My father-in-law from a former marriage was a Naval Aviator back in flying boat days. He wrestled big PBMs up and down the supply lines from Norfolk along the east coast to Coco Solo, Panama and on down to Bahia, Brazil, the jumping off point to the Azores and Africa.
He used to tell the story of his brief but memorable Pensacola graduation ceremony during the hurry-up days of WW2. The Admiral, with better things to do, made his speech short and to the point. "Gentlemen, I want you to remember three things. Keep your airspeed up, keep your airspeed up, keep your gawdamn airspeed up."
Flying from Chester County Airport (40N) near Philadelphia to the EAA's Spring pilgrimage at Sun 'n Fun in Florida, we'd discovered that flight planning shouldn't be limited to topics aeronautical.
When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon at our planned RON point in Rockingham, NC the line shack was locked, not a soul was around, and no self-serve fuel was available. So when we called a couple of local hotels, figuring we'd get fuel in the morning, and discovered there was no room at the inn thanks to a big NASCAR race, we knew we had a problem. My copilot and I, being neither virgin nor saint, respectively, knew that we'd have to get our ass on to another town.
Only one problem. We were down to about 40 minutes of fuel and it was going to be dark soon. A quick look at a chart, and we spied a place just 15 minutes away where the AOPA directory showed there was fuel and a hotel nearby. And no mention of a race track.
So back to the Travel Air for a quick hop down the way. There, Yankees that we are, sure 'nuff y'all, found room at a motel adjacent to the airport, and grits for breakfast the next morning.
At the airport, rarin' to go, we discovered that southern hospitality didn't include fuel before bible-belt church is over on a Sunday morning.
The sectional and AOPA directory indicated, for us heathens, that there was another strip literally just down the road, the other side of a tree line, across the border in Georgia. And they opened at 8 on Sunday.
With a measured fuel quantity of 6 gallons (we carried an official stick for just such measurements, meeting the FAA requirement as a fuel guage) we knew we'd be under the 30 minute VFR requirement, but within safe range for the 5 minute flight--and even the hop back if we couldn't land for some unforeseen reason.
When the biplane's engine sputtered and almost quit on take-off my former Father-in-law's story didn't come to mind. But the idea of keeping the airspeed up sure did. I pushed the stick of our Travel Air forward, felt her start to mush and pushed harder to get the nose further down. We gained just enough airspeed to flare for an abrupt landing. Pancaking down from a hundred feet, I'm sure, would not have produced such an uneventful outcome.
As we taxied off the runway the 220 Continental ran just fine. Back at the departure end of the runway we did an even more thorough run-up including a full power check. Everything looked and sounded good. Well, let's try 'er again.
Ready this time, when the same thing happened again I pushed hard to pitch the nose from about 30 degrees nose up to about the same angle nose down. We actually felt a little light in the seat, but the airspeed stayed pegged at 50, where it belonged.
My Dad taught me when I was a fledgling that airplanes talk to you, and that they can communicate a whole bunch if you'll listen. Two partial engine failures on takeoff qualifies, in my book, as being yelled at. Something obviously wasn't right, and any further attempts to fly until we found out what it was would be fool-hearty. Taxiing back to the ramp the engine ticked over pleasantly, as if to say, "Good lad, you listened."
First we'd have to solve the engine problem, then we could worry about the gas problem. Turned out they were one and the same.
As we wandered around the deserted airport, looking for someone with grease under their fingernails, we discovered an experienced looking fellow in well used coveralls tinkering on a Navion. When we asked if knew anything about round engines, he asked if we were the folks in the sputtering Travel Air. We admitted we were, and he answered simply, "Head pressure."
Asking for a bit of amplification he said, "Well, I heard you folks come in last night at dusk. And the fuel pumps are closed so I knew you didn't buy gas. So my guess is you're low on fuel. With the fuel tank in the fuselage, and a Continental with no fuel pump, you depend on gravity for fuel pressure. On the ground, with only a few gallons it works okay, but after takeoff, when you pull the nose up to climb, the fuel level and carb level are at about the same. No head pressure. Fill 'er up with fuel when the pumps open and she'll run fine." And she did.
Aside from that illuminating lesson, the more important one I learned from this experience was that when an engine quits on takeoff you have to really push to get the nose through what amounts to 60 degrees of pitch, if you want to maintain flying speed.
Like the man said, keep your airspeed up, keep your airspeed up, keep your gawdamn airspeed up.