After a short pre-dawn sightseeing tour out of Kutaisi, I decide to make a series of hops down the list of alternates we have set in the radio. The TF-51D radio cannot be tuned in flight, so ATC frequencies are set before startup. From Kutaisi, we head west toward Meria airport at Kobuleti.

The “sightseeing tour” was actually a search and rescue exercise — part of a custom mission I’m working on with randomized events. When I see the Rioni River, I decide we should practice low-level flying while keeping eyes on the ground. We descend to about 300 AGL and follow the course of the river. The TF-51D turns on a dime, so we don’t have any real trouble with the winding waters. We get within sight of the coast and turn south to our first stop.

We do a touch and go and continue south to our second stop at Batumi International Airport — “international” because you can throw a rock from the perimeter road and hit Turkey. Batumi is a single, 8000-foot runway (13/31), with a small parking ramp at the south end — so small, in fact, that “all both” taxiways are 900 feet apart. Every time we’ve flown into/out of Batumi, the approach end and departure end have been the same: RWY13 for landing, and RWY31 for takeoff. Since the TF-51D can touchdown and come to a full stop in 1500 feet — less if you don’t mind kissing the ground with the prop and reducing your chances of taking off again — having to taxi a tail-dragger for a full mile to the parking ramp is a test of fortitude.

In military-style operations, I have a thing about getting off the active runway as quickly as possible. So, when I saw a paved surface heading left, I turned off the runway… onto an access road. Being a WWII-era plane, the TF-51D handles “rough” surfaces pretty well, and the road is a better quality surface than the mustang trainer was born on. It was only slightly unnerving to taxi past the utility vehicles and fuel trucks parked on my makeshift taxiway, but it abutted the aircraft parking ramp so all was good.

The next hop is Soganlug field at Tbilisi, 151 miles away. I figure a 45 minute flight at our normal cruising speed of 250 knots. The direct path takes us over mountains and nature reserves. The left wing fuel tank is getting a little light. The right side is reading full. We could probably make it with what’s on board. The regional winds are 080 at 16 knots, and all of Tbilisi’s 3 airports have north-south runways. I don’t have the greatest luck with cross-wind landings in Tbilisi, but you never get better at things you don’t try. We might need to make more than one try. and I really don’t feel like being the target side of a search and rescue exercise. So, I call for fuel. I figure 50% of max fuel will be plenty. The ground crew rebalances the tanks and gives us a few gallons to get up to half capacity.

Things go well, we climb up to 15,000 feet heading east over the picturesque hill-scape. The engine likes the colder air, and we manage 300 knots most of the way. We shave 15 minutes off my flight plan, which is just as well because I have to go bake some cookies.

That’s not a euphemism. It’s Christmastime; we’re sending out homemade cookies; and I’ve agreed to help bake some after landing at Soganlug.

Like all good mishaps, it was an uneventful flight, until…

We clear the mountains and can see the city. I radio Soganlug and start to descend. It’s another small field, with 6000 feet of runway oriented 14/32. They tell me winds are 080 at 16 knots and clear to approach landing runway 32. That strikes me as a little odd; 14 would have been the slightly less sucky angle, but I knew it was going to be crosswind when I took off — that was kind of the point. We start working our way around to the south. Soganlug is closer to the mountains than the other airports in Tbilisi, so we’re dropping altitude fast. I have the engine throttled all the way back to keep our speed in the not-ridiculous, but we still need to shed 250 knots when we turn, just to get to the speed where the flaps can be lowered and remain attached to the airplane.

The maneuver seems to work okay and our flaps and gear lower into landing configuration. At this point, procedure has me check that I have 2700 RPM, and I usually have to apply some throttle to keep approach speed of 150 knots. I’ve gotten approaches down where I can pretty-much do it by ear, except I seem to have gone deaf. I can’t hear the prop or engine at all.

Instrument check: Airspeed: 150 knots — good. Altitude: 3200 feet — little high but okay. Manifold pressure: 30 psi — right where it should be. RPM: … 0 and bouncing around the bottom of the gauge — not good. Engine temp is in the green, so I didn’t burn it out this time.

There are two controls / instruments in the TF-51D whose placements make no sense. The flaps control is actually slightly behind the pilot to the left. You can see it if you turn your head and look down, but to operate the flaps requires reaching back just aft of your left hip. The fuel gauges are in the floor at your left and right thighs, partially obscured by the pilot’s seat.

I look down and move my head left. Sure enough, the left tank is empty. I have no idea why the TF-51D doesn’t have a cross-feed system for fuel, or if it does, how I’m supposed to operate it. There is a fuel tank selector switch between my knees. The startup checklist says to set it to left wing main, but that tank’s empty. No problem, I’ve run out of fuel in flight before. I just slap the selector over to the right wing tank. The prop’s turning, magnetos are on, fuel pump is on, fuel cutoff is off. The engine should catch and just restart.

It doesn’t.

I look down and lean my head to the right. The right tank reads empty, too. Maybe there is a cross-feed system after all. I didn’t think we should have burned up all that fuel, but the rapidly approaching ground is a more pressing matter than wondering whether or not the Batusi ground crew remembered to install the gas cap.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I’ve made exactly one successful crosswind landing near the city of Tbilisi. That one was with a third less wind. I’ve consigned a half dozen unserviceable planes to permanent display at Tbilisi’s three airports with even less wind then that. I was, however, reminded of a legendary conversation with a lady at an airshow.

What do you do if you lose the engine?” she asks.
The pilot answers, “You land.

But, what if you can’t land?” she persists.
We’ve never left one up there, yet.

I call Soganlug tower for landing clearance. They don’t answer. I try again, and silence. Screw it; it’s not like we have a choice. There is no option for informing the tower that we will be touching down immediately whether they clear us or not.

I’d like to end this story by saying that dead stick, I put it down gently on the numbers at exactly 95 knots, coasted perfectly onto the taxiway, rolled to a stop at the fuel truck, opened the canopy and said something witty. But, that’s not what happened.

We floated halfway down the far right side of the runway with one wheel threatening to touchdown in the grass. We got over the center just in time to stall out and hear the tail come down with a bang. Amazingly, none of the rivets popped out, the gear stayed locked, and the only leak was in the pilot’s seat.

We coasted to a stop in the middle of the runway, because there just wasn’t enough speed to make it to a taxiway. Soganlug tower calls me and directs me to taxi to parking. “Thanks a lot guys. Where you been?”

For the heck of it, I switch to the fuselage reserve fuel tank and try to restart the engine. It won’t catch. I look at the wing tank gauges again. Left — bone dry. Right — 60% full?! Letting out some choice words that would be redacted from the flight recorder transcript, we switch to the right tank, prime, and hold the starter. Sure enough, the engine catches and sputters to life. We taxi to a parking spot making sure there is nothing admissible on the cockpit voice recorder. Convinced there was a gremlin, I ask the ground chief to drain all three tanks and leave to bake cookies.

The thing is: it was my smoothest crosswind landing to date.

Sim: DCS World, single player
Region: Caucasus (Republic of Georgia, east of the Black Sea)
Aircraft: TF-51D