I’m writing this story four days prior to the one-year anniversary of my midair collision on December 27, 2014.
It had been a very VFR day and I was cleared for takeoff from Runway 31 at KLNS (Class D) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, returning to my home base KDMW (non-towered) in Westminster, Maryland. At approximately 3:30 pm local time and 15 miles from my destination, I switched from Potomac Approach (125.525) to the AWOS at KDMW. Winds 190 at 5, altimeter 30.18, sky clear below one two thousand.
I tuned to the CTAF (122.7) to get an idea of what was going on in the traffic pattern and verified Runway 16 was in use.
At ten miles out, to the east, I made my initial call announcing my position and intentions. There were two Cessna 172s doing pattern work, a 172 ten miles to the west and would be crossing mid-field to enter the downwind for 16. Another 172 was “going missed” on a practice VOR 34 approach and a Cherokee was departing the area to the east (the difference in our altitudes made him a no factor).
After two more radio calls and landing checklist complete, I was on the 45 degree entry to the downwind for Runway 16 with every light that the Cherokee 140B had on and flashing. Announcing my entry to the downwind leg, I had visual contact with all three of the 172s and their positions were again as reported. The remainder of my downwind leg and base leg were normal.
After turning final and adding the last notch of flaps, I gave the traffic pattern another look. Again, the 172s were in their positions. But now a small red aircraft had appeared in front of the other traffic traveling at a higher speed, but I considered him a no factor as he was just passing the midfield downwind and I was on final.
That concerned me because the only radio calls I’d heard were from the 172s. Did I miss his calls? Even during my years of flying ultralights, I’d always adhered to proper radio calls. Now, being on short final with the PAPI lights red over white wasn’t the time to worry about that.
At approximately 200 ft. AGL there was a thud and the 140B shuddered as a glimpse of red passed by my left-side window. Then a red airplane (type still unknown at that point) passed in front of my windscreen, hit the nose of my aircraft, and disappeared under my starboard wing, all in about three seconds.
I briefly wondered if the occupants of the other aircraft were alright, but my focus went back to my own situation.
A quick inventory found Mom in the right seat uninjured, no fuel, fire or smoke in the cockpit, both wings and the nose were intact, the propeller was stopped and visibly bent and the ELT was blaring. All I could see out of the windscreen was grass, and it was getting closer. I pulled back on the yoke and the flight controls were responsive, and recovered from the approximate 30 degree dive.
I wasn’t too concerned about instruments or gauges at that point and went for the that-looks-and-feels-about-right method, being cautious not to stall the airplane in my efforts to make the runway.
The landing was actually one of my better ones and I rolled out to the first taxiway and clear of the active. I was concerned about another aircraft landing on top of us. The timeframe from impact to coasting onto taxiway Echo was 90 seconds at the most. There hadn’t been enough time to utilize any of the practiced emergency procedures, no time for a possible engine restart or checklists.
I turned the fuel selector valve to off and made a CTAF call announcing there had been a midair collision over the approach end of Runway 16. After that the master switch and ignition switch were turned off and mixture to cut off.
It was time then to help good ol’ Mom out of the aircraft.
I made a phone call to the FBO to verify they’d received my radio call, and the necessary contacts were already being made.
Another 172 was taxiing to Runway 16 and, as I approached him, I remember telling myself not to be careless and don’t walk into his propeller. I went behind the wing strut and he confirmed that they’d seen everything. I jotted his tail number down as a witness, not knowing if I’d see him later on. The three 172s that were in the pattern all diverted and I felt bad that they were going to have to find a ride back home.
With my Cherokee out of the way and Mom in a safe spot, I could see the wreckage of the red airplane, a Pitts Special.
As I got closer, I saw that the canopy was slid back and the pilot was in good enough condition to exit the cockpit and get about 20 feet from the wreckage. He asked me to double check that he’d turned off the fuel valve and switches on the dash, and he had. There I saw the tiny dash panel with no radio, and his headset was a basic hearing protection type earmuff. I hadn’t missed his radio calls; he was NORDO.
He was complaining of severe lower back pain. My medical training consists of a CPR course about 30 years ago so I didn’t feel qualified to make any suggestions other than, “Try not to move until professional help arrives.” I stayed with him until the first police officer was on scene.
After making my way back to my own aircraft, I didn’t see any fuel leaking or anything that seemed like a potential safety issue, so I got Mom back inside and closed the door. There was no one I could call at the time who was available to come and pick her up. The sun had pretty much set and it was starting to get cold.
I surveyed the damage to my little 140B and found the propeller bent, spinner crushed, the nose bowl broken and had what appeared to be tire marks on it, a scrape/gouge on the pilot’s window and the fuselage skin directly over my head was caved in and torn.
I believe that if either aircraft had been six inches higher or lower, left or right, that the outcome would’ve been completely different and all three of us would now be aviation fatality statistics.
The two occupants of the 172 on the taxiway were headed back to New York, but had to spend the night after the airport was closed. Sorry, guys! They provided me with their info as witnesses.
By now there were county police, sheriff’s department and state police on site and they all needed a statement. I was already tired of telling this story; little did I know of what was yet to come.
