Crash scene

I closed the hangar doors and was getting ready to go do a little Sportsman in my Cub. I gave it one more walkaround on the taxiway, outside of the hangar, as I always did before I flew. The wind sock was saying typical WNW-NW breeze and the usual five knot crosswind component on our runway 26 here in Camas, Washington. On final for the runway, I saw the alternating blink of landing lights of a BT-13 that was based on the field. It’s a pilot thing. I watch takeoffs and landings.

The BT squatted in a three-point landing about 500 ft. from the end of the runway. As it rolled it seemed to be doing that walk to the left that every taildragger pilot has experienced in a crosswind. At about the 1000-foot marker the left wheel eased off the side of the runway.

Cub

A casual flight turns into something much more serious—without even leaving the ground.

My mind perked up. “This is going to be interesting,” I said to myself.

Then I heard it. A roar of coughing R-985 power from the trainer. I could see the airplane slewing further left with the torque and aiming pretty close to my hangar. The pilot yanked and somehow it went airborne. There was never a question in my mind that it was going to fly—it wasn’t. I was mesmerized and the silver Vultee went past me 30 feet in the air. The wings were screaming for lift but had none. It just kept torquing, left wing getting lower.

The left wingtip scraped the ground fifty feet short of the taxiway I was standing on, then the prop hit the edge of the taxiway as the airplane slammed into the ground. There was a palpable boom shockwave that I could feel against my body. It was the dissipation of massive energy all at once. From power-up to boom was less than ten seconds.

I covered the 90 feet from my hangar to the crash scene two hangars down. The airplane had turned canopy out as it hit. I didn’t see any fire. The airplane was near vertical against a hangar door, standing on its nose. A shower of debris, mostly stones and chunks of taxiway, rained down around me. There was a strong smell of gas, but no flames, and as I arrived a body popped out of the airplane. He was alive, moaning a little.

“Do you want me to move you?”

He replied emphatically, “Hell no.”

“Okay, but there’s a lot of gas. If we get any fire I’m dragging you.”

I dialed 911 as I walked to the front of the airplane. Gas was pouring out but there was no smoke or flame. I really couldn’t see any front cockpit left at all. The engine had been rolled up into it as if it were a sardine can. About that time, people started showing up. One guy had some medical experience and he was tending to the backseat guy.

A lot of people started showing up and I tried to get someone to open the security gate to the airport so the cops could get in. No one moved, so I grabbed the motorcycle out of my hangar and headed to the gate.

The police showed up as I got the gate open. Right behind him was the EMT wagon. They followed me to the scene and I stood back and watched from that point. More trucks, sheriffs, police, and a lot of other things with lights rolled in.

Crash scene

A terrible sight for any pilot.

Result: the pilot was killed, the backseat guy went to the hospital, and the airplane was destroyed—as was the Navion in the hangar that they hit.

Three days after, I was going to get that Cub flight I’d missed and a fellow walked by me with his wife. His hand was bandaged and casted. I walked the 90 feet to the hangar where they were standing and asked him if he was the gentleman who had the honor of surviving the crash. He said that he was.

“You… are a miracle. I’ve never seen that much energy dissipated in such a short period of time. I can’t imagine the G force you felt. I cannot believe you are alive.”

He said that was all he remembered about the crash, that feeling of G force against the straps. The inspectors determined that the canopy had ripped out of the tracks and his seat ripped right out of the floor. He had a helmet on and his helmet hit the panel. The force drove it down into his cheek and caused a big gash. His left arm went into the throttle area and got pretty torn up, and other than that, he just hurt like crazy all over. We chatted a while longer and all I could tell him was that he was a miracle.

The helmet and the 5-point belt system saved him. That was part of the miracle, but there were other things. First of all, no fire. Secondly, the airplane hit wingtip, prop, then engine and that caused it to turn 180 degrees before it came to rest. Thirdly, the canopy ripped off. All of this left him in a position to pop his 5-point and flop out on the apron of the hangar. He was just delivered to the rescue team, ready to be saved.

