Sky King and the Old Apache

Sky King and the Old Apache

By Greg Brown

Twin-engine airplanes weren’t available for rent at my old home airport in Lafayette, Ind. So when I decided to pursue multi-engine training, I went down the road to Herman Brown’s flying service in Terre Haute. “Brownie,” as he’s known in the neighborhood, fit the mold of old-time pilot examiners–hard-boiled and independent, but warmhearted once you got to know him.

Apache pilots love the airplane’s comfortable cabin and docile handling, but early models were challenging as multi-engine trainers because of primitive systems and anemic engine-out performance.

Apache pilots love the airplane’s comfortable cabin and docile handling, but early models were challenging as multi-engine trainers because of primitive systems and anemic engine-out performance.

Brownie was no introvert. Each visit to his flight school featured lengthy stories about Kirby Grant, who played rancher-pilot Sky King in the well-known 1950s TV program of that name. Given Grant’s role, I was disappointed to learn that he wasn’t a practicing pilot. Brownie had chauffeured Grant around the country for promotional appearances in the show’s twin-engine Cessna 310, Songbird.

“We’d swap seats after landing, so Grant would look like the pilot to fans waiting at the ramp,” Brownie told me.

Back then everyone knew the popular series, so it was good marketing when Brownie renamed his field Sky King Airport. Brownie’s flight school offered bargain-basement training in an aging Piper Apache. Learning to safely manage engine failures is demanding in any twin, because the turning effect of the working engine pulls on one side, while the dead one generates drag on the other. Those challenges were amplified in the antiquated Apache.

For starters, there was the temperamental cabin door common to early low-wing Pipers. Located on the passenger side, it was notorious for opening in flight. An open door rarely creates serious aerodynamic hazard in most airplanes, but accidents sometimes occur when panicking pilots lose control. (It didn’t help that hapless Apache aviators occasionally experienced control yoke buffeting when the open door disturbed airflow over the elevators.) To steel my nerve against such occurrences, Brownie delighted in releasing the door at inopportune times.

Between ear-splitting blasts of icy winter air from the opened door, I learned that when the airplane yawed to one side it meant an engine had quit. The challenge in any twin when this happens is to maintain flight control while identifying which engine has failed, then “feather” the propeller (rotate the blades perpendicular to airflow to reduce drag) and turn off fuel to the failed engine. Having done this promptly, and with care, so as not to disable the running engine, what normally remains is to fly to an airport and land. But in the Apache, the excitement was just beginning.

One might logically assume that the reason for two engines is to keep the plane flying if one fails. The early Apaches, however, incorporated anemic power plants on a blunt and boxy airframe. When one engine quit, the other lacked enough oomph to sustain level flight and the old creature immediately began drifting downward. Therefore, one needed to quickly pick an attainable destination.

Modern twins feature dual alternators, dual hydraulic pumps (if installed) and dual vacuum pumps–one each per engine to provide backup power should the other fail. But early Apaches only had one of each. The left engine drove the airplane’s sole electric generator and a hydraulic pump powering flaps and retractable landing gear. The right engine drove the solitary vacuum pump powering instrument gyros. So, as if engine failure wasn’t enough to keep a pilot busy, losing one in the Apache triggered a whole string of other emergencies.

If the right engine failed, we’d lost our vacuum pump, and therefore, our heading and attitude indicators. Hopefully we were in visual conditions; if not, our lives hinged on the success of an engine-out partial panel instrument approach.

If, instead, we’d lost the left engine powering the hydraulic pump, I was to wait until approaching the airport, smash my face against the instrument panel and manually lower the landing gear, using 40 strokes of a hand pump located below the throttles. That was to be accomplished while holding full rudder with one foot, to counter the drag of the dead engine, and simultaneously keeping the wings level with my other hand on the control wheel. Of course, extending the wheels too early in this underpowered plane meant we’d never make the airport.

“You’ve got it easy,” asserted my instructor after one such adventure, noting the pool of sweat in which I rested. “This Apache has been upgraded with a second generator; at least before pumping down the gear, there’s no need to shut off lights and radios to conserve battery juice.” (Most Apaches eventually received duplicate generators and vacuum pumps, but on those still flying, pumping down the landing gear remains standard procedure after losing the left engine.)

