~~ Arkansas ~~
by Andy McNeil
During the mid 1970s, a group of pilots living in the Conway, Arkansas, area formed a Squadron of the Arkansas Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. The majority of the pilots were aircraft owners, but the organization gave the pilots an additional excuse to fly and offered a sense of performing a valuable public service.
Our private aircraft were usually fast and designed to get the pilot and passengers from point “A” to point “B” in the shortest possible time. By comparison, Search and Rescue aircraft are birds that may be safely flown slowly at low altitudes and tend to be more “forgiving” of pilot errors. In short, they are more fun to fly.
Although the CAP is a subordinate branch of the United States Air Force, it is a state agency and is manned by unpaid volunteers who are responsible for their own expenses in getting to, and staying, at designated training and search areas.
These volunteers make up the entire organization, including the administration, operations, ground crews, trauma site search teams, pilots and observers. Everyone works with others, a close knit group, and no one has to be called upon for a task. It is not uncommon to see a pilot, or observer, while waiting for their flight time, pick up a broom and sweep the floor of the operations office or empty waste baskets.
Most of the squadron’s airplanes, or birds,” are USAF surplus donated to the State for CAP use. Among the ones that the Arkansas Wing had, and the most popular for search efforts, was the Cessna “birddog,” the Cessna 150, the Cessna 182 and the Piper “Super Cub.”
These airplanes are maneuverable at slow speeds, economical to operate, forgiving of pilot error and capable of landing on relatively short unpaved runways.
Although the pilots were required to pay for fuel consumed during unofficial use, the state fully maintained the aircraft and paid all aircraft expenses during training and search operations. The pilots were encouraged to fly frequently to maintain proficiency so that there would always be skilled and qualified pilots available during emergencies. In some search situations the observer would not be a pilot, adding to the responsibility of the pilot in command.
The Wing Commander is appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of, the Governor, and, like any other leader, the Wing Commander will make membership a pleasure or a burden. During my tour with the CAP we had a top notch commander who was devoted to the cause and was also my instrument training instructor.
I do not recall why our squadron became inactive, but recently our former squadron Commander called to advise me that he was laying the ground work to have the squadron reactivated and was taking a census of those possibly interested. He received a quick affirmative reply from me and the name of one other person who would definitely be interested.
The Civil Air Patrol was formed in the early days of World War II when German submarines were sinking American ships off our East Coast at an alarming rate. The organization became the “eyes” of the Navy and Coast Guard utilizing civilian pilots to fly civilian type aircraft dedicated to the purpose of patrolling the coast line to alert the Navy and Coast Guard upon the spotting of hostile submarines.
Later, some of the CAP planes carried small bombs and were actually credited with sinking one German submarine. The small planes had the ability to slip up on the submarines, and, even when unarmed, their harassment was effective. The submarine commander never knew if the CAP airplane carried bombs and was aware that the area would soon be visited by a United States Navy warship carrying deadly depth charges.
After the war, the primary purpose of the CAP was changed to Search and Rescue, and that continues to be the primary function, although it has recently been expanded to search for evidence of drug manufacturing.
The CAP pilots are called upon to carry trained spotters in search of marijuana plots in dense and remote forest areas. I once asked a spotter what he looked for on a search flight. He smiled, then stated that he was looking for the only cultivated plants in the woods.
While our squadron was active, the majority of searches were for missing or over due aircraft. The majority of those searches were around holiday periods in the Ouachita Mountains of Western Arkansas and the Ozark and Boston Mountains of Northern Arkansas where high peaks, low visibility and lack of pilot skills combined to create fatal situations. On one Thanksgiving weekend we were on a search for three missing aircraft in the mountainous area between Little Rock and the Missouri border.
In the 1970s, the Interstate Highway system was not fully developed and ownership of private aircraft created a means of rapid travel. It allowed persons to avoid the two lane highways where the slowest driver set the pace.
During this same period, the members of the medical professions were realizing substantial increases in income and many of them could afford expensive high performance aircraft. Unfortunately, some neglected to maintain the skills and proficiency for their safe operation.
One of the most popular private aircraft favored by individual members of the medical profession was the high performance “V” tailed Bonanza that was commonly referred to among other pilots as the “forked tail doctor killer.” The Bonanza was designed for professional use and required constant familiarization to be safely handled.
Almost all aircraft are equipped with a radio transmitting device known as an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) that may be activated by the pilot or will automatically activate on hard impact. Using this homing device, the search aircraft pilot can go directly to the site of the ELT. On one training exercise we were required to follow the signal halfway across the state to find the decoy ELT hidden in a hay trailer sitting in a pasture.
Some searches have to be conducted without the ELT signal, and when that situation occurs, the pilots and observers must learn as much as possible about the missing aircraft, including the type and the intended route. They must also be familiar with the tell-tale signs symptomatic of a crash site.
On impact, the airplane quickly loses shape, offering the observer the appearance of a trash pile. Deer hunters' tree stands often look like part of an aircraft wing, or stabilizer, hanging in a tree.
