MEZ - A Day in (the other) Death Valley
In the southwestern part of Arkansas, nestled in a valley of the Ouachita Mountains, is a picturesque little town named Mena which was first settled in 1896. The scenery in and surrounding the town is as beautiful as you will find in that part of the country with breathtaking vistas a short distance away in every direction. Mountain lakes and streams are abundant and provide for a plethora of outdoor activities. Nearer to town are quaint shops and inns, and the Calendar of Events reads like a casual stroll through the Saturday Evening Post. Norman Rockwell could easily have created Mena as a fictional “oasis on canvas.” Its character goes beyond charming, and the people are as kind and genuine as the rising sun. The story that follows is not about any of these things.
As with most places, lurking behind the antique shops and soda fountains and alongside the bandstands and parks lies another dimension. This is the facet of every soul – and yes, towns have souls – that is hidden from view. This is the topic that is never discussed…not even among the locals. It’s that one family member that exists but is never invited to Thanksgiving dinner, and whose name is never mentioned for fear that doing so may summon them directly into the room.
For Mena, Arkansas, this anathema is the “Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport,” identified by the Federal Aviation Administration as MEZ. If you’ve never been there – and I doubt you have – let me be the first to tell you (in the local dialect if I may) ‘ya ain’t a’missin’ muuuch, y’all.’ The airport was originally “started” in the early 1940’s. I use the term started as opposed to constructed because back then, the only “construction” that took place was that a local farmer bailed the hay that grew on the grass-strip runway to keep it maintained for use. In 1946 the FAA designated the airport as an emergency landing strip for commercial aircraft due to its location midway between Fort Smith and Texarkana. This is a tidbit that will eventually play an important role as this memoir unfolds.
When referring to the airport, which, again, is never done unless absolutely necessary, “nestled in a valley” more appropriately becomes “lies at the bottom of a deep and treacherous pothole.” In aviation terms this is known as a death crater. While it’s far from being the most dangerous airport in the world – or even in the land of grits for that matter - should anything go wrong on takeoff, Las Vegas would put odds on whether or not anyone on board would ever again get to wear their complimentary, one-size-fits-all “Ouachita River Outfitters” visor. In the heat of summer the airport winds are nearly always southerly which forces takeoffs and landings to take place on runway 17 (a compass heading of 170°) which is nearly straight south and the flight path is lined up with the highest mountain point surrounding the crater. Also, in the heat of summer, the air is thin and rising thermals can make for a bumpy and precarious climb out.
On a very hot day in the summer of 1993, I was a freshly licensed commercial pilot working for an aviation company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As any new pilot can attest, getting experience, or ‘hours,’ is absolutely critical. You can’t get a job without hours, and you can’t get hours without a job. Aviation is one of those professions where one will never be over-qualified, but under-qualified is a career killer. New pilots will do just about anything to ink some time in their logbooks. It is said that the amount of acceptable risk is inversely proportional to the sum of one’s hours. The fewer the hours, the more likely a new pilot will strap a jet engine to his body and rocket off into the stratosphere as long as the hours can be logged. So it was for me at this particular time in my aeronautical career.
As most people will likely agree, the south runs a bit slower than other places. They have their own pace and life catches up with them a tad behind other places. This was evidenced in the pilots I met while working at the airport in Tulsa. In today’s world, alcohol and aircraft simply don’t mix. It is an unthinkable taboo and the mere thought of it is outrageous. Well, not so much in that place and time. I remember drinking beer at work with certain pilots while they waited for their passengers to show up. Mind you, these were charter and corporate pilots and not commercial pilots, but nonetheless, they were in the air at the same time as United, Delta, and American. A six pack before takeoff was part of the preflight process for many of them. One of these freelance charter pilots is the basis for what I am about to share with you.
His moniker was Buzz. That’s truly what he was known as. I’m not even going to go through the trouble of changing his name to protect the innocent. You see, also in that place and time, every fourth, starving pilot was known as Buzz, so honing in on this particular Buzz would be a fool’s errand at best. To be honest, I don’t even know his real name. Let’s just say he was borne of the same mindset of many of his peers and wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. Like me, he was just another flyboy willing to do anything to get behind the yoke and hit the throttles. He was just a little further down the road than I was and had been around long enough to make some contacts in the business of ferrying disabled aircraft from one airport to another for maintenance – which is a fairly common event in the aviation world.
