A long time ago - on a Wednesday afternoon, the 11th of May in 1966 to be exact - N15748, a Douglas DC-3 operating as Flight 787, departed Eppley Field at Omaha, Nebraska. Its scheduled route contemplated stops at Norfolk, Sioux City, Yankton, Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown, Fargo and ultimately - much later that night - its destination at Grand Forks, North Dakota. This North Central Airlines flight was commanded by the quietly competent Al Bergum, with Tom Truax in the role of the capable assistant. After I'd started to write this story, a friend gave me an old clipping - complete with three pictures - from the front page of that week's edition of the Norfolk newspaper. I'd never realized that a reporter had been present and had taken photographs of that local event.
Leveling off at the assigned enroute altitude, the airliner cruised serenely along at its normal one hundred and thirty five knots indicated airspeed. At this altitude the aircraft was in the clouds, however VFR conditions were known to exist underneath, beneath the cloud base. During the latter portion of this ninety-two mile flight, a sudden backfire and a tentative ring of the fire bell drew immediate scrutiny of the crew. A visual inspection revealed black smoke and flames coming from the upper portion of the left engine nacelle. Following the prescribed emergency procedures for an engine fire, Al promptly moved the mixture control to the off position, then pushed the feathering button to stop the engine's rotation. A problem with the feathering mechanism caused the feather button to release slightly early. This, in turn, allowed the propeller - and engine - to continue a slow rotation. This enabled the fuel pump to provide the fire with barely enough gasoline to continue burning. After directing Tom to discharge the single-shot engine fire extinguisher, Al could see that the fire still hadn't gone out. With approximately 15 miles remaining to the Norfolk airport, Al faced a difficult decision. Below him, eastern Nebraska's terrain consisted mostly of farm fields. With the fire continuing to burn, Al was confronted with the need for an immediate decision. A "bird in the hand versus two birds in the bush" decision! Very likely the airplane would be able to continue on and reach the concrete runway. However, this hope had to be balanced against the safety of twenty-six passengers and a crew of three. Decisiveness, along with good judgement, will always be one of the hardest qualities to evaluate in a potential airline captain.
Another quick glance at the nacelle confirmed the continuing fire. Reluctantly, disregarding his personal wishes and desires, he made his decision. Ringing the stewardess call button four times to alert the stewardess, Al quickly briefed Tom. He requested that Tom immediately radio Norfolk to inform them of the impending off-airport landing. While hurriedly briefing the stewardess, who'd immediately rushed to the cockpit upon hearing the ringing, Al initiated an emergency descent and the crew visually selected an appropriate farm field for their rapidly approaching moment-of-truth!
Al decided to keep the wheels retracted during the single-engine landing. The DC-3's designers had fortunately foreseen this situation back in the thirties when they first envisioned this airliner. Protruding slightly from the lower portion of the nacelle when fully retracted, the wheels were designed to partially mitigate the resulting airframe damage should a landing have to be made in this configuration. Although no obstructions challenged the into-the-wind landing's flight path, the field's minimum length did present a challenge of a far different kind. The aeronautical drag usually imposed by the landing gear wasn't present, therefore a lower than normal power became necessary to provide the prescribed airspeed. During the latter stages of the approach, Al tersely directed Tom to actuate the alarm button at least four times to warn the passengers to "Brace for Impact". Approaching touchdown, he closed the throttle on the remaining engine. First brushing the tops of - and then through - the green alfalfa crop, the DC-3's contact with the terrain was cushioned by the lush vegetation. With both propellers digging into the underlying earth, the DC-3's tailwheel made minimal contact as the aircraft slid - straight ahead - to a swift stop in the field.
Imagine the surprise on the face of the first of the Dicke (Die-Key) family to spot - through the kitchen window - the sudden appearance of this apparition, sliding across the field! It wouldn't be technically accurate to describe its halting in a cloud of dust, since - by all accounts - the heavy plant growth prevented any dust. It simply came to a halt, then - for a few seconds - stunned silence reigned supreme! Then frenzied activities began to occur - both in the farmhouse and in the airplane! The patriarch of the Dicke family, a farmer who stood well over six feet - as best I recall - jumped from his place at the head of the kitchen table, uttering an abrupt exclamation! About the same time, Tom Truax unfastened his cockpit seat belt and rapidly exited the DC-3 through the rear air-stair door, portable fire extinguisher clutched firmly in his hand! Clambering onto the left wing's trailing edge, he stepped across the upper surface to gain access to the nacelle and the fire. He then hastily discharged the portable fire extinguisher's contents into the opening where the fire had charred the aluminium. Meanwhile, Al rushed to complete the securing process in the cockpit, then joined his companion on the wing. As all this was happening, the stewardess was following the dictates of her emergency manual by commanding the full load of passengers to vacate the cabin - "RIGHT NOW!"