The Cessna 310 was fast, glamorous and beautiful, so it’s no surprise that “Sky King” flew one on many episodes of the well-known TV series. Approach speed was nearly double that of the Apache, however, making it challenging for novices to land.

The Cessna 310 was fast, glamorous and beautiful, so it’s no surprise that “Sky King” flew one on many episodes of the well-known TV series. Approach speed was nearly double that of the Apache, however, making it challenging for novices to land.

Given the Apache’s foibles, I wasn’t totally disappointed when a scheduling conflict made it unavailable. I switched to a more glamorous and modern Cessna 310 based at another airport. Although far more costly to rent than the Apache, it was sleek, powerful and sparkled like new.

The Cessna proved harder to fly than the Apache, which at least was slow and docile enough to accommodate its faults (and mine). Approach speed for a 310 is nearly double that of an Apache, and with 600 pounds of fuel cantilevered in wingtip tanks, the 310 is notorious for popping wing rivets when planted too firmly. My new instructor, Don, had just bought the beautiful airplane; it’s surprising that he allowed me to land it at all.

When check-ride time came, Don accompanied me to Sky King Airport in his precious twin Cessna. Flying a 310 into that particular airport seemed most appropriate, since that was one model Sky King flew in the TV series. (The other was a Cessna T-45 Bobcat, commonly known as a “bamboo bomber.”)

I was to complete my multi-engine commercial flight test with Brownie, and then add single-engine qualifications in a rented 172. As usual, the examiner greeted us with a parcel of Sky King stories, during which I noted the wind picking up alarmingly outside the window.

Brownie conducted an equally leisurely oral exam and sent me outside to preflight the 310. On my way out the door, Don caught my eye with a “you’d-better-not-ding-my-airplane” glare.

Crosswinds were howling across the runway by the time Brownie emerged from his office. For some unknown reason, a high-energy little boy accompanied him. Brownie asked me a few questions, and then recounted differences between Don’s modern 310 and its ancestor, Sky King’s Songbird.

“Mind if my grandson rides along?” asked Brownie, corralling the boy and motioning me toward the pilot seat. This was unconventional for a flight test, to say the least.

“Er, uh, of course not,” I replied.

Immediately upon entering the back seat, the boy began squirming while Grandpa admonished him from beside me. This would be my first time flying the 310 without an instructor. With crosswinds hammering the narrow strip, I now also faced the distraction of an antsy 6-year-old. I’d just started the takeoff run when Brownie signaled.

“Stop right there and shut down the engines,” he said firmly, pointing to a spot outside the windshield.

Petrified at failing, I chopped throttles and applied the brakes. Expensive as the 310 was to rent, it would be months before I could afford additional training and another check ride. Dejected, I halted the airplane mid-runway where Brownie had indicated.

Wordlessly, he opened the door and stepped out onto the wing. What had I done wrong? I couldn’t believe it was already over. Brownie’s face reappeared upside down in the open door after the boy bounded out behind him.

“My grandson’s not going after all,” he said. The child scaled the runway fence and disappeared into a house just beyond. “Let’s get on with your flight test,” said Brownie, climbing back in.

“The runway’s narrow here,” I said. “I’ll turn around at the end.”

“Here, I’ll do it,” said Brownie, revving one engine and stomping on the opposite brake. The roaring power plant and squealing tires soon brought my instructor scrambling from the office. I avoided eye contact with him as Brownie twirled the airplane a second time for departure, this time directly before its horrified owner.

That moment was long forgotten by the time Don met me back at the 310 that afternoon. After all, I now sported a fresh commercial certificate with single and multi-engine ratings. Having mastered the gleaming twin, my mind swelled with visions of commanding it homeward. The screeching turnaround had apparently made a more lasting impression on Don, however. I was reaching for the door handle when he touched my shoulder.

“You deserve a rest after that fine performance,” said my instructor through a forced grin. “You relax and I’ll fly home.”

Crushed, I relinquished the controls. Oh well, I figured, at least I’ll save a few bucks while Don is flying. But he charged me for the entire flight anyway. Such are the tribulations of a new multi-engine pilot.

Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for AOPA Flight Training magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, or online catalog, and visit [].