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April 20, 2003

Ladd Gardner Interview
by: Wayne Sagar
Images used in the presentation of this interview are the property of the photographers noted on image, and or, "the Lefty Gardner collection" and are used with the permission of either the photographer, or the Gardner collection or both.

An interview with Ladd Gardner - Part V

Ladd: "Well I hadn’t really brought back the throttles yet, I was going to set up for a low pass, really a tree sixty overhead approach, give everybody a low pass out of that. I’d called them and said ‘I think I have the field in sight, I’ll be there in a few minutes’ something like that, I don’t remember the exact words I used. It was right about that point that the left engine started backfiring and popping pretty violently. That airplane, when it backfires, there’s no mistaking what’s going on, I shouldn’t say it talks to you, it just plain out yells at you in the face!

That’s going to be the same with any warbird, you’ve got an engine that’s fifteen hundred cubic inches out there barking at you, it’s going to shake the airplane around and that’s what it was doing. I thought, ‘well man, obviously, this is odd’.

I’m checking to make sure that the fuel tank [selector] is in the right position, to make sure that I’ve got plenty of fuel and that, I’m running through the normal checks.. something’s not right.. I automatically thought I must have the fuel selector on the wrong tank, or I’ve got a fuel pump problem. So I kicked on the boost pump, all the normal things you do to make sure everything is right. Everything was right and it rapidly worsened within a few seconds. It was backfiring real bad and I pulled the power back and the cockpit went completely black. As black as you can imagine black, that’s how black it was."

AAFO: Ladd, when we spoke of this moment earlier, you described it: "one second it was bright and blue and sunny and the next, it was like someone stuck my head in a barrel of waste oil"

Ladd: "Yea, that’s how black it was! My eyes were open but everything was black! I started coughing and suffocating, I was kind of feeling helpless right away. Luckily, there was one spot… the smoke was coming in from the left hand side, from the leading edge of the left wing there between me and the engine. So as it was seeping through those seams and stuff on the left hand side of the cockpit, the smoke was being slowly sucked out of the cockpit up near the top part of the cockpit, where the canopy and the rollup window come together. It was leaving a little bit of light coming in the bottom of that side and I could look out the bottom of the right window, just enough to make sure that I kept the green trees down and try to maintain level flight by looking out the bottom side of the right window."

AAFO: So now you’re at about two thousand or fifteen hundred feet with a dead engine and a cockpit full of smoke and you can’t even see your instruments?

Ladd: "I was probably between a thousand and fifteen hundred, probably closer to a thousand and no, at that point, I couldn’t see anything! I was looking out the bottom of the right side trying to make sure I kept the green stuff on the bottom side. I was worried, I didn’t want to get this thing upside down, get disoriented and inadvertently go in upside down and hit the dirt at three hundred miles an hour plus. At a thousand feet, it wouldn’t take long.

This all happened pretty quickly, the smoke was so thick and I was coughing, literally suffocating. I flew the airplane until I, obviously, just couldn’t stand it any longer and I realized this smoke isn’t going anywhere… I wasn’t sure [up to that point] because I hadn’t dealt with this kind of situation, hadn’t dealt with it first hand, didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to immediately pop the canopy, because I mean, you pull the handle when you’re flying and it’s gone! It pops off and it’s gone and most likely, we’d never see it again.

At this point, I didn’t have any choice, it’s either that or I’m going to suffocate to death. So I popped it and immediately, just as quick as it had gotten black in there, it was clear again..

I looked out the left hand side and there was a hole, just on the right hand side of the left engine. At this time, it was about the size of a saucer that you’d put underneath a coffee cup, but it was a very, very intense fire, I mean it looked like a miniature afterburner from a jet poking out the top of that cowling. I literally watched the scoop, between that point and when I hit the ground later, I literally watched the carburetor scoop on top of the engine melt down. The paint had already started to flake off and was gone. You could tell it was really hot, the metal, I guess it turned kind of white and it slowly melted down it was so hot.

I immediately, I mean I’m talking about this, but I immediately cut the fuel off, shut the engine down, feathered it and had it secured right away, hoping that the fire would go out. Of course, it did not. It didn’t even attempt to go out at all. In fact, I don’t think shutting the engine down did anything really.

