The dictionary defines a spelunker as a cave bug, one who explores caves as a hobby. I don’t fancy myself as any kind of cave bug. However, since this exciting experience, over the years, I have visited many caves around the world. I have also visited many historic ruins, roamed the Alps and walked through the majesty of the underground in such places as Lebanon, Malta and many more. Each experience is a story in itself to be told later on. But, the Caverns of Carlsbad, New Mexico greeted me in a special way on this particular day since it really wasn’t on my schedule.
The Chance Vought F4U is nick- named the “Corsair.” It’s familiar to thousands of aviation buffs and military pilots since it gained fame during WW 11 in the South Pacific. With its gull wing individuality and huge propeller swung by a powerful Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engine it was a terror to the Japanese during the war. I loved this airplane for the way it looked and performed. My TAD (temporary additional duty) packet gave me authority to pick up a specific serial number Corsair at NAS San Diego, CA and deliver it to MCAS Cherry Point, NC. I was familiar with the procedures for aircraft transfer from one facility to another, and one command to another. Locating the specific aircraft I reviewed the records, inspected it with the assistance of its assigned “plane captain” and took it for a test flight to establish its flight condition. It was late when I finished so I had it fueled and serviced for an early morning departure the next day.
The first leg of my flight across the U.S. was from San Diego to El Paso, TX. It was a routine flight in good weather. I serviced the aircraft and departed on the second leg of my trip from El Paso to NAS Dallas, TX. This leg wasn’t so friendly. I didn’t make it to Dallas on schedule. Leaving El Paso heading east I climbed through some rain to get to altitude and settled at my cruising level in VFR (visual) flight conditions. I could see the south end of the mountain range flatten out at Guadalupe pass ahead of me and off to my left about twenty miles. That was a very familiar land mark for me over the years of flying the route. Suddenly, something didn’t feel right. The purring of the smooth P & W R-2800 yielded to a series of burps and farts out the exhaust pipes as the engine RPM’s decayed and the cowl started to shake. Rough running engine! Something any pilot flying a single engine airplane doesn’t like. Quickly scanning my instrument panel the engine gauges were normal except the engine tachometer (RPM indicator) got my attention because it was surging. Switching the mags (magneto selector) from both to either L or R (two individual sources of power to the spark plugs), trying to isolate the probable cause, selecting L didn’t change anything except for a normal slight drop in RPM. But, when I selected R the engine just quit running. Now my heartbeat increased. I didn’t like it. That indicated I had more than plug problems (fouling), I probably had a complete failure of the right magneto. Not knowing if any damage to the engine was evident my only option was to get on the ground as quickly as I could. Don’t press my luck with trying to second guess my problem. El Paso was too far behind me. Carlsbad airport was still too far in front of me. What’s below me except sand dunes, rocks and stubby mountains? Could I limp to either airport and survive? I couldn’t chance either option. Come up with something fast and get the hell on the ground, or bail out. Nope! I’m chicken. I was too busy to try to contact anybody on the radio and cry for help. Anyway, who the hell could help me? I spotted a two lane black top road and found a straight stretch long enough if it wasn’t lined with telephone poles or signs that would cause me trouble. I made a low pass picking my spot and making a three hundred and sixty- degree overhead approach extended the landing gear and put the landing flaps full down when I lined up on final approach over the road. Looked good so I closed the throttle and put the Corsair on the road and braked to a stop in short order. Two things were in my favor, no cars on the road and nothing to clip my wing tips and damage the airplane so the low pass I made before landing paid off. Now what? I can’t stay in the middle of the road because somebody would be coming in either direction pretty soon. I didn’t have to wait long because a park ranger observed my performance and was on the scene by the time I shut the sick engine down and climbed out of the cockpit. “That was a hell of a job you did putting her down on the road,” he said greeting me. “I was lucky,” I replied. “Let’s get it off the road,” I looked at my options. “I got an idea,” he said. “Can you start her up and follow me?” “Where?” I asked. “Just up the road to a parking turn off for the caverns. It will get you off the road.” “Just lead me,” I said. Climbing back into the