Somewhere around 5 pm, the other pilot was medevac’d out. I was told it was a precautionary measure because of his severe back pain.
Various law enforcement vehicles came and went, and for the time being nobody needed anything from me. I climbed backed into the 140B and tried to warm up with Mom. Sometime later the FAA rep from the local FSDO arrived and we needed to start all over from the beginning. A state police trooper said that he’d be there until the scene was wrapped up and my 75-year old Mom with middle-stage dementia could go sit in his warm car.
That was a good thing because I’d spend the remainder of the evening with the FAA rep. During one of the quiet moments in his truck, I said, “It’s hard to believe I was just in a midair collision and walked away from it.” Up until that moment, it really hadn’t sunk in yet. Whenever I had the opportunity, I went over and checked on Mom, and every time she’d ask what happened, why we were still at the airport and why she was in a police car.
The NTSB photographer arrived around 8pm. Initially I’d been told that the NTSB probably wouldn’t be there that evening because there hadn’t been any fatalities.
At 9:30 pm, things were winding down and a majority of the emergency vehicles were gone. The FAA and NTSB were done with me for now and said it was ok for me to leave. The Airport Manager and FBO took care of my airplane and put it in the hangar. All that I wanted to do was go home.
The following day I headed back out to the airport to have a fresh look at things and get photos of both aircraft. Several pilots were there and offered me a ride to get me back in the saddle right away. I went, but have to admit that I was somewhat uneasy, especially in the traffic pattern.
During the week that followed, I received voice mails from local TV stations and one from the major newspaper in Baltimore requesting an interview, but I never returned any of the calls.
Over the next few months I exchanged many, many phone calls and emails with the FAA, NTSB and insurance companies. Everyone I dealt with couldn’t have been any nicer and truly interested in hearing this story – not just from an FAA/NTSB standpoint, but as interested fellow pilots. It was also a rare occurrence for both agencies to have everyone involved survive and able to talk about it. And for that, all three of us are blessed.
My wife never came right out and said that she didn’t want me to fly anymore, but if I’d decided to hang up my headset she would’ve been just fine with it. I bounced that idea around in my mind until the next issue of Trade a Plane came in the mail.
One of the questions that came up in conversation with the FAA and NTSB was, “Did I have any animosity towards the other pilot?” No, I didn’t and still don’t. It was an accident. But, like almost all accidents, it could’ve been prevented. In this instance by the use of a radio. Like I said earlier, the dash panel in a Pitts is tiny and hard to fit a radio in there. But a handheld radio would be doable somewhere in the cockpit.
To say that I jumped through a few hoops before this was all said and done would be a huge understatement.
One of the hoops included a jaunt to the NTSB Vehicles Recorder Laboratory in Washington, D.C. The iPad I was using with ForeFlight belongs to my employer and I use it daily for work. NTSB wanted it, along with my iFly 700, to download the flight information – and it would take about a month. It was closer to four months before the iFly 700 was returned.
My employer didn’t want to surrender the iPad and NTSB said they’d subpoena it if they had to. I felt like a little country caught in between two feuding super powers. The lab tech at NTSB offered a solution that I drive there, drop off the iFly 700 and he’d download the iPad while I waited. He turned out to be a pleasant fellow and easy to deal with. He suggested I come down to the lab and see how they download all the info from flight data recorders. He thought about it for minute and had second thoughts. Since I was an active participant in the incident, my presence in the lab could have had legal ramifications later on if things went to court, so I waited in the lobby.
I’ve replayed this event dozens of times in my mind wondering what I could’ve or should’ve done differently. The fact that the other aircraft was NORDO took away my ability to hear where he was. I was hit from above and behind so I had no chance to see and avoid. I never stopped flying the airplane and used basic stick and rudder skills to recover and safely land the airplane, engine out, with no additional damage. So I’d say that I didn’t do too bad. And a good sized portion luck didn’t hurt either.
I decided to sell my 1969 Cherokee 140B to the insurance company.
As things wrapped up and the phone calls and emails subsided, it was a waiting game for the NTSB to do their investigation. The actual report makes for some interesting reading. The investigation states that the tailwheel on the Pitts is what struck the fuselage over my head. The tire mark on the Piper cowling just aft of the propeller came from the right main gear. The right-side main landing gear strut on the Pitts contained damage consistent with having contacted the Piper’s propeller. Multiple witnesses stated that the Piper was struck from above and behind.
I was cleared of any fault.
When I arrived back at KDMW from Daytona Beach, Florida with my (new to me) 1981 Piper Warrior II and shut down in front of my hangar, a red Pitts Special landed a minute later on Runway 16. Even one of the guys from the FBO who was there the evening of the mid-air drove by and commented on how ironic that was.
I’ve found that having the ADS-B installed in the Warrior has been another great tool in the toolbox for see and avoid.
Now, on those days when I tune to the CTAF and hear four or five aircraft jockeying for position in the pattern at a non-towered airport, I might ease back on the throttle and remain clear of the area until there isn’t so much aluminum in the air to deal with.