To clarify this a bit further, an aircraft can have a mechanical problem which prevents it from legally carrying paying passengers, but it can still be airworthy for ferry flights to relocate them to maintenance facilities. It would not be possible for airlines to have mechanics at emergency landing strips like MEZ, so should an aircraft have to do an emergency landing in the middle of nowhere, the airline hires charter pilots to fly the aircraft to the nearest maintenance facility. Airports like MEZ are considered well-equipped if they have an adjustable wrench and a hammer, and charter pilots are abundant, inexpensive, and last but not least, expendable. This is one of the anomalies of the ‘supply and demand’ economic model that may not provide the most desirable outcome for the supply side of the equation.
Now that the preflight checklist of the story has been completed we’re ready to apply power and taxi to the active runway, which is really where it all began that venturesome day in the pothole. While I chose not to change Buzz’s name, I’m going to keep the particular airline name incognito. Not because they did anything wrong – they didn’t – but because people are timorous enough when it comes to flying and I don’t want to be held responsible if some idiot jumps off a bridge after reading this because they’re too disturbed and fearful to use their frequent flyer miles earned on ‘Air Anonymous’ to take that long-planned trip to Dollywood…and you know it would happen!
Early that summer morning, Air Anonymous was operating a Beechcraft model 1900 aircraft en route from Midland, Texas to Branson, Missouri (you thought I was kidding about Dollywood) when one of the engines began to misfire, and shortly thereafter decided to shut down completely. This situation, in and of itself, is not an issue for concern. The 1900 is a twin engine, turboprop aircraft with a very long and dependable service record. Commuter airlines have been using them across the country and beyond for many years. That said, even though twin engine aircraft are fully capable of maintaining altitude and continuing on, it’s probably not a good idea to do so since whatever caused the first engine to flame out – like contaminated fuel – could be getting ready to spread to the other (and now slightly more necessary) engine creating a more delicate situation and an all-around bad day at the office.
The other factor in this equation is that any pilot operating a 1900 isn’t there by choice. They’re there because of the factors explained earlier...to build hours and eventually get the hell out of Midland and move on to somewhere much more exotic…like Albuquerque. Not that this means these young and relatively inexperienced pilots can’t handle an emergency situation, but if I’m on that plane and one of the engines goes belly up, I want terra firma and I want it now! A voluntary descent is always better than a mandatory one, even if that means an unplanned visit to Mena and all it has to offer.
Well, that’s exactly what the lads in the cockpit did that day. Following textbook precision, they declared an emergency and the kind folks in the air traffic control center cleared them for immediate approach and landing at the Mena airport. I hope it’s been evident, but I’ve been trying to maintain a positive attitude while relaying the details of this story. The reason for this effort is out of deep and sincere compassion for all of the passengers on the flight that day. While they did survive a successful emergency landing, what happened to them after that is unknown by me, but had to have been much worse than my experience. For some significant period of time they were trapped at MEZ. An airport with a chicken coop for a terminal and no services. No public restrooms. No vending machines. No waiting area. Just an asphalt tarmac radiating enough heat to melt the soles of one’s shoes. No taxis. No buses. No nothing. Their ultimate fate can only be surmised.
After deftly completing the emergency landing at MEZ, the pilot’s called their dispatch center and explained the situation. The dispatch center then contacted the maintenance department. The maintenance department then spent an hour – or so – speculating as to what went wrong with heated discussion over who worked on the faulty engine last and undoubtedly caused this maelstrom. When the maintenance team finally figured out that they most likely would not be able to fix the engine from Midland, they spent the next hour – or so – tracking down the operations supervisor (Big Jim) for direction. Big Jim, of course, is not in his office. He’s in the passenger lobby area sharing tales of his aeronautical bravery and sacrifice with the newly hired, single, and pretty-in-that-west-Texas-sort-of-way gate agent who just moved to the big city from Odessa. Clearly she’s enamored as she hangs on every word, when suddenly her new hero leaps straight up into the air while simultaneously flattening the Styrofoam cup in his hand sending a stream of hot coffee down the front of his navy blue coveralls. You see, as he was ruminating aloud the many dangers of jet engines and spinning propeller blades, his vintage Motorola pager began vibrating with the intensity of a Texas electric chair sending shock waves through his body. While this temporarily transformed the suave Big Jim into a panic-stricken ball of nerves, he recovered nicely by winking to his young female admirer and telling her that he’s urgently needed for what is surely another aviation disaster that only he can overcome.
