No way to become an ace

One of my first flying jobs was towing gliders at Issaquah Skyport, aka “Pickering Farms,” and now a shopping mall and site of Costco’s world headquarters. It was a private, non-towered, grass airstrip, surrounded by uncontrolled airspace, about 10 miles east of downtown Seattle. Listed “officially” at 2,000 ft. long by 100 ft. wide, it was really just a big open pasture.

There was a fence along the east side of the runway, and a drainage ditch roughly defining the western edge. There were several sections along the ditch shallow enough to allow taxi access between the runway and a row of hangars on the west side.

There were two major commercial operators on the field: a skydiving school at the far south end and our glider operation at the north.

Issaquah Skyport
Issaquah Skyport was an active GA airport in the 1980s, with gliders and skydivers. (Photo from Abandoned and Little Known Airfields)

If winds allowed, we “approved crews” would conduct simultaneous, opposite direction takeoffs and landings, with gliders and towplanes flying from our end, and skydiving jump planes from theirs. We often passed each other, with one airplane rotating for takeoff, and the other in a landing flare. The goal was to minimize lengthy, non-revenue producing taxi operations, and get to your end of the airport quicker.

Good thing it was a private airstrip that the FAA ignored anyway.

Besides these businesses, there were also a few private airplanes and an ultralight manufacturer based there.

My favorite towplane was a stripped down PA-25-150 Pawnee, with the chemical hopper, spray booms and flagger equipment removed. We also had a 150 hp PA-12 Super Cruiser, and two “experimental” Cessna 150s; one with 150 hp, and one with 180 hp.

The towplanes had no radios; none were required, and all glider tow ops were conducted using standard hand signals and flight control inputs.

When I arrived early one Saturday morning to fly, there was already a Standard Cirrus sailplane positioned near the end of the runway, with a crowd of people standing around it.

The crowd was a team of scientists from the University of Washington; they were running some type of experiment and needed to capture “atmospheric data.”

The Cirrus had been outfitted with a very elaborate pattern of sensors fixed to the top of each wing, with wires taped down and leading to some boxes behind the pilot seat.

I was a bit skeptical – it seemed like a lot of stuff to stick on a glider’s wings, but they assured me it was “airworthy,” and, besides, I wasn’t flying it anyway, just towing it to 3,000 feet AGL. My boss, the airstrip and towplane owner, was also there and on-board with their plan, and he convinced me it would be OK.

That’s when I met their pilot: it was his sailplane and his experiment. He looked nervous and a bit edgy; turns out he hadn’t flown in “quite a while.”

The weather was marginal, and the grass was wet and recently cut, so there were soggy, heavy clumps of grass clippings scattered all over. It was very slippery in places.

We had an extensive brief on what he wanted to do. Because the runway was still wet and sloppy, he didn’t want to trail directly behind me during the takeoff. He was afraid I might kick up debris that would contaminate his test equipment. So, we agreed he’d start the takeoff roll offset to the right side, and then slide behind me once I was airborne.

Meanwhile, one of the private airplane owners had shown up, preflighted his Cessna 172, and was just taxiing out of the far hangar row on the west side of the runway.

Piper Pawnee
Things happy pretty fast in that towplane.

I settled into the Pawnee cockpit, strapped in, taxied out onto the runway, and positioned myself for a hookup with the Cirrus. Once the towrope was attached, I pulled forward to take out the slack.

I noticed the Cessna was now clear of the hangars and heading towards us, along the outside edge of the drainage ditch.

As I waited for the glider to get ready, the taxiing Cessna made a 90-degree right turn, and dropped down into a shallow section of the ditch, a couple hundred feet from where I was holding. He then stopped, with his airplane pointed perpendicular to the runway. I could see the pilot moving around inside the cockpit, and it appeared, from my perspective, that he looked right at me.

A few seconds later, I got the “begin takeoff” signal from my wing runner; I pushed the power up smoothly, felt the drag from the glider, and started to accelerate slowly down the very nasty runway.

I kept my eye on the still-holding Cessna. I could feel the Pawnee yaw slightly left as the glider got airborne, off to the right side as briefed. But as the Pawnee’s tail came up, suddenly, the Cessna began to climb out of the ditch and out onto the runway! I thought, “Certainly he’s going to stop!” But in fact, I saw his prop spin up faster with an obvious increase in power, and he was now heading directly into my flight path.

Even with the glider already airborne, there was no way I was going to be able to offset laterally, or go over the top of him. I immediately decided to abort the takeoff: I pulled the power, yanked the stick into my lap, hit my towrope release, and stood on the non-antiskid brakes. Fortunately, I only slid a relatively few feet before stopping. At the same time, the Cessna pilot did his own panic stop, with his airplane halting less than 100 feet in front of, and perpendicular to my mine.

