Fif­teen of the most ter­ri­fy­ing min­utes of my life

FIF­TEEN OF THE MOST TER­RI­FY­ING MIN­UTES IN MY LIFE

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Joshua Hern­don

The gale-force winds that slammed into me when my wind­shield shat­tered in­stantly ripped off my head­set, tore at the skin on my face and strained my abil­ity to fo­cus on any­thing be­yond the im­me­di­ate sen­sa­tions as­sault­ing me. One mo­ment I was lev­el­ing off my Lan­cair Evo­lu­tion at 25,000 feet. The next, I was in the mid­dle of a mael­strom, the power of which few hu­mans have ever ex­pe­ri­enced.

The noise alone was enough to ri­val a lo­co­mo­tive. And the cold. The tem­per­a­ture of the air at that height was around mi­nus-15 de­grees, and it was rag­ing around my head, given my 310-knot air­speed. For­tu­nately, glass shards weren’t among the things fly­ing around the cock­pit. With a cabin pressure of 6.5 psi push­ing against the Plex­i­glas, any pieces of that ma­te­rial blew out­ward.

Have you ever stuck your head out of a car win­dow at 60 mph on a cold win­ter day? Now speed that car up by a fac­tor of six. Oh, and drop the tem­per­a­ture to a point where it hurts to try to breathe. As pi­lots, we train in­ces­santly for po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic events. But dur­ing that train­ing we’re typ­i­cally in a rel­a­tively con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment and must

deal with only one or two anoma­lous el­e­ments at a time. But out­side of pi­lots who have served in com­bat, it’s hard for any­one to imag­ine the chaotic con­di­tions into which I was in­stan­ta­neously plunged.

My im­me­di­ate thoughts were for my wife, sit­ting in the right seat, and my three sons in the back. I knew for cer­tain that the only thing stand­ing be­tween them and an un­think­able out­come was my abil­ity to put that air­plane on the ground in one piece — and fast.

Mirac­u­lously — and I do mean that in the di­vine sense — my newly ac­quired sun­glasses stayed on my head. I’d bought this par­tic­u­lar pair be­cause they were de­signed to be com­fort­able un­der a head­set. Now, de­spite the wind and ob­jects be­ing thrown around the cabin, they stayed on my face when the head­set blew off.

With the glasses on, I could still see. And, if I could see, I could fly. I’ve had my pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cense since 2003 and have logged more than 1,100 flight hours — 120 of them in the Evo­lu­tion. Train­ing and in­stinct took over. As if los­ing the wind­shield wasn’t bad enough, the en­gine had stopped. I put the air­craft into a steep dive, gob­bling up 5,000 to 8,000 feet per minute to get us down quickly.

Mean­while, my wife, Jen­nifer, was twisted in her seat, help­ing the kids. There was no way she could talk to them be­cause the wind noise was so loud that you could yell at the top of your lungs and a per­son inches away couldn’t hear a word you said.

I ac­ti­vated the an­cil­lary oxy­gen. My 12-year-old son, Jakob, got his mask on first. He as­sisted his two younger broth­ers, Lukas, 9, and Nick­o­las, 7. They strug­gled at first, but ul­ti­mately be­gan buddy breath­ing. Ter­ror clearly reg­is­tered on their faces, but I was proud that they’d re­mem­bered what to do. I quickly got my mask on as well.

Say­ing a silent prayer of thanks for the sun­glasses, I scanned the area, look­ing for a suit­able land­ing spot. On our route from the San Fran­cisco Bay area back to our home in Marana, Ari­zona, the vis­i­bil­ity was over 10 miles, with scat­tered clouds. I had a grand vista of Cal­i­for­nia’s San Joaquin Val­ley. Roads criss­crossed the land­scape, but I dis­counted those due to traf­fic and power lines. And though there were plenty of open fields in the area, they were my last re­sort, for fear of flip­ping the air­plane while try­ing to land on a rough sur­face.

I pushed a few but­tons on my Garmin G900X avion­ics sys­tem and lo­cated a nearby air­field. It was a hard run­way, 3,000 feet long. That would do. With no en­gine and no power, there was no sec­ond-guess­ing. I di­aled in the head­ing and prayed.

As we neared what turned out to be Fire­baugh Air­port near Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia, I tried to es­tab­lish vis­ual con­tact. Lev­el­ing off at 12,000 feet, I trimmed the Lan­cair and pegged the air­speed at 110 knots. I looked all around for the field while I con­tin­ued my de­scent. Fi­nally, at around 5,000 feet, I spot­ted the run­way tucked be­tween sev­eral roads and run­ning par­al­lel to a canal. Fire­baugh is a non­tow­ered field, so even if I hadn’t lost my head­set or could hear any­thing over the roar of the wind, there was no­body to guide me on my ap­proach.

