Gardner's White Lightnin'
Down in Mississippi
by Bobby Thompson
Monday afternoon, at the Greenwood-LeFlore (MS) airport, the sound of an
Allison V‑12 overhead must have gotten some to look into the sky. The
problem was that the airplane they were watching was 25Yankee, a
Lockheed P‑38L, which usually has two such engines. Ladd Gardner, son of
"Lefty" Gardner, was making an emergency landing just west of
He had reported an engine
fire in the port nacelle, and then smoke started filling the cockpit,
making it impossible for him to see, as he headed for the welcoming
asphalt at GWO.
He had to miss the airport,
though; and he landed in a cotton field just west of it. The P‑38L‑5LD,
famous as unlimited racer White Lightnin', a 1944 manufacture that
Gardner has had since the early '60s, belly-flopped in, sustaining
serious but repairable damage, and protecting Ladd from harm.
In an exclusive ANN
interview, Charles Allen, the airport manager at Greenwood, said Ladd
Gardner was quickly running out of time. He brought the airplane in
gear-up, Allen told us, and "the airplane is pretty badly damaged.
All of the belly under the cockpit is messed up; and on the left side,
where the fire was, it looks like it burned into the wing. Both props
are gone, too."
[Note: that left-side engine
was brand-new at Reno, 1996. Brand-new, as in, "WWII manufacture,
new in crate." --ed.]
A call to Al Stone, handling
the investigation out of the NTSB office in Atlanta. "They took a
flatbed down there, and were able to drop the gear. It's on its gear
now. The pilot said they will store it in the Greenwood area for the
time being. The latest information is that it's not too badly
Cecil Womble, in the tower
at Greenwood, told us, the day after the P‑38 arrived, "They pulled
the gear down, and it's been backed into a hangar. It took them a while,
but it's on its feet. There's a hole, about twice the size of a [dinner]
plate, through the left wing, and it was smoldering; but the firemen put
a little foam on it -- it's out now. It's just full of dirt, and cotton
balls, and more dirt, and leaves..." That dirt may have been good
luck for the plane, or even for Ladd. Charles Allen told us, "I
think the dirt from the field may have helped put the fire out."
Bob Darden article on the
website of the Greenwood paper, The Commonwealth, said Ladd was flying
'Lefty' Gardner's vintage World War II Lockheed P‑38
"Lightning" fighter plane back home Monday morning from an air
show in Tullahoma, Tenn., when the left engine caught fire. As the cabin
filled with smoke, Gardner said he tried to head toward Greenwood-Leflore
Airport in an effort to make an emergency landing. However, within
minutes of the fire breaking out, Gardner said he was forced to crash
Darden relayed some bad
news: "...the plane, valued at around $2 million, sustained major
damage and could take years to restore, Gardner said." A
Mississippi State Trooper who helped get the Lightning back to the
airport told us, "That thing's 52 feet long. [Note: it's 52 feet
wide when it's flying, but it was placed sideways on the flatbed --ed.]
We blocked traffic for a little while. We probably had a lot of folks
cussin' us." He was at the right place, at the right time. " I
was on the way to the heights, and Kenny (Kenny Carver, the man whose
field it landed in) flagged me down."
A man outstanding in his
field... Mr. Carver, in an exclusive ANN interview, told us his men
watched the Lightning coming in to do its landing. "He didn't have
a choice," Carver said. "He had an engine off, and it was on
fire. My men saw him come in. He just come down - barely missed one of
my tractors. Then there wasn't anything but a big ball of dust."
Carver, who was working some distance from the landing site, said,
"They called me on the radio, and we brought a water wagon over and
put the fire out. He [Gardner] didn't have a scratch on him."
Carver, like most of us,
thought the younger Gardner had done a good job of historic aircraft
preservation "He did a good job of putting it down and letting it
slide," he said. Carver spoke with Ladd briefly after the fire was
put out. He related what the pilot told him: "One engine was
running when it hit. He said the smoke got so strong in the cabin he
couldn't stand it."
Mr. Carver has seen a lot of
machinery, and his insights are worth noting. He told us, "It
looked like there was a little explosion by the engine. There was dirt
all over it, but that one engine was still burning when I got
He didn't want the airplane
to burn up. "That's when I went to get the water trailer."
Carver at first didn't recognize the airplane which had landed in his
cotton. "I didn't know what kind of an airplane it was; I just
wanted to get that fire out. Then I found out how valuable that airplane
was," he said.
Carver's volunteer work
didn't end there. "After I got the fire out," he said, "I
went to pick up his dad and the crew chief, and somebody else, at the
airport. We're about 2 miles from the airport, as the eagle flies.
He [Lefty] was really
concerned about his boy. Then he was concerned about the plane."
The Carver farm is somewhat
the worse for wear. "Counting all the trampling around, he probably
got about 5 acres," of his cotton, Mr. Carver said.
As far as the actual damage
the airplane did? "He slid probably 200 yards."
Carver is becoming more
familiar with aircraft. This isn't the first time one has
landed on his land. It is the first Lightning, though. "I've
have a balloon come down," he said;" but never a plane.