the engine coughed, sputtered twice, and died


Harry Smith next to the cabin door of a Loening Air Yacht

Moon Chin also copiloted Loening Air Yachts with a pilot named Harry Smith, and one gray, glowering day they left Shanghai and headed for Nanking, their first scheduled stop on the way upriver to Hankow. Smith and Moon Chin flew with their wings brushing the underside of the cloud layer at about five hundred feet. The low clouds held the horizon close, and they passed Soochow on a compass course designed to intersect the Yangtze a few miles west of Nanking. Three or four passengers sat in the cabin beneath, along with CNAC’s usual three hundred pounds of overload. Moon Chin had the yoke, and he held steady for Nanking. A patchwork of flooded rice paddies slipped beneath the plane. It was a routine flight until the engine coughed, sputtered twice, and died. The radial engine’s thunder was replaced by the eerie whoosh of the airstream rushing through the Loening’s struts and support wires. Without power, no airplane can maintain level flight, and the Loening’s propeller was fixed. It stopped flat across the breeze and acted like a gigantic air brake. From 500 feet the seaplane couldn’t glide a mile. They didn’t have enough altitude to turn. They had to land straight ahead. Dykes and flooded paddies would have torn a land plane apart, but a Loening might not fare so poorly with a boat hull slung beneath. Smith and Moon dove for a rice paddy straight ahead. Coolie farmers working on the narrow causeways or in the flooded paddies flung their tools and sprinted for safety. Smith flared the plane and stalled it onto the flooded paddy just beyond a dike. The Loening smacked the water and bounced off the muddy bottom and careened across the water with too much momentum to stop in the length of a single paddy. The plane ploughed through a dike into the next paddy and drifted to a stop. Muddy water dripped from the wings and tail. Moon Chin pushed up his goggles and checked the passengers. They looked like they’d seen ghosts, but they weren’t harmed.

The two affected farmers splashed through the paddy, yelling about compensation for their wrecked dykes and lost rice. Their peers working neighboring paddies rushed over to oogle the amazing occurrence. A commotion sprang up around the stranded airplane.

Moon Chin, Smith, and their passengers waded to the nearest dike. The passengers hired farmers to carry their luggage, and Harry Smith took them to the nearest railroad station. Moon stayed with the Loening. Smith telegraphed notification to Lunghwa and took the next train to Nanking. Two CNAC mechanics reached the marooned airplane that afternoon, disassembled it, and hired farmers to load the parts onto rafts, which they floated through the rice paddies to an irrigation canal. They transferred the parts to a junk for the journey down-canal and downriver to Shanghai. A week or ten days later, the plane was back in service. Moon Chin had been back at the airport on the afternoon of the mishap. He didn’t miss a single day of work.


(author’s interviews with Moon Chin, September 17, 2004; July 15, 2005; April 19, 2006.)

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2 Responses to the engine coughed, sputtered twice, and died

  1. Theresa says:

    Wait. Are these still ‘out takes’ of your book? This is already a shake-your-head-in-disbelief story. Crazy.

    • Gregory says:

      Yes, Theresa, they’re still outtakes. I have dozens more. Dozens. In a lot of places, a fabulous anecdote didn’t support the “narrative drive” of the story, and I had to make the decision to cut it. Several of my absolute favorites were lost in that manner, including my absolute favorite. (Which hasn’t appeared yet.) “Kill your darlings” is a classic piece of writing advice. Happily, quite a few of them survived. Thanks for checking in, T.

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