You did everything absolutely right, and you could have been absolutely dead

July 5, 1999 was another beautiful mid-summer day here in Northern California. In the San Francisco Bay Area there was no marine layer to speak of, being held back by a mild offshore flow in the early morning hours. By mid-day, a mild onshore wind would return, but there was no forecast for the ubiquitous coastal stratus. It was absolutely perfect flying weather everywhere in Northern California. It was warm, with light winds, and excellent visibility.

I had arranged with two friends from Europe, Gary and Allie, a husband and wife, to go flying with me in a Cessna Cardinal RG. Destination was to be determined, but they both wanted to see Lake Tahoe from the air, and have a nice lunch somewhere. That sounded good to me, but I wanted to get a thorough weather briefing before committing to flying over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You never know what you’re going to encounter up there.

The weather briefer painted an interesting picture for me. Everywhere north and east of the Sierra Crest, roughly along the California/Nevada border, was forecast to be quite hot, with temperatures in the 100 F range, and offshore winds. Truckee (KTRK), at the northern end of Lake Tahoe was mid-90s at 10 am. Tahoe Valley Airport (KTVL), at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, was about the same. Reno was already 100, with wind out of the northeast at 15-20 kts. To me that’s a big red flag. I decided right away that a landing at Tahoe Valley or Truckee was out of the question. They were both too high, too hot, and too windy, with the wind direction being the perfect setup for turbulence, updrafts and downdrafts of a magnitude greater than I cared to tangle with.

Quincy airport
Quincy has a nice airport at a lower elevation than most airports around Lake Tahoe.

The briefer and I started to look at alternate airports to the northwest. There’s no food at Sierraville or Nervino. They’re both at 5000 ft and were very hot like Truckee, about 40 miles to the southeast. Next we looked at Gansner Field (2O1) at Quincy. Quincy was forecasting temps in the low 80s, and light wind out of the southwest. 3500 ft field elevation, 4105 ft runway, on the edge of a broad valley. Walking distance to town, and lots of good food. We had a winner!

We launched from KCCR, Buchanan Field in Concord. I put the Cardinal in a slow cruise climb as we traversed the Central Valley past Sacramento, on our way up to South Lake Tahoe. Our planned route was over KTVL, then right over the middle of Lake Tahoe, over KTRK, and a turn to the northwest direct to Quincy. I was paying particular attention to the climb performance. At 5000 ft, we were still doing about 500-600 FPM and the OAT was about 30 C. Pretty similar to what I expected to encounter on takeoff after lunch.

The flight up over Lake Tahoe was beautiful and uneventful. Just the way I like it. At 11,500, we just had a few bumps here and there. I called in a favorable ride report to Norcal Approach. As we got closer to Quincy, it smoothed out entirely. It was my first time landing at Quincy, so I got the lay of the land as we maneuvered for the downwind. I flew a right downwind over a low hill for Rwy 25. Base and final were over a broad, flat valley, mostly cow pasture. We landed without a hitch, parked the plane, and proceeded to have a great lunch at a local deli with outdoor tables.

After lunch, we wandered around town for a while, perusing the shops, and around 2:30, we headed back to the airplane. As we got back to the airport and stood out on the ramp at the plane, I started to go through the usual mental checklists, most notably the enVironment part. What had changed was the wind. It was still out of the southwest, but it had increased about 5 knots since we had landed to about 8-10 knots. Not much, but enough to make me sit up and take notice. It was a little gusty, give or take a few knots. But what made things somewhat irregular was that due to rapidly rising terrain beyond the departure end of Runway 25, a downwind takeoff on Runway 07 was in order. It just made sense to me, taking off into a broad valley, several miles wide where we had room to maneuver.

I’ve always been one to seek out local knowledge, and I figured that this would be as good a time as any. I walked into a local flight school, and talked to a fellow who happened to be the proprietor, a CFI, a specialist in mountain flying, and he was a DPE to boot. Talk about hitting the jackpot! He was The Man at Quincy. Together he and I assessed the current situation. I calculated the DA, and went over the expected takeoff data with him, factoring in the downwind takeoff, and our expected climb rate. The book said that we should expect a takeoff roll of roughly 1200 ft, and an initial climb rate of about 500 FPM, which seemed like entirely reasonable numbers to both of us. My personal minimums, however, dictate that I double the takeoff roll number (in this case from 1200 to 2400), and then look at the runway length again. With 4100 feet of available runway, if I was not airborne by halfway down the runway, I would still have sufficient runway to stop.

