Tuesday, August 29, 2023
Beechcraft Baron B58
Beechcraft Baron B58
“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly ”
Richard Bach, Author
Our third in the series from contributing editor/writer/world traveler/adventurer, Duane Heil. Owner and Captain of Grateful – a beautiful 50′ Beneteau Sense now sailing in the Mediterranean – this former builder/developer from the Bay area takes us on a harrowing journey of flight in this edition of Finding Grateful
Duane Heil for The National Business Post
July 6, 2021
Log Entry 3
Desolation Wilderness area, Lake Tahoe, California
At 173 knots — true airspeed, the Beechcraft Baron was tight and solid, responsive like an M8 on the autobahn. She was so well balanced; it only took the pressure of one finger on the yoke to keep her centered. The sun had set an hour ago.
It was cold and crisp. I could almost feel each blade chop the air. I was happy to see the snowline near 3,500 feet, five minutes earlier. At 200 miles per hour, our steady climb would have us over the peaks of Squaw Valley in the next 10 minutes.
In the seat beside me was my only passenger. Marc was a business associate and neighbor who lived close to my home in Oakland. He also had a place at one of the resorts in Tahoe. The weekend was coming and he was happy not having to deal with the Bay Area traffic.
The view was breathtaking — another beautiful calm evening of clear skies and snowcapped mountains. A waning moon and lots of snow on the ground, I was excited to get to my mountain house in Sugar Bowl Ski Resort and join my family in the cozy cabin. Both engines purred, churning out 520 HP, as the lights of the Bay Area slipped away. Oakland, Danville, Mount Diablo, then the scattered, flat darkness of the vast California Central Valley farms and their network of water channels. A bit off to the left, Sacramento had a dimmer glow than that of San Francisco, but I was focused on the coming mountains, another 20 minutes ahead. I climbed gradually — 300 feet per minute — just enough to clear the last summit by 2,000’. It’s always a trade-off with the altitude on this route: crossing the last peak at 11,000 feet only to have to turn into a screeching descent to make the runway at the airport another 6 minutes away and 6,000 feet lower…without shock-cooling the engines. It’s a trade-off I don’t like.
Suddenly, I noticed the oil-filler door atop the cowling, flapping in the wind! I did a double take to be sure what I was seeing was actually happening. From the cockpit, I scanned the wing root to the rest of the engine nacelle with my flashlight. Then I saw what looked like a 12’ gauge shotgun blast thru the cowlings’ aluminum skin. Engine failures, sometimes like waning relationships, are tricky because the prop can keep spinning long after the engine has conked out. Oh what we do to ourselves…
As the airspeed deteriorated, the myriad of possible modes of engine failure raced through my head. Did I leave the oil cap off? Did I have bad fuel? I wasn’t really pushing the engines, so what in the world?? To keep a safe airspeed with only one engine producing power, I would have to level off at the current altitude of 7,500’. While the mountain passes topped off at 6,000 feet, they were 20 miles away from my current path. And there were plenty of 8,000- to 9,000-foot peaks of very hard granite between us and the Truckee airport, 25 miles ahead. I decided, I would have to make a 180 and head back to the Sacramento Valley in hopes that the second engine kept going…
I love flying…
As a kid, my room in Hacienda Heights, just east of Los Angeles, looked directly up at the approach path of the endless string of jets lining up for their landing at LAX. Sometimes I could count them ten deep.
When I was 12, my Uncle Carl purchased a “factory” new Piper Cherokee, and so started my addiction to flying. Riding in the right seat of any plane, you become immediately aware of the flight process — each step technical in nature. Carl was so meticulous. It began the moment he buckled me up for the car ride to the airport. At the hangar, Carl would check the pressure in each tire before the plane was rolled out onto the tarmac. For me, it was his process that instilled a feeling of confidence and security in his abilities as a pilot. I followed his lead. In flight, he would hand over the yoke, and talk me through slow and steep turns, way, way above the sprawling metropolis of the San Gabriel Valley.
By 15, I had completed ground school at the community college, and soloed at 18. Six years of engineering and business school, then three years travelling on a shoestring budget, money kept me grounded until I was 28. But once I started my construction business I finally had the means to continue my flight training.
In 4 months, I had my license and I used every excuse I could to rent a 152 and fly around California. One day I saw a notice at Hayward airport — 1/4 interest in a 1962 V-tail Bonanza — $7,500.
Bob, one of the more active partners, gave me the test flight. Bob was a genuine WWII vet. He had flown F4U Corsairs for the US Navy in the South Pacific and was actually shot down, twice, rescued and was issued another plane to head back into action. Civilian life had given Bob the opportunity to become an Aeronautical Engineer and he had spent his career at Boeing, and was now one of the first to build his own homebuilt aircraft and fly it all the way across America.