In heavy foliage, the falling airplane tends to push its way through the tree tops, and once through, the canopy reforms, hiding the airplane from aerial view. In such case, it is necessary that the observer know what to look for with regard to damaged trees and disturbed foliage.
Search patterns are laid out in grids and non-search aircraft are advised to avoid the areas while search planes are active. Despite this fact, and on more than one occasion, upon locating a downed aircraft the CAP aircraft would experience problems with private planes sightseeing, making it difficult for the search planes to complete their tasks.
While on a search in the Mena, Arkansas, area, one of the search planes found the crash site of an airplane that no one knew was missing. The pilot and his three passengers had departed the Atlanta area the night before en route to Dallas and had not filed a flight plan.
We all enjoyed the instructional exercises and trained constantly. We often took a weekend and met at one of the larger airports to get familiar with all of the corporate aircraft so that there would never be a bird sitting idle during a search effort for lack of a pilot.
All of our training exercises and searches were at low altitudes and were not without some risks. On more than one training exercise, we lost an aircraft, and in one case two of our pilots received fatal injuries.
Sooner or later every pilot is confronted with an emergency situation, and the outcome is generally determined by the surrounding conditions, the pilot’s ability to comprehend and understand what is happening, and the way the pilot reacts. I was involved in one “near miss.”
Our “Wing” had assembled at Hot Springs for a weekend training program and I was scheduled to be qualified in one of the three Piper tail draggers. They are fun to fly and are considered excellent search aircraft.
One Piper PA 18 was available and an instructor was assigned to take me on a qualifying check ride. The PA 18 has a tandem seating arrangement and may be flown from either seat. The rear seat was designed to accommodate one large person or two small people. The aircraft controls are connected and the rear seat had a “detachable control stick” so that it could be removed to prevent the rear seat passengers’ legs from interfering with the front seat pilot’s control.
The detachable stick is hollow and the end fits neatly over a peg protruding from the floor of the rear seat. Both the peg and the stick had complimentary holes to allow them to be bolted or wired together so that they would not separate from stress caused during aerobatic maneuvers.
As with all check rides, the instructor occupies the rear seat so that he can observe the candidate’s handling of the aircraft and the controls.
My instructor opted to leave the Hot Springs area and directed me to set a course for the Malvern airport some twenty miles away. While en route I practiced 360 degree turns, power on and power off stalls, did figure “S” maneuvers over highways and practiced set-ups for emergency landings. Arriving at Malvern, I felt comfortable with the bird and made three smooth landings. The instructor stopped me as we completed the third landing because he thought that the tail wheel was not rotating freely. We deplaned, made an inspection, and found the wheel to be free of any restrictions.
As we started the ground run for the next take-off, the instructor told me to make the standard approach but he wanted to see me perform a “wheel landing.” I objected, stating that while I felt comfortable with the bird, I did not feel “that” comfortable. He laughed and said that he would demonstrate the landing, then I should follow his example.
I turned the controls over to him by taking my hand off the throttle, releasing the control stick and removing my feet from the rudder pedals. When he attempted the touch down for the “wheel landing,” I realized I had made a serious mistake in relinquishing contact with the airplane’s controls. I started to grope for them while the gravity forces were bouncing me around.
He had made the approach too high. The bird lost speed and stalled above the pavement, causing it to drop suddenly, resulting in the landing gear hitting the asphalt with such hard force that we bounced severely. The second bounce was only a little softer than the first, and on the third bounce the instructor yelled, “Grab it, the stick came loose!” He had failed to fasten the rear seat stick to the peg prior to our flight.
The airplane was attempting to settle on the runway, but we were traveling too fast to land and too slow for the aircraft's control surfaces to be effective to line it up with the runway. The wheels of the airplane were touching the runway, but we were angling toward a drainage ditch. Hitting the excavation would destroy the airplane and cause serious injury to both of us. We were an “accident” moments away from the place for it to happen.
In desperation, I added full power to accelerate and create “lift” for the wings while keeping the rudder high in the air in an attempt to gain directional control. The procedure worked, and, as the airplane began to fly, the control surfaces became functional. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I realized that we had steered clear of the ditch.
Upon reaching an altitude of three hundred feet, the instructor said, “I’ll take it now; let’s go back to Hot Springs.”
The event had so unnerved him that he terminated the check ride and refused to qualify me in the aircraft. The remarks section of my check ride form contained his notation: “Unable to complete check ride because of tail wheel problems.” Needless to say, I was irate.
On arrival at our Hot Springs Headquarters, I voiced loud complaints about the fact that the incident was his fault and he was using the lame “tail wheel” excuse to avoid completing the check ride. I began to look for another instructor.
After a period of time the Wing Commander eased over to me and asked me to quiet down, telling me he would assign the airplane to the Conway Airport the following week and personally give me the check ride.
Flying has been described as hours and hours of boredom intermixed with a few moments of absolute terror.
Andy McNeil served as Chancery Judge for the Twentieth Arkansas Judicial District and now acts as a Retired Judge on Assignment. He is a Life Member of the Arkansas Judicial Council.
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