The news has been full of stories of passengers trapped aboard airlines for hours under horrific conditions. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon in our industry.
In my time, I have seen some incidents that have brutally tested the survival skills of even the hardiest of passengers. One must also sympathize with the flight attendants, who have no control over the circumstances and are trapped inside the same aluminum tube as their passengers.
Trans Caribbean was one of the few non-skeds who managed to make the jump to gaining a scheduled airline certificate. They had long flown a DC-4 and a DC-6 between New York’s Idlewild Airport and San Juan in Puerto Rico. Their fares were low, and they competed against Eastern Air Lines and Pan American. In later years, they were bought by American Airlines as a means of accessing the lucrative Caribbean market. For a short period, American operated their DC-8s, the only ones AA ever had.
In the mid-50s, DC-8s were only a dream and Trans Carib was still using its DC-4 for the evening flight. It was a frigid evening, temperature in the single digits and the aircraft had been parked all day at the hangar. The aircraft was taxied over to the “temporary” terminal using only the inboard engines, a common practice to save fuel. Starting the big round radial engines in cold weather is something of a black art involving judicious use of the primer, careful positioning of the throttle and perfect timing in opening the mixture control. It also was cause for nervous attention from the fire guard who stood by with a wheeled CO2 fire extinguisher. A lot of raw 100 octane was dripping out of exhaust joints and blower drains as the engine lumped over trying to start. Suffice to say, the two inboards fired up and away it taxied to pick up a full load of passengers going home to Puerto Rico for the Feast of Three Kings and the Christmas holidays.
The PA at the hangar announced that the DC-4 was coming over from the terminal for us to start the outboard engines. Unfortunately, a few hours later, the two outboard engines had still failed to start and the plane remained stubbornly in place. It was now after midnight, the wind had risen and it was now even colder. There were only six of us on the graveyard shift and we hustled to park the aircraft and get stands, tarpaulins and most important of all, the ground heaters. The flight crew, in trying to start the cold-soaked outboard engines, had almost certainly “iced” the spark plugs. This is literally a true description as you will actually see a mound of ice on the insulator when this occurs. One thing is certain, the engine will not start with iced plugs, at least until next spring or at least the next thaw.
There were two possible remedies: One was to change the spark plugs of the offending engines, not a pleasant task under the conditions and one that would take some time. The alternative was to heat the power section of the engines to melt the ice on the plugs and to dry them too. Heating was chosen, and I was assigned No. 1 engine. A 28V DC ground power cart was plugged in and as I was pushing an aerostand over to the engine, I noticed faces peering out of the cabin windows. Good Lord! The aircraft was loaded with passengers, not something we normally saw over at the hangar. We certainly had no facilities or passenger service equipment there, not even a proper boarding stand.
I positioned the stand with help, and we draped a tarpaulin over the front of the nose cowl. A tug pulled up towing one of our two vintage war surplus Herman Nelson heaters. The next task was to start the one lung engines on the units, which could be a job in itself. However, the foreman had routed out Vinnie, the auto shop mechanic from his snug nest. He had brought a pint can of ether and this quickly resurrected the put-puts. Next was the flaming torch ritual which involved a piece of rag on the end of a stiff wire. It was dipped into gasoline, lit and then thrust into a small door into the unit’s firebox. A faucet valve was cracked a bit admitting gasoline into the firebox and the heater would light off with a whoof, sometimes a bit more than that if too much gasoline was admitted. You then adjusted the valve to get the desired amount of heat.