My new student had about 10 hours of training instruction at our neighboring airport, Trinca, which was about four miles south. A small grass airport that had its roots in the late 1930s, Trinca had only a handful of airplanes, mostly of the Piper Cub variety, and was managed by Ernie Billows.
Ernie was an experienced flight instructor and his aviation background was extensive. He was a lot older than I, perhaps in his 50s at the time, whereas I was only about 27. Because of the age difference, or perhaps for other reasons, we never had the occasion to speak to each other. As it turns out, I should have made the effort. I’m sure he thought of us over at Aeroflex as the spoiled kids with all the expensive airplane toys. He would have been right in thinking that.
Glen showed up at our airport one afternoon to talk about taking flying lessons. To be more correct, it was to resume flying lessons. He explained he trained with Ernie in a Cessna 150 at Trinca and had been flying with Ernie for about 10 hours of flight instruction. As Glen told it, Ernie felt, at this point in his training, he had no aptitude for flying airplanes and Ernie wanted to discontinue flying with Glen.
Ernie said he should go elsewhere for training or quit entirely. Glen wondered if I would fly with him and see if I agreed that he should stop flying or continue, and to see where it took us. I agreed that I would certainly fly with him and give him an honest evaluation of his potential.
We began training in our Cessna 150. I explained that in spite of his having 10 hours of instruction behind him that we would start at the beginning of the curriculum. We would begin with the basic maneuvers: turns, climbs, glides, steep turns, wind correction exercises and stalls, then to the traffic pattern for landings and takeoffs. Since he had previous experience, my thought was that we would probably move through these stages quickly.
Glen’s flying performance surprised me. I think I expected to see obvious ineptitude which would have been convenient for me to just conclude that Ernie was right and I could tell Glen that flying was not for him. Instead, his flying was normal in all respects; not perfect, but up to par with most students in this stage of flying.
Because he came to me with a history of training difficulties, it now meant that I had many additional judgments to make as we moved on with his training. If I were not aware of these earlier training problems, I believe my thinking would have been simpler.
Moving to the traffic pattern, takeoffs and landings proved to be quite easy. Since he was hearing the coaching and procedure instructions for the second time, we moved to the mechanics of the takeoffs and landings quickly. Again, while not perfect, he flew the airplane confidently and seemed to have a complete understanding of what was going on.
This final day he was flying the airplane without difficulty. The criterion I use that is important to me in judging landing performance by students is this: lucky good landings in calm wind conditions don’t count. I prefer to see the student, after being out of position due to a wind gust or other factors, be able to correct with the controls or small power changes to bring the airplane to a good, safe landing. This is very important to me. This day Glen was doing just that. He made three impressive landings on runway 3 at Andover.
As we taxied back for another takeoff I wondered to myself: “If I did not know of the previous difficulties Glen had and if he were a student I had from the start, would I have concerns about soloing him now? Should I impose a different performance standard for Glen? If not today, what day would we be waiting for?”
We stopped the 150 on the taxiway short of the runway. I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the door and was standing outside when I said: “Glen, fly it around the pattern once by yourself and after you land come back here and talk to me. I’ll be standing here waiting for you. Enjoy your flight.” I had seen the painful expression on students’ faces at just this time before, but Glen’s expression was particularly bad. It stopped me for a second, but I continued on, closed the airplane door, and walked away.
Glen taxied the airplane to the center of the paved runway, opened the throttle, and away he went. When the nosewheel was raised and the 150 became airborne, I knew instantly that I had made a big mistake. I could see the elevator control pulsing up and down. The airplane’s pitch went from 10 degrees nose up, then level, then nose up again. As the airplane moved to the downwind leg, I could not discern what the airplane was doing. Oh, for the days yet to come when I would have had a handheld radio with me to talk to Glen!
There was no time to run to the operations office and talk on Unicom. It was too far away. I could see the airplane clearly now, since it was on the base leg for landing. Things were wrong. It sounded like the engine was at about half-throttle, way too much power to descend and land from that position.
I had the clearer view of the airplane as it turned on to final. This was not going to work. The throttle was still somewhere near half power and I could see that the flaps were still set to 10 degrees. Glen seemed to be diving the airplane towards the runway using just the elevator, ignoring his very high airspeed and power setting. He seemed to be thinking, “I want down and I want down NOW!”
When the airplane reached a few feet above the paved runway Glen pushed further forward on the control yoke and forced the nose of the airplane on to the runway. The first to hit the ground was the propeller and engine cowling, followed by the nosewheel, which folded like butter.
Because of the high speed of the airplane, it was sliding along the pavement in the same attitude as it was when it first struck the ground. Then it began a gradual turn to the right, leaving the paved runway and entering the grass that borders the runway. Because of the friction from the grass and ground, the airplane stopped with the nose straight down in the dirt with the tail perfectly straight up. The airplane poised there as if making up its mind which way to go and it decided to go all the way over on to its back.
I ran to the upside-down airplane and through the dust and dirt I watched Glen climbing out of the cockpit. It’s not easy when the airplane is upside down. He broke everything in his path as he fought his way out. It didn’t matter. The airplane was trashed. I got to the airplane just as Glen was stepping off the rear side of the wing, across the flap. He saw me standing there and as he was beating the dirt off his clothing he said to me, obviously sarcastically, “Great pilot aren’t I, Bob?” I said, returning the sarcasm, “Yes Glen. You are a really good pilot.”
The events that immediately followed this accident are gone from my memory. The airplane was moved from the accident site to the hangars by our maintenance personnel. We filed the proper accident reports with the FAA and it was decided what we would do with the remains of the Cessna 150, but I remember none of the details.
Glen could not explain anything he did on that short flight. Every question I asked him he said, “I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you close the throttle for landing like we had done all the times before?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you extend the flaps for landing like we’d done?”
“I don’t know.”
Ernie Billows was way ahead of me on this one. He saw something in Glen that I didn’t see. It makes me think that there’s some real benefit to being in your 50s.