Over four years of owning the Bonanza, Bob, a licensed A&P – an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic – he taught me how to maintain and improve aircrafts. Over the next few years, I bought out the other three fractional partners, and flew the Bonanza to many locations across the U.S., from Oshkosh Wisconsin, to Baja Mexico and everywhere in between.
Then came marriage and kids, and suddenly I needed more power and space.
A friend was selling his 1965 B-55 Baron, the venerable twin by Beechcraft. I was always a little spooked by the idea of a twin, but once he took me up…and I mean UP, at a rip of a couple thousand feet per minute, I was hooked. The Baron was an excellent Mexico plane. Fill the tanks and the seats and head to Cabo. Non-stop.
Baja airstrip
(Baja Peninsula) - Found this dirt strip where we used to surf and camp
Baja was my favorite. It turns out there’s a dirt strip on a remote island about 1/2 way down the Baja peninsula. When the south swells come every Fall, they wrap around the south point creating one of the most epic surf spots in the Eastern Pacific. I made that over-water run in the Baron 18 times, camping out under the wing, with the waves just for me, three crew, and a few other lucky pilots.
Back to the story…
While the more conservative would perhaps deviate just to the north a bit and follow Interstate 80 back to Hayward — which to a pilot can be considered a continuous runway all the way to Tahoe — I was feeling confident having just scaled the highest peak of the continent, Mount Whitney at 14,000’, twice in the past 72 hours. But now, the only real decision I had to make was to follow protocols and get this 3,600-pound bird headed in the right direction, then feather the dead engine, and find a suitable place to land.
I had practiced feathering every other week for the past 2 years. I knew what to do: identify, confirm, then react. This can be one of the deadliest moments of any pilot’s life. Normally, pilots have a lot of time to create and practice the false engine failure. A pilot picks a clear, calm day, with 6,000 to 10,000 feet of clearance, with airports within gliding range. Today wasn’t that day.
And to think, I was always a conservative pilot too. I recall flying with the family, fully loaded at the airport, following my ‘Rule of Three’ — my superstitious side safety tactic — scuttling a flight the day we were to head up to Tahoe for Thanksgiving: 1. Hanger door stuck. 2. Fuel stop cock not functioning properly. 3. Battery low.
I decided. We’ll fly another day. The Rule of Three.
In the back of my mind, the scenario that was presently unfolding was a bit too familiar. I knew very well that sometimes failure does occur, and that things don’t always go as planned. But now, I needed to make the first maneuver: a 180, on one engine, in the dark, over very hostile terrain with only 2,000 feet of clearance — a turn will cost hundreds of precious feet in elevation, with every second counting.
I set the crab angle at 3 degrees, and turned into the live engine. My instrument flight training was critical at this moment. Glued to the gauges, I began rolling out exactly on the heading that would lower my altitude the quickest. Having performed this task numerous times, I kept telling myself, “Just fly the plane. Keep the speed up. Keep the nose down. Fly the plane. Fly the plane.“
A dead engine has to be stopped, as the windmilling prop can cause a similar drag to a disc of the same size. The feathering process usually works best at very low air speeds. But, as every twin pilot knows, low speeds, one engine, and the extra lift and twist that an engine causes on the airframe, the next few moments are critical. One error can instantly result in a snap roll to death. There is no room for error.
I slowed to blue line around 105 knots, safe engine airspeed — the speed at which there is still rudder and aileron authority. I re-identified the left engine as the failure, and then pulled the prop to full feather.
Done. The prop slowly twisted flat, in-line with the airflow as it slowed, slowing down until it hit vibrational speed. It is at this point where the rotation and vibration of the prop feels as though the engine should rip apart from the wing. Suddenly, I looked again, and the prop had not stopped spinning. It had slowed down, but it hadn’t stopped spinning.
I watched my speed deteriorate. I tried to add more power back into the right engine to keep my precious altitude. The horrible vibrations of the slow spinning prop shook the entire plane violently. I re-engaged the feather lever, the prop spun back up, and I sat, confused, desperately searching my mind for another alternative.
Marc, my passenger, a realtor from the Bay Area sat quietly. He had a degree in mechanical engineering, so I knew he was painfully aware of the gravity of this situation. To his credit, and my benefit, he stayed calm as the nightmare began to unfold.
I called NorCal center and notified them of our condition.
“November 1 2 niner Quebec, say intentions, would you like to declare an emergency?”
“Yes, but can you please prompt me? I really cannot be distracted to find the form.”
“Of course.” They responded.
