The Liberty Gazette
Oct 20, 2015Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Johnny Keown dons his cowboy hat enjoying the gorgeous fall weather as he shares stories about his airline days. We are sitting around a table under the hangar awning at Critters Lodge, a private grass strip in Centerville, Texas, as he chats about another of our friends, A. J. High, who passed away a couple of years ago. They both flew for Texas International Airlines before it became part of Continental Airlines.
One day, Johnny was co-piloting for A.J. on a Convair 600 turbo prop, which is what the airline was flying then, a few decades ago. This airplane is powered by two Rolls-Royce Dart engines, with two big four-bladed props. On this particular trip, en route from Mexico to the United States, as they flew north past Tampico a red light on their instrument panel illuminated. The light’s job was to relay an important message: an impending gearbox failure on one of the engines.
Impending failure. Let that settle in as you imagine the immediate attention and focus required of the flight crew, Johnny and A.J., as they prepared their minds, organized their thoughts, read through emergency checklists, and used their training and years of experience so that the loss of one of the two engines would be handled safely and professionally, without incident.
As the pair were trouble-shooting and discussing shutting down the bad engine, the flight attendant entered the flight deck, informing them that a passenger was having a heart attack.
Johnny and A.J. knew that if they stopped the engine then, their speed to the closest airport – Harlingen – would be greatly reduced and the passenger might not survive all the way to landing. However, if they did not shut down the engine it could, and likely would, fail during flight. The weather and visibility at Harlingen weren’t the best, which would make having the power of both engines that much more important.
Standard procedure dictates shutting down the inoperative engine and relying on the remaining engine for the remainder of the flight. But is standard procedure the best choice in every circumstance? In this circumstance?
Linda: A.J. pressed the radio mic, reported the medical emergency to the Harlingen control tower, and requested an ambulance. Then, he made the difficult decision to keep the faulty engine running. The two pilots hoped both engines would stay healthy and allow them to reach their unplanned diversion swiftly.
The seconds ticked by. The light still illuminated impending failure. But both engines were still running.
Crossing the border they were cleared for the approach and landed at Harlingen, with full operation of both engines.
An ambulance crew picked up the passenger and whisked him off to the hospital. The other passengers deplaned and were put up in a local hotel as repairs were made to the aircraft. The flight attendant took advantage of the maintenance downtime and dashed off to the hospital to check on the sick passenger, whose only hope may have been that choice that was made that went against standard procedure.
"Passengers judge flights and pilots by the landing, not what goes on behind closed cockpit doors. It was a tough decision to make at the time and looking back on it, sometimes what seems to be the wrong thing to do is the right decision," says Johnny. "We did the right thing."