We talked the whole process through. I told him I was planning on doing a full power run-up, leaning for best power. I would use every inch of available runway, and if not off by the first taxiway, about 2000 feet down the runway, I would abort. After getting airborne, I would make a left turn to a heading of about 050 to get some distance from the rising terrain on my right side. I would proceed to the far side of the valley and take advantage of the lift coming off the hills facing southwest. Sounded like a plan to me. We had thoroughly briefed every aspect of the run-up, the takeoff, and the departure, as well as the weather conditions, and expected aircraft performance. All bases covered. I was satisfied, and my impromptu advisor and local expert saw no compelling reason not to launch. The requirements of FAR 91.103 were met, without question.

The run-up was accomplished without incident, and the mixture leaned to 50 ROP at full power on the ground. We taxied into position and held. I ran the engine up to full power and did a three count, to ensure we were developing full power and the EGT was in the right place. I released the brakes, and the plane accelerated, albeit a bit slower than at sea level, considering the tailwind and DA. After about a 1000 ft ground roll, we had reached Vr, and I gently raised the nose. We broke ground smartly, and I elected to keep the nose a couple degrees lower and climb at a higher airspeed. Within a couple of seconds, we were doing about 90 kts, and I set the trim. I glanced at the VSI, and saw 400 fpm up with the landing gear still extended, which validated our expected book value. I decided to keep the gear down for a few more seconds and gain a little altitude before gear up, since there is a bit of a pitch excursion during retraction. This turned out to be a very fateful decision.

No more than 10 or 15 seconds had elapsed since getting airborne. We had just passed the departure end of Runway 07, and were climbing through about 100 ft. AGL. I was just about to make the turn to 050 then bring the gear up, when the plane made a violent lurch to the left, and we were suddenly descending very quickly despite the airspeed and nose up pitch. It was immediately obvious that we were in a huge downdraft, where milliseconds before we were in a stable climb.

In these kinds of traumatic situations, I’ve heard that most who survive express that it was as if they were in slow motion during the event. I can assure you that in this event the sheer violence and speed at which it unfolded was breathtaking. My guess is that no more than four or five seconds elapsed between the initial lurch and the impact with the grassy cow pasture beyond the end of the runway. During that time, I must have hit the throttle really hard with my right hand, but I don’t remember doing it. What I do remember was that I had the presence of mind to just keep the wings level, and not pitch up abruptly and stall the plane. We were either going to fly out of it, or not. Just before the impact, the stall warning chirped, and the plane rolled violently to the left. We impacted the ground as I was applying full right rudder and aileron, slightly banked to the left.

Accident site
Down in one piece, but barely.

Damn! That was an impact. I’ve taken a few shots in my life, and this one was right up there with the best of them. The nose wheel and the left main gear sheared off and absorbed most of the energy of the impact. We slid along on the belly like we were in a toboggan for maybe 200 ft. and came to an abrupt halt.

Then everything was just so silent. Where there had previously been a tremendous racket and commotion, now there was just silence. I looked out the left window, and I saw the main wheel and tire (with about a foot of the gear leg still attached) slowly roll past the plane, and come to a stop right next to a cow.

Shock is a funny thing. I’ve seen my share of trauma, especially in my days as a ski patrolman. People with massive, life-threatening injuries such as compound fractures of the femur, were blissfully unaware of their plight. I don’t remembering actually being in shock, but I do remember that after we had stopped and I watched the wheel come to a stop alongside that cow, I kind of came to, and realized that I had a job to do, and should probably secure the airplane, check on my passengers, and evacuate them from the plane.

Gary was in the front passenger seat. Like me, he was conscious, and in a state of mild shock as well. The door on the right side was partially open, so I suggested that he get out immediately. He complied as I ran the shutdown checklist. After I had secured the plane, I glanced in the back seat to see Allie sprawled across both seats. She appeared to be unconscious. I called to Gary to help me get her out of the plane and away from the wreckage, where I could better assess her injuries. We lifted her out of the seat and still unconscious, laid her on her back with her feet elevated. I asked Gary how he was doing, and he said he seemed to be OK. No apparent injuries. Allie was definitely alive and breathing, also with no apparent injuries, just knocked out cold and unresponsive.

