Originally appeared in R/C Report magazine in February 1997
By Robert Osorio, The Flying Penguin
The stories are true, only the names have been changed to protect the inept. As to whether you believe in the Airplane Gods... well, take this as a lesson.
It's my fault, I was slack at my duties. I haven't organized any ritual orgies lately. We haven't sacrificed any Ugly Sticks on the helicopter landing pad altar in months. The Sacred Bottle of Holy Glow Fuel was drained for the fun fly last week. The coke machine had been desecrated by vandals and the bulletin board was in a shambles. The Airplane Gods had a bug up their ass again. I should've seen the signs.
You see, I'm the designated Director Of Deity Appeasement (DODA) at my flying field. I drew the short straw this year, and it's my turn in the fire. It's not an easy job. The Airplane Gods are a cantankerous bunch and prone to turning the fates against unwary pilots on a mere whim (especially those who are sacrilegious enough to bring cell phones to the flying field). Besides, it's hard to get people to follow the scriptures. People are actually reluctant to sacrifice their Ugly Sticks nowadays! It's getting harder and harder to find virgins who've appeared on R/C magazine covers to perform ritual procreation with the club lawn man (one of the better perks of the job - we have no problems getting people to volunteer for mowing the lawn - kind of embarrassing though, as you have to perform on the lawn mower, while it's moving, with everyone watching...). I've been busy at work lately and all that and.... yeah, I know, there's no excuse.....
So there I stood in the middle of the flying field along with several other pilots, a dozen onlookers, and a milling crowd of hungry looking hobby store owners circling the area like vultures. We're staring at a vast sea of ruin and devastation. It looks just like a scene from the end of a Schwarzenegger Film (any of Arnold's films - they all end the same way, with burning wreckage strewn for miles). Actually, more like my parent's living room when I was seven, now that I come to think about it. I used to like to build six-foot tall rocket ships out of lego blocks and then start hurling "C" batteries at 'em (meteor storm). Even had little pieces of paper with happy faces drawn on them that I stuck in the cockpit. That was half the fun, digging through the wreckage to see where the bodies were (yeah, I know I was a sick kid, but at least I never blew up frogs with firecrackers like my peers...).
Anyway, my trusty and faithful five year-old Ultra Sport 40, veteran of hundreds flights, is sitting in the middle of the field sticking up out of the ground like some sort of post-modernistic art sculpture. "Les Lawndart Artifique" I think I'll call it. The thing came in nose first, full throttle, at easily over a hundred knots. Three of us have been digging for the last half hour using 18-8 props as shovels trying to find the damn engine. "Hey Bob, you sure there was an engine on this thing?" one of the diggers asks me. The ground is kind of a soft loam around here, especially with the summer rains. I kid you not, but this thing had screwed itself into the ground so deep, only the last inch of the tuned pipe was visible. The wings had just folded in on themselves, as most of the fuse buried itself into the muck in some sort of macabre impersonation of an artillery shell. I was seriously considering going around the corner to the hardware store to look for a shovel. We eventually found the engine - a foot down no less. The prize sat there at the bottom of our excavation, a dull glint of sunlight reflecting off the small bit of aluminum crankcase we had exposed. I'm certain the feeling we all shared at that moment, when we heard the sound of an improvised digging tool scrape against aluminum, was identical to that felt by gold miners when they strike the mother load. At a replacement cost of 250 bucks, I had indeed struck paydirt - God I hope the crank ain't bent...
I'm a fond believer in the "stick it all in a trash bag and look at it in a month" philosophy of crash recovery, but we'd had to demolish so much of the surviving front half of the plane just to dig out the engine, that the most use this plane would ever come to would be as kindling fuel. Hell, the wings practically exploded on impact. "Dumb Thumbs" I'd called it at the time. Sure, I've done inverted passes hundreds of times, and never before had I confused my elevator directions. Had to be dumb thumbs. Happens to all of us sooner or later (couldn't have had anything to do with those eight beers I had for lunch).
I should've known better, though. That was only the first crash of the day...
