John Robinson

Down on the Delwar


John R. Starvele

©Feb 2001

For Sufuang with love

A note from the author not in the copyright.


I wrote and sent this story to my wife Sophia, her Chinese name is SuFuang by e-mail when were courting. Since, I have also sent it to my daughter, she has done something with it and was published for her first work (she made money) I do not know what or where but apparently it made a mark for her literary prous.


I don’t think my daughter has a clue of how to fly an airplane but she can make money by selling a flying story? If you have seen her story please send it to me; I like to see what it takes to steal someone else work to make your mark in publications.




Was the caption on a poster with a WW I airplane stuck in a tree in no-man’s land with no other trees in sight, that I had posted for my students in my Aviation Maintenance Classroom. In aviation an incident like the crash into the tree is rarely caused by one thing it is more a series of events that leads to the inevitable end. The Pilot could have been concentrating on trying to evade an enemy airplane and took a hit from the ground troops. May be he was trying to access the damage and just didn’t see the tree. Many times the chain of incidents can be broken and disaster avoided with diligence and skill as Ernest Gahn eloquently delineates in his book Fate is the Hunter.


‘AD notes are usually written in blood.’ For those of you that aren’t in aviation that’s AIRWORTHNESS DIRECTIVE NOTIFICATIONS which requires a mandatory compliance for the safety of an airplane or airplanes and personnel. They don’t have to be written in blood if the manufactures of an airplanes and engines build something extra into the products like Pratt & Whitney and Grumman Aircraft did, but if everyone built something extra in their products there wouldn’t be AD Notes.


There were pilots less fortunate than myself flying the G-164 Grumman AG Cat and their airplanes were destroyed as result of this mechanical problem; however, no one that I know flying died from this AD note. I can’t say the same for the pilots and passengers of Cessna that this AD note also applied to.


That brings me to another point. Many newer aircraft’s are computer controlled for optimum efficiency. When pilot moves a control the computer decides what pilot really wants if a pilot slams the throttle to stop that means full take-off power to a computer as fast as it can make the engine respond. But in an emergency it may mean much more!!!!


A Pilot in Command has responsibilities when he/she sits down in that pilot in command seat. His/her first responsibility is to his/her passengers’ safety and people on the ground. He/she has to play God in crises and make decision that save the most amount of lives. Then he/she has to consider his/her crew. Then he/she can consider his/her own safety and going home to a love one, but there are still more priorities. Cargo can be replace and the metal of an airplane can be replaced, but there still a balance that has to be weighted when the cargo can be toxic to the environment. A pilot will destroy engine to save all the above; computer controls won’t let a pilot do that!


Before I start describing the incident down on the Delaware River I need to explain some aviation terms for those that don’t fly. If you fly skip to the story and I hope your learn from my experience or are at least entertained.


Angle of attack: The angle formed by the wing or airfoil relative to the oncoming air.


Control lock: Is a device to lock the flight controls in a position for aircraft storage. By locking the controls, it prevents the wind from banging them against their stops and damaging them. In the AG Cat it’s a triangular device that can be lifted from its stowing clip and clipped to the control stick. In doing that it lifts tabs on the actuator shafts of the brake master cylinders. A depression of the rudder toe brakes will lock the actuation shafts against the tabs. Or at least it used to.


The Control lock on an AG plane sees more service than most; because, a pilot will deploy the lock and set the brakes when he gets out to load the airplane. It is standard operating procedure to leaving the engine running while loading because of cool-down times and warm-up periods of the engine. The control lock can be deployed as many as thirty times a working day.


Constant speed prop: Is a propeller that will maintain a constant set RPM of the engine. It has a governor that changes the propeller blade angle to maintain a set speed selected by the pilot. The R-985 Pratt and Whitney has a redline of 2350 RPMs; because of this redline and the long propeller the has a very pronounced propeller blat. The AG Cat propeller is special in its design in that the blade travel is only fourteen degrees. It is one of the smallest travels of a constant speed props. This was done intentionally so if the governor fails a pilot can still bring home an airplane with the load if necessary. When a prop governor fail, it will put the propeller against the high pitch stop--the lowest RPM. With such limited travel enough power will override the setting and drive the propeller to higher speeds or exceed the low-speed stop.