“Color: white w blue stripes Fuel on board: 4 hours”
And so on. Then came the part in aviation cadence that always feels weird to answer:
“Souls on board?”
As I delivered my response, l looked at Marc, who had only been in a small plane once before, headphones on, sweaty hands on his lap, his eyes white as the snow below. He looked at me with the obvious question, “Really?”
I can only imagine how he felt about being classified as a ‘soul’ at this moment.
I was extremely clear, concise and polite. The controller was calling out to me alternative airports as we continued. I noted the info but did not commit.
Emergency declared. All airspace was now mine.
Meanwhile, the prop kept spinning…OMG, WTF.
A year prior, I had installed these vortex generators on the leading edge of the wings. These small metal fins — about 1” long and 1/4” high — create a tornado-like airstream along the top surface of the wing, a suction effect that allows a pilot to lower control speeds by up to 10 knots. Ideal for getting into small airstrips, making a better wing for slow flights. Yes, the Baron 55 was a very capable aircraft. But these vortex generators might just be my chance. My mind was racing.
I slowed the plane, pulling back the right engine to eliminate adverse yaw, while lifting the nose to below ‘red-line’ of 81 knots — a safe speed only if both engines are producing equal power.
The stall warning horn screamed, I glanced quickly at the airspeed and the needle below 70. OMG 70 knots. I know this plane does not glide at 70, I am sinking into a dark abyss of frozen mountain lakes, granite boulders, and tall spindly pines below. I pulled the feather leaver.
“Come on, slow down. Slow down…”
With so many knobs on the instrument panel, Clarity is critical when feathering an engine in the dark.
And to my relief, the prop began to slow, slowing down to that beautiful silence that only a single engine plane can match.
“Yes. Quick now, Nose down, power up, recover from the descent.” A quick roll of the dice had proven correct. Ok, that was a 500-foot roll of the dice.
With the left engine secured, and the right engine purring, I slowly passed over more than a half dozen lesser air fields and chose to remain on my path back to Sacramento Mather with its 10,000 foot airway.
The approach was uneventful. The hardest part was actually trying to taxi with the adverse pull of having only one engine! I had to make a series of left turns instead of a right turn!
Parked, shut down, and silenced. Marc, my passenger through all of this, gave me a huge hug and thanked me profusely for bringing it down in one piece.
I opened the left cowling to find that the right front cylinder had in fact failed at the drive shaft to piston connection. With it mangled, it had sent shrapnel right through the crank case and through to the cowling.
Walking the tarmac, I got on the phone with the family and relayed what we had just lived through. What seemed like an eternity had taken only twenty minutes. Tragedies often play out this way. It is how we react that makes all the difference on how we move forward.
As quickly as it happened, the moment quickly passed. The plane was retired. And we were picked up later that evening by another friend driving up to Mammoth. Immediately at my request, we stopped for a milkshake I bought everyone a round and I had the extra large.
Sailing, surfing and flying…
These three pursuits that have taken me around the world in a search of that ethereal feeling and connection to the unseen and unspoken waves of light, water and air.
In the wake of this journey, along the road less traveled, I am grateful for the experiences that are constantly creating the fabric of a life worth living, instilling inspiration to always keep an eye on the prize — and not the odds of failure. Amazingly, while I was putting this story together, I searched my 20,000 photos for ´AIRCRAFT´ to add some images to the story. The query returned not just aircraft, but included all my surfing and sailing photos, too. Whoever wrote this algorithm had the same feeling as I. These life-form energies, these beautifully organized shapes, that also take the form of vibrations, give us power, lift, direction…and for me, hope and gratitude.
Yes, we are all connected.
Coincidently, the engine of the Baron was torn down and rebuilt by a shop in Reno. It was down for several months as I was simply too busy to not have an aircraft. I upgraded to a B58 and kept right on flying. To date I have accumulated nearly 3,000 hours on singles and twins. Flying is still one of the greatest loves of my life.
N129Q – The Baron 55 was sold to a nice young man from Texas. His business was flying crop dusters in turbine powered aircraft, but the Baron was to serve him and his family for personal travel.
Copyright © 2021. The National Business Post. All rights reserved.
Duane Heil is owner and Captain of Grateful, a 50′ Beneteau Sense that is currently sailing around the world. A successful builder/developer from San Luis Obispo, Duane has built more than 80 custom homes throughout the Bay area and Southern California and owns several building system patents. In 2018, Duane began a journey to find Grateful. He continues to explore and write as he makes his way back to this side of the pond. If you would like to connect with Duane, you can reach him here:
Instagram @grateful_travel
Facebook: facebook.com/thegratefulsailor
YouTube: youtube.com/c/thegratefulsailor