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Florida Air Lines DC-3 — Time? Altitude?

3 February 2010

Florida Air Lines DC-3 — Time? Altitude?

Douglas Super DC-3 at Opa-locka Executive Airport (note the squared-off and taller vertical stabilizer) — photo by Joe May

It is said that an aviation crash occurs when one runs out of airspeed, altitude and ideas at the same instant. It is also said that most twin engine aircraft have an advantage over single engine aircraft in that they get to the crash site sooner when an engine quits.

Late one spring morning, in the late 1970s, I was approaching Tampa International Airport (TIA) while driving west on Boy Scout Boulevard. The road parallels the southern property boundary of TIA and, for the most part, is a good road for the observation of aircraft departures — as winds in Tampa at that time of year are from the southeast or southwest.

This day would be different. My diaphragm vibrates a bit whenever an aircraft approaches me at a  low altitude — in other words, I get a few seconds worth of warning in these circumstances. As I was looking at TIA’s southeastern corner I felt  that unique sensation so I looked upwind, to the south, and a few hundred feet above the tree tops … too high for that sensation but that is where the airplane would be on its landing approach.

No aircraft … but the sensation was getting stronger … the aircraft was coming closer to me but I couldn’t see it … then, the little man in the back of my head threw the emergency switch to full on. All senses were solely serving to provide input to help a brain that was now totally absorbed with working the situation.

There! I saw the tree canopy about a half mile (1km) away rippling, buffeted by an unknown temporary disturbance. Temporary since the branches were swishing about, to and fro, as if they were being brushed aside — certainly not being bent by an ordinary wind.

There it was! Incredibly, a Florida Air Lines* DC-3 with her wheels up and right engine trailing thick black smoke. She was so very low and determined to get to the runway. There would be at least two souls on board — perhaps about twenty — and the threshold must have seemed so distant to her crew at that moment.

This airliner was in trouble and I was drafted to witness an aircrew’s struggle to land their DC-3 safely. Feeling like a tourist I was frustrated as I could only watch, powerless to assist. I slowed the car since I was definitely not getting in between the airplane and the runway. Regrettably, I thought the chances were very good it would be forced land, at the very least, onto Boy Scout Boulevard. Fortunately, there was almost no traffic on the road — a small break for the crew. I was sharing the same context as the DC-3’s crew … the next moments were all that existed, the rest of the day’s plans simply ceased to exist. How to not get in front of that aircraft? What will the pilot do if he cannot make the field? I am wearing only shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes … nice attire for a steamy Florida day but not the attire for encountering a fire. I was in the moment. Everything was adrenaline, experience and instinct.

I was wrong about the flight path. The Florida Air Lines DC-3 passed in front of me,  crossing the fence with less than 30 feet (9m) between the airliner and the grass. Continuing to drive slowly I watched, waiting for the belly landing … a sensational but a relatively safe event. At least there would be no crash landing, I thought.

Wrong again!

Once over the threshold I saw the flaps extend to full down and, the DC-3 bump up a few precious feet in altitude, then the main gear began to extend. This gear extension robbed the aircraft of the airspeed needed to countinue flying, settling the DC-3 smoothly onto the runway, routinely, matter of factly and unceremoniously. How different the situation now was!

I had been witness to a master, or masters, at work. The flight crew husbanded their airspeed, controlled their energy, maintained their margin of control … so that they would determine the last moment of flight without wasting as much as a foot of altitude or a knot of airspeed. Those massive wheels meeting the airstream, inducing much more parasitic drag, would make further flight no longer possible. Showing their professionalism, the crew utilized the paradox of a full flap extension’s short-lived increase in altitude — only an impulse really, a matter of seconds, only the time required to take a few breaths — but impeccably timed as the few added feet provided the seconds required for the landing gear to lower and lock, with a silky smooth return to earth as the result.

Model of a KLM Airlines Douglas DC-3 at the St. Petersburg Museum of History (I learned from Niels Helmø Larsen that this color was used in WW II to mark a civilian aircraft) — photo by Joe May

I am not a pilot, so I do not know how busy the hands were in the cockpit. But I do know that a landing with a smooth roll out occurred in the face of a potential for disaster. This feat would not be heralded, and it was not, in the media — but professionals prefer quiet to attention. This crew, as many before and since, flew their aircraft to its maximum potential with scant options available to safely return the aircraft and all souls on board back to earth.

Restored Douglas DC-3 — photo by Joe May

* Florida Air Lines, though no longer in business, had a good argument that they were operating the largest fleet of DC-3 aircraft in the world at the time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marty Davis permalink
    7 February 2010 09:36

    Fascinating story. Watching an aircraft struggle to make the runway is nerve-wracking in your tale; it had me on the edge of my seat for a while. Bravo! (To you and the pilots.)

  2. travelforaircraft permalink
    7 February 2010 11:06

    Thanks, but if I never have to witness an event such as that again I will be happy 😉

    This story also reminds me that great things are quietly done every day and that is how the world works.

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