As near as I could tell, no one had ever been killed before in a plane crash at my home airport outside suburban Chicago.
The news came in a text.
“Are you alive?” read the message from my close friend Mike.
When I get a text I tend to ignore it or just call back. This time I decided to reply with whimsy.
“As far as I know,” I typed the first reply and hit send. “Yep, just checked my pulse, I’m still here. Why?” said the second.
“Thank goodness,” he sent. “Some guy just killed his passenger at Clow. Lots of fire, it’s gruesome.”
With about 500 hours and a three-year old certificate, this was my first up close experience with the constant barrage of mayhem I read about in the six aviation magazines I subscribe to. The fact that no one knew of anyone killed at my field–opened in the late 50s–was my rabbit’s foot wrapped in four leaf clover. The bubble of safety I had envisioned around 1C5 had been popped.
Over the next few hours, I received seven similar queries. In a way it’s sweet that when there’s a plane crash–even in another state–someone I know suspects it’s me and checks in. On the other hand, I think some believe it’s just a matter of time before it happens to all of us.
The Cirrus SR20 was piloted by a doctor from Kentucky. The passenger was his wife. He died the next day.
The early news stories were consistent with the most common danger of the air: a low speed loss of control after a botched landing. The impact area in a local bank parking lot told me he was using 18.
Reflexively, I checked the weather. Seemingly benign with clear skies and 8 knots out of 070, my experience is that winds from that direction are the toughest to deal with at Clow. They tend to funnel between the big box retailers that line the east border and can be adventurous as they gust and diminish, especially near mid-field where the Home Depot meets the Lowe’s. I would not choose to land south in that quartering tailwind but if there were others going that way in the pattern I wouldn’t avoid it, either. I would get down in the first 300 feet, though.
Even more so than usual, I started counting the ways this couldn’t happen to me.
One. In the last two years I haven’t had to do a go around because of a bad approach. Anywhere between 60 and 65 knots over the fence and my forgiving 182 is a land-o-matic.
Two. While on short final at Madison, Wisconsin (MSN) recently a controller needed me to abort when a business jet came in faster than he expected on the cross runway. I can recite the procedure in my sleep: Cram (the throttle), Climb, Clean, Cool. Not trying to brag, but the execution was perfect and, at the time, I actually thought it was kind of fun.
Three and Four. I have since practiced the procedure twice in the last four months.
That should have been the end of it for me. File that one away as a close-to-home reminder of a common error easily avoided by basic technique.
It was not that easy.
The tragedy occurred while I was on the second long trip my wife and I had taken together. She is a nervous flyer stemming from a horrible experience when she was seven years old in a Piper Cub. As her father told me the story, she was caught in a sudden thunderstorm with a severe crosswind. Short on fuel, they couldn’t escape to a safer field. None of the people on the ground or the pilot thought they would get out uninjured, but they made it safely. She had nightmares for years.
She had stoically announced when my flying began that she would never accompany me. After the last two years of uneventful flying from coast to coast as an IFR rated pilot with a top class traveling machine, she had begun to relent. She was actually enjoying the experience and openly talking about the next trips we could take.
But I was ever mindful of her fear and was working very hard to not violate her trust, doing all I could to steer clear of even light turbulence, and avoiding gusty crosswinds while she was with me.
Additionally, the trip that we were on was stressful. For years we had considered moving our business and family to a warmer climate and had settled on three locations in the Carolinas as possible destinations. This trip was to visit all three and to come to a decision regarding the next stage of our life.
We both agreed the aircraft was the perfect traveling machine for this. Until it wasn’t.
The flight from Clow International (1C5) to Greenville South Carolina (GMU) was uneventful. A brisk climb through a turbulent layer at 1500 feet led to a silky smooth ride by 2500. Although there was a hazy overcast, we never lost visibility of the ground until we were well above the cloud layer near Peotone. It was simply gorgeous after that. We couldn’t see soil until southern Tennessee but the clouds were beautiful below and the sky above was as Carolina blue as it could be. I considered it an omen.
We explored Greenville and had a wonderful time. We revisited the home that we were seriously interested in and toured the beautiful downtown once again.
The plan was to go on to Charleston the next day. After a lovely breakfast and another stroll around the central area, we headed to the airport for the short one hour and 10 minute leg to Mount Pleasant airport (KLRO) outside Charleston. And that’s when our trouble began.
