With all this in mind I concentrated on flying the Mooney and getting ready to land. When I passed through 1,000 feet the thick clouds slowly changed to a grey misty haze and I was able to see farmland and trees passing below. The controller told me the airport should be right at my twelve o’clock and to my great relief a runway appeared out of the haze in front of me.
I still had some altitude to burn off so I flew over the middle of the airport and started a left turn that I hoped would give me a good set up to make the runway. Suddenly the engine coughed a few times then started up with a roar. I had the engine back! Not sure that the engine would keep running, I continued the approach staying high and aiming to touch down on the first third of the runway.
Much to my delight the engine continued to make it’s blessed noise as I landed and turned onto the taxiway.
As I taxied to the ramp I saw a sheriff’s squad car with its lights flashing speeding toward me. “what the hell is this?” I said to myself.
The squad car turned in front of me and stopped, blocking my way and forcing me to hit the toe breaks. I sat there with my engine running as an overweight Sheriff’s Deputy struggled out of the car and motioned me to cut the engine. Frustrated and annoyed at this impromptu road block, I pulled the mixture control and shut the engine down.
With his Sheriffs Utility Belt bouncing up and down the deputy lumbered around to the right side of the plane as I opened the door and stuck my head over the ferry tank to talk to him.
“You need to clear the area! There is an airplane in trouble coming in!” Barney Fife said breathlessly after his long run. Apparently Boston Center had alerted the local fire department and the deputy was dispatched to help out.
“Kind of hard to do with your damn squad car in my way,” I thought. “Wasn’t I doing just that when you stopped me?”
I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when confronted with such incompetence, but he was there to help after all so I cut him some slack and explained that I was the plane that was in trouble and didn’t need any help. He didn’t understand at first, or didn’t believe me, but he finally figured it out. I then had to tell him the whole story before he would move his car and let me taxi to the ramp. He looked genuinely disappointed that he didn’t get to see an airplane crash.
By the time I got to the ramp the local volunteer fire department came roaring onto the airport, sirens blaring and light flashing. I think they took the last corner into the airport on two wheels. Then an ambulance arrived, followed closely by two more cars. As each vehicle skidded to a stop its occupants would pile out and come rushing up to my plane hoping to be of assistance of some kind.
Having squeezed over the ferry tank and out the door I stood on the wing and watched in amazement as cars continued to pull into the airport and onto the ramp. I’m pretty sure a minivan full of Boy Scouts showed up, each hoping to get his “Saw an airplane crash, poked a dead body, and identified human remains.” merit badge.
As each group of rescuers found out that I had made it they showed obvious signs of disappointment, I almost felt like setting the plane on fire just to make them feel better. The first responders milled about congratulating each other on their quick response time and wondering if they still had to go back to work or could they head to the local bar and celebrate a successful rescue. One by one the crowd got back in their vehicles and went back to whatever they had been doing before I disturbed their sleepy little town.
As I was pulling the cowl off the Mooney to check the engine for damage an attractive young woman walked up with a small notebook and pen in hand. Eagerly she identified herself as a local reporter and asked for an interview. I answered her questions as best I could while looking but not seeing anything obviously wrong with the engine, I guess I was looking for a big red switch that had inadvertently been turned to the “OFF” position.
The reporter thanked me and drove off with her scoop while I walked to a payphone to call the mechanic who installed the ferry tanks to see if he had any idea why I had just taken the ride of my life. The master of the monkey wrench thought that maybe when the ferry tank ran dry the air pressure flushed the fuel out of the system and prevented the fuel in the wing tanks from getting to the engine. By the time I shut off the ferry tank valve the fuel lines and boost pump were full of air and it took a few minutes for the fuel to reach the boost pump and then the engine. At least that was his theory.
“Gee, thanks a lot,” I thought. “I’m just going to fly this plane over the ocean to Italy is all, no big deal.”
With the mystery hopefully solved I buttoned the Mooney back up and took off again, hoping the mechanic’s theory was correct. I headed northeast to try and punch through the line of storms once again but it was getting dark and the storms seemed to have gained strength, or I’d lost some nerve, either way I decided to admit defeat and call it a night.
I landed at a nearby airport only 50 miles or so past Potsdam and taxied to the ramp. As I shut the Mooney down a fuel boy walked up and in response to my inquiries of overnight parking offered to lead me to the tie downs in the grass. My taxi light illuminated the man making “keep coming forward” motions as he walked backwards in the grass when suddenly the nose wheel of the Mooney dipped down sharply. I winced as I heard and felt the propeller hit the turf.
“SHIT!” I yelled as I realized what’d happened.
I shut the plane down and got out, royally pissed. My flashlight told the story, one of the blades had a small ding near its tip that would impossible for the new owner to miss. My ground guide was apologizing over and over, claiming that he never knew about the hole the Mooney’s nose wheel had dropped into. I kept my mouth shut, there was no sense getting yelling at him, it was my problem now.
The next day on the way to the airport I bought a metal file at a hardware store and spent two hours filing the ding out of the damaged propeller blade. I tried to take the same amount of metal off of the other blade to balance it out but had no way to check my work. When I was done the propeller looked good enough to pass a casual inspection. I hoped.
After I topped off the Mooney’s tanks I went inside to pay for the fuel and saw the airport manager sitting with his feet up on his desk reading a newspaper. Looking closer I was surprised to see that on the front page was a photo of me working on the Mooney in Potsdam with the caption “Close Call” under it.
“You want my autograph?” I asked laughing.
He was slightly confused until I told him my story, then he laughed as well and gave me the newspaper as a souvenir. I still have that paper in my scrap book; who said that job wouldn’t make me famous?