After visiting the restroom to splash some cold water on his expertly burned skin, he meets up with the boys in the hangar to discuss the situation. Being the wise and experienced professional he is, he came to the conclusion that the aircraft would have to be ferried out of Mena for maintenance, and being just as shrewd as he is wise, he decided the aircraft should go somewhere other than back to Midland for repairs. He picked up the phone and called the local charter company up in Tulsa and asks to speak to Duane (in Tulsa, if you’re not called Buzz, either your first or middle name is Duane…it may actually be a law.). In Tulsa, there are only two career paths – the oil business or aviation. Duane did not have the good fortune for the former and thus, by default, was thrust into the latter. Having started his career as a ramper (the affectionate nickname for the refuelers and baggage handlers at the airport), Duane slowly and steadily worked his way up to be the Manager of Charter Operations. He gained this title at the age of sixty-seven (I said slowly and steadily).
With all of the details in hand about the stranded 1900, Duane picked up the phone and called the Aero Club, a local hangout for the airport denizens. After a few minutes, Buzz was on the other end of the line. “Hey Buzz…it’s Duane.”
“Which Duane?” Buzz asks with his Oklahoma drawl.
“Me! Down here at the airport,” Duane replies with an intentional annoyance in his voice.
Still not knowing exactly which Duane he’s speaking to, Buzz asks, “what’s up, Chief?”
Duane relayed the situation to Buzz and said he needed him to find another pilot and get to the airport where one of his student pilots would fly the two of them to Mena to pick up the ailing 1900 and fly it back to TUL for maintenance. Using the details of the conversation Buzz deduced which Duane was on the other end of the phone and told him he’ll be there in an hour – or so.
After finishing his beer, Buzz started down his list of co-pilot candidates and, in that place and time, he picked yours truly. How lucky! When he called I jumped to my feet and grabbed my flight bag with the esprit of a new puppy headed to the park for play time. In no time at all we were packed into a Cessna 172 and in the air heading for MEZ. I had no idea just how unlucky I actually was. Buzz knew the situation and knew he had to pick a co-pilot just new enough to be willing to take any risk to log a few flight hours…and I was.
We got to MEZ in the early afternoon – exactly as the air temperature was hitting its high for the day. I remember this clearly as I could not figure out for the life of me why all of those people were just standing there on that inferno of a ramp sweating and holding luggage. I soon figured out it was because they had nowhere else to go. The level of risk clicked down another notch. I was getting out of there no matter what the odds.
Buzz and I filed our flight plan and fired up the engines on the 1900. Yes, both of them started. ‘Ok, must have just been a little water in the fuel line or an overheated engine.’ No warning lights on the control panel. All systems appeared to be operating just fine. We completed the pre-takeoff checklist and announced our intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF – no, there was no control tower) for the airport. “Mena traffic this is Beech-1900 N12345 taxiing onto runway 17 for takeoff and departure to the northeast.”
With the throttles pushed to the firewall we began the takeoff roll down the runway…the heat waves rising ahead of us looked like a desert mirage. At about mid-field, the suspect engine sputtered, then backfired, then stalled. The panel in the cockpit erupted like fireworks with flashing lights and buzzers and bells and whistles. “Abort takeoff!” Buzz yelled. Throttles back, brakes on, engine kill switches depressed. We continued rolling to the next taxiway and cleared the runway.
“Well, that wasn’t good,” Buzz says with the emotional excitement of a bored turtle.
“I tend to agree!” was my reply, slightly more intense and perhaps with more colorful words.
Now remember, I can still see all those people standing there on that hot ramp. I can see them sweating and can see looks on their faces resembling that of a man just sentenced to death. I hope you will understand, then, why I didn’t flinch when Buzz said we were going to go back and give it another try. He said he had an idea. Hot damn! Let’s do it! I’m with you!