Couple of points: There was no mechanical problem, so speculation would say a little aileron into the wind would have kept the airplane on the runway. A little rudder would have gotten it back on the runway. Something I’ve preached for a long time and is just common sense: when you leave the surface, just ride it out. The only thing power is going to do is get you to the scene of the crash quicker and more violently.

I could go on for pages musing philosophically, but it was just time for the guy in front, not time for the guy in back, and there are laws of physics that are incontrovertible. That sums it up.

Dan Blore
Latest posts by Dan Blore (see all)
19 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    I have watched a couple of F-16s crash after the pilots ejected from them. For a moment, one of those crashes nearly involved me as I watched the pilotless airplane head my way. I’ll submit that story someday.

    Reply
  2. Terry Spath
    Terry Spath says:

    As an engineer I appreciate that you reference how crashes are governed by the laws of physics. Uncontrolled cessation of speed are all about energy dissipation. Your point about riding it out is also right on. Since kinetic energy (what has to be dissipated during the milliseconds of the crash) goes up by the square of the velocity, any addition to velocity has a disproportionate impact on survivability. For example, an increase of 10 knots from 90 to 99 let’s say, will generally decrease survivability by 21%. (110% squared). Good article

    Reply
  3. Peter N. Steinmetz
    Peter N. Steinmetz says:

    Sad if a bit more control inputs would have saved the day. As on ice in a car, sometimes if you essentially the passenger, just riding it out with very gentle control inputs, if at all, is your best bet.

    Reply
  4. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    Thank you for sharing. The sound and sights came to me vividly as I read. I wasn’t prepared for the outcome… Loss of control is one of the biggest causes of fatalities in our industry. One reason is lack of rudder skills. My husband and I have a flight school at Napa CA. Between us we have thousands of hours tailwheel time, flying many makes and models. We don’t have a tailwheel trainer, mainly because of insurance qualifiers and lack of qualified instructors. If we could, we would start all students with a tailwheel trainer so that the rudder skills would be foundational. You just can’t see effects of stick and rudder in landing and ground operations as readily in a tricycle gear airplane. A pilot can get away with weak rudder skills in a nose wheel, but NOT in a tailwheel. Not for long.

    Reply
      • Tony
        Tony says:

        I learned to fly in a C140 at an air base in morroco our cross countries were all by compass no airports in between Cross desert like terrain

        Reply
  5. Doran Jaffas
    Doran Jaffas says:

    Way back longer than I care to think about a wise instructor and friend told me to pick a point down the runway and keep the bird pointed at that point. This was when I was just beginning to operate conventional gear aircraft. Still learning many years later. The advice still applies and every once in a while, in a crosswind, I hear his voice. It still works.
    Very sorry for the PIC and his family. Very glad for the passenger.

    Reply
    • Unfortunately the passenger was the PIC as he was the required flight instructor. I own the Navion behind the door.
      Unfortunately the passenger was the PIC as he was the required flight instructor. I own the Navion behind the door. says:

      The pilot was required to have a copilot for insurance requirement. The passenger was a flight instructor and the PIC. I own the Navion behind the door and it was also totaled.

      Reply
  6. John Mooney
    John Mooney says:

    Hi. Dan Blore; I was the Flt/Instructor at Colts Neck A/P from 4/65 to 7/31/65 when I left to fly for TWA. You must have worked with Paul Willy after Duff Donald left the business. I almost took over the operation at that time but elected not to. Really had a great time flying out of that field and learned a lot from their charters .

    Reply
    • Dan Blore
      Dan Blore says:

      Hey, John. I started in ‘68 and remember hearing a few John Moody Twinbo stories. Ha. I worked for Wille on and off and towed for Cecil for 9 seasons. My time at Colts Neck were the best years. I flew 99’s and DC-3 for Brown for a couple of years in between. Got hired by North Central in ‘78 and, after 4 mergers, retired from Delta in ‘17. I have several stories archived here about Colts Neck. Good hearing from you.