A friend's Sig Fazer lies on the ground, it's back broken, Styrofoam innards gleaming white in the noon sun. It hadn't really hit all that hard. He'd been doing low altitude wing overs and just let it get too low it seems. He'd seen it coming though - knew he couldn't pull out in time, so he'd chopped the throttle and just let it settle to the ground, yanking back on the stick with all he had. Those big wings usually act as pretty good speed brakes in a maneuver like that. It should've just bounced, maybe bent the gear at worst. Nope. The same ground that only moments before had been so soft that it had practically swallowed my entire Ultra Sport whole, now had a consistency resembling nothing less than the hardest of concrete. The fuse broke right behind the wing and, to add insult to injury, the muffler had broken off and smashed a hole in the left wing panel.
That's when I could've stopped it all. If only I'd recognized the signs...
The P-40 was a tad heavy. I liked it that way - it flew really scale. Usually the OS 90 four stoke was a reliable performer - never given me a lick of trouble. Trouble finally came calling in the form of a dead-stick immediately after takeoff, just after having turned with the wind, and still groping for altitude. The plane was a great performer, very aerobatic, unlimited vertical climb. Just like a full-scale P-40 though, with a dead engine it does a great impersonation of a falling brick. I didn't have anywhere near enough altitude to bring it back into the wind in time, so I got it turned around as far as I could, and shot for a cross-wind landing. I'm a good pilot, and the worst I expected was some minor landing gear damage (no retracts), maybe a ding or two. Got it leveled out, down into the grass. It was damn near a perfect dead stick landing. The guys were starting to applaud.... Then it bounced, dropped a wing, and cartwheeled across the parking lot. Looked like that crash they used to show during the opening credits of the Six Million Dollar Man. It didn't even hit all that hard, but it snapped the fuse clean through in two places. The wreck looked just like that famous film clip of a Corsair they always show on World War II documentaries. You know the one: it crashes into the superstructure of an aircraft carrier, and breaks clean in half just behind the cockpit. Looked just like that.
That's when I began to suspect that the Airplane Gods were angry...
Some guy's Byron F-16 Falcon lies in ruins at the end of the runway. On it's third flight the Airplane Gods reached down and stripped a brand new ball link off an elevator pushrod. It did a slow, elegant, graceful right roll immediately after rotating and pancaked into the runway inverted, sliding to an undignified stop in the grass. It's belly in the air, engine still screaming like the howl of a wounded beast, a tattered debris field was splayed out behind it. The poor sod stands there, jaw on the ground, devastated. He gets an ugly look on his face, the kind any seasoned flyer recognizes immediately. We all head him off before he can get to the plane and stomp it into the ground.
That's when I knew - The Airplane Gods were angry.
We got our act together pretty quickly after that. Several people turned around and clubbed some guy who had just setup his Ugly Stick on a table. We dragged the plane over to the helipad and started going at it with prop wrenches and hobby knives. When we were done, the plane was a gutted carcass and we had twelve ounces of Holy Glow Fuel to add to the Sacred Bottle. Things got kind of ugly then. Some guys started attacking anything that even looked like an Ugly Stick - somebody even ripped apart a Kadet Senior. The following morning the bulletin board was replaced, the graffiti was scrubbed off the coke machine, and the Sacred Glow Fuel Bottle was full to capacity again.
The God's are quiet now, but we keep ourselves in line, lest we earn their wrath again. We haven't had any crashes since that day, the frequencies are clear, and the wind continues to blow right down the runway at ten knots. The skies are always clear on weekends and no one's burned out a glow plug in months. I just have one problem, and I hope you folks can help me. Do any of you know where I can find a virgin that's appeared on an R/C magazine cover? You see, it's my turn to mow the lawn next month...
#10 Batteries only last as long as the warranty on the radio.
#9 If it's gotta go in, make it one worth talking about.
#8 If it does turn out to be a crash that legends are written about, don't exaggerate on it's retelling - others will do that for you.
#7 Bask in your moment of glory while you can - some other damn fool will out-do your crash tomorrow.
#6 There is no such thing as "fool proof".
#5 Unbreakable props do, untearable fabric does and seamless tanks aren't...
#4 Any landing that the engine walks away from is a good one.
#3 Canopies do not make good landing gear.
#2 Trainer cords should not be used to lynch pilots who turn their radios on when someone else has the frequency.... that's what they make rope for.
#1 Never let them see you cry.... especially if there's women around.