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I’ve flown to Denver to watch an NBA game many times, but never flown the same flight twice. This one was the strangest flight of my life so far. About 20 miles out from Centennial (KAPA), I’m flying 30 degrees to the right to hold a heading. Within minutes, I’m flying 30 degrees to the left to hold the same heading in clear air while pointing this out to my copilot. Looking past the airport, there was a long string of clouds up next to the Front Range. Our thought was the weather was about to change. Down from the clouds comes a long skinny S-shaped tornado. Our friend in the back seat says, “You know we are flying towards a tornado.”

Gray clouds

Looking past the airport, there was a long string of clouds up next to the Front Range which turned out to be a tornado outbreak.

All three of us lived through one of the largest tornado or tornados—seven to be exact—in June 1980, when 1/4 of Grand Island, Nebraska was uprooted, thrown, crushed, and destroyed. Lives were lost and lives were changed, never to be the same. We flew over that massive destruction a week later, noting how every other home was either imploded or exploded as the one massive super tornado and six others twisted through our town for over an hour. President Jimmy Carter flew to the site and spoke where a friend’s home once stood. While President Carter was talking, we were standing 300 feet from Air Force One—what a moment to remember. The guys with dark sunglasses and dark suits on a blistering hot afternoon holding a perimeter around the President’s airplane were NOT inviting us to come closer.

Having lived through that night of consternation and seeing many small storms roll off the Rockies, I commented, “Most tornados don’t stay in one place very long and this one will be gone by the time we get there.” It was and we landed just like the many other flights to Denver, only with more wind than normal.

My friends were getting our rental car and looking forward to a fun time at the NBA game. I was in the pilot’s lounge looking at the weather for the return flight after the game and that same storm was going to be over our home airport. It was VFR, but strong winds again.

An older gentleman walked in and asked if I was the pilot of the Mooney that just landed. I had no idea who he was but looking back, he may have come down from the tower. He asked if I seen that tornado. I responded that yes, that was my fourth tornado, but first one from the air. He then said, “And you still landed?” By his tone, I knew a speech was in my future. One thing I learned from my father is that it’s time to listen until the speech is over. Really though, I felt that he was out of line. While I don’t remember every word, these few have stuck with me for 30+ years: “Son, every hour you fly is one hour closer to your first accident.” That sums up the entire speech, less the “Q&A” at the start. He had my mother’s gift of pointing his finger at my chest and her way of making a point more dramatic so he had my full attention.

Most will say I’m headstrong both then and now, although that incident was more than 30 years ago. I still have no accident or damage history to any airplane I have flown. I have never understood why some of us get so many second chances and others don’t. Paying more attention to the simple laws of nature after that night and listening to others trying to help you couldn’t hurt.

It took a few days for those words to sink in deep. We flew home that night with an 80mph tailwind. We landed like a helicopter with a 60mph headwind straight down the runway. I remember saying when we turned off the runway that we could flip over. In fact we had our friends move over to the windy side of the airplane as every pound could be important.

Roger was a partner in this Mooney and was the next to fly a week later on a beautiful, clear, calm, sunny day; he went up with one of his B-52 copilots on Veterans Day. While Roger was an accomplished pilot, who never damaged an airplane, on this day he lost one cylinder in flight. And on a long final approach he lost the engine, landing 1,500 feet short of the runway in a picked cornfield. The damage included a bent panel on the landing gear, but no one was hurt. So turns out, I was just a few hours away from my first airplane accident. Had it happened that night in the high wind conditions, I might not be here.

Mooney M20E

On a long final approach he lost the engine landing 1,500 feet short of the runway.

I now start every preflight with, “Son, every hour you fly is one hour closer to your first accident.”

David Yonker
19 replies
  1. Paul
    Paul says:

    ADM, I wouldn’t think landing in either conditions would be considered good decision making, the fact that winds are so high, a pilot recognizes plane could flip on taxi is poor decision making when a diversion is the obvious choice…or not taking off at all until bad weather clears. This is what kills GA pilots and their friends and family.
    As for the ‘one hour closer to an accident’, half full my friend. Instead, one hour further from the last poor decision. Some folks are just lucky that way.

  2. Daniel Gabel
    Daniel Gabel says:

    Good tornado flying story. by David. Might want to review the differences between course, heading, and track. “Course is where you wanted to go, heading is where you tried to go, and track is where you went”!
    Not “heading 30 degrees left and right to hold the same heading”.

    • Brad
      Brad says:

      “Course is where you wanted to go, heading is where you tried to go, and track is where you went”! I like that! Well said sir.

  3. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    Well Dave, that’s a pretty good story. Just remember, most everything is subjective until you bend metal. Demonstrated crosswind numbers are just that: “demonstrated” only. They have no teeth until you are unable to taxi because exceeding their limits has left you stranded and bent. There are those who talk about it, and there are those who do it. You strike me as one of the latter. Be safe out there. And “safe” is also subjective. It all depends on your equipment and your experience level. Maybe better advice would be: “Be smart and resourceful out there.”

