MAYDAY – First-Hand Report (by W. E. Sebastian (“Sebo”)
(Time frame: Sometime in the middle or late Sixties.
Details based on memory - with senior moments!)
RJ Reynolds corporate aircraft N16R was approaching the Winston Salem airport for landing. The pilot had requested permission to land at the Smith-Reynolds airport and just after receiving the approval from the tower, the words, “Mayday, Mayday” blasted from the cockpit speakers.
More about the “Mayday” transmission later, but first the reason for the RJR flight on this eventful day that provided the observation post for the following Piedmont adventure.
Reynolds had two aircraft and several pilots at the time. All the pilots had one thing in common - they all complained about the strange irritating noise being emitted from their speakers and/or headphones anytime their aircraft was airborne in the Winston-Salem area. After several radio unit pulls and bench checking, no problems found and no answers given.
Aboard N16R that day was Captain Orrell, the co-pilot, and Bill Sebastian, a Piedmont Airlines Avionics technician (actually called the “Radio Tech” in those days). Bill believed he had solved the radio noise mystery and this test flight was originated to test his theory and later, admittedly, by the Reynolds people to shoot down (good naturedly) Bill’s “ridiculous” idea.
A couple of weeks before, Bill was working the midnight shift and was playing with the Radio Shop communications receiver, hoping to find some aircraft “radio chatter” to listen to during his shift. Suddenly he heard this strange static noise. After listening for a few minutes, he realized the noise was a short burst about a second or two and occurred precisely every twelve seconds.
A few days later after talking to various people Bill called the Union Cross Air Force Radar Base and found that the large powerful radar antenna mounted atop their five story tower rotated a 360 degree turn every twelve seconds. Union Cross Base (now a public park) is about 9-10 miles from the Winston-Salem airport. This powerful radar was emitting signals strong enough to affect certain nearby radio receivers in the VHF frequency Band. During the test flight, the closer the N16R flew to the radar base the louder the interference. Problem identified. Needlessly to say, Bill had made his point.
Back to the Mayday.
Immediately upon hearing the distress call, Captain Orrell told the tower he was breaking off his approach and would climb to a higher altitude and circle above the airport to stay out of the way.
After Orrell switched to the emergency frequency 121.5 MHz to listen to the communications between the control tower and the Mayday caller, it was obvious there was an airplane in trouble. The Mayday call was from a Piedmont Airlines Martin 404 with an engine on fire. The stricken airplane came into view with heavy smoke pouring from the left engine as the crew was setting up for for runway 33.
The talk between the Piedmont Martin and the control tower ranged from “setting it down” somewhere or trying to make the runway. There was little wiggle room because setting it down would probably endanger people on the ground and the aircraft occupants. The other choice was to try to make the runway before the fire destroyed the wing.
In spite of this predicament there was some “good” news. This aircraft was on an FAA check ride flight and only four people were on board. If the Martin could make the runway, the experienced flight personnel could probably evacuate the plane quickly and safely.
“I will never forget the yelling in our aircraft as we watched this plane slowly edge toward the runway. We were all screaming, ‘Hurry, hurry, oh, please hurry’ as if they could hear us,” Bill related later.
While all this was going on, another serious factor had developed. Soon after getting the distress call, the Winston tower had notified the airport Fire and Rescue Team of the emergency. However, just as the fire truck pulled away from the station it lost radio communications with the tower. The fire truck driver did not understand which runway to go to, nor any other information about the emergency and was driving around in circles trying to understand the “Red-Green light” signals that the tower was using to try and direct him. Red meant “NO” and Green “YES”. Finally, as the driver pointed the fire truck toward Runway 33, they got the Green light.
“Again we were yelling, this time at the fire truck, “Three-three - Three-three - Three three” meaning, “go down runway 33” Bill later related.
Finally, the old Martin touched down and came to a quick stop. It seemed like forever before the four men exited through the cabin window exit and ran from the aircraft. Meanwhile, the fire in the left engine had increased with visible flames. The RJR crew had the best seat in the house while they circled overhead, and expected the whole mess to become a fireball any second.
But just as the occupants were exiting the Martin, the fire truck finally arrived and soon had the fire extinguished. The Reynolds aircraft landed on the other runway and all aboard expressed their joy in seeing a miracle in action.
Later investigation revealed why the fire could not be extinguished in the air as normally would be the case. It was believed that when “something let loose“ in the engine compartment, it sheared the wiring to the fire extinguisher and the crew was unable to activate the extinguisher.
W. E. (Bill) Sebastian ("Sebo")
Note - Please comment if more stories about the good old days are desired.
Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 02/08/2012 03:46AM by Andy Ray.