I quickly scanned left and right, fully expecting to see the airborne Cirrus glide past me, with plenty of space available to make an easy landing to either side.

However, the next thing I felt, was a loud thump on the top of my cockpit roof; then, the Cirrus’ left wingtip came scraping down the windshield, in front of my face, before it skidded along the top of the long cowling and into the downward swinging blade on the right side of the wind-milling O-320’s propeller arc.

My prop hit the top of the wing, shattering it inboard almost halfway to the fuselage; the impact flung the rest of the glider violently up and over the prop, and threw it about 20 feet in front of me, where it landed between my Pawnee and the Cessna.

The good news: nobody was hurt.

The bad news: the Cirrus was severely damaged.

Standard Cirrus glider
A beautiful glider was badly damaged – was it bad luck or negligence?

The Cirrus pilot’s version:

He saw the Cessna pull out onto the runway. Although he was airborne, he could not decide which way to maneuver. He could have checked left a few degrees and still landed in the middle of the grass strip, but he thought the Cessna might continue to cross from our right to our left.

He stayed offset well to the right, but when the Cessna stopped in front of me, he didn’t think he had enough room to land to the right, between the Cessna and the drainage ditch. In reality, he could have landed on the other side of the ditch, passing well behind the Cessna.

His solution: land straight ahead. Unfortunately, he was just above my tail when he opted to pop open his spoilers, which dropped him down onto my roof.

The Cessna pilot’s version:

He saw “everything” that was going on, although he was a “big man and sometimes had difficulty seeing out from under his high wing Cessna” (hence his moving around inside the cockpit to see clearly out his side window…).  He was also “listening to the CTAF” to hear what our intentions were… Hmmmmm.

His original plan was to stop short of the runway on the hangar side of the drainage ditch, and hold there until we took off. Then, he figured he could “cheat a bit” and taxi up closer, without being a factor. Problem was – when he started to climb out of the shallow ditch, he thought he might be stuck, so he pushed the power up… to full throttle… and ended up scooting out in front of us before he could stop again.

There were many witnesses, including my boss and several other pilots. The Cirrus pilot tried to blame me for the whole episode by “aborting the takeoff for no reason and putting him in danger.” My boss had to be restrained…

The Cirrus pilot and his entire UW team, along with the Cessna pilot, were immediately banned from ever setting foot, or landing gear, on the airstrip.

3 Comments

  • What else could you do?

    Sometimes I wish I had grown up on gliders and grass strips.

    But I have heard this story minus the crash before. It seems like chaos compared to the towered and other fields I am used to.

    Vigilance is the only answer, right? And quick thinking as you demonstrated here.

    Good read, thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks Tom, for a rather exciting adventure. I too was a tow pilot however never had any big problems, we flew from a small strip adjacent to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It was a private glider club but small. We all learned to manage short landings! I also owned a Cirrus which was a great sailplane…I learned to fly in the 1950’s as a teenager which has lasted until my 70’s, Had many wonderful flights, also got my power rating in 1971 my Dad wanted me to be able to tow him when he wanted to fly…worked at LLNL. Hope you still enjoying flying! It’s been the highlight of my life! Toodie Perl-Marshall

  • Thanks so much for the comments.

    In fact, I still have a piece of that Cirrus’ wing in my office!

    Issaquah Skyport was wedged in between Interstate 90 on the south end, and Sammamish State Park on the north. On a nice day, we’d have literally hundreds of folks out there, spread all over the place, watching the gliders and sky diving activity. They’d walk around the planes, lay in the grass, have a picnic. We were very aware of the dangers, and kept everyone well away from the live operations.

    We even had people pull over on the shoulders of I-90 to watch—which the Washington State Patrol took extreme exception to!

    Every once in a while, someone would drop in with a unique plane of some type; antique, warbird, experimental/homebuilt, and we’d have an impromptu “fly-in”.

    I had many extraordinary experiences flying out there. I had several emergencies, including a couple engine failures, and had to deal with, and cut loose, a few unskilled and/or belligerent glider pilots! Almost had a midair with the Blue Angels; they were holding nearby, VFR, low altitude, waiting to start their airshow over Seattle’s Lake Washington during the annual SeaFair Race. We passed so close, I could look down into #1’s cockpit and see his gloved hands on the A-4F’s stick and throttle.

    Then there was the time I got a little low coming in over the interstate and bounced my tow ring off a semi’s windshield…he wasn’t too pleased.

    Besides becoming addicted to taildraggers, I learned how precious these small airstrips are-grass, gravel or paved, and how tragic their rapid ‘disappearing act’ has become. I guess we can’t have too many shopping malls.

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