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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 VI

I looked down and the left engine’s still on fire, shut down, of course, and it wasn’t going anywhere but worse. So I radioed the airport again and said ‘look’ —this is all as I pulled the power back on the right engine and I was trying to get it shut down and headed towards the cotton field— I said ‘hey, you need to find my dad and a couple buddies, they’re in a 310, they were following me over here, their N number is six nine one eight tango, last time I talked with them they were talking to Memphis center and they were headed to Tyler, tell them to come back to Greenwood and get me’ I think that was the last thing I said and I said it pretty fast. I was talking to the guys later and they said I said it, I gave them so much information, so quickly, in such a short period of time, that they couldn’t get it all down.. Because I knew, as soon as I got lower and hit the ground the transmission wasn’t going to make it, wasn’t going to get to the airport, so I was trying to get it all out there so they’d come back and get me.

Of course, this whole time, thoughts are going through my mind, ‘am I going to survive this?’

People ask me, ‘did you think you were gonna die?’ or ‘did you think you were not gonna make it?’… Those thoughts were very prominent in my mind from the very beginning of the emergency.. When the smoke was in my face and I couldn’t see, that was a time when I really felt like this could be the time when I’m gonna go. After I’d gotten the canopy popped, the smoke cleared and the engine shut down, at that point, I still had questions in my mind about, ‘what am I gonna do?’ not about taking care of the situation but, am I going to survive, is this gonna get me, is this gonna kill me. Those were the thoughts on my mind, but, I was having to deal with trying to rectify the situation, whatever way I could, that was on the front of my mind. I was dealing with that, more so than I was thinking about the consequences, it was more like… I wasn’t really thinking about whether or not I was going to make it at that point, I was just doing what I knew I had to do, to do the least amount of damage to me and the airplane. And then I just did the steps as quick as I could and got on the ground.

As soon as I hit I remember going kind of uuaahh.. when I hit, thinking, ‘man that was hard!’ I hit the ground hard! I remember, actually before that, I remember coming along, the ground was coming up, and I remember it felt like I was hauling ass, I was going way too fast. I remember there was a power line ahead of me and beyond that, a whole line of trees, it was thick woods from that point on. I thought, ‘man I’m gonna go crusin right across this field right about a foot above the ground and just go sailing right into those trees underneath those power lines!’ So I reached and grabbed the flap handle and thought ’maybe this’ll slow me down’ and the flaps didn’t come down but that’s OK, it worked out better. I just kind of nosed the airplane over a little bit and just kind of forced it onto the ground.

The first time I hit, both props dug in and broke off, that was where a lot of the impact hit and where I felt most of the impact. Those dug in and broke off, it dug in and then came back up and slid. It was a pretty hard impact, I didn’t get hurt but it was enough that I was thinking … ‘that was a hard hit!’"

AAFO: Kind of knock the wind out of you?

Ladd: "I don’t know if it did or not! It may have, I had the seat belt on tight, as much as I could. I felt like this was all happening in a rush.. because.. whenever I realized that I had… when I made the decision to put it on the ground, it seemed like it kind of, the situation was re-emphasized to me, just how serious that fire was! Literally, the thought kept running through my mind ‘am I gonna get this thing on the ground, I gotta get this thing on the ground! Please, I better get this thing on the ground!! Before it just blows up!’

I was really wondering if it was going to blow up, just explode. I didn’t know if it was capable of doing that or not. With that much fuel and that much fire, it seemed like a pretty good possibility."

AAFO: With that intense of a fire in the wing, were you concerned about the spar burning through, losing the entire wing?

Ladd: "It was burning all around there, I don’t know if I was really worried about that, I guess I thought about that, but it probably only crossed my mind once. The main thing I was worried about was a big explosion that just took care of me and the airplane all at once.

I finally hit the ground and was sliding along, just kind of a rough sliding along. It was almost like, if you’ve ever had snow come to town and get an old trash can lid and go sliding down a hill, similar to that is how it felt, just kind of a rough ride but having an airplane around you and a seat belt. Couple that with a bunch of dirt being thrown in your face and in your mouth and your eyes.

But it didn’t take it long before it was stopped. I don’t know if I rolled down the right window or not I may have left them both up. The fire was on my left, I remember, I reached around and pulled out my headset plug out of the jack, because I was worried about… I didn’t want to take the time to take my helmet off, if I was running and something happened, I wanted my helmet on. All this stuff was running through my mind, if I jumped out and that thing was plugged in, most likely it was going to jerk my head around, I figured I’d fall down on the airplane or something, so I reached around and unplugged it, jumped over the right window and ran away from the airplane.

I remember looking back at it and wondering if it was going to explode. I think at that point, I was even asking god himself, ‘don’t let the airplane explode.’ I felt like, I’d survived the impact, I’d survived the fire, now, what worse could happen but have the airplane explode when we’re this close to surviving everything and walking away with a pretty good outcome!

At that point, I’d survived, I wanted the airplane to survive too!

I was kind of in a feeling of awe and shock combined but along with that, I had a conscious feeling, god, I did not want that airplane to explode! I just hoped it did not burn up sitting on the ground.

I remember, there was a guy there driving a truck or something, I asked if he had any water or a fire extinguisher or anything, he said ‘no I don’t have anything here but I’ve got a water tanker across the field.’ Shoot, it was a half a mile across that field, he got in the truck and went over there to get it. Luckily, the dirt had snuffed out the fire, I’d say about ninety nine percent, there were just a couple puffs of smoke coming off of it, that worried me but I wasn’t near as worried as about the fire that was there just before I hit. But he showed up a couple minutes later, it took him a couple minutes to get hooked up to that water trailer and get back and he sprayed water on it. I’d say, fifteen or twenty minutes later the fire department showed up and they really coated it good with foam and that was it.

Now the big concern on my mind was trying to get hold of my dad! I was thinking ‘they’re gonna be half way to Tyler before I get hold of them.’ That’s a long ways from Mississippi, ‘I got to get them turned around.’ [laughs]

I was calling 1-800 weather brief, trying to get hold of the center, I was calling every number I could think of trying to get me in contact with them. Obviously, I didn’t know the number of the tower, I was calling every number I could think of to get them. I finally did, but my cell phone connection was so bad, I couldn’t keep connected. Finally, the sheriff showed up and I used his phone and finally got the tower on the phone and like I said before, they said, I said everything so fast, they couldn’t get it. They asked what happened and I told them I was fine but they had to get hold of my dad. I told them again what he was flying and where he was going and they got him and told him to come back and get me."

AAFO: I would imagine those folks in the tower were figuring you were gone!

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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