“Drag bucket”, “on the step”, “behind the power curve” are all related terms that pertain to airplanes flight characteristics. The drag bucket is a mathematical graph of the total drag of the airplane verses its speed. As speed increasing is graphed on bottom or the X-axis and drag increasing is graphed upward on the Y-axis. It called a bucket because all airplanes drag graph forms a bucket. At very slow speeds an airplane creates more drag because the wings are at very high angles of attack struggling to support the weight with less airflow then in the middle of the speed range where airplane becomes efficient at lower angle of attack. So “on the step” refers to when airplane finally accelerates to bottom of the drag bucket and power changes rapidly make a difference.


“Behind the power curve” is bottom end of the flight envelope when it takes tremendous amount of power to stay aloft and even more to accelerate out of the situation. In many cases there just isn’t enough power. The bottom end of drag bucket of the AG Cat is still fairly flat, but it is more steep than the original design foresaw because of additional weight and of bigger and bigger engines and the their requirements.


The AG Cat has a very narrow steep bucket. It was designed that way for the job it does allowing a more constant speed while spraying crops. This is because the AG cat is biplane with wires struts and many other things hanging out in air stream the faster it goes the more drag it creates, retarding acceleration. That why for all the horsepower it is still a very slow airplane; about 100 to 126 mph for the 600 horsepower versions


Ground effect: When a airplane is within half its wing span of the ground and it becomes increasingly more pronounced the closer you get to the ground many of thing causing drag disappear. A cushion of compressed air forms under an airplane; it also cancels out much of the vortex wing roll. Well, in any event airplane becomes more efficient in the ground effect and will accelerate faster.


Inches of manifold pressure: Is the measurement used to gage the power output of an engine with a constant speed prop. 30 inches for example is atmospheric at sea level and you lose an inch per thousand feet as a rule of thumb. For engines without a boosting device it’s the maximum power of the engine. If engine draws 36 inches it has to have some sort of device to pack in more air then at sea level in the case of the Pratt Wittney R-985 it is a centrifugal supercharger turning ten-time the speed of the engine. R stands for Radial—cylinders place around a central case--985 is the cubic inch displacement of the engine. By the way 36 inches at 2350 RPMs is the redline for power out put for take-off, 450 horsepower, two minutes maximum. 30 inches at 2000 RPMs is maximum continuous operation redline and usually used for climb-outs. Just little less 28 inches at 2000 RPMs is a heavy working setting while applying spray, fertilizer, etc.


When working we leave the prop set at 2000 RPMs so it quieter for the neighbors and if necessary we can get immediate response by just pushing the throttle forward. As the load come off the throttle and manifold pressure are reduced. At the end of load it might be at 17 inches.


Prop Blat: As a propeller driven airplane approaches at very high power, it gets rapidly gets nosier and nosier until you are standing inline with the prop then the noise subside quickly. This is the result of a part of a propeller being in transonic airflow. The tips of a propeller travel in an ark that is longer then center and additive of the engine RPMs and speed of the airplane. The noise of propeller is from transonic flow. The efficient of propeller fall off very quickly in transonic that’s why airplane engines turn at very slow RPMs or the propellers are geared down. The incoming air of the airplane through the air adds to tip speeds so all propeller driven airplanes are subsonic; it also limits the speed a helicopter can fly.


By the way, one of the AG Cat predecessors, The Grumman Bear Cat, still holds, and probably always will hold the world speed record for propeller driven airplanes at 567 mph plus. It took over 5,000 horsepower at 1,450 RPMs.—It was the slowest RPM they could get. They destroyed three engines on nitro-methane doing it and again it’s a testament to Pratt and Whitney reserve over the original rated 2,800 horsepower engine. The pictures taken passing through the time trap stopped the propeller the blade angle were 55 degrees or more!


Down on the Delaware

At the three corners of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania there is a small town called Medford it just over the New York line in Pennsylvania on US route 209. The Delaware River separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania flowing Southwest. Southwest of the town is the junction or US route 209 and US route 206. 206 crosses the Delaware over old concrete span anchored in the cliffs on either side of the river and has tall concrete pilings, going southward to New York City. Southwest the bridge there is a large island in the river, and on it is a flower farm. Supposedly they grow the world’s best tulips. Because it’s on an island the water are sometimes too high to get equipment and seeds and fertilizer out to it, when that happen they call in an AG plane.