It continued to burn and at that speed, it doesn’t take long to cover some ground and I’d flown past the airport and I was heading towards… there’s some thick woods around that area and I’d turned back towards the airport and I couldn’t find it. I immediately radioed them, I knew I couldn’t find it, I said ‘I don’t know where you guys are, can you pick me up on radar and give me a vector to the airport?’. Well it’s a big airport but no radar capability and they said ‘we don’t have any radar online, all we can do is call center and get back to you’. I said ‘go ahead’ but I didn’t know if they’d get back to me on time. I knew I was heading east to west, so I knew to turn back to the east but I still couldn’t spot the airport, I just couldn’t find it for the life of me. I was looking all over for it. I looked back, the engine’s still on fire, I’m watching the metal melt away towards the fuel tank. We found out later that the fuel tank had exploded at some point, there was metal that was burned away at the top of the front left hand corner of the fuel tank."

AAFO: So you’re watching the wing disintegrate before your eyes and you can’t find the airport…

Ladd: "Yea, in a sense, that’s what was going on, that section right between the engine and me.. At that point, I had the right engine firewalled just trying to get back that opposite direction as fast as possible, it was, I mean the airplane was flying just fine, it will do just fine on one engine as long as you’re fast and I was probably a hundred and sixty, hundred and seventy, I don’t know because at some point the airspeed indicator failed and it was reading about seven hundred miles an hour, which I still don’t know why but, something probably to do with the fire getting to the pitot tube, the lines going to the pitot tube, at that point it was really irrelevant..

I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere, I realized that the fire wasn’t going anywhere [meaning in the direction of out] the hydraulics were zero. We had a standby hydraulic pump that I could have used to pumped the gear down manually if I needed to, which I would have needed to if I could have found the airport but there were a lot of factors that I took into consideration, right away, before I made the decision to belly into the cotton field.

I didn’t trust the standby [hydraulic] system enough to make that choice to manually pump the gear down, for several reasons.. One, I’ve seen a couple other airplanes, not just a P-38, but other warbirds, where you try pump the gear down and you can’t get them all down and locked. Especially when I’ve seen one hydraulic system completely zeroed out and failed, probably because the fire melted through the lines. There was no way to guarantee the other ones.

I didn’t want to take a chance of letting myself get caught up in letting the gear down and only one or two of the gear coming down and locked —or not even locking— maybe they’d only come down a little bit. If not all three of them were all the way out, and I try to put her down somewhere, it’s going to be really nasty, probably cartwheel and break the gear legs off, really do some structural damage.

That was even if I found the airport, at that point, I didn’t even think I was going to find the airport. I don’t think I would have.

So with all that taken into consideration, another thing, I’ve had guys say, ‘why didn’t you belly into the airport if you could have found it?’. The problem with that is, obviously, grass is going to be a whole lot friendlier to the airplane than pavement would be with the gear up, another thing on our P-38 that’s different than most is the fuel petcock drains. There’s six of them and they’re all right underneath the gondola, which is the section where the pilot sits, they’re fully exposed, they poke out the bottom of the thing about an inch. That was a mod done to the airplane before we owned it, for racing, for easy access to drain the fuel cells. Dad had always told me ‘if you ever have to belly this thing in, for whatever reason, don’t do it on the pavement’ because there’s six fuel sources right there and rubbing on the pavement. You’re talking about a spark and a fire right underneath my rear end so.. I knew about that, I wasn’t about to go put the thing gear up on the pavement.

So just another reason why it was an obvious choice to leave the gear up and put the thing into the cotton field that was immediately below me.

I’m making this story pretty long but this all happened in pretty short order..

part-I | part-II | part-III | part-IV | part-V | part VI | part-VII | part-VIII

You can help return one of America's great aviation treasures to flight status. Log into your tax-deductible contribution will be entered into the "Lefty Gardner White Lightnin' Aviation Museum" fund to restore "White Lightnin'" to flying condition. With the help of the fans of this airplane, the Gardner family will, once again, be seen flying this great airplane!


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