Flying Coffin
February 1986

“Flying Coffin,” Ensign, Feb. 1986, 57–58

“Flying Coffin”

The time was October 1924. The place was Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas. I was an Army Air Corps flying cadet receiving advanced flying instructions. The members of my class were flying DeHavilands—nicknamed “flying coffins” because of their tendency to catch fire in a crash landing even on a smooth field.

Each plane had a 400-horsepower, V-12 engine. Immediately behind the engine and firewall was the gas tank, which held approximately one hundred gallons, the top of which formed the top of the fuselage. Behind the gas tank were the instrument panel and the pilot’s seat. In a crash landing, the gas tank would rupture and flood the hot engine with gasoline. Many pilots had lost their lives—not from the crash, but from the fire that followed.

I had been practicing maneuvers about ten miles southwest of Kelly Field when the cloud cover began to drop. Here, the ground elevation was about two hundred feet lower than at the field. I started back, hoping to arrive before the cloud cover dropped to zero. The area was covered with mesquite trees, with only small areas cleared for pastures and farms.

I was about halfway home when I saw that, because of the rising terrain, the clouds and the ground were only two hundred feet apart. A little farther ahead, they merged. I realized that I had to land at once, before I ran into a cloud-ground wedge!

I tried to find a cleared area in which to land safely. I eventually located a long enough field, but in circling to approach it the long way, the visibility was so poor that I could not find the landing direction. I tried this several times, and soon my visibility was only about two hundred yards ahead. In order not to hit the mesquite trees, I would have to make skidding turns by holding the wings level and using only the rudder. If I tried to bank the plane, the lower wing would hit the mesquite and my head would be in the clouds. To crash in this “flying coffin” would mean certain death by fire, even if I survived the impact. I knew that nothing but God’s intervention could save me.

I prayed, “God, please do not desert me now!” Which way should I turn? The trees ahead were in the clouds—closing my escape. I had only seconds to decide which way to go—to the right or to the left? Which way is downhill? I was about to panic.

Then a heavenly voice, louder than the roar of the engine, filled my head and calmed my fears. “Turn left—left turn—flat turn to the left,” it said. “Ravine ahead! Downhill! Clearing for landing, one mile—left turn.”

I made a skidding left turn, and as I completed it, the ground descended from the clouds until I could see a gap between two large trees—not much farther apart than the wing-span of the airplane. The tops of these tall trees were just a little below the bottom of the clouds; just beyond was a small flat area cleared sufficiently to permit the plane’s wheels to roll once they were on the ground.

There was a fence between the trees, and the lower branches were high enough that I could just get under them and over the fence. By just missing the fence and touching the lower branches of each tree, I would be able to get the wheels on the ground.

The field beyond was a pasture. I touched ground as slowly as possible and began to roll. Until I crossed the fence, all below was unbroken mesquite. I was traveling west. The tree on my right stood where the low part of the ravine turned slightly to the right, and the field I was approaching bordered the south side of the ravine. With the wheels and tail-skid on the ground, I waited for the plane to stop rolling. It went slightly uphill, parallel to the ravine. It stopped, and I looked ahead to discover that I was only a plane length from the fence at the west end of the field! I had landed safely.

Since there was no way I could restart the engine if I shut it off, I left the engine idling for two hours while I waited for the clouds to lift. Finally, the clouds lifted to about four hundred feet, and I knew that I could make it back to the field if I could lift off and clear the fence between the trees. A farmer from a nearby farmhouse helped me lift the tail and head the plane in the opposite direction so I could take off.

My heart rejoiced. I knew I had received help from the Lord, not only in finding the landing area, but also in the approach and the actual landing. I felt the Lord’s influence guiding me in the right direction. I also knew that I could receive the same help on my takeoff. I headed directly for the space between the trees. I missed the fence, and the wings brushed off only a few leaves of the trees on both sides of the plane.

With keen awareness and gratitude for the Lord’s timely response in saving my life, I headed home.

  • Elmer Beckstrand teaches Gospel Doctrine in the Long Beach Fifth Ward, Long Beach California East Stake.