It was three year previous that the waters were too high and we were called in to put down fertilizer. The first time we flew off a private strip owned by and Eastern Airline Captain. The nearest airport was 36 miles away. His airport was 800 feet grass on peninsula in the river on the New Jersey side just south of Medford with one end clear out on the water. He had a nice little hanger with a Supper Cub that he flew to JFK to take his out bound flights. He had a beautiful house overlooking the Delaware that he had mostly built himself. He had what most pilot dream of and could ever want.


I fondly remembering standing in front of his stone fireplace with a drink he had offered. It is a memory that won’t ever go a way!


It is a testament to destruction of our rights what happened. The Department of Interior had foreclosed on him and he was leasing his property back in the preparation of making the area a national monument.


Well, the waters were again high and they call us. Marrion who was the fertilizer supplier said, “I’ve done the paper work to get special permission from the parks service to use the airport but I think you better go have a look a number of things have happened since we were there last time”


When the Captain was out on flight and wife was visiting their kids in Florida his house mysteriously burned down. The Forestry service will deny any knowledge of this practice of driving people out of life long homes by burning them down to make a monument but here in Arizona they burned down home with the owner still in it, burning him to death. A number of rangers received transfers and nobody knew anything. No one was ever prosecuted. So he left because he wasn’t allowed to rebuild.


My father and I drove down to survey the strip at Marrion’s suggestion. We drove out on what used to be beautiful grass runway. The grass was almost waist-high. Cedar trees had grown down at the ends of runway near the water and were near fifteen feet high. We continued to push down the grass and drove to where the hanger used to be, nothing remained but the footings. We past on to the shore where a hole marked a once beautiful house. He drove back out to the runway and we got out of the truck and walked around.


Dad said, “It a Damn shame! What you think?”


Well, I replied with a sorrow for what I’d seen but with objectivity, “It still usable but you won’t be able to take loads out you did. It’d help if we could mow the grass and knock down those trees.”


“I’ll tell Marrion to get set up. You’re going to fly it.


N744Yankee was a G-164 that my father brought home from the factory and proceeded to modify it from its 300 horsepower Jacobs to a Pratt & Wittney R-985, 450 horsepower. When Yankee finally rolled out of the hanger almost two years later it had a full accessory cowl and engine cowl liberated and modified from a Vultee BT-13. It would exceed its redline--131 miles per hour-- in level flight a power setting far less than maximum continuos. At very economical setting 17 inches at 1,450 rpm it would cruise at 125 miles per hour. It at the time was probable the fastest AG Cat flying. The factory representatives took note of what we had rolled out our hanger and came with a film crew. They had Dad put Yankee through a number of flight tests while filming. One I remember was they filled the hopper with water to it flowed out the top and did a take off run with the runway footage markings. Yankee lifted the load in 750 feet and made excellent climb out. As result of the film Grumman and Schweitzer decided to build the A model with 450 and 600 horsepower engines. They became G-164-A.


Yankee had since past from us to another and again was traded back in for a newer airplane. Yankee spent three years in the hanger being rebuilt even better than the first modification. Yankee was almost a G-164A but not quite. It had some rough edges such as far aft C.G., which made it very light on the controls.


When I arrived with N744Yankee, Dad had been busy. He had spent at least hour running the truck up and down the strip knocking down the grass so it would not impede the take off as much. The first four or five loads were uneventful and everything was going well.


I’d set the control lock and the parking brakes like before and gotten out to pack the fertilizer and seeds in the hopper that the loader I had built wouldn’t reach. I gave the cut off signal a little later that before because things were going well. Like I had done so many times that morning. I climbed back in the cockpit, releasing the control lock, stowing it, stepping on the toe brakes releasing them. I taxied to the end of the runway through still heavy-waist-height grass. Yankee felt sluggish but not to be unexpected in tall grass and with the heaviest load of the day.