    • Dave Yonker
      Dave Yonker says:

      Dave Thanks for taking the time to read my story and comment. a fast side note I commented on everyone above by e-mail only to find out it doesn’t show up here. I thanked them all for reading and commenting too. I like to read about plane crashes to learn from others as in, My first story ” How one pilots story saved my life”
      If you read my other story “how many second chances do you get” the story ends with this “One of my first memories in life was my first second chance. It was the day before my third birthday when my mother stopped the car on a railroad track and we were hit by a freight train that dragged us for almost a city block.” If you look close at the car in the photo you will notice the engine is GONE but not one window is broken. I have zero problem taking risk, I own my own company I take risk every day, I race cars. I have yet to damage any plane I have ever flown in 42 years. I also pay attention to the risks I take. I’m an old man now I didn’t get here by watching others I took my chances. I may be slower now but I enjoyed getting here. I make this comment a lot I don’t understand why some of us get so many second chances and others don’t get one. Maybe some of us make it look easy when we know it is not, and others say I can do that too. I see that almost every weekend on our lake. You make a good point stay within the limits of yourself and your equipment….I would add learn from your mistakes as well as others, we all make mistakes. Thanks again for taking the time to read this story. I end my first story with ” I hope my story is helpful to someone, too.”

      • José Serra
        José Serra says:

        I liked Your story, Mr. Dave Yonker. And, frankly, I don’t see here exactly is the alleged confusion that Mr. Mark reported in his comm. Perhaps it was not well written.

        • Dave Yonker
          Dave Yonker says:

          Thanks for taking the time and making a comment. I’m not a great writer or English teacher, I’m a Pilot and business owner for 42 year living in fly-over country. Others are welcome to comment and even judge me at any lever it doesn’t change the story or my past. When I see mistakes made in plane crash stories by others I try hard to learn from others not judge them. Would be nice if we lived in a perfect world, knowing that we don’t is better than wishing we did. Lucky for me and others not all mistakes end in a crash or even death. We can all do better most of us are trying.

  4. David
    David says:

    As a pilot AND a cybersecurity professional, dealing with risk is a daily part of my life. In looking at risk you look at various mitigation choices, do you avoid, accept, avoid or transfer the risk and of course quantify and assess the impact in order to make decisions. In your case it was a risk that you were willing to take based upon (I assume) other real life encounters and situations. A few things would have played into my decision making in a like scenario: what’s my alternate? with that weather, will I be able to go around if I have to? Is it likely I encounter a Microburst or wind shear? Of course there is the weather brief, NOTAMS like a SIGMET or AIRMET Tango. I wonder what your decision would have been flying at night heading home if that was a 60 knot cross wind? Thanks for your story, just a reminder for me to never underestimate weather and what CAN be.

    • Dave Yonker
      Dave Yonker says:

      Thanks for taking the time the time to read and comment Roland I stopped flying for 8 years after this happened sold my interest in that Mooney. When I bought my 2nd Mooney I made a few rules to “fly by” even thou I LOVE night flying I no longer fly at night or towards bad weather. I read in AOPA if you can’t buy the plane of your dreams make the one you have as close as you can get. So I bought the new Garmin 750 GTN Xi it talks to you answers questions has fuel rings, lost of power rings, directional sound, can answer my phone, play my favorite music, if I wanted it could land the plane, contact ATC. I think every one that does not have one should look into getting one. It has allowed me to fly to the Florida Keys and back, even to an other country if I wanted to. I have my hangar at my Marina and now looking for a Fly-in winter home in Florida. I enjoy flying too much to give it up. I happy being a fair weather pilot now.

  5. Rick Crosby
    Rick Crosby says:

    Thanks David for your story. If I was a weekend warrior, I’d be way more cautious. I do this professionally and there are always risks with flying. You have to mitigate them on the go. I appreciate your honesty and that you learned from this experience. I have to, thank you!

    • David Yonker
      David Yonker says:

      Thank You for taking the time to read and comment Rick. As in my first story I do hope my stories help others as their stories have helped and maybe even saved my life. Flying makes the world smaller, and forces us to look in every direction. Learning to fly has even saved my life on the ground once or twice. In my business I watch a lot of people make mistakes that will not listen to others. I only hope they live to learn from them, some haven’t, I have.

  6. Steve Yucht
    Steve Yucht says:

    Fortune rewards the brave but is merciless to the careless. Risk is dynamic and only clearly defined after the fact. Thanks for the great story, those of us who are willing to fly the edges of the envelope must be extra cautious as weather changes the calculus minute to minute. That said, the only “safe” airplane is one in the hangar (unless of course that hangar is hit by a tornado!). Blue sky’s and tailwinds


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