Multiengine Multitasking

At Moody Wood Dale Airport, humid summer arrived with her long, languid days. I relished the cut grass smell , and I loved seeing the tethered training aircraft rocking in the wind. We constantly eyed the skies. Sometimes a squall blew through, erasing the heavy humidity and bringing a bracing breeze. and  strong, whipping winds that beat the windsock into a frenzy, The towering cumulus transformed into black thunderheads that unleashed their tremendous downpours.

That summer capped an amazing two years. I remembered my anxiety during early private pilot training, the constant fear of washing out, the training for commercial pilot and flight instructor that demanded sharper skills. But this last summer I longed for something that seemed out of reach —- a multiengine rating. Time was running out, twin engine time was expensive, and no instructor was available….

Multiengine at Moody

Then something wonderful. Moody needed somebody to install radios and instruments in a borrowed Apache. So during that summer of 1963, John Gettman (the brains behind the operation), Norm Hamilton and I spent many hours upside-down under the Apache instrument panel amidst a maze of wires. We cut holes in the panel, mounted and tested radios and instruments, wired and rewired. Then we got to fly the Apache. Mr. Berry agreed to instruct the three of us, and in return for my instruction time, I repainted part of his car. Looking back, he gave us such a generous gift.

Mr. Berry would sit in the copilot seat, each of us took turns in the pilot’s seat and the other two sat in the rear. The day I first took the left seat, I started the right engine first because the right had the airplane’s only generator. I loved opening the small pilot’s window and yelling, “Clear right!” Then I started the second engine and taxied out to the runway for the preflight check.  At the end of the check I pulled the prop control back to verify that it went into feather.

Mr. Berry said, “If the prop won’t feather, it’s a no-go item, because even with full power on the other engine, you can’t maintain altitude with the dead prop windmilling.”

Then the takeoff. A thrill to apply full power and feel the plane leap forward.

We climbed up to 3,000 feet and leveled off. After months of bouncing around in the Cessna 150 trainer, the Apache felt like an airliner —- solid, less at the mercy of wind gusts.

Piper Aircraft built this plane in the mid-1950s and equipped it with two 150 HP Lycoming engines (on later models, these upgraded to 160 HP). Bereft of grace, Apache N1137P had a bulbous nose, and wings as fat as air mattresses. You dealt with more complexity than in a single, paid more attention to procedures and checklists. Its recalcitrant gasoline-fired heater was almost as hard to operate as the plane itself. Mr. Berry told us, “Prime it only a couple of times; you don’t want a fire in the air.”

Mr. Berry says, “There’re only two kinds of pilots —- those who have already landed gear up and those who are going to.”` Every pilot obsesses about retractable landing gear. The Apache checklist says “gear down,” but it’s easy to get distracted and busy with all the tasks of landing. One pilot I highly respect landed an Aero Commander, then pulled the gear out from under it. (The gear lever is in the same position as the flap lever in the more familiar Cessna 180 he usually flew.) A month later, another pilot did the same thing. So when I flew retractable years later, I would always tell the passenger in the right seat: “See that little green gear-down light?” If it isn’t green when we land you’ll hear a harsh, scratchy sound. Scratchy’s bad, and it’ll take lots more power to taxi up to the terminal…” So in the Apache, I focused on those three little green lights. Once I put the gear down and only two lights came on. I recycled the gear; same thing. When we scrambled to switch the burned out bulb, the welcome green light came on.

After we got used to flying the airplane, Mr. Berry would shut down one engine in flight. The day he first pulled the power back on me and said “engine failure,” the airplane yawed severely to the right. I caught my breath, trying to determine which engine had failed (“strong foot on the rudder equals good engine; limp foot equals dead engine”). I pulled the right throttle back, then pulled the prop control back to feather. The right prop blades slowed, twisted parallel to the wind, then stopped. Feathering reduced the drag and we maintained altitude with full power on the left engine. Mr. Berry said, “You still need strong pressure on the left rudder to keep the airplane straight.”

