Twin Troubles in Texas

I guess I was too overconfident that Sunday afternoon in 1965. I’d only flown the Cessna 310 a couple of times, and now I had three passengers aboard and was shutting one engine down. But even when I wound up the other engine to full power, the airplane continued sinking toward the earth. What could I do to save us?


The day before, I’d landed at Dumas, Texas, near my Uncle John’s ranch. He said he would be traveling, so I called Charlie, who managed the 1,500 acres of corn and cattle on Derrick Ranch. I circled overhead and gunned the engines, signaling Charlie to drive out and pick me up at the airport.

Driving back to the ranch, we sat in Charlie’s green pickup truck passing acres of beef cow ranches and the donkey pumpers scattered over vast oilfields. Soon we rolled through the ranch gate with the wrought-iron oil derrick design on top, the branding iron shape for Uncle John’s 4,000 head of Hereford cattle.

Charlie was a few years older than I, a farmer’s farmer—disheveled brown hair, a crooked grin, high-topped work shoes, and a gentle manner.

He told me, “You can drive our tractor to compress down the corn silage in that open pit over there; then I’ll give you my .22 to hunt rabbits.”

It was fun driving, but I endangered no rabbits that afternoon. In the evening I had dinner with Charlie’s family, then he and I went to the Dumas drive-in to see In the Heat of the Night. The only part I remember now is the policeman looking into the house at the bare-breasted woman.

Charlie, his dad, and brother were eager to see the ranch from the air, so on Sunday the four of us drove out to the airport. Nobody asked any questions—they trusted me. Feeling the heat radiating up from the tarmac, I walked around the airplane checking fuel drains, control surfaces, tires. We took off, and soon soared above the Texas panhandle. I switched the fuel valve from main tanks to aux tanks, planning to later switch back to the mains. We turned toward the ranch and circled over the tiny houses.

I said to Charlie, “I want to practice some single-engine work, so we’ll climb up to 4,000 feet.” Charlie nodded as if this was perfectly normal.

When we reached our altitude, I pulled back the right throttle and watched the right prop slow to windmill speed—a big, useless spinning disk. Immediately a shrill horn blared—the airplane thought we were going to land and was complaining that the landing gear was not extended, so I lowered the landing gear to silence the horn.  To help us maintain altitude I added full power on the left engine.

Then I feathered the right propeller, watching it slow and stop, the blades aligning with the slipstream. This reduced drag and the airplane sprang forward.

We made a couple of circles; then I tried to start the dead engine. I cranked and cranked. Nothing. Cranked and cranked some more. Puzzling how fast we were losing altitude on one engine. Charlie and friends were oblivious, staring at the tiny panorama below. “There’s no irrigation water running on that side of the cornfield…. Hey; there’s Mom walking across the yard!”

Although I had full power on the left engine we were still sinking fast. Why? Probably because we were near gross weight, I reasoned, and because the day was hot.

I furiously scanned the gauges, checking and rechecking to discover why the right engine wouldn’t restart. I cranked and cranked again—nothing. By now we were getting really low—about 1500 feet. Sweaty palms. I turned around and said to my passengers with a false smile, “We’ll land on one engine.” Their smiles and nods told me they were thinking that pilots do this all the time.

I was late making the one-engine landing decision, and we had only one chance to land because the airplane wouldn’t climb. My brow glistened and my heart pounded. Maneuvering to enter downwind leg for runway 19, I began my prelanding check. At that moment I discovered two things.

When I ran down the checklist to “fuel valve” I discovered that both valves remained on “aux” tank. I had plenty of fuel in these, but, since neither aux tank had an electric boost pump, no fuel was feeding up to the engine-driven fuel pump! I switched both tanks to “main,” and cranked the right engine again. The feathered right prop immediately spun and the dead engine started.

Relief. I could now make a normal landing. I continued my checklist by pushing the gear lever, but it was already down! I remembered I had put it down when I heard the annoying “gear up” horn. So that was why we were losing so much alititude!

We glided in to an uneventful landing.


Sometimes pilots brood. That night I lay in bed chastened and humbled. How could I have made two stupid mistakes? Well, I hadn’t had enough respect for the complexity of a twin engine airplane, and should have spent more time reading the manual, especially the part about the complicated fuel system—two main tip tanks and an aux tank in each wing, a crossfeed system to allow feeding one engine from the opposite tank, and especially the part about no submerged boost pump in the aux tanks; you can only start an engine on the main tank!

And when I was having trouble starting the dead engine, I should have gone through a more thorough checklist. Then I would have caught the landing gear issue.

I fell into a fitful sleep.

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