I got the news the hard, modern way: skimming local news on my smartphone, I cried out to my wife, “Don and Nancy [names changed for privacy] were killed in an airplane crash!” I could think of little else for hours afterward. Why? Did they run out of fuel? Throw a prop blade? Hit geese? Pictures circulated quickly, suggesting that their small homebuilt airplane went in nose first, at relatively low speed, because there was little damage aft of the cockpit enclosure.
There was no fire, so I suspected fuel exhaustion. In addition to the shock and unreality of the deaths of these good friends, there was an eerie feeling from having flown in that airplane many times on pleasure outings. Don was incredibly generous with the airplane — “When you get an urge to go flying, call me.” He knew of my feelings about selling my 11AC Chief and hanging up the headset. I was shocked and sad, but I did not cry.
Don’s building partner and other flying friends provided more information— they crashed out of cruise flight, having refueled shortly before the crash. The tanks were not ruptured, and there was ample fuel. The prop had been intact at impact. The weather was benign, although the ceiling was relatively low at 1900 feet. Witnesses described the airplane coming down in a flat spin, and ground evidence verified that.
So, an experienced builder and flyer, piloting an airplane he meticulously built and had flown without incident for years, stalled and flat-spun in. The pilots who knew Don and Nancy tried out all possible explanations. FAA inspection found no mechanical problems with the engine or controls, and fuel was ample and apparently uncontaminated. While not mentioned in the report, I suppose aft CG loading could have predisposed to a flat spin, but that’s hard to achieve in this airplane.
The cold facts are clear. But, frustratingly, we will never know exactly what happened. Our friends are gone, their many retirement hopes and plans dashed, sons devastated. The mystery of why and how this crash happened nags me, coming to mind at odd times.
But there is a twist to this story. I learned something a few days after the crash that sent a cold chill through my body. Don had built a BRS ballistic recovery parachute into the airplane; the red handle hung down behind our heads reassuringly whenever I flew with him. One of my first questions after the crash was: Why didn’t he pull the red handle and ride it down? Don had gotten an earlier homebuilt out of control years ago “doing something dumb,” he said, and a BRS ‘chute saved his life. Why wouldn’t he have done the same thing this time?
I was stunned to learn that Don had removed the ballistic parachute some time ago, without explanation, and against the repeated questioning and concern of his building partner. He had sacrificed the one thing on the airplane that could have saved their lives! My knees nearly buckled. Later, I cried.
I try to draw lessons from this tragedy, about anything that could have changed the outcome. But I can’t escape the chilling fact that a piece of proven safety equipment had been deliberately removed from the aircraft. Don was a calm and rational man, and I am sure he had what he thought were good reasons. Perhaps this act provides the best lesson. Just as we are enjoined by the FAA to access all available information related to any flight before taking off— weather, runway conditions, airspace restrictions, etc.— perhaps we also should take advantage of any and all safety-related equipment available for the airplane. Perhaps the airplane could have been placarded, “No flight without parachute armed.”
As a famous saying goes, aviation and sailing the oceans are highly unforgiving ways to move oneself through space. It occurred to me after Don and Nancy’s crash that I have known twice as many people who have died in aircraft crashes versus in automobile or motorcycle crashes. It is a risky business, hefting our fragile bodies far above earth in fallible machines. To enjoy the thrills and beauties of flying, it is wise to plan for the worst while enjoying the best.
I have not flown since the crash, not out of “fear of flying,” but rather out of sadness. Thinking of flying now, it is as if the flavor, the salt, the spices, the exquisite taste are gone. I hope these feelings subside, but it will take a while. I know, however, that I will miss these amazing friends the rest of my life, and will never stop wondering… why?