As all this was happening, David Dicke had run from the kitchen of the farm house to the machine shed. Fortunately, a hay wagon was already hitched to his John Deere tractor. At David's urging, the engine sprang to life and he then engaged the tractor's clutch. It lurched forward; after exiting the building, David turned and drove straight towards the aircraft. Unfortunately, this straight line disregarded the farm lane's conventional path through the gate. The end result was a new pathway through the fence that separated the farm buildings from the scene of the landing.
The group of passengers milling about in the alfalfa hadn't finished their deplaning process and the shouted commands of the stewardess, when the sounds of the John Deere and wagon intruded upon the scene. Circling around the front of the bellied-in DC-3, David stopped at the side of the aircraft where all the activity was taking place. Al subsequently tried to describe this entire scene and sudden appearance to me. He said that he'd become aware of the presence of a farm tractor almost before he'd determined that the engine fire had truly been extinguished and would remain out. Upon first glance, he was confronted with a tall farmer, clad in denim and possessing the fullest red-haired beard Al had ever seen! In the Dakotas, it was common for us to note the presence - in the countryside far below - of a large number of religious communes, all living a lifestyle as it had existed in a prior time. Al's first thought was that he had landed in the middle of such a commune. However, after a short time, he determined that the fully-grown beard represented a year's worth of careful facial cultivation for participation in Nebraska's upcoming state centennial celebration.
Well, recalling life on the farm, it was customary for visitors, referred to as "company", to be offered coffee and refreshments as the most basic hospitality. Accordingly, David invited the load of startled passengers to climb onto the wagon's flatbed so he could take them all back to the farmhouse. As soon as the crew had determined that the aircraft was secure - or as much as it reasonably could be made so - they rode back to the farmyard. I really don't know about the carry-ons; I'd have to assume that after the aircraft came to a halt, the stewardess had commanded them to leave all that behind and get off the airplane - RIGHT NOW! So I'd guess that they left most of their personal effects out there on the airplane to accept a ride to the house and warm kitchen. We were told that Mrs. Dicke then welcomed them all to the house while starting to brew some coffee and serve cookies to this group of "company" that had suddenly dropped in for a visit. Using the farm's party line phone, Al finally persuaded the telephone operator to put a collect call through to North Central's chief pilot in Minneapolis-St.Paul. He then was able to describe the airplane's condition as well as the welfare of his passengers. He also extracted the chief pilot's promise to immediately advise the Norfolk station manager of the exact location of the missing airplane; i.e."in an alfalfa field on the Dicke farm, ten miles south and three miles east of Norfolk". So, the entire group was safe and snug inside the farmhouse's kitchen and living room before we even knew about it at our airline's home office in Minnesota.
The first order of business, after notifying the appropriate FAA authorities, was to arrange for a replacement airplane. In short order, our chief pilot, Captain Art Hinke, completed these arrangements as well as determining which personnel from the airline's maintenance department wished to ride along with us. He knew that the priority was to deliver the replacement aircraft to Norfolk as soon as possible, enabling the interrupted trip to resume. We left a short time later with a couple of maintenance supervisors. It was still daylight when we landed at this small station. With advanced notification of our expected arrival time, the crew and passengers had finished their lunch with the Dickes and had been transported to the Norfolk airport terminal. In short order the replacement DC-3, N18949, was refueled and the station manager made his customary preboarding announcement. At this time we weren't exactly sure of how many people wished to resume their trip! Amazingly, all the passengers elected to reboard the flight and - shortly thereafter - the interrupted flight taxied out and departed towards the north!