Now was the WTF moment. We’re sitting there like a bunch of doofuses, out in the middle of a cow pasture with the cows giving us a mildly perplexed look. We were about a half mile from the airport perimeter. I didn’t see or hear anyone immediately heading our way to help us, so I figured that nobody had seen us go down. What to do? I asked Gary if he was OK with keeping an eye on Allie while I went for help. He said he was, so I set out across the field towards the airport. I had only gone about a couple hundred yards when I saw the emergency vehicles rolling towards us.

By the time I got back to the plane, the emergency responders were already treating Allie and Gary. I walked up, and one of the firemen asked me, “Who are you?” I told him I was the pilot, and boy was I glad to see them! The firemen strapped us all to backboards and slid us into the ambulance. Allie, who was in the litter directly above me woke up and started calling for me and Gary. I told her I was right below her and she lowered her hand down alongside her for me to hold, which I did for the short ride to the hospital.

We were checked out at the hospital, and had remarkably minor injuries. We all had identical Anterior L1-L2 spinal fractures from the impact, a very typical crash injury. I had a bruised right hand, from whacking the throttle, and Gary had a small fracture of a bone in his left hand. Allie was unscathed except for the L1-L2. The doctor said she had just fainted from the shock.

After a couple hours of assessment and observation, we were released from the hospital, and driven to a local motel for the night. I made the appropriate calls, and arranged for us to be picked up by a friend the next morning who flew up in his Cessna Skywagon. I was wondering how we all were going to react to being in a small plane so soon after the crash, but everyone was fine. It was just kind of weird seeing our poor little Cardinal sitting out in the middle of the field looking all forlorn.

A couple days later, I received a call from a fellow at the Reno FSDO who was investigating the accident. He inquired as to how I was doing, and asked a few routine questions about the accident to aid him in his investigation.

Then he asked me the Big Question… Had I received a weather briefing? “Of course,” I said. “I always get a weather briefing.”

“I know you did,” he said. “I listened to the tape. You asked all the right questions. I also listened to the ride report you gave Norcal from over Lake Tahoe.” OK, alrighty then. 91.103 will not rise up to bite me in the ass.

The investigator requested I make a written report of the accident from my viewpoint and submit it to him as well as report the accident to the NTSB. I knew he would be comparing my account to other eyewitness reports as part of his investigation. I did so, and about two weeks later, I received another phone call from the investigator.

He told me he had examined the wreckage, and collected eyewitness accounts from at least six other eyewitnesses, including the fellow who I had consulted with prior to takeoff. Everything squared up with my account. As far as the FAA was concerned, it was being classified as an “Unforeseeable Weather Related Accident,” and more importantly, there would be no enforcement action against my certificate.

Accident scene 2
How did a well-planned flight end so badly?

What he told me about the weather-related part of it was really scary. As part of the investigation, he looked at the weather at the time of the accident, and found out that at exactly that time, there was an un-forecast outbreak of what amounted to very large “dust devils” and other phenomena associated with low level wind shear (LLWS) all along a swath of the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains north and east of the Sierra Crest and extending inland for about 100 miles. There was no AIRMET issued, since the forecast conditions were deemed to be relatively benign. Basically, he said, all hell started breaking loose at about that time from Lake Almanor in the north to Mammoth Mountain and Bridgeport in the south.

At old Stead AFB, just north of Reno, an L-39 Albatross was smacked down just short of the runway by the same weather phenomenon at roughly the same time as our mishap. The dead giveaway, he said, was that our plane was violently pushed sideways and down, betraying the presence of a clear-air vorticity, or dust devil, only there was no dust, since it was over a grassy field. There was no way to detect its presence when we launched. A million to one shot. The stall warning I heard just before impact was all that descending air going horizontal as it approached the ground and became a massive tailwind, probably 35 to 40 knots. LLWS on steroids.

One of the other things that he mentioned was that these conditions had persisted for the ensuing two weeks since we had last spoken, causing numerous accidents and mayhem. In fact, just several days earlier, the former FAA administrator, Donald Engen, and another pilot had died when their glider broke up while approaching Minden, Nevada, in similar conditions.

