LEAD­ING EDGE

HARD LESSONS IN THIN AIR

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Ben Younger

Rocky moun­tain low: hard lessons in thin air

Ito­taled my air­plane on May 27, 2018, at 10:30 in the morn­ing.

I was de­part­ing Tel­luride Air­port in Colorado. It was a Sun­day. She was a V-tail. I loved her. She was fast and strong and eas­ily the most ex­otic thing

I have ever owned. And I killed her. They say it’s bet­ter to have loved and lost than … yeah, not ready to hear that. I had a pas­sen­ger with me. And my dog. No one was in­jured. My friend says she’d go up with me again. The dog says no chance in hell.

A Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board in­ves­ti­ga­tor later told me she doesn’t of­ten get to speak with peo­ple who had the ex­pe­ri­ence I did — mean­ing they’re not around to have the con­ver­sa­tion. I’ll get into the specifics of the ac­ci­dent in a mo­ment, but be­ing the new guy around here, let me quickly tell you a lit­tle about who I am.

I earned my pri­vate six years ago this March. Went on to get my com­plex and high-per­for­mance en­dorse­ments in var­i­ous rental air­craft, but waited on my in­stru­ment train­ing un­til last year, when I bought my first plane, a 1978 Beech Bo­nanza. She was a real trav­el­ing ma­chine with an all-glass panel and a brand­new in­te­rior I had just put in months ear­lier. She cruised at 180 ktas and climbed like a bat out of hell. Not so much in Colorado.

The pre­flight was thor­ough in­so­far as my at­ten­tion to the phys­i­cal state of the air­plane. The weather brief­ing should have made more of an im­pact. Winds were pick­ing up from the south, and I was de­part­ing on 27. We were within the cross­wind com­po­nent of the air­plane but only just. In ad­di­tion, we were late to depart, and by mid­morn­ing the sun had al­ready raised the ante from the field el­e­va­tion of 9,069 feet msl to 11,300 den­sity al­ti­tude. But it was so bright and the sky so blue. Ev­ery­one knows bad things don’t hap­pen in sun­shine.

When I first got my pri­vate, my pi­lot friend Doug told me, “If you treat fly­ing like a hobby, you’ll be dead in five years. You need to ap­proach it like a sec­ond pro­fes­sion.” It stuck with me be­cause it’s a fairly macabre piece of ad­vice, but also be­cause some­one was giv­ing me per­mis­sion to treat my hobby like a job. Fi­nally. I em­braced the ad­vice whole­heart­edly. I still do. I am not a week­end war­rior. I fly reg­u­larly, and had done so through­out those four years I rented. And yet, still … Colorado.

Weight and bal­ance

done, pas­sen­gers se­cure, run-up com­plete. I taxi to the ac­tive and line up, an­nounc­ing my in­ten­tions on the CTAF. Brakes ap­plied, I push the throt­tle to the stop and set the mix­ture for al­ti­tude — 1,250 de­grees Fahren­heit on the EGTs. Re­lease the brakes. Hmm, not the same jolt for­ward

300 hp usu­ally gives me. Take­off roll is dog slow. But there’s 7,111 feet of pave­ment. We’re fine. Just don’t go off the

edge. It’s a 2,000-foot drop off the end of the run­way. Firm right rud­der to keep us on cen­ter­line. God, this is tak­ing for­ever. Halfway down the run­way and only 58 kias. Could chop the throt­tle right now, taxi back and go get a cof­fee. Though patently false, take­offs some­times feel like light­ing a fuse. Once lit … .

Seventy-one knots in­di­cated. Fi­nally. Al­ready used up three-quar­ters of the

run­way. Ro­tate. Gently. She floats into the air, ground ef­fect help­ing through those first 30 feet. Shal­low deck an­gle, and we are climb­ing. Pos­i­tive rate. Gear up. I can feel the sharp edges dis­solve. My vi­sion widens. Breath slows. We’re fine.

There is a fairly large berm at KTEX on the south­west­ern side of the air­port. When the winds are out of the south, it both masks and ma­nip­u­lates the na­ture of the wind pass­ing over it. On the ground, it masks. In the air, it ma­nip­u­lates. At about 50 feet agl, I flew into that air, though it was no longer a cross­wind. Roil­ing wind shear far greater than the “gust­ing to 16” the AWOS re­ported hit us from be­hind. The left wing in­stantly stalled and dropped.

