When Airplanes Break

This story of a recent in-flight structural failure, told by the PIC, reminds us that no matter what happens, we have to fly the airplane all the way to a stop.


was the CFI, flying with a keen 17-year-old student in a Grumman AA-5 Traveler. As we used to say in the Air Force when describing a flying scenario, “There we were, flying along, fat, dumb and happy.” It’s just a saying, take it easy—we weren’t actually fat, but we were happy, and the student, at least, wasn’t dumb. 

We were flying a straight line, direct to my home field, the Leesburg (Va.) Executive Airport (JYO), in level flight at about 1000 feet agl and 140 KIAS in smooth air. I looked at my iPad, and saw we were making over 160 knots groundspeed, and the aircraft was flying solidly, just humming along, not a vibration or noise. I remarked to the student, who was at the controls, “This thing really likes to go fast—look how stable it is.”


Almost immediately after that, we felt a large shock to the aircraft, accompanied by a loud pop! The aircraft began shaking, violently and loudly, the yoke going left and right, fore and aft, the aircraft pitching up and down. The student looked at me with wide eyes. He asked, “What’s that!?” I said, “I don’t know!” and took over the controls. I thought we lost the engine, or the propeller had disintegrated or something. I ripped the throttle to idle, pulled the carb heat out and slowed toward the aircraft’s best glide speed, which is 80 KIAS. 

“This is ugly,” I thought, my heart in high gear, and ran the “engine failure in flight” checklist from memory. The student and I had practiced this one many, many times to get him ready for his check ride. But seriously? A real no-kidding engine failure?

We were on the tower frequency and I keyed the mike and said “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, N5880L, we’re going down five miles west of the airport!” (I realized much later, when I calmed down, that I had never said “Mayday” on the radio before. Not in practice, not in a simulator, never. Weird—the words just flew right out of me.) The tower on the field came right back and said, in what seemed like a kind of bored, scolding tone of voice, “Aircraft calling, say call sign and position again.” I politely, silently cursed him and the coffee cup I imagined he had in his hand, like the guy in Top Gun, and ignored his call.

FAA Responds With An Airworthiness Directive

The events described in Matt’s article occurred on January 19, 2021. On July 12, 2021, the FAA published Airworthiness Directive AD 2021-14-12, which went into effect July 27, 2021. Except for reporting of inspection findings, the AD mostly tracks Service Bulletin SB-195A from True Flight Aerospace, the current type certificate holder for the Grumman line of piston singles. In fact, an earlier version of SB-195 predates the AD; SB-195A is a significant revision.

One of the ongoing inspection recommendations for the Grumman singles line is to perform a “tap test” of the wing and tail surface bondlines (the airplanes employ both rivets and bonding in their construction). The tap test is designed to reveal potential delamination of the components before the condition becomes a problem. That test was inadequately performed at the airplane’s last inspection. — J.B.


“Maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, take appropriate action,” I thought to myself. These phrases came from my U.S. Air Force student pilot days, drilled into me during the short (ha!) 50-week Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) course at Vance Air Force Base, near Enid, Oklahoma. Different Air Force pilots went to different UPT bases for training (there were five bases).

Vance AFB was tiny, and it was on the Oklahoma prairie, and all I did for that year was fly, study about flying, fly the simulator, take tests and, the next thing I knew, 50 weeks had whipped by. And 44 percent of my class “washed out,” didn’t graduate. It was tough training. Thank heavens for the eagle-eyed, rigid, hardcore instructor pilots, the “IPs.” 


Turning left in a wide circle, we looked for a good field to land in. Around here there are a lot of horse pastures that look flat-and-level—until you get down close to them. And down close we were, about 800-1000 feet agl or so. Also, it had rained a lot recently, and the ground was deeply soaked, muddy.

The student and I identified several possible landing spots as we circled, looking at muddy, hilly, sometimes rocky fields, or ones with fences in them, trees at the ends. “There’s a road,” my young student pointed out. “He is dead calm,” I thought, looking sideways at him. His calmness helped me to stay calm. Somewhat. I secretly wished we had parachutes, or the aircraft had one, like a Cirrus. 

Two aircraft, who had heard my call, joined up on us. One was off our right wing, a Cessna that I didn’t see at first. The aircraft I did see was a Cirrus who came at us head-to-head on our left side and blew by us, never to be seen again. He will forever be remembered as the Ghost Cirrus.

Someone on the radio said to the tower, “I’m off his right side!” This somehow snapped me out of the near-panic state I was in—our aircraft bucking around like a rodeo horse, the yoke jerking around in my hands. I keyed the mike and said, “Dude, you’re on my left side.” No response. I thought I had made him angry.

I looked down, as my mind raced and thought, “Wait a darn second—the throttle lever is pulled way out, to full idle.” Where I had left it, of course. Without thinking, I pushed it in, and the engine spooled back up. We had a good engine! Since I pulled the throttle to idle, it had been, uhh, idling. We didn’t have to land in a field! Maybe! The engine had been idling quietly. Now I wondered what was really wrong with the aircraft. 

What The NTSB Says

The NTSB’s preliminary report sums up this mishap thusly: “Post-accident examination of the airplane revealed the left elevator was partially separated, with the outboard portion of it well below the position of the horizontal stabilizer. The airplane was secured pending further examination of the elevator primary and secondary flight control system.”

At this writing, the NTSB has not yet published a probable cause finding. Of course, the event was classified as an “accident”  because it involved “substantial damage,” which the NTSB defines as affecting “the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft, and which would normally require major repair or replacement of the affected component.” That test was certainly met before the AA-5 Traveler hit the runway, collapsed the nosegear and slid 1000 feet. — J.B.