I’d spot­ted the run­way, but I couldn’t find the wind­sock to

de­ter­mine wind di­rec­tion. I had to de­cide: Do I land on 12, or the

other way on 30? I didn’t have the lux­ury of time to fig­ure it out, but some­thing guided me to come in from the north­west.

As I made my ap­proach, I low­ered the land­ing gear. Re­call­ing that an ac­tu­a­tor had been re­placed dur­ing the plane’s an­nual in­spec­tion the prior week, I was dis­heart­ened to see the in­di­ca­tor light for the left gear re­main neg­a­tive. With just enough alti­tude and air­speed, I made a 360 to the left and tried again to kick out the gear. No luck. It stub­bornly re­fused to lock in place.

OK, I thought, we’ll do this the

hard way. Re­tract­ing the gear, I com­mit­ted us to a belly land­ing — my first. I rechecked ev­ery in­stru­ment. I triple-checked ev­ery vis­ual cue. I was oddly calm as all of my train­ing kicked in. I pro­gressed through my land­ing pro­ce­dure.

On touch­down, I was amazed at how smooth it felt. Be­cause of the re­tracted land­ing gear, I had come in faster than

WITH THE GLASSES ON, I COULD STILL SEE. AND, IF I COULD SEE, I COULD FLY. I’VE HAD MY PRI­VATE PI­LOT’S LI­CENSE SINCE 2003 AND HAVE LOGGED MORE THAN 1,100 FLIGHT HOURS — 120 OF THEM IN THE EVO­LU­TION. TRAIN­ING AND IN­STINCT TOOK OVER. AS IF LOS­ING THE WIND­SHIELD WASN’T BAD ENOUGH, THE EN­GINE HAD STOPPED. I PUT THE AIR­CRAFT INTO A STEEP DIVE, GOB­BLING UP 5,000 TO 8,000 FEET PER MINUTE TO GET US DOWN QUICKLY.

I would have liked. We skid­ded down the run­way and over­shot the other end. Break­ing through a small fence, we crossed West Nees Av­enue (thank­fully empty of traf­fic) and came to rest in an empty field.

Only later did we find out how for­tu­nate we were that I was guided to Run­way 12. Had we come in from the other di­rec­tion and skid­ded the same dis­tance, we would have pitched into a steep ir­ri­gation canal with po­ten­tially dis­as­trous re­sults.

As it was, Jen­nifer sus­tained a cut on her shoul­der (we sus­pect it was de­bris from the fence) which ended up re­quir­ing six stitches. Other than that, and some mi­nor bumps and scratches, we were five for five — ev­ery­one was safe and sound. From the mo­ment the wind­shield failed in such spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion to the mo­ment we plowed to a stop, only 15 min­utes had elapsed — 15 of the most ter­ri­fy­ing min­utes in my life.

In the af­ter­math of such an ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s nat­u­ral to won­der what I could have done dif­fer­ently. But the fact that I’m telling the story means I did quite a bit right. What did I learn? First and fore­most, al­ways take fly­ing se­ri­ously. Even if you’re just fly­ing for fun, you never know when a com­pletely un­ex­pected fail­ure will plunge you into a life-or-death sit­u­a­tion. Train­ing and rep­e­ti­tion help en­sure that your re­ac­tions will be the right ones when you have to make split-sec­ond de­ci­sions.

The ex­pe­ri­ence also reaf­firmed the im­por­tance of know­ing your air­craft and sys­tems. Take re­cur­ring train­ing when­ever you can, and pay at­ten­tion while you’re do­ing it. Don’t just go through the paces.

Fi­nally, make sure you train your pas­sen­gers as well. Know­ing that my sons were breath­ing and that my wife knew how to han­dle her­self in our sit­u­a­tion al­lowed me to fo­cus on get­ting the Evo­lu­tion on the ground.

To this day, I have no idea what caused that wind­shield fail­ure. The FAA is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dent. Ac­cord­ing to the re­search I’ve done, noth­ing like this has ever been re­ported. But I am sure that, were it not for the fact that my Fly­ing Eyes sun­glasses stayed on my face, pro­tect­ing my eyes and al­low­ing me to see where I was go­ing, and the di­vine guid­ance I re­ceived from a higher power, there might have been a much dif­fer­ent out­come on that sunny af­ter­noon.

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