Trying to contact ground control I found that our radios were not working. I didn’t think of the various ways I could troubleshoot the problem: pulling the circuit breakers for the different radios, or even operating on my handheld. Three hours later the Carolina Avionics shop advised I was good to go on Com 2 with the power pulled to Com 1.
By that time we were in Charleston having made the decision to drive.
We finished up in that charming city and the next day made the 3 1/2 hour drive to Lake Norman, our final stop, just outside of Charlotte.
Exhausted after looking at homes in this beautiful area for seven hours, we got the dreaded texts as we headed for dinner that evening.
Back at the hotel, I absorbed all of the news I could find on the crash.
Most haunting was a video of an eyewitness, the manager of my son’s favorite frozen custard shop next door to the bank.
“The pilot got out and was on fire,” said the young man dressed in white. “We yelled at him to roll on the ground, but all he could do was cry to us to get his wife out of the plane. He must have said 10 times ‘Please help my wife, Please help my wife.’”
“And then the plane exploded. There was just no way.”
His voice trailed off, and my eyes filled with tears.
After a restless night with visions of fire and images of my wife trapped in the plane, I woke to a partially cloudy sky and weather forecasts for an easy return home.
I acted as if nothing was wrong and as if I had no concerns. But the crash and the nightmares were weighing heavily on my mind.
We spent the drive from Charlotte back to Greenville making long lists of the pros and cons of each area we had visited. I was completely confused, uncertain about whether or not we should move.
When we arrived at the FBO and as I was parking the car, I did something I almost never do. In parallel parking I am an expert. If the car can fit, I can get in there, usually the first try.
There was a very large space but somehow I struck the vehicle behind us.
No harm done and no damage. But it shook me even further. If I can’t parallel park, how can I fly this airplane back to my now deathly home base?
We spoke to the mechanic who had tested the radios. They found everything in order. I got out my trusty handheld which I had charged the night before, just in case.
We loaded up the airplane and taxied out to do a run up. Everything was perfect. We were ready to go home.
After a nearly 10 minute wait for a clearance my anxiety continued to build, the kind of free-floating nervousness with no obvious root cause. I had no reason to be anxious, just an overall unsettled feeling. I started to think to myself whether this unusually long ATC delay was a sign that perhaps we should spend another night.
But in looking for a reason to stay I couldn’t find one. Suddenly I needed to visit the men’s room and that’s just when we got the clearance.
Knowing that I would be fine once we got in flight and the cold collywobbles in my stomach settled down, we powered up to full throttle. Gauges were in the green, the engine sounded great. Air speed came alive just as always.
During this trip before the bad news, I had been reading a book about flying technique. One of the things it had stressed was a pilot should fly the POH, especially the rotation numbers and speeds on departure. My previous practice had been to allow the airplane to tell me when it was ready to go by a feeling of lightness. Generally that was between 60 and 65 knots depending on the weight in the aircraft and other mysterious variables that I can’t quantify.
The rotation speed (Vr) in a Cessna 182 Turbo retractable is 55 knots. That always seemed slow to me and I had never before rotated at such a pace. But the writing was from a pilot I trusted and so as the airspeed indicator displayed that meager amount I brought up the nose and we were off the ground.
Immediately something felt wrong. We just weren’t building the speed, the indicator was actually going down so I lowered the nose even more and waited for the airspeed to move clockwise. I thought briefly about retracting the gear and as I looked up I saw that I still had time to perform a precautionary landing. I decided that it was better to be safe rather than sorry, as the visions of a flaming aircraft jumped back into my mind.
I chopped the power and set it on the runway with a firm bounce that was completely safe but very uncomfortable for my passenger. I brought the airplane to a stop and looked at my wife to see she was terrified.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It just didn’t feel right,” I said truthfully. “The airspeed wasn’t where I wanted it to be and it didn’t seem like it was picking up so I did what I’m supposed to do; I made a precautionary landing.”
We communicated with the tower. I thought that perhaps I had not tightened the friction knob enough and that the throttle control had slipped back, causing a slight loss of power which would explain the diminishing airspeed. I advised her I wanted to do a run up and if everything was okay to try again.
“I don’t feel good about this,” she said.
We taxi back and get another flawless run up. The engine sounded great and everything was in the green. This time I took it all the way to red line and counted to 11, the number of seconds it normally takes me to lift off.
I looked at my wife.
