We were having occasional problems with the rebuilt carburetors coming back from the depot in San Antonio. The carburetors were installed behind the T-28’s radial engine where they combined air and fuel in a tightly controlled mixture operated by the throttle position in the T-28 two-seater training aircraft cockpit.
Normally carburetors do not require much maintenance, but when they do, access is a problem because you have to remove the engine to get at it. After the first few rebuilt carburetors were installed during a two-day overhaul and inspection process in Hangar 4, some pilots were complaining that the engines would occasionally cut out in flight, sometimes to the point of requiring a thrilling steep dive to restart the engine by spinning the propeller then engaging the engine, the equivalent of pushing your clunker down a hill then popping the clutch. If the clunker didn't start, you survived. If the plane didn’t start, well…
After checking out the propulsion systems without finding any other problems, we assumed the glitch had to be in the carburetor. We had been on the phone and had sent bulletins to the depot explaining the problem. Our explanations to the pilots that the engines seemed to work fine on the ground were not exactly what the pilots wanted to hear.
One day as this problem was unfolding I was doing a routine inspection of the engine shop. Looking at the grease-pencil status board, I noticed that they were working on an aircraft with a malfunction described as "engine quits in inverted flight." As I was standing there, the engine shop chief was writing in the corrective action block: "Could not duplicate on ground." I suggested that he add the phrase, “Checked out in accordance with run-up procedure, no fault found.”
Not long after that, our heavy maintenance hangar crew got a call that an aircraft had ditched in the Back Bay of Biloxi. As the incident was described to us, the pilots (instructor pilot and student pilot) had been flying at a relatively low altitude when the engine started sputtering and seemed to be about to quit on him, and he didn't have enough elevation to try a dive to restart the engine or enough elevation to glide to a safe landing area.
The instructor pilot was familiar with the carburetor difficulties we’d been having and he assumed that that was the problem. Because of their low altitude, they didn't have much time to check things out either, so the two pilots popped the canopy climbed out on the wing, jumped off, and parachuted out safely.
Fortunately, the sturdy old 50s era T-28 has a fairly smooth and shallow glide path, so, after the pilot had aimed it toward the Back Bay and put it in auto-pilot, the plane descended fairly evenly and landed in the shallow Back Bay of Biloxi, sinking in about 12-15 feet of seawater.
Sergeant Wilkins, the tall, lanky, red-headed Master Sergeant, T-28 master mechanic, and “aero repair” shop chief (in charge of the heavy maintenance in the hangar) who was more familiar with the trainer aircraft than anyone else on the base, asked me to accompany him on the crash recovery effort.
By the time I got to the aero repair shop, Sergeant Wilkins and his crew were assembling a salvage convoy: two large "bread trucks" (large blue maintenance vans), a flat-bed trailer, and the base salvage crane, with some aircraft jacks, air bags, tow ropes, cables, grappling hooks, scuba gear, and miscellaneous tools and equipment.
After checking some maps at the base search and rescue detachment and enlisting a couple of their experienced divers, we set out for the area we thought the plane was likely to have ditched.
When we got to the area, Sergeant Wilkins basically commandeered a local fishing trawler, telling the owner — who happened to be a retired Air Force sergeant who was happy to help — to submit a bill after we were finished with it.
With Sergeant Wilkins and the owner at the helm, we loaded up and set out into the Back Bay (formed by the west-to-east peninsula on the south coast of Mississippi) to look for the ditched aircraft.
As luck would have it, it wasn't long before we saw the top of the aircraft’s tail sticking up through the surface of the water. The plane seemed intact and relatively undamaged as it tilted forward with its nose in the shallow mud at the bottom of the Back Bay with its tail sticking up like a beacon to the salvage crew.
The divers and crew managed to position two big air bags under the wings and, using the portable air compressor we had brought along, we filled the airbags. After a few minutes the aircraft bobbed gently to the surface.
The canopy had already been jettisoned to allow the pilots to exit the cockpit and parachute out. Sergeant Wilkins immediately jumped onto the newly floated plane and started slowly striding around to check things out.
"It looks better than I thought," Wilkins said. “It must've come down fairly nice." As Wilkins was looking down into the cockpit with water slowly draining out of it, he suddenly shouted, "OH SHIT!"
"What?" I asked.
"Look at that!" Wilkins shouted, pointing into the cockpit. "The fuel’s been shut off!"
I walked up behind Wilkins and stared down where he was pointing. Then I realized what he meant. The D-shaped lever besides the pilot’s seat labeled "fuel" had been turned to the “off” position.
Dumbfounded, I asked, "Why would anyone shut the fuel off in flight?"
"Beats hell out of me," said the exasperated mechanic. “But that sure would create an engine problem.”
We spent the rest of the day towing the newly floated aircraft with the airbags under the wings back to the pier, then, using the salvage crane and cables, we put it on the flatbed to bring back to the hangar.
Colonel Burns, the flight operations commander, had already begun an investigation into the crash. I immediately reported to Burns’s office to inform him that we had discovered that the fuel had been shut off and that seemed to have been the reason for the engine quitting.
Several days later, after the Colonel’s investigation and interviews with the pilot and the student pilot were completed, it emerged that the student pilot, an inexperienced trainee from Vietnam being trained to fly the T-28 as one small part of President Nixon’s famously delusional “Vietnamization” of the Vietnam War, had somehow mistaken the heater control lever for the similarly shaped and nearby fuel control lever and thought he was turning down the cockpit heat without looking more closely.
Obviously, he had mistakenly shut off the fuel to the engine, and the instructor pilot, with the limited time he had due to their low altitude, had, well, jumped to the conclusion that the problem was the carburetor; he didn't have time to check his instruments and controls before bailing out.
For the short term, we suggested that the heater control lever at least had to be a different color and a different shape. So we painted all the fuel control levers red. (They had been gray like the heater control.) Later we replaced the D-shaped heater levers with solid plates printed with the word “heat.” Flight operations also made a point of lecturing all their pilots about the proper use of the fuel control lever and the heater and added a provision to the emergency procedure checklist to check the heat and fuel control levers before bailing out.
We had to replace the engine and propeller and put on a new canopy, but otherwise there wasn’t too much airframe damage and the aircraft was back in service in about a week.
As far as the carburetor problems, the depot never confirmed exactly what the problem was. We were eventually told, however, that they had found another vendor to do the carburetor rebuilds and I don’t recall there being any more widespread carburetor problems in my final two years at Keesler.