      Reply
  7. JOhn
    JOhn says:

    “He had a helmet on and his helmet hit the panel. The force drove it down into his cheek and caused a big gash. His left arm went into the throttle area and got pretty torn up, and other than that, he just hurt like crazy all over. We chatted a while longer and all I could tell him was that he was a miracle.

    The helmet and the 5-point belt system saved him.”

    Nice summary. The lack of an effective ignition for the gas was luck. The helmet and 5-point belts were planning and preparation.

    Kudos to the owner for saving the passenger’s life with helmet and effective restraints. I’ve read several accident reports where helmets made the difference. Lesson learned. I generally fly with a helmet. “It’s better to learn from the mistakes of others. Only a [ ….] prefers to learn from his own mistakes”. True words from Germany’s Iron Chancellor.

    It’s amazing how many pilots tell me that there is “no way in H***”…” they would wear a helmet. Go figure.

    Reply
  8. Michael G holmberg
    Michael G holmberg says:

    I have done a few tailwheel transitions and check outs for a few pilot in a J3. On one of the checkouts when things started to go awry the candidate added power. Everything came back and all turned out good.
    I had read about this technique so I asked my instructor. His reply was there is a better chance of making the situation worse.

    Reply
  9. David Jackson
    David Jackson says:

    I also lost an airplane in across wind on a snow packed runway. Approach looked good, wind down into the wind. Lined up straight etc. On touch down , did a little bounce and went sideways across the runway. Tundra tire caught the unplowed snow at the edge on my farm strip and over it started to go. For a split second I thought of applying power but I didn’t know if I was still horizontal enough for a climb. I decided to take what I had coming at a slow speed and idle power. Ended up inverted, hanging upside down but unhurt and $70k damage. I hate to think what a full power application of 260 hp could have done.

    Reply
  10. Ed
    Ed says:

    A a case of Loss of control on landing. In this scenario, instead of attempting the late (and impossible) go-around, staying on the ground, and ground looping in the grass would have been preferred. All pilots are trained to go around at the first sign of trouble in landing, but when we hold off, hoping to salvage things, we can run out of options, much like this poor fellow did. If we can’t go around, either due to a bad decision, or an emergency, then a deliberate ground loop will stop the airplane before it collides with obstacles, Yes, it will probably tear up the airplane, but it’d be repairable, and more importantly, a ground loop is a highly survivable event, where as uncontrolled flight into obstacles, well, not so much. The trouble is, tail wheel pilots are taught to fear the ground loop like the plague, which is all well and good, but sometimes the options become picking the least bad event, and saving the people. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do in real situations, even with proper training. Sometimes we have to make the conscious decision that the insurance company now owns the plan, and we have to save the people first.

    Reply
  11. Erik Edgren
    Erik Edgren says:

    Hi Dan,

    I enjoy your writings here.

    I would like to learn more about your T-Cub as that combo seems like a “best of both worlds” to me.

    Drop me a line at [email protected] or find my phone # on my website if you would like to visit sometime.

    Best Regards,

    Erik Edgren

    Reply
  12. Opal
    Opal says:

    Loss of control is really a big deal when it comes to an airplane crash. If only we can do more about it. But we run out of options but to let it control itself. :( Well, I am very keen to details as to planning is concern. Our life isn’t an airplane that we could run out of options. The options are unlimited that’s why in my blog you can read more about how to plan and teach your child values they need in life. Drop by at opal-academy.com Limitless options can come your way

    Reply
  13. RJ
    RJ says:

    I’m learning to fly ,but have been a Cobra crew chief in the ARMY & many years fixing helicopters & airplanes. I learn something from every article and this one is no exception. Thank You for posting it, the life’s it might save. Knowledge is king. I have never thought, read or hear of an “intentional ground loop” wow! S.Y.A.!

    Reply

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