Most critical is an engine failure on takeoff. Once, Mr. Berry pulled the left throttle back just as I was lifting off the runway. As I scrambled to overcome the yaw to the left and shut the bad engine down (simulated), he said, “Keep the speed at 90 or above. If you drop below 85 mph, the plane will slowly roll over on its back.”

I thought that might be counterproductive, and we were barely gaining altitude on one engine.

If an engine fails, you lose more than thrust and directional control. The Apache had only one generator (right engine) and one hydraulic pump (left engine). If you lose the right engine you soon run out of electrical power. And once when Mr. Berry shut down the left engine we lost hydraulic power and had to pump the gear down by hand. So much for redundancy.

One clear, dark night we were airport-hopping across Illinois when suddenly silence—both engines quit. Each wing contains one main and one aux fuel tank. We were crossfeeding both engines from the left main, and had exhausted the fuel in that tank. I swallowed hard, then reached down and switched to the right main.

After visiting several airports, we began a long, gradual descent into DuPage with air calm as stone and so clean it quivered. You could see the runway lights 20 miles out. I tried to judge my descent by the trapezoid of the runway boundary lights —- longer and narrower means you’re overshooting; wider and fatter means you’re undershooting. I felt like I was at the controls of a great airliner piercing the darkness, gliding down a silver trail in a large aluminum cocoon.

I looked over at Mr. Berry —- asleep. Does that mean he trusted me? Or more likely, he was sleep-deprived. Moody didn’t pay much, and he drywalled nights and weekends to make ends meet. Terse, soft-spoken, he never smiled, and gave you feedback only after you were back on the ground—we all liked him.

After about twelve hours of instruction we all flew over to DuPage Airport for our multiengine checkrides. As with all my other checkrides, I felt uneasy, wondering what the FAA examiner would demand. But it all seemed familiar, just a repeat of what we learned in practice. After some stalls, some single-engine work, and a couple of landings, I walked away with a fresh multiengine endorsement on my commercial license. To celebrate, I filled out an application for a hot air balloon pilot rating because, at the time, you didn’t even need a checkride. I’ve never gone up in a hot air balloon, but I still proudly carry the license.


Those years at Moody Wood Dale, with that strange mix of piety and technology—a few earnest young men seeking to save the world through mission aviation. Two years of anxiety and comradery. What a beautiful experience —- excellent instruction, good friends, great flying experiences.

The multiengine training that summer was the last act at my beloved Moody Wood Dale—when I left for California, I never saw the airport again. Years later I searched it out, but the airfield had sprouted large industrial buildings. The little grass airport had disappeared.

Down to Baja

A year after leaving Moody, I worried that I would have no chance to get more multiengine experience. I was enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, and in the afternoons mechanicked at Chino airport for “Hank” —- a garrulous galactico who ran a tiny maintenance operation modestly named “United California.”

Hank deposited an irrational trust in me —- I was basically on my own, a novice mechanic who worked all day alone, including work on replacing all the fabric on a Taylorcraft.

I did not reciprocate Hank’s trust —- he seemed too casual. He told me about when he’d forgotten to take the control locks off a DC3, and had to put both feet up on the instrument panel to pull the elevators up enough to land.

He raced around with his ears back, and bragged that he could take off and land an Apache on one engine. I guess you would just slowly advance the power on takeoff so the yaw wouldn’t pull you off the runway, then rotate after you reached 100 mph or so. Still, who would ever want to try that?

One day Hank said, “I need you to do a 100-hour inspection on my red Apache.” I stood with a wrench poised in the air staring at this beautiful red and white machine. I enjoyed working on it, but even more, I longed to fly it.

One Thursday in May, 1964, I got my miracle. Hank was brokering with some guys, stalling them until I arrived that afternoon. He said to me, “Hey; some guys here want to charter my Apache for some Baja marlin fishing. Wanna’ take ‘em down?”

How could I say no? But I’d never flown in Mexico; never been to Baja California, and I had less than 20 hours in the Apache. I mentally cancelled my weekend plans, searched for the aeronautical charts and began to plan the trip.

I asked Hank, “What about customs at the border?”

“No problem; just land in Mexicali and clear Mexican customs. Give ‘em a tip and they won’t check through your baggage.”

The clock already said 1:00 pm. “What if we can’t make it down in daylight?”

