“You Can’t Land Here”

by Keith Kaniut

Douglas C-54 Skymaster

Captain John “Jack” Rayca couldn’t believe his ears. The war in Europe was nearly over. He’d been flying various multi-engine planes throughout the war including the twin-engine C-46 Commando, the twin C-47 Skytrain, and now later in the war, the big C-54 Douglas Skymaster with its four Pratt & Whitney R-2000-9 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines that put out 1,100 hp each. The Skymasters were long haulers and heavy lifters for their day, able to go 4,000 miles with 28,000 lbs. of payload. Their maximum takeoff weight was an impressive 36.5 tons.

Captain Rayca and his crew flew new replacement bombers and cargo to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and even India. On their return trips to the states they often carried wounded servicemen. Today was one of those flights. He and his crew had a load of wounded and war-weary pilots and yet the Army Major in charge of the airport’s military operations had just said “…you can’t land here”. 

C-46 Commando

Captain Rayca was flying with his usual crew today; guys he could count on like Lou Transu his copilot and Joe Worley, their navigator. Their stateside destination was New York Municipal Airport (NYMA), later renamed LaGuardia airfield (LGA) in New York City. The original 550-acre airfield in Queens was built largely with landfills removed from nearby Rikers Island. Before the new airfield was created in 1939, it was a small private field called the Glenn H. Curtis airfield, after the aviation pioneer. But legend has it that New York’s mayor at the time, Fiorello LaGuardia had pushed for the site to become the main city airport because it was closer to Manhattan than Newark, New Jersey’s airport, the one being used for trans-oceanic flights during the 1930’s. 

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Captain Rayca and his crew had been airborne for many hours. They were tired but glad to be almost home. The weather was bad and visibility poor along much of the East Coast and their route took them through the middle of a line of thunderstorms. Many of the wounded needed advanced medical care which they’d only be able to receive at medical facilities near NYMA. If they landed elsewhere it would be a logistics nightmare to get the most badly-wounded to the care they needed and some of them just wouldn’t make it.

That was the situation before they lowered the landing gear and the main hydraulics system failed. The hydraulics operated the landing gear, primary brakes, nose wheel steering, and flaps. This meant they had to manually hand-pump the landing gear down. Without flaps, their landing speed would be much faster than normal. They would only have the air-powered emergency brakes for stopping and the emergency brake could not be regulated. It was either full on or full off and once it was set, it could not be released – the wheels would be locked. (Maintenance had to bleed the air from the brake lines after emergency brake use.) Also, since the C-54 had the new tricycle style landing gear with a nose wheel, you couldn’t steer it with the rudder at low speeds without the hydraulically-actuated nose wheel steering. Captain Rayca would have to use differential thrust on the outboard engines to turn the plane as it slowed. He couldn’t shut down the engines and feather the props to reduce thrust until he no longer needed them to steer. (link to C-54 Pilot Training Manual: Google Books)

Finally, without the hydraulic system the landing gear could not be retracted. The aircraft could only fly with the gear down, a configuration with more drag that would use a lot more fuel if they tried to divert to another airfield – fuel they didn’t have.

With this background, Captain Rayca had called the tower and declared an emergency and the Major in charge of military operations at the field had responded. “Captain Rayca. You can’t land here!” The Major didn’t want him landing, possibly crashing and closing the runways. The Major’s priority was to keep the field open. He ordered Captain Rayca to land elsewhere. 

This was a very serious emergency and time was running out. As Pilot-In-Command Captain Rayca had one more card up his sleeve. He had ultimate authority and responsibility for his aircraft and its passengers. Captain Rayca knew what he had to do. His passengers had survived the war up to this point and he wasn’t going to let them down. He told the tower that he was exercising his authority as Pilot-In-Command and would be landing at NYMA and they should prepare for his emergency landing. He further informed them of his intention to land in the grass and perpendicular to the runways for increased rolling resistance, maximum roll-out distance, and to avoid the possibility of skidding off the runway into the river. 

New York’s LaGuardia Airport today

The river surrounds the airport on three sides. The photo to the right shows the modern runway configuration. In the mid 1940’s, the airfield had four runways set 45-degrees apart. The main north/south runway was closed after a United DC-4 ran off the south end in 1947.

Approaching the airport, they caught a break in the weather and could now see the airport through the clouds. Beginning his descent, Captain Rayca told the passengers his intentions and concerns as well as their need to quickly evacuate the aircraft after landing. As experienced pilots, they knew what was at stake and the challenge their fellow pilot faced. He didn’t need to add that if they were able to help others, to do so. It was understood. Everyone prepared for the worst.

Without flaps, the C-54 came in hot. He landed as close to the edge of the field as possible and as soon as all wheels were firmly on the ground Captain Rayca activated the emergency brakes. All four main wheels locked up as the plane skidded across the wet grass. When it crossed over the runway the tires blew. He told Lou to shut down the inboard engines – #2 and #3. Then they were back in the grass and sliding towards one of the hangars. With differential engine power between the two outboard engines he turned the Skymaster away and then shut them down to avoid a fire.

The aircraft skidded to a stop in the soggy grass – upright and intact. Everyone cheered! The passengers quickly climbed out but Captain Rayca remained at the controls. The fire trucks arrived but were unnecessary. Eventually his copilot Lou Transu returned to the cockpit to report that everyone was safe. He had to pry Captain “Jack” Rayca’s hands from the control wheel. Everyone clapped when Captain Rayca descended the ladder to the grass. But Jack didn’t smile. He was quite angry. There was a Major he wanted to speak to. 

Normally a mild-tempered fellow, that day another side of him emerged. He didn’t care whether the Major outranked him; Captain Jack Rayca was going to give him hell! 

Fortunately for the Major, Lou and Joe dissuaded Jack from the confrontation. Everyone was safe and that was all that mattered. Jack would later say “…it was the maddest I’d ever been!” Officially, nothing further was ever said about the incident but perhaps a measure of its impact is that when Captain Jack Rayca left the service after the war, he swore he’d have nothing more to do with those “damn planes!” And he never did. 

Instead he found a nice girl, got married and raised a family, owned his own business that made a variety of things from wood panels for elevator interiors to boat cockpits and Formica countertops. And he agreed to let his oldest daughter marry a Navy pilot. For that, I will be always grateful!

In fond memory of Captain John “Jack” Rayca (1916-2000) and his crew
Lou Transu and Joe Worley. 

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