When Only Luck Will Do

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It would be hard to imagine a better-prepared aircraft for the mission at hand than Ron Carlson’s TBM Avenger. The old warhorse was to take off from Phoenix for a series of relatively short fuel stop hops to Chicago where Carlson, a well-known successful architect, was going to tuck it into a snug hangar, to be brought out on special occasions to demonstrate how naval aviators did their bit in the Second World War.

But the Avenger was no hangar queen. It had a flown a lot in its 70 years. After fulfilling its role as a torpedo bomber in the South Pacific in the Second World War for the Navy, it did similar duty over the roiling seas of the North Atlantic with the Royal Canadian Navy. After that it was a waterbomber in Canada before undergoing restoration to its former pugnacious glory. 

It left North America for the airshow circuit in Australia for 10 years and that’s where Carlson found it for sale for two-thirds the cost of a new Skyhawk. 

His dream was to use the aircraft to faithfully re-enact the drama, excitement and danger faced by the 20-something airmen who flew the colossal single into battle. As he polished every surface of the gleaming warbird in preparation for the trip home, he had no idea how close he would come to reliving the scariest aspects of that experience. You can hear it in his own words in this podcast.

After shipping the aircraft from Australia, the aircraft had to undergo a recertification inspection. Carlson hired the best people to essentially dismantle the plane, study its parts and put it back together again. As part of his personal mission for the aircraft, he oversaw the reconstruction of the mid-ships radio room and rear turret, which had been removed to make way for the firefighting tanks and gear. He even installed propane-fueled machine gun replicas to give airshow crowds and Veterans’ Day ceremonies a taste of the aircraft’s true purpose.

By the time he and his passenger Ken Franzese lined up for takeoff in Phoenix on May 7, every bolt had been tightened, every screw turned and every cable adjusted. No aircraft could have been better preflighted. 

In that quest for mechanical perfection, however, a few things got missed. Carlson would later admit that while the aircraft was as flawless as anyone could have made it, there were a few boxes unticked on his personal checklist. Despite hundreds of highly skilled man hours spent imagining every scenario and mitigating its risk it was only a perfectly timed cavalcade of blind luck that allowed Carlson to express his wonder and contrition at surviving a truly remarkable aviation accident.

We may yet find out what let go inside the massive Wright radial pulling the 17,000-pound airplane over the mountains of eastern Arizona at 11,500 feet that day. Carlson hopes to recover the wreck and maybe even rebuild it. He has to find it first but he has a track record for such work.

As smoke filled the cockpit and the aircraft seemed sure to shake itself to pieces, survival was top of mind and that didn’t seem likely where he was sitting. He used hand signals to gesture to his passenger to leave the aircraft and use the modern replica of a wartime parachute to go the rest of the way down. When he bought them, the parachutes were more part of the quest for authenticity than a realistic option for returning to earth. Carlson said he wanted to relive the experience of a naval aviator as authentically as possible and that meant sitting on a parachute.

Franzese didn’t need any further prompting. “I looked back and he was gone,” Carlson said.

Carlson pitched the aircraft up and banked right, not realizing Franzese was still clinging to handholds on the outside of the aircraft. The maneuver allowed Carlson to swing his legs over the canopy sill and launch himself into the thin air. At the same time, it broke Franzese’s grip and sent him plummeting on a similar trajectory. The D-rings on both chutes worked as promised but before they could get used to the ride, they were crashing through trees in an unceremonious reunion with earth. Carlson estimates they were about 1,000 feet AGL when he went over the side and ride was short and not very sweet. One of Carlson’s condescensions to style over practicality was not properly tightening the parachute straps. The shock of the canopy opening shook him to the bone. It was the first parachute jump for both men.

Carlson never saw the plane again but he said Franzese told him the aircraft, which was trimmed for cruise, righted itself from the bank, leveled out and with its engine still making power flew on before he lost sight of it. It flew away with water, food, survival gear, matches, lighters, a satellite phone, first aid kits and all kinds of useful stuff carefully tucked away in the cockpit to be used in case of the unthinkable.

When they landed on the mountain top, Carlson and Franzese had literally only the clothes on their backs. Carlson was wearing a period correct Navy flightsuit. Its many pockets, hooks and flaps were utterly empty except for a half charged cellphone. Carlson tried to pull his parachute canopy from a tree to use for shelter and warmth but couldn’t budge it. Alone, injured and dehydrated, he spent an uncomfortable night on a bed of pine needles covered with tree branches. “They took off the edge,” he said. Of everything that flew away with that Avenger, though, what Carlson coveted most was one or more of those bottles of water packed neatly in the cockpit. It’s dry in those mountains and not a drop of water was to be found.

There is a lot of nothing in northeastern Arizona and since they were sure to be miles from the wreckage of the aircraft, their chances of being found by rescuers were practically nonexistent. But apparently there was something someone wanted on that mountain because they built a road to get to it. Carlson and Franzese found the road at about the same time early the next morning and were reunited. The road was being used for its intended purpose and soon the two were in the care of a couple of forestry workers from the local community.

The platitudes, homilies, quotations and clichés just burst forth from stories like theirs and Carlson has likely heard them all by now from ever-helpful friends and colleagues. But if there’s one thing he learned from his remarkable experience it’s that all the elements that go into a successful mission need a thorough preflight, including the mindset of the pilot. You can bet the pockets in that flightsuit will be jammed with all kinds of useful stuff on his next flight and the parachute straps snug.

At risk of joining the peanut gallery that Carlson is almost certainly tired of by now, a couple of those familiar quotations come to mind.

As Sam Levenson (and a few others in similar language) said: “You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.”

Perhaps the one that sums up this experience has no formal attribution but is familiar nonetheless.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”

Comments (4)

They truly did relive the experience and in so doing become a select few who are eligible to join the Caterpillar Club.

Posted by: Enoch Birx | May 22, 2018 10:04 PM    Report this comment

Good story. It carries a useful lesson for all that any safety or survival gear that goes down with the plane is of no value. Your sister publication, Aviation Consumer, did an article some time ago about survival gear. One of their recommended products was a vest that contained the various survival items in several pockets. The theory being that by wearing your gear, you will have it if you need to depart the wreckage quickly. At the time I did not think much of the idea, but this has prompted me to reconsider their advice. Luck only goes so far, and as another old saying goes, "luck favors the well prepared".

Posted by: John McNamee | May 23, 2018 12:06 PM    Report this comment

What a gripping story; thanks Russ. In a similar vein, it's a good idea to make sure to always keep your wallet in your pocket when driving; you never know when you may be involuntarily separated from your vehicle and the ER is no place to find out you have no ID.

Posted by: A Richie | May 23, 2018 1:17 PM    Report this comment

These planes were designed to be disposable and expendable.
That's why WWII pilots were grateful just to get out of the things alive in an emergency.
No amount of mechanical preparation can erase the innate danger of these machines when things go wrong.
Yea, they were lucky to get out alive.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | May 23, 2018 2:36 PM    Report this comment

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