The sound of a stall horn blar­ing ver­sus chirp­ing is some­thing new. In train­ing sce­nar­ios it never comes on that strong. It sounds more like some­one clear­ing their throat, try­ing to get your at­ten­tion. Ahem. Not this day. It screamed in my ear. I wanted to straighten the wings, though some­how I ig­nored the urge and fell back on my train­ing, in­stead push­ing for­ward. I am cer­tain had I ap­plied right aileron you would not be read­ing this. A stall-spin from 50 feet agl with a 65 per­cent fuel load does not lead to a pub­lished col­umn in Fly­ing. Well, maybe Af­ter­math, but that’s a one­time deal. I shoved the nose over and we shot straight down, gain­ing much­needed airspeed. I lev­eled the wings and then pulled back on the con­trol wheel, man­ag­ing to ar­rest the de­scent just a few feet off the ground. Look­ing up, I saw alarm­ingly lit­tle run­way left.

The new Hartzell scimitar prop pow­ered solidly into the as­phalt, bend­ing two blade tips back and snap­ping the third clean off. It was a de­cent land­ing save for the fact that the gear wasn’t in­volved. The wings never touched the ground, but we slid for­ever. The alu­minum skin be­gan to burn, fill­ing the cock­pit with acrid white smoke. And the sound. It was like a car ac­ci­dent that re­fused to end. We slid for so long I was able to turn the fuel off, shut the mas­ter, crack the door and still had time to won­der if we were go­ing to go off the end of the run­way. To give you an idea of how fast my ground­speed was, I still had rud­der au­thor­ity halfway through the slide. Airspeed and ground­speed do not even care to ac­knowl­edge one an­other’s ex­is­tence.

We came to a stop 100 feet shy of the thresh­old. No fire. Si­lence so loud that it com­peted fairly with the crash. That smell. We piled out. Ev­ery­one was OK. My friend looked at me, and the first thing she said was, “Let’s get a drink.” Shock can be a won­der­ful thing. My dog is not so well equipped. She was shak­ing like a leaf. Reach­ing down to com­fort her, I re­al­ized so was I.

I started read­ing this mag­a­zine when I was 16. Long be­fore I held my cer­tifi­cate. It has been, for me, a decades-long ed­u­ca­tion be­fore I ever even sat in a GA air­craft. Richard Collins and Peter Gar­ri­son were my pro­fes­sors who gave lec­tures on proper habits and deadly mis­takes, re­spec­tively. These were not elec­tives. Theirs were the core cur­ric­ula. Martha Lunken was the cool aunt who led this wild, fully lived life so dif­fer­ent from any of the women in my world. Dick, Sam and Les all added their own fla­vors to the pot. I sponged up every last de­tail, even al­low­ing me to hold my own speak­ing with pilots who just as­sumed I had my wings, when all I had was a mag­a­zine. I won­der how many of you don’t yet have your pi­lot’s cer­tifi­cate and are read­ing these words, as I did, dream­ing of the day you will. I’d like to speak to you as much as the avi­a­tors whose flight hours num­ber into the thou­sands.

I am eas­ily the most in­ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lot to write in these pages and so I join the ed­i­to­rial staff not as an ex­pert, but as the new­bie. What can I of­fer you? The truth, mostly. Hon­esty will be the wares I am hawk­ing here. I’ll be the sac­ri­fi­cial lamb who will speak plainly about the mis­takes I’ve made, the lessons I’m learn­ing and the oc­ca­sional glo­ries of a life made more in­ter­est­ing by avi­a­tion.

Buy­ing a one-way com­mer­cial ticket home to New York af­ter the ac­ci­dent only added in­sult to in­jury, but the real is­sue was my se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to give up fly­ing. I thought maybe I was done. A week later, while cut­ting my lawn up­state, I heard a big-bore flat­six rum­bling over­head. Squint­ing into the sun, try­ing to find the source, elicited a vis­ceral re­ac­tion. I jumped in the truck and went straight to the air­port. I looked in­side my empty hangar for no good rea­son and then called Neil, my in­struc­tor. “Can I take the War­rior up for a spin?” I have nearly 200 hours in that air­plane, in­clud­ing my first solo and pri­vate check ride, but I never thought I’d fly it again. And yet here I was ac­cel­er­at­ing down Run­way 33 at KMSV, lift­ing off into the warm sum­mer air, vividly re­mem­ber­ing why we do this.

I pur­chased a new air­plane this past week­end. An­other V-tail Bo­nanza. The hangar seems full of life again. So do I.

THE NEW HARTZELL SCIMITAR PROP POW­ERED SOLIDLY INTO THE AS­PHALT, BEND­ING THE BLADE TIPS BACK.

My 1978 Beech Bo­nanza on the run­way in Tel­luride, Colorado.

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