“Everything is fine,” I said, “I’m sure it was just something strange, the wind or something else, I’m not sure what. I think we are safe to go.”
“I don’t feel good about this,” she said again.
“We’ll try it one more time,” I said, “And we’ll see what happens. If everything is not perfect then we’ll go and have the mechanics look at it.”
We got clearance and started down the runway for the second time. Again all the gauges were in the green and the engine sounded perfect. The airspeed came alive just when it should but as it approached 55 knots it flickered down for a split second and that was enough for me to pull the power and taxi to the maintenance hangar.
When they stripped off the cowling and found nothing obvious, I called my mechanic at home and talked about the incident. He advised that if the manifold pressure is holding steady and the RPMs are against the peg, the engine is developing full power.
I told him about how I had rotated the nose early, and why.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” he said. “Fly the plane like you always have. Do what YOU think is best.”
After a compression test and a borescope, everything was pronounced airworthy. I did a test hop around the pattern, lifting off when it felt light. Perfect, and my confidence started a strong come back.
I went to where my wife was trying to relax in the pilot’s lounge.
“Honey,” I began, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the airplane.”
“Then what happened?” she asked.
I told her of the nightmares and I told her of the early rotation speed. I also told her that I believed it was my entire fault. She’s usually happy when I admit this. Not under these circumstances, however.
“Well that doesn’t make me feel any better,” she said.
While we were waiting for the aircraft to be examined, I had slipped into the flight planning office and purchased a ticket on Southwest. I presented it to her and said that it was her choice. She could fly with me and I was certain we would get there safely or she could take Southwest.
She took Southwest.
I drove her to Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSB) in the FBO’s service van. As I dropped her off she started to reach for her luggage which contained her important prescriptions.
She looked me in the eye.
“Can you can take my bag? I won’t need it until you’re home anyway.”
A flush of relief flooded over me. She knew that I would be returning that evening and was entrusting me with important cargo she would need that night. At first I started to say, “Are you sure?” But I choked it back.
I kissed her warmly and told her I’d see her at home.
There’s a lot of trust that we place in our aircraft, in the system and in ourselves. Once you leave the ground it is up to that combination to return you there safely.
I learned decades ago that false bravado can cheer you along in this world. If you sound like you know what you’re doing and you act like you know what you’re doing, people will believe you know what you’re doing.
They’ll believe you even when you have not the slightest idea what you are doing.
Usually you can figure it out before you get caught.
It doesn’t work in an airplane. False bravado in the left seat can get you killed. The trust that you carry has to be inviolate: a certainty that you know what to do, how to do it and when.
For me, that trust has been an off-and-on thing. After I started flying, I spoke to a 777 first officer who lives in my neighborhood and revealed my fears.
He looked me straight in the eye as he had the dozens of students he shepherded while climbing the aviation ladder.
“It’s completely normal,” he said with a knowing smile.
“You just gotta have trust. Checklists are your friends, your mechanic is your guide but it is all up to you. Lots of people have done it,” he said confidently. “And you can too.”
After I reached 300 hours, I had stopped questioning my ability to do the basic things right. The crash, the numerous worried messages from friends, the problem with the radio, the change in procedures, the parking lot incident, my wife’s latent fear, the stress of considering a major change in our lives–each had taken bites from my confidence, some large, some small.
But the flight home was as uneventful as the one before and the dozens before that. The trust returned completely shortly after liftoff–at 63 knots.
Tower sent me to approach in the Southern Style: “Ya’ll come back now and have a safe trip.”
I danced gracefully around a few thunderstorms near Bowling Green.
The sunset as I neared Chicago was as beautiful as any you could imagine.
In the pattern, I tried unsuccessfully not to look at the crash site.
I greased the landing in an easterly 12-knot crosswind.
The next week I scheduled some time with my instructor to do some takeoffs and landings, shoot some approaches. We ended up sitting in the coffee shop and talking about what happened instead of flying.
There were no answers from him, only things I already knew. I’m a well-trained, low-time pilot. I’m doing the right things and this flight ended successfully.
He summed up. “You just have to know that you know what you’re doing.”
I still feel a hollow sickness about what happened. While I didn’t put a scratch on the airplane, something as important was broken. The fledgling trust my wife had placed in me.
I don’t know if she will ever fly with me again, and I will never ask her or pressure her in any way. I don’t blame her.
In the air, trust is all we have.