For the first time in several hectic hours the terminal building was empty, now devoid of passengers and activity. I can still distinctly remember the buildings silence! Our small group stood for a moment or two, contemplating the circumstances and what to do next. Finally, Art decided we'd better find a couple of cars to borrow for the night, then drive out to the Dicke farm to survey the aircraft and landing site. As we drove the gravel back roads while being led back to the farm, night fell. After driving onto the farmstead's entry lane, we were further guided to the alfalfa field and the ghost-like presence of a DC-3 on its belly. We walked around the airliner - looming seemingly larger than life in the moonlight - our flashlights examining its surfaces and the tracks in the ground. In concert with the maintenance personnel, we closely studied the left engine and propeller to determine if it had been bent or partially torn from its mounts in the landing with a feathered propeller. As far as we could determine, the sturdy structure had performed well, no damage of the sort was apparent. Determining that further inspection of the area would have to wait daylight and raising the aircraft to again rest upon its gear, we decided to inspect the belly and structure. Fortunately, the protruding wheels offered just enough room for a person to slide underneath on one's back through the alfalfa. In this posture, I was able to feel the condition of the flaps and structure under the complete center section of the aircraft. I couldn't raise my arms enough to be able to visually inspect the aluminium surfaces with a flashlight, but a tactile inspection seemed to justify a "It all feels good under here, I think we can probably fly it out after we change the engines and propellers". At this exact point, having removed the ever-present briar pipe from his teeth, Art said "Hey, that's good news!" Then, almost as an afterthought, he queried "Uhh - say - you didn't happen to find any snakes under there, did you?" Up until that exact moment, I'd completely forgotten our location and that there are rattlesnakes in Nebraska. I abruptly - and somewhat foolishly - tried to sit up in order to make a hasty exit! Bam! "Ouch!" The only injury connected with the entire incident had just occurred - to my forehead when it struck a piece of jagged aluminium skin. Sliding back out from beneath the aircraft's center section in the darkness, I attempted to wipe the blood away from the gash above my eye while muttering under my breath about chief pilots and their ancestry!
Early the next morning we again surveyed the damage, this time in daylight. The maintenance people decided that both engines and propellers would need to be replaced. Several other small airframe pieces would need to accompany these items on the truck that'd be sent from the airline's maintenance shops. Once this effort was underway, Art told me that we might as well get on the first scheduled flight and go back home. Left to repair the airplane - enough to make it ferryable - were the maintenance foreman, Garth Lowell and his crew.
Their very first act was to rent a crane that could lift the complete airplane. With an empty weight of approximately 18,000 pounds, this was not exactly a small matter, however one was subsequently arranged for. Next on the agenda was to start removing any of those items that could be reached. After some time, the truck arrived, with its cargo of engines, propellers and requested parts. With the arrival of the industrial crane the aircraft was lifted. The landing gear was extended and, once again, the airplane regained some semblance of dignity, resting upon its wheels.
The hourly cost of the crane rental factored into the next decision. A discussion among the mechanics revealed that the crane wouldn't necessarily be required for the subsequent work. With the assistance of David Dicke's tractor-mounted hydraulic manure loader, the engines could be lifted and changed. Following this, the propellers could also be changed, completing the heavy repair work.
All through this several day process, the Dicke family provided a steady supply of coffee and refreshments for the maintenance crew diligently working on the project. Following the completion of the repairs, the final step was to test "the proof of the pudding". Starting the venerable DC-3, Garth taxied it away from the buildings and faced it into the wind. Following the warm-up, each engine was thoroughly tested and its functions checked. Every function that could possibly be checked on the ground was also tested. After this, nothing remained except to notify the home office that the repairs were completed and it was ready to ferry.