I turned Yankee down the runway and went to 30 inches of manifold pressure. “Never use more than you need. Take care of your engine and it will take of you some day” were my father’s words. Yankee start to roll but it just didn’t seem to be accelerating very well. I pushed the throttle forward until I got to 36 inches which was just a little ahead of half way in the quadrant and it was big improvement, but a lot of runway was gone when Yankee lifted and she rapidly accelerated. I knew what was wrong but I wasn’t able to keep her flying. She touched down again and slowed down again. I yank her off and pushed the throttle to the stop in the quadrant. I watched the manifold go to 42 and half inches and the RPMs went to 2500 but the trees that were all to close coming at me. I briefly considered pulling the dump cord but it would have carried out in to the Delaware—the fish kill and the clean-up would be a mess and very expensive. Yankee was indicating 60 miles per hour still way behind its power curve. I kept Yankee in the ground effect accelerating until the very last minuet and said a prayer and yank full aft on the stick. Yankee responded many airplanes would gone into high-speed stall or pan-caked into the trees but up We went, airspeed gauge went to the peg at the top 40 miles per hour or less. I slammed the control stick full forward diving toward the river leveling out with another full deflection just above the water.


Thank God for the Grumman engineers building in such gentle flight characteristics. I made a gentle turn to head down the river hanging in the ground effect. Yankee was accelerating but still not really flying and way behind the power curve. I left her in the ground effect just off the river. The RPMs had come back to about 2400 but I could hear the propeller blat reverberating of the wall of the cliffs through the canopy over the sound of the engine. A Pilot rarely hears the propeller blat. I knew I was making one hell ove a racket. I imaged how it must have sounded to my father.


Yankee finally came on step at 70 miles per hour but now I was looking up at the route 206 bridge with not enough to climb over it. I thought will it fit between the middle pillars’. Once again I said a pilot’s prayer and put Yankee right in the center.


I remember looking up through the smoked plexiglass canopy and seeing the underside of the bridge thinking ‘They didn’t do a very good job making the forms on the underside.’ Strange what a man mind think of at time like that.



My first wife –Ellen- actually got the bridge spects. and we for years had them as picture on a wall of our home. The arches were 150’ across and 300’ high! The wingspan of old N44Y wingspan was 38’, lots of room. Probably my father would have said why didn’t fly under it for the whole job?


My Father if there was a filming crew would have done loops de loops trough all the arch of the bridge with most any airplane he could fly. But! Till this day I not sure he completely understands what happened that day? He may be reading my posting and saying ya.




The flower farm was just below the bridge and We easily cleared the hedgerows and the lever went forward for the first pass where I had left off. Yankee lightened quickly and I made a wide turn back. I took our first power reduction to a spraying setting.

When I landed back at strip, Yankee came to stop in about 400 feet without me touching the toe brakes. I pulled the mixture to idle cut-off, turning the ignition switch of, shutting down the engine without its cool down period and climbed out. My father came running, toward us standing in the middle of the strip.


“What happened?”


“’Brakes are locked”


He dove headfirst into the cockpit pushing the control stick that I had left unlocked out or his way to look at the brake master cylinders.


A couple or raps with a pair of pliers released the parking tabs and a piece of safety wire secured them so they couldn’t be deployed and I got back in an flew the rest of the day. I flew part of the next day too but we had to use chock while we were loading Yankee.


Well, there still enough of a teacher in me that we should review. Negligence was not acting on the sluggish taxi-out. Stopping the take-off before the committed point passed when something was wrong. Then not dumping the load before We got to the river--A part of It could have been salvaged. That day fate/God showed a merciful side down on the Delaware River. I didn’t crash into the trees. I didn’t stall-out over them and plunge in the river. The airplane fit between the pilings. And especially the engine didn’t fail. I’m convinced it wasn’t my time and I still have things to do in my life for God. I haven’t actively pursued His work, but I always tried in my day to day life do that something that will help other when they need it. May be it was taking care of my last wife through her sorrows of losing her youngest daughter, her father Alzheimer’s and her mother to heart failure. And finally herself into Alzheimer’s. May be it was all the aircraft students I taught. May be it was being the electrical foreman for the Watkins homeless shelter. I had my crew do far more than our contract to get it open. I sure there’s more I have to do and I intend to do more, as we all should.



All rights belong to its author. It was published on by demand of John Robinson.
Published on on 02/20/2009.


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