I took a couple of weeks off from flying. Upon my return, I booked a session with my flight instructor and mentor, Lou Fields, a former Naval Aviator since WWII, who was also a DPE at Oakland. Before we flew, we spent about two hours in Lou’s little office, dissecting every aspect of the flight, especially the performance calculations and the weather component.

At the conclusion of our discussion, Lou just shook his head and said, “The frightening thing is you did everything absolutely right, and you could have been absolutely dead.”

12 Comments

  • Lou Fields! I chose him as my examiner for PPSEL, because I figured if I could pass muster with him…he was FEARED by most students at KOAK at the time.

    He failed me the first time, as I had not had sufficient practice at un-controlled fields, and in that same flight, AFTER washing me out, put me under the hood, and had me shoot a complete approach to Oakland. I was sweating bullets, but I passed that part of the check ride. And two weeks later, he passed me on the bit that I’d messed up.

    Gone West, but not forgotten

  • Thanks ! Your experience will cause me to be more weather conscious!! I’ve gotten lax, and it could kill me !!

  • After recovering from a low level vortex – downburst encounter in my glider I suddenly noticed the braid in a power line very few feet below. Most fortunately I managed a damage free landing.

    The data from my recorder allowed me to work out the wind velocities in one second intervals:

    https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B1NeKc6B2S3XeDY0Q1Z6NXdsd2s

    You did very well in being able to walk away after a few hours in the hospital.

    Bottom Line: Mother Nature has nasty invisible tricks up her sleeve.

  • The point of a downwind take off, and a mountain airport on a warm day, are you telling me that did not come up at all? Sounds suspicious to me that they did not ask and press that point. I have been to that airport and familer me and with what you’re talking about about, a downwind take-off certainly has issues that should be understood before attempting.

  • A reminder that flying is not a benign activity and an account that sends a shiver through me when I see advertisements for “flying cars for everyone.” Thanks for a greats story.

  • No problem for me, that there was a downwind take off—I’ve done many. And I’ve been caught in a sudden wind shift associated with invisible dust devils, too, so I understand the situation well. Only I was able to avoid an accident by chance.

    I was returning to Laramie, landing on 30 with a typical Laramie headwind of 15-20 knots in our TR182. There were visible dust devils out in the valley but none near the airport. On very short final with everything hanging out, the bottom dropped out, and I firewalled it and pitched up to go around—but the airplane continued to descend to a relatively smooth touchdown!

    Even with a lightly loaded and powerful turbocharged airplane, there’s no overcoming Mother Nature when she unleashes her anger.

  • Looking at a photo of the airport, it’s nestled into surrounding mountains that appear to be vortex inducing under the right conditions. Nearby TRK while higher, offers more of an overall pleateau surrounding the runway that may drag the wind vectors horizontal? In every accident chain (in perfect hindsight), there is one or more places to break the chain. Selection of this airport crowded in by mountains is one of them, as is mid afternoon departure on a scorcher of a day, with its resultant wind gradients.

    Very very happy to hear the outcome supported life, good job keeping it flying!

  • Taking off to the west at Big Bear I had just started my takeoff roll in my small single-place aircraft when I was picked up and literally thrown off the to the side of the runway, onto the grass. No damage, just utter surprise. As I sat there stunned, the runway maintenance truck crew came on frequency to ask if I was OK. I responded, “What was that?”

    I taxied over to their truck and got out and we watched the invisible dust devil that had picked me up move across the field into an area where it picked up dust and debris and became visible as the mini-tornado that it was.

    They said these invisible dust devils aren’t infrequent there. I’ve been flying a long time and oddly, this is the first time on a takeoff this has ever happened. When landing I’m always expecting the unexpected but this was an event that occurred just as I was starting the takeoff roll. There’s always something new to experience with flying.

  • Thanks for your story. Also a good wake up call for me to be more careful with my own weather like you were. Still, hell can break loose but preparation can save our lives too.
    Greetings from Argentina

  • Great story!

    I’ve experienced similar phenomena at Quincy. Luckily not as severe. You planned it perfect in my opinion and consulting Johnny Moore was icing on your cake. He gave me my IFR check ride in 2002. I fly an ercoupe out of there and I seldom get more than 100 fpm Across the meadow until I reach the far sunny side. I have to fly it like a glider to climb. There is usually a strong house thermal off the hillside where 89 comes into Hwy 70. A couple of turns at 500 com and I’m ready to head back to Redding.

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