting strapped into a parachute that solidifies the risks of high-speed formation flying.
Jamie followed Pilot Harvey ‘Boss’ Meek to the number 1 plane. Josh and Pilot Paul ‘Rocket’ Hornick headed to plane 2. Alicia climbed into plane number 3 with Pilot David ‘Cupid’ Monroe. Pilot Gerry ‘Fossil’ Molidor secured me into plane 4 tighter than Dolly Parton’s bra.
The pilots fired up their engines and I fired up the GoPro. We taxied from the NOAA hangar to runway 090 and rocketed off the runway in pairs, heading east and south before moving into a snug diamond formation. I wouldn’t taxi that close to another plane, but there we were diving, then pulling up into a loop close enough to three other aircraft to elicit prayer and gasps of awe. Was that three or four Gs in the loop? I looked to my right and saw Alicia in plane 3 smiling like a kid at Disney.
My grip on the GoPro turned my fingers white. It was the only thing in the plane not secured in a 7-point harness or bolted down. Once a passenger lost a cell phone in one of the Aerostar’s planes and the seat had to be removed.
We banked left and perhaps we did a barrel roll. I was watching the silly GoPro screen instead of looking through the canopy. Watching is not the same as experiencing. Returning attention to the experience, I felt more steep turns. Then plane 1 cut sharply left. The other planes snapped left, following one by one.
The aerial dance continued as the planes aligned at the same altitude as if posing for a photo. We then landed one by one, taxied to the NOAA building, and parked in number order.
I can’t wait to share the video with my husband, who envied me for getting to ride along. Of course, watching the ride is akin to seeing photos of the Grand Canyon. The images don’t really compare to the in-person experience. Thank you, Phillips 66 Aerostars!
If you fly long enough, you will experience a problem in flight. Maybe you’ll hit a bird. Maybe your wings will ice up. Maybe you’ll get distracted in your pre-landing check and forget to lower the gear. Fuel lines get vapor lock. Gunk clogs the fuel injector. A bug or moisture fills the static port. Stuff happens.
Each kind of problem makes itself known if you know how to watch for the clues—and take them seriously.
My husband, Maury L. Fisher, MD, and I were flying a Cessna 210 from Bartow, Florida to Asheville, North Carolina on Friday, August 31 when the engine revealed a clue. Though we both have our licenses, I had fallen out of currency and was relegated to the copilot’s seat. Handsome was PIC. At 10,000’ the engine analyzer started acting wonky. That’s my technical term for when the cylinder head temperature reading disappeared on cylinder one.
In the past, a cylinder reading disappeared because a sensor probe came loose and backed out. This time, Handsome mentioned it and stated that since we were cruising at 184 knots, we couldn’t have lost the cylinder’s power. All other gauges of power and temperature and fuel flow remained steady and within the normal range on our 200-hour IO-550-L Continental engine.
So, we agreed to watch the gauges, continue the flight, and have it checked when we returned home. The Jacksonville air traffic controller cleared us to climb to 12,000 to get above clouds.
At 11,000’ the engine shook hard, and the happy engine hum turned into a galloping sound. Instead of showing six green columns, our engine analyzer showed three. We were over the Okefenokee Swamp, 684 square miles of alligator and snake-infested wetland that spreads across the Florida-Georgia border. The name Okefenokee is a Native-American word meaning trembling earth. I wanted to land on solid ground, like a runway or a road.
The autopilot struggled to maintain altitude. We lost horsepower. Handsome notified the Jacksonville controller that the engine was running rough. (The engine sounded like a horse trying to kick its way out.) He asked for the nearest airport. The controller offered Lake City at twenty-eight miles behind us or another airport thirty miles ahead. Handsome asked for Lake City’s identifier.
I took a quick inventory of emergency supplies. We had no water, a few snacks, two 9mm handguns, and a handheld radio. My wicked memory flashed to May 1996 when ValueJet Flight 592 crashed in the swamp near Miami with 110 people on board. It sank, and parts of it were finally located a month later. Handsome’s seaplane rating gave me some comfort.
My hand shook as I entered KLCQ into the autopilot as our new destination. I was about to press ENTER to activate the new destination when Handsome reached over and started the process over. He was in his zone, focused on what to do, so he hadn’t noticed the new reading. His hand wasn’t shaking.
The controller recited the heading to Lake City and the number of degrees to turn left on course. My body temperature rose while I calculated the rate of descent needed to reach Lake City if the last three cylinders stopped firing. We were descending 200 feet per minute on half power. Without power, we’d be forced to land in a roadless section of trembling earth.
The engine seemed to be holding together. It wasn’t spewing oil or smoke. Handsome maintained a calm demeanor. Decades of working in the emergency room and in surgery had taught him to school his emotions. He also has 1500 more flying hours than his copilot.
I sent up a quick prayer and remembered that I’d once landed safely after a cylinder blew. I was grateful this was not a solo flight, or my turn to fly.
I imagine I would have done exactly as he did during the engine problem, but in truth, I’d have sweat-soaked the upholstery in the process like a nuclear hot flash.
The controller spoke in calming tones as he gave the tower frequency for Lake City Airport and the weather conditions there. He named the runways and reported that Lake City cleared us for any runway. Then he asked, “How many souls on board and how much fuel?”
There’s something about hearing an air traffic controller ask the question that ratchets up the stress factor. By the time the words are spoken you already know there’s a problem. But still.
Handsome answered him while I took a calming breath. At 3000’ we broke out from the clouds and saw the airport. Ten miles to go. Handsome said he wouldn’t drop the gear until he had the airport made. By ‘made’ he meant glide in with a dead engine.
On short final, he dropped the gear and pulled back the power. The engine’s syncopated rhythm sounded more pronounced. We landed and taxied to the end of runway 010, past the Lake City Fire Department’s tank-like yellow crash truck. We sputtered down the taxiway and passed a red firetruck to the parking area. The linemen directed us to a spot isolated from other aircraft.
There’s a moment in the movie Armageddon after men jump a rover over a canyon on an asteroid and crash land. Actor Michael Clarke Duncan, covered in sweat in the back seat, says, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” That. That’s how I felt.
We climbed out. The firemen, three police officers, two linemen, Handsome and I breathed a collective sigh. Bo, Byron, and Larry in the tower probably sighed, too. Thanks, guys!
Airport Lineman Crew Leader Ed Bunnell said, “Welcome to Lake City.” He secured chocks under the nose wheel. “What can we do for you?”
I wanted a hug. Handsome asked for a mechanic. While they arranged for a mechanic, I planned an emergency kit for future flights. We often fly over the Appalachian Mountains. It’s embarrassing how complacent we had become about these routine flights. Next time, we’ll bring bottled water, flashlights, granola bars, maybe a flare gun, a reflective blanket, a first-aid kit, a sweat towel, and a 45-caliber handgun. The Okefenokee has gators, and snakes, and black bears. Oh, my.
This article was first published in General Aviation News, January 10, 2019.