So there may still be some things about me that you didn’t know. Like I was in a plane crash once. This story came up after my Dad recently had an opportunity go for a flight in a small plane with a new pilot. His flight ended a little more smoothly than the one in my story.
It all happened one Tuesday afternoon in June 2001 when I was doing a summer internship in Carroll, IA. One of the other interns had their pilot’s license so he rented a Piper PA28-151 (similar to the one pictured above) from the local airport and invited myself and two other interns to go for a flight. It sounded like a good idea at the time and although it was a bit humid, it was a nice summer day. After work we headed to the airport and the pilot went through his checklists. Actually one of the other interns also had his pilot’s license and it seemed like they knew what they were doing.
We took off from the Carroll airport and flew about 30 miles to Jefferson where we were going to do a touch-n-go. The runway there was a little shorter than the airport in Carroll, but it was still paved so we aren’t talking small town grass strip here. I think that was what prompted the pilots to decided to add on a short-field technique. I remember bleeding off air speed and losing altitude rather quickly thinking that it was going to end badly. Then as the ground was quickly approaching; all of the sudden he hit the power and pulled it up and we gently kissed the ground. Wow what a relief. He powered back up to full power and we were cruising down the runway. And we were cruising down the runway. And… yeah, still on the runway. We had lots of speed but no lift. So at about half way or 3/4 down the runway the pilot called out “Abort, Abort”. In hindsight, the short-field technique designed to stop more quickly might not have been a good choice to combine with a touch-n-go where “go” is an key component.
The pilot was completely calm and focused. He killed the engine and kept the plane laser straight down the runway. And then there was a “thunk”. And I knew that was the light in the middle of the end of the runway which we took out as we rolled onto the grassy field. Turns out small planes don’t have much for brakes. Also the grass was a little wet so that didn’t help either. Now, during this time it well… seemed like there was a lot of time. Time to tighten my seat-belt. Time to find firm places for my feet to brace myself. Time to lean to the side a little bit so that when we “stopped” I wouldn’t bash my face into the seat in front of me.
After about 200 meters (according to Google maps) of grass there was a big ditch. And then another ditch. Oh, and there is a highway in between. 235th street. Now I don’t think it has a lot of traffic, but I did notice a brown Suburban who saw us coming and stopped on the road waiting for us to ‘cross’. And cross we did. We went through the first ditch and that popped us up in the air so that we firmly nose planted into the far side of the opposite ditch. Time sped up a bit during that part. My headset went flying and cracked the windshield. I’m not sure how fast we were going, but I’d guess about 30 mph. (Don’t do any math on that I’m sure my estimate is accurate.) But right after we came to a stop; the pilot who was still calm and focused, pulled the key from the ignition, checked on all of us, and got us all out of the plane and up to the shoulder of the highway. Throughout the whole incident, the pilot was composed. Then he turned around and saw the plane. The wreckage actually. And he lost it. As I stood there smiling to myself saying, “Hey we didn’t die!”, the gravity of what just occurred hit him like a ton of bricks.
It seemed like it only took seconds for the highway patrol to arrive on scene as well as an ambulance. They took the pilot to the hospital in the ambulance to get checked out because he we a little emotional still. That left the three of us standing on the side of the road. One of the state troopers was gracious enough to give us a ride to the hospital. After a bit they released the pilot to us giving us careful instructions to watch him and check on him during the night. They were very adamant about it and didn’t seem to see any problem with putting the other three guys from plane crash in charge of the guy who may have gotten a concussion in said plane crash. That left only one problem. We were all interns who weren’t from the area and we had only been there for about a month. So we didn’t know anybody and we were 30 miles from home. I don’t remember how, but we eventually got a number for someone willing to come pick us up. Needless to say the next day at work was interesting.
So why did it happen? Well, the story I got was that there were several contributing factors. First, when fueling this plane there is full “to the tabs” and full “topped off full” and they had done the later so there was extra fuel weight. Next, the plane supposedly was ‘underpowered’ and with four average 20 year old guys it was close to being at gross weight. (I’m not sure how much I buy that.) Lastly, it was humid which meant that there was less lift. Scientifically this is true but I’m not sure how significant it was. I never saw an official report, until now that is. Yes, thanks to the internet I found it here. The short narrative is below, you can hit the link for the long narrative if this post isn’t long enough for you already.
The pilot was attempting a touch and go with three passengers in the airplane. When he rotated for liftoff, he felt the airplane did not feel right and initiated an aborted takeoff. He did not maintain directional control. The airplane exited the runway, traversed a grassy area, a roadway and impacted a ditch. The pilot said that this was the first time he had flown the airplane with three passengers. He also indicated that he had a total time in this make and model of airplane of 2.2 hours.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
the pilot’s lack of total experience in this type of aircraft and his failure to maintain directional control during an aborted takeoff. A factor was the ditch.
I found the probable causes interesting. I wonder if there is a difference between “lack of total experience” and “total lack of experience”. And I find it interesting that the ditch was called out as a factor. I believe that the ground is a significant factor in the majority of plane crashes.
In the end, the pilot kept his license. The plane was insured by the airport and even though he wasn’t legally obligated the pilot said he was going to repay the deductible. And I got a story out of it. I figure that since I’ve survived a plane crash the odds of me being in another crash are insanely low. I’m not sure since I slept through my statistics class. (True story but that is for another post.)