I didn’t yet know his idea.
We fired up the engines again, and again both of them started and all systems were go. We taxied back to the end of the runway and went through the whole preflight process one more time. It was just as we were taxiing into position for takeoff that Buzz let me in on his ingenious plan.
“Ok, you slide over here into the left seat (the seat reserved for the more experienced pilot). I’m going to go to the very rear of the aircraft and stand in the aisle near the lavatory. When I get back there, you stand on the brakes, push the throttles to the firewall, and wait for me to give you the go-ahead.” He then uttered the words, “once you let go of the brakes, no matter what happens, we’re continuing with the takeoff.”
I was immediately and simultaneously overtaken by humor and fear. This is because I didn’t know if he was joking or simply out – of – his – [insert THE profanity here] -- mind! I had never flown a 1900 before. I could see the mountains ahead. I knew how hot it was and how thin the air was. I knew this aircraft required a crew of 2…or at least 1 ½. I knew this was insane.
As if through some type of forced osmosis, it seeped into my brain that he wasn’t joking. I slid over into the left seat and strapped myself in. It felt like a dream happening in slow motion. I again looked at all those people standing on the ramp and thought about the deck outside The Blue Rose back in Tulsa where I spent most of my off time drinking cold beer (like any good pilot would). I thought about the bar’s motto silk-screened under the logo on the back of the waitress’s shirts – ‘No Crybabies!’ Adding all of these thoughts together I knew we were getting the hell out of Mena…one way or another. I watched Buzz walk to the back of the aircraft. I pushed down firmly on the brakes, pushed the throttles forward, and waited for the signal.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s get the hell outta here. I’m getting’ thirsty!”
With both engines at top speed and the propellers whining loudly, I released the brakes. The 1900 jerked to a start and we were rolling down the runway past the poor souls melting on the ramp and directly towards the mountains looming larger in the distance.
Then it happened. Sputter. Sputter, sputter. Backfire. Fireworks on the panel. Dead engine! Before I could think or react, I heard a voice coming from what seemed like 5 miles behind me saying, “keep’er goin’ kid! Feather the dead one and keep’er goin’!” So that’s what I did. I feathered the dead engine to reduce the drag from the dormant propeller and kept the “good” throttle full forward. Then I heard, “Pull back! Get’er off the ground!”
I pulled back just enough to get the wheels off the ground and transition into what is known as ‘ground effect.’ This is a phenomenon of physics where, even without enough speed to climb, the down-force of air produced by the wings is strong enough, and close enough to the ground, to build a cushion of air and lift the aircraft off the runway with only slight back pressure on the controls. This eliminates the friction from the landing gear and allows the aircraft to more quickly gain speed. Essentially you are floating on an air pocket a few feet above the runway and gaining speed…hopefully rapidly. This speed is then used, at the very last second, as a sort of catapult to lift the plane into the air when you pull back on the yolk producing a faster climb rate – which was fairly critical at this point considering the mountains were becoming quite an impending sight. Buzz standing at the back of the aircraft helped to move the center of gravity towards the rear of the plane which makes gaining altitude easier and faster. At least this was the intention of his ingenious plan – however flawed it may have been.
I pulled back on the yoke just before the end of the runway and held fast as the old girl started climbing with her one engine working as hard as it possibly could. Slowly we gained altitude, but I still didn’t know if we could clear the trees on the mountainside. I could hear the headlines in my head – ‘a commuter aircraft slammed into a mountainside today just south of the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport in Arkansas. The only persons on board were the two crew members and are believed to have been killed on impact. Reports from the scene indicate one of the pilots may have been in the aircraft restroom during takeoff. The accounts from several witnesses on the ground could not be substantiated as they seemed to be suffering from severe dehydration, depression, or both. More later from the scene.’
Needless to say we cleared the trees. Needless to say we made it back to Tulsa. Needless to say I made it back to The Blue Rose. Needless to say I never flew with Buzz again.
To this day I have no idea what caused that engine to fail when put under torque, but I really don’t care. I’m sure a mechanic in Tulsa fixed the problem never knowing the story of how the aircraft made its way to his hangar…or how close it came to never getting there at all. Just another day in aviation…and away from MEZ!