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We arrived on the usual Friday with plenty of time to get ready for qualifying and race practice.  The 100LL fuel was replaced with higher octane fuel needed for race power.  On the first practice session I noticed that the induction temperature was running high at just over 100 degrees indicating that insufficient ADI was getting into the carburetor for proper operation.  Three more test flights were conducted with very brief runs at high power to see if the malfunction had been corrected.  Finally, after checking and fixing small problems down stream in the ADI system, the induction was proper at 75 degrees.  By the time the problem was corrected all qualification periods were over and racing was to commence.  Fortunately, during one of the first qualification period, with only 100LL fuel, the alternate pilot/owner received a qualification time that would allow us to race from the back of the field. 

Thursday's race was easily won with the engine running fine.  It took the ADI, developed full race power, and ran smoothly the entire day.  That evening the conversation even included how this plane can run race power year after year - and never a problem. 

Friday's silver race started from the rear of the field since it was a transfer up from the bronze.  The skies were clear and winds nearly calm.  Prior to release, everything seemed very normal. The formation flown was good enough to actually make this racing thing fun and exciting.  The race RPM was set, oil cooler doors were closed, spray bar water on and pressure was good.  ADI pump on and pressure checked.  On the down hill run just prior to release, I selected a power setting that would activate de-riching the engine and start ADI flow.  After a longer than normal delay this, too, kicked in.  The fuel flow, induction temperature, ADI pressure and torque pressure were all right where they should be.  Once again Argonaut was singing smoothly.  

Funny how it always seemed to run better and smoother at very high power (about 2800 hp) than it did at cruise power. 

With the delay in taking ADI and getting up to full power, I fell back enough so that at pylon 4, I had passed no one.  During the next two laps, running at full song, I was able to handily pass both Miss America and Steadfast.  Passing 5 and 6 I noticed a slight increase in oil temperature, so I opened the oil cooler door about two seconds worth.  As soon as I did there seemed to be an aerodynamic rumble.  My only thought was that the new door position (or door malfunction) must be causing the rumble since it was not at any frequency or sound that would indicate engine problem.  I reached down to the switch next to my left ankle and closed the door somewhat to see if the sound changed, but I had to discontinue that operation since I was rapidly approaching Ray Diekman’s Sea Fury.

Right at pylon 8 there was a loud explosion and the cowl seemed to swell up with serious shaking throughout the airplane.  The engine was surging with brief periods of seemingly full power then nothing.  There was power was about 10% of the time, then it cut out completely 90% of the time.   


My first thought was it didn’t like the ADI and sneezed, but might run okay if I could find a power setting it liked. So I pulled back the throttle to a modest position and turned off the ADI to see if I could catch it and finish the race.  I started a flat climb, checked the gauges once more to see if this was serious: they were all in the wrong places with most of them pegged. Induction was pegged at 150 degrees, RPM at 1,800 and unsteady, MP at 23”.  Total time of denial was maybe four seconds.  It was time to get on with the mayday stuff. I pulled up with vigor and pointed to just south of the “low key” position.  My goal was predetermined to be 2,500’ abeam of desired point (low key) with 170 kts indicated.  It was a calm flight.  I even remembered to use my call sign on the mayday call.  I remembered the conversation the night before that Argonaut will run for years at this power setting and wondered what they would have to say about it now.  I looked at the propeller control and considered pulling it to the coarse setting for lower drag. I disregarded that since with each surge of power might be better than a coarse propeller.  Today, I don’t think that was the right decision since the surges happened less often as I gained altitude.  

Apex altitude was just under 8,000’ MSL (3,000’ AGL) and 150 kts.  I needed a short downwind leg to get to low key, which then put me at 2,000’ AGL and 140 kts.  A little short on energy at best.  The good news was I was close in and would have sufficient runway if I could manage to land on it.  I reasoned if (as briefed daily) landing gear is low drag then no gear is even lower drag.  Right now my problem was energy deficiency, so I held off lowering the gear.  Steve Hinton, in the jet, was a bit worried but I kept my left hand on the gear handle since none of the controls normally operated my left hand were doing much good at this point.  Visibility was good looking forward, although I could see heavy smoke down both sides of the plane and some oil on the side canopy.  

I was unaware of the extent of the fire that was later related to me by numerous worried folks that saw it from the ground.  At no time did I consider using the freshly packed parachute since I didn’t feel threatened.  With about 90 degrees to turn to land on runway 14, and gear still retracted, I could see that completing the turn was about a 50-50 deal. I looked ahead for a smooth place or road in the desert upon which I may be able to land.  Every place had catastrophe written on it, so I went back to working on making the runway.  The engine was windmilling at this point but not surging any more. Speed was down to about 135 kts at about 300’ AGL, and I had 60 degrees to turn yet. I sneaked in first detent of flap for better lift coefficient, which seemed to help turn.  Once I could see I was going to make the runway, and to put Steve at ease, I lowered the gear normally and threw the flaps down.  I think the last of the turn was completed at less than 50 feet, but most of the difficult flying was behind me at that point. 

I do remember rolling down the runway and reminding myself not to ground loop the airplane after getting this far with only engine damage.  The engine froze up shortly after touching down.  Fire trucks were there quickly and I got a ride back with them. 

Things that I would like to have done if asked to do this mayday again:

1.     Reduce the denial time

2.     Use coarse setting on the propeller control

3.     Turn on the electric hydraulic pump in case the engine freezes

4.     Pull the pin on the landing gear air bottle. (Before takeoff might work)

5.     On pull, up aim directly at low key point on downwind

6.     With failure right at pylon 8, consider runway 18 as a better option                                                                                      


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Story by CJ Stephens for Warbird Aero Press. Photos by Scott Germain and Mark Watt. Copyright 2008. All Right Reserved.