HARD LESSONS IN THIN AIR
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.