|By John Lorenz
Matt was headed to California at 500 ft AGL last summer, off to visit his brother across the Continental Divide, down across the baking Arizona desert and into the prevailing westerlies at a blinding 60 knots of groundspeed. We expected his safe-arrival call, so when I heard his voice on the phone I started to congratulate him on a successful trip and ask about the particulars. He answered my questions easily enough and then managed to squeeze in mention that, oh, by the way, he wasn’t quite in California yet, and he probably wasn’t going to get there either. Not today and in fact not any time soon, at least not by Taylorcraft. He was calling on his cell phone from the desert in the southwestern corner of Arizona, just north of Interstate 10 but miles from any discernable civilization. Slowly it dawned on me that, despite his calmness, Matt had just successfully completed an emergency, engine-out, off-field landing with no injuries and no damage to the airplane.
The engine had apparently started to buck and miss, and then, much to Matt’s consternation and disgust, it quickly died as he was diligently going through the engine-out emergency routine. However, being a young man of perspicacity and with great presence of mind, he had promptly put the plane down on an abandoned WWII practice airfield that happened to be beneath him, slipping it hard to avoid overshooting the wide, overgrown, gravel runway.
Opening the cowl revealed a magneto that had been broken and twisted out of place, but not much else. I suggested over the phone that we might be able to borrow and install a new magneto and fly it home, but further investigation showed that in fact the gear that bolts to the back end of the crankshaft -- the gear that drives both the cam shaft and the magnetos -- had shed most of its teeth and they were now rattling around uselessly in the oil sump. This plane wasn’t going anywhere on its own power without a major engine overhaul. Nothing to do about it for the time being except to tie it down, hope no-one bothers it, call his brother for a ride, and come back and load it onto a trailer as soon as possible.
Tying it down was easier said than done since the tiedown stakes would not hold in the loose sand and gravel, so Matt pushed the plane up into the lee of a large, thorny patch of desert shrubbery, crawled in, and tied the plane to some of the larger branches as well as possible. Then he caught a ride to El Centro.
Although the Taylorcraft weighs only 730 lb empty, it requires a good-sized trailer to accommodate it; my 16-ft flatbed would not have done the job. So we borrowed an aircraft recovery trailer with racks for the wings from our friendly mechanic, persuaded another good friend with a large truck to haul it for us, and headed off in the general direction of hot, dusty, Yuma, AZ, former home of the notorious territorial jail.
Getting close we could see the forlorn airplane just a mile off the Interstate, yet lost in the vast desert that morning. We bumped the last mile cross-country and found that the plane had not been tampered with during its three-day abandonment. After I untied the airplane, sampling the discomfort of desert vegetation at close range as I did, we started the disassembly.
Pulling the wings off entailed disconnecting aileron cables, spar attachments, wing tank fuel lines, pitot tube connections, and lift struts. It is awkward, but since Taylorcraft wings weigh only 70-80 lb apiece, it’s not particularly difficult work if you have enough willing hands. A breeze would have complicated things considerably, given the large sail area of such light pieces, but would have been welcome in the gathering warmth of the summer morning. We dragged the fuselage carcass up onto the trailer with a come-a-long and tied it down solidly, hoping to minimize the chafing between fabric and metal that was bound to occur due to the constant road bouncing during the seven-hour ride home. Trailering an airplane subjects it to significantly more wear and tear than flying it does. We also removed the prop so it wouldn’t spin in the wind as we hauled-tail down the highway. That would have looked like the airplane was trying to help with the forward propulsion of the rig and might have been good for a few laughs, like the small car towed behind an SUV and bearing the bumper sticker “I’m pushing as fast as I can,” but it would have damaged the engine further every time the prop spun.
In retrospect, it would have been easier and more economical to just have Matt set fire to the plane immediately after landing, since we now face a multi-thousand dollar repair bill instead of a tidy insurance payment. But, besides being illegal, I kinda like that T-cart. It’s been a good taildragger trainer, and cheap to operate and maintain, at least until recently. The airplane sits in the hangar for now, waiting for us to find the time to give it the TLC it needs for an engine rebuild and some minor fabric repairs. But the Phoenix will rise again.
Ed Note -- The Taylorcraft in this article was featured in the Dec 2000/Jan 2001 issue of SW Aviator. The complete article is available online at swaviator.com/html/issued00j01/tcart.html.