While the repairs were being performed, Art and I'd both decided that we'd have to practice a few short-field takeoffs while also determining two things (a) how much distance we'd really need and (b) the aircraft configuration to be utilized for this takeoff. Accordingly, we'd used the short runway 11L back home at Wold-Chamberlain Airport to experiment with several takeoff flap settings. After several liftoffs at varying airspeeds, we determined that it really didn't make a great difference whether we used partial flaps from a standing start or lowered them after we'd raised the aircraft's tail, they all resulted in about the same performance as regards distance. We were satisfied after determining that it'd take us approximately 500 feet to become airborne since the alfalfa field was about 900 feet long with a fence at the east end. In addition, both Art and I had recently returned from an assignment to a Bolivian airline. In that developing country we operated everything - including DC-6Bs - off of sod strips. So this really didn't present too much of a challenge or worry to either of us. Now feeling rather confident in our figures and abilities, Art asked a company check pilot conducting flight training with a spare Convair to drop the two of us off in Norfolk. Flying over the scene in the Convair, we could see the DC-3 parked on its gear, very near the farm's barn. After arriving once again at the farm, we walked over the field's surface, carefully noting its condition. Hoping to avoid any more damage to the Dicke hay crop than had already been done, we both felt that a couple of swaths with the hay cutter would define enough of a pathway through the alfalfa for our takeoff. We noted that the local school apparently had decided to dismiss their classes for the afternoon to allow the students to watch the show. After David had cut a couple of swaths through the hay with the stalk cutter, it'd been trampled and mulched enough to provide a definite pathway. We also laid the fence at the east end of the impromptu runway on the ground so we wouldn't have to consider this obstacle. We'd been discussing the fuel load; we arrived at a collective decision that draining all but twenty-five gallons in each of the two main tanks would easily permit the short nine-mile flight to Norfolk's airport. After confirming this fuel quantity with a fuel measuring stick, nothing was left to do - but - to do it!
I think everyone reading this would recognize the necessity of an extremely - more than normal scrutiny - close pre-flight inspection of the entire airplane. After experiencing the indignity of landing on its belly, along with the necessary repairs, it passed our inspection with flying colors. Again, both of us knew that we would be operating outside of the normal parameters on the takeoff. Normally, an airliner can suffer the loss of an engine's power on takeoff and climb away after feathering that propeller. Alternatively, it can abort the takeoff roll if the engine failure occurs prior to reaching the liftoff airspeed. In this case however, if we encountered any sort of an emergency requiring an aborted takeoff, we'd be in the neighboring farmer's field! Whether this neighbor would be more - or less - hospitable than the Dickes was something neither of us - and I'm sure our airline - had any intention or desire of ascertaining! Taxiing to the extreme far northwest corner of the improvised runway, we again carefully checked the power of both new engines.
A short cockpit briefing that would likely appear rather perfunctory to a layman followed. After agreeing on the extension of 1/2 flaps after the tail wheel was raised, Art then revealed a habit born of long experience as a pilot - he checked the surrounding skies for traffic as though this was a real airport. Without hesitation, he smoothly aligned the DC-3 with the narrow pathway, then promptly advanced the throttles to 45 1/2 inches of manifold pressure while rolling. A slight crosswind attempted to cause a swerve; however a touch of rudder maintained our alignment with the narrow pathway of mowed hay, defined mostly by a subtle difference in color. As soon as the tail was raised, I moved the flap handle to lower 1/2 flaps. About halfway down the field, Art applied slight elevator back pressure and we were easily airborne. A retraction of the gear and flaps, followed by a left turn to fly over the Dicke farmstead. My logbook shows a short ten minutes later we'd traversed the nine-mile distance and parked the airliner at the Norfolk terminal.
In the retelling of this story - with the inevitable reminiscing - I've been reminded by Karen Dompier, Art's secretary of many years, that a couple of weeks later, North Central Airline's chief executive officer invited the entire Dicke family to the airline's headquarters for the day. Accordingly, Art and I - along with stewardess Dee Wisnauskas - flew down to get the family in the airline's executive configured DC-3, N21728, and brought them back up here. They were able to enjoy a day of sightseeing with tickets to a Minnesota Twins baseball game. Later that evening, they were our guests of honor at the well-known Parker House restaurant for a get-together of all the people involved in this incident of so many years ago.
R. L. Sohn - copyright 1999
- Captain Randy Sohn is one of the most rated and experienced pilots in the world. Soloing at age 18, he went on to fly B-25's in the Air Force (and received his ATR in one) before being hired by North Central Airlines in 1960. While flying everything NCA had to offer, Randy became an instructor / flight examiner for both North Central and the Minnesota Air National Guard. He has unlimited authority from the FAA to fly and give pilot check outs in all high performance piston aircraft. Capt Sohn has flown it all, from P-38's to the B-29, from DC-3's to 747's.