cockpit I cranked up the sick engine, brought the flaps up and folded the wings. If you wonder what “folding the wings” means, imagine your arms are outstretched like the aircraft wings then bring your hands toward your head to touch it. They bend at the elbow and you touch your head on each side. That’s the way navy fighters fold their wings so they don’t take up a lot of room on the aircraft carrier when stored. When I taxied behind the ranger to the parking area I didn’t take up much room when I got there. I parked the plane and got out. “Can we get to a phone?” I asked him. He took me to the visitors entrance and into his office to the phone. I called El Paso and advised them of what happened. The duty officer asked if I needed assistance. I told him there was no damage to the aircraft and it was secured in a parking lot. “What?” he said. “How did you get to a parking lot?” “I landed on a road and put it in a parking lot.” “Son of a bitch,” he said. “What do you need?” “Some mechanics and some parts, close out my flight plan and call NAS Dallas,” I replied. After some chit-chat with maintenance I detailed what I thought the problem was and we coordinated a chopper (helicopter) airlift with parts and a crew to work on the plane. He said there was a navy detachment at the base he would advise and he would turn it over to them. The P&W R-2800 is a familiar engine to all military and no matter whether it powers an Air Force or Navy aircraft there is a lot of commonality of parts. Naturally I would prefer a navy crew because it was one of theirs and they would understand how to fix my sick Corsair. They seemed to know what I needed and I was told it would take several hours to get the chopper and crew too me. I had some time to waste.
I’ll share something with you. I love to explore caves. Maybe this entire experience was planned without my knowledge and when the park ranger suggested a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns while I was there I accepted. That was only after the crew arrived and gave me a time delay. I didn’t think I was going to make Dallas before sundown and you don’t takeoff on a two lane road after dark. Then the fun started. Somebody must have notified the newspaper because a few hours after I landed a reporter and photographer found me. I think they were from the El Paso Times, I don’t remember. They must have broken the speed limit to get to me. The whole thing was no big deal to me but you know what makes headlines. “Navy fighter lands on highway.” I simply told the reporter I made a precautionary landing because of engine trouble. You can imagine the way the story was told in the next edition. I could care less. I didn’t need the publicity because I would have plenty of explaining to do when I got home.
The chopper and crew arrived early in the afternoon. After checking out the engine and pulling the engine cowl they went to work. “Lieutenant,” the chief mechanic said, “we’re going to change the plugs and pull the right mag and change it. I think that’s the problem but it will take time. You ain’t going anywhere today.” “Good,” I thought. “I’ll get to see Carlsbad Caverns.” Pulling the engine cowl they went to work I visited the caverns. What an experience. The crew and I stayed in a motel overnight and I told them the way things happened before I decided to land on the road. “Sir,” the chief said, “you did a hell of a job putting her on that narrow road.” “Yeah,” I replied, “ I had no choice because she could have shit in her hat and then what?” I cranked her up the next morning and the crew and park ranger closed off the road for me to get in the air. I went to Dallas a day late but I had my Corsair in one piece. She got to Cherry Point a day later than planned but nobody knew the difference. I didn’t have to explain anything until I got home. My executive officer told me I did a good job and that was good enough for me. I saved the tax payers the price of a Corsair.
There’s a tradition with aviators as old as the heroes of WW 1. Those who survived the day would meet in the Officer’s Club and exchange the excitement with a nip of the nectar not knowing if it would be their last. This was true of the Huns and the Yanks because pilots really don’t know the political decisions governing their lives. They only know what their mission is. Nothing has really changed. After my experience at Carlsbad the word was out and I gathered with a group of squadron mates at the “O” club to bring them up to date. After my personal embellishment of the event one of them said, “Ike, don’t bullshit us. You always wanted to see Carlsbad Caverns before you left active duty.” Know what, maybe he was right and perhaps if I second guessed my situation I would have tried to make the closest airport. However, I didn’t. I landed on the road close to the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns instead. You can be the judge. I got away with it.