“Don’t worry; there’s lights at the airport.”

I stuffed the three fishermen in the plane with all their gear and we took off about 2:00, so heavy that the bulbous nose of the Apache rode high, like a speedboat. The summer heat beat backwards beneath our wallowing wings.

At Mexicali, the Mexican customs guy sniffed around the plane until one of the guys gave him fifty cents. He waved us through.

We took off headed south. The panel clock nibbled away at the daylight, and we still had a long flight ahead. Our destination, Buenavista, lay on the eastern coast of the Baja peninsula, only about ninety miles north of Cabo San Lucas.

The westering sun sunk lower as we landed at Bahia de Los Angeles to gas up.

As we hurtled along at 150 MPH, I looked off east at the darkening, wind-wrinkled waves, and wondered about Hank’s, “it’s a lighted field.” Embarrassing if Buenavista had no lights and we crashed in the desert. Did I mention I had some trust issues with Hank? I told the passengers, “We’ll land at Bahia de Los Angeles and overnight there; I don’t want to fly at night over territory I’ve never seen before, so we’ll head down to Buenavista early tomorrow morning.” We landed at about 7:00, and taxied toward the buildings. I felt completely rendered.

That evening we had a great roast turtle dinner with rice and beams, then sat on the veranda and watched the thin moon rise over the bay with her upturned horns.

Early next morning they served us salchicha and huevos a la ranchera for breakfast. We rolled out a couple 55-gallon drums and serviced the airplane with red 87 octane av gas. I drained each of the four tanks to check for water, then flung the cup of gas onto the sand.

We flew the hour and twenty minutes to Muleje, our last fuel stop. As we slowed, the plane’s small wheels sank in the sand and I had to add power to keep going. As we fueled up and taxied back out I wondered, how will we ever take off in this sand?

The wind dictated a north takeoff over some low bluffs, so we pulled the aircraft way back into the sandy soil at the south end of the airstrip. As I maneuvered into position, we got stuck. We pushed and pulled, but no luck. At last, a passing stake truck tied a rope to the nose wheel strut and pulled us out. My guys gave them a good tip.

Finally we started the takeoff roll, barely building speed in the soft sand. Halfway down the strip we got airborne, but the bluffs loomed ahead of us. Too late to think of turning. As we skimmed over the bluff I could count the cacti. After we cleared, I looked down and realized I was so preoccupied with the takeoff I’d forgotten to turn on the auxiliary fuel pumps. With each hour, I was gaining more respect for the Apache’s complexity.

We flew the 260 miles to Buenavista. Circling above the airport, I saw no runway lights along the airstrip—Hank must have been selling smoke. I was glad we’d overnighted in Bahia. We landed, parked, gassed the plane up and then walked over to the buildings.

One of the guys said, “Do you want to go out marlin fishing with us?

“I guess not… I think I’d better stay ashore and study for my classes.”

“Okay. Order whatever you want to from the bar.”

They fished for two days. I ordered meals and a couple of cokes, eschewing the alcohol, then moodled about people-watching in the lazy heat, inhaling the hot air of human perspiration.

The night before we flew back, one of my fisherman guys asked, “Can we take our marlin back with us?”

“I don’t think so… we’re as loaded as when we came down.”

“Okay. At guess we’ll just cut off the sword nose and take it with us.”

That Sunday morning the sun rose hot, with just a cloud or two in the sky. I preflighted the mud-mottled Apache and we took off, as heavily loaded as when we had left home.

We stopped for fuel in San Felipe, cleared customs again in Mexicali and then flew back home to Chino.


That evening I sat in my Cal State dorm room, reflecting. The Apache had felt pretty familiar, but I could have used more experience in it before a long, international flight. I had no time to plan and wasn’t familiar with the route. We were landing on sandy, dirt strips and we had the pressure of failing daylight.

I had a new respect for the complexity of a twin engine airplane —- single-engine procedures, fuel tank system, and especially emergency procedures.

Later I would fly other twins—Cessna 310, Twin Comanche, Aztec. But my heart still clings to that pudgy red and white Apache that carried us down to the tip of Baja.

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