Then I saw the Cessna chase plane off my right side. Turned out he did know which side he was on. He told the tower controller, “The elevator and horizontal stabilizer are damaged”—and this part irritated me: “The stabilizer is flapping in the wind.” I thought, “Shut up with the word ‘flapping,’ dude, you’re not helping!” But it was good to hear another human voice—a pilot—on the radio. 

So that’s why the aircraft was shuddering violently! The horizontal stab and elevator were broken nearly off, flapping around. He was about 300 feet off my right wing, in full view, but not talking to me at all. I found out later he was a very young CFI and he thought, as a chase plane, he should talk to the airport tower guy, kind of report to him. Tower called again: “Emergency aircraft, say position and call sign again!” Me: “Stand by.” 

Once I realized we had big-time structural damage, not a blown-up engine, I decided to try to fly to the airport. I pointed the little airplane there directly, a distance of maybe four or five miles. The yoke was shaking fore-and-aft, left and right. The Cessna chase aircraft followed us all the way in, finally speaking to me instead of the tower, saying, “Just keep it slow, keep it slow.” I didn’t understand his radio call. Perhaps it was because I was breathing really fast and my mind was racing. Anyway, I thought he said “Stay low,” and I said, “Say again?” The chase plane pilot said, “Keep it slow.”

“Slow” almost killed us, I found out later. As I flew toward the runway, the nose bobbing and weaving, the entire aircraft shaking, I had to fly over some townhouses, and thought about how “unfair” it would be to suddenly plunge into them. It seemed like the nose might plunge straight down at any time. We were so close to the approach end of the runway—it was right there! Come on, Betsy, you old cow the barn is right there! But I really didn’t slow down much, flew at 100-110 KIAS or so, only because I was descending. Pure luck.


I again declared an emergency to the tower, to make sure of landing priority, and the tower replied “Cleared to land.”

I told the student to tighten his lap belt and shoulder harness, and I did the same—and flew a visual straight-in, angling in over the townhouses. As the aircraft neared the runway surface, I pulled the power to idle, like normal, and tried to round out and land normally, pulling the yoke back gradually. I had landed this airplane a hundred times, easily. “We made it!” I thought. Well, sort of. 

The aircraft nose pitched down, violently, with me pulling back on the yoke all the way, trying to round out to land. 

The up-until-now calm student yelled out something and BAM! the nose smashed into the concrete, collapsing the nose gear, the propeller grinding into the ground. It happed like right now, in less than a second. We skidded along the runway on the smashed-up nose gear, concrete filling the view out the windscreen.

Turns out you need an working elevator to flare. Who knew?

Later, we saw it was hanging by a thread, by not much metal, and so was the horizontal stabilizer, broken away from the fuselage on both sides. No trim tab either—the linkage was broken.


Turns out when we flew back at 100-110 knots, that was enough airspeed over the damaged elevator, which only moved a little up-and-down with full fore-aft yoke movement. When we slowed for landing, to about 80 KIAS, there wasn’t enough airflow over the damaged elevator to raise the nose.

The landing skid was about 1000 feet (we measured later) straight ahead on the centerline. Unhurt, we shut down all switches, and I told the student to get out carefully, and walk away from the aircraft quickly, and I did the same. No fire. So back we walked to get our iPads and headsets.

And then the firefighters came. We told them we were fine. One guy, a firefighter, I think, said, “If I were you, I’d go to the hospital anyway.” We declined. Then we heard people shouting my name from the parallel taxiway, and we walked over to them and got a ride back to the terminal building.

The student pilot’s mother came out to the airport, asking him if he wanted to continue taking lessons. The student said, “Yes,” and off she went, home, satisfied that her son had good judgment. She told me before she left, “He’s the only one of my boys that I don’t have to worry about.” I secretly wondered what her other boys were like. 

The FAA guy arrived, a nice guy, and sat down across a table from me in his FAA-logo blue jacket, saying he was a pilot, too, etc. He said, “Okay, let’s just talk about this flight from takeoff all the way through to the crash.” 

Thank heavens for AOPA and their legal services. (I called them before the FAA arrived.) The lawyer told me to tell the FAA, “I’m too shook up to talk about the accident just now, and don’t want to say anything now, that after a few days, I’d realize was incorrect, and I’d have to correct my statement. And that might make me look bad.”

And the lawyer said to send the student home so he wouldn’t be there when the FAA arrived—he said to say the student had a meeting, or had to go to work or something. So off the student went.

The AOPA lawyer’s advice was correct—the FAA guy acted just like a detective in a police show, where they try to question the suspect, and the suspect clams up and says, “I want a lawyer!” When I said what I was told to say by the lawyer, the FAA guy kinda sighed, and said to my surprise, “Okay—I guess we’re done here.” 

Several days later, they asked for and got a written statement from both me and the student pilot. 

Lessons Learned

A good pilot is always learning, and this mishap certainly was no exception for me. Here’s a brief summary of some of the things I learned:

Stay calm, find out what’s wrong with the aircraft and address that problem. 

Fly the airplane, and don’t let radio calls bother you. 

You own the airspace, the airwaves and the runway if you declare an emergency. 

If you are a “chase plane,” talk to the pilot you’re chasing, because—surprise—they cannot see the outside of their aircraft. They need your eyeballs to tell them what they can’t see from the cockpit. 

Do not talk to the FAA. As the AOPA lawyer told me, “A pilot is under no obligation to talk to the FAA.”


I heard later that the FAA guy told people that I had done a good job, getting the aircraft down on the runway. Not so with the NTSB guy, who said he “would have landed in a field.” Really? He would have cartwheeled, best-case scenario, in the soft muddy ground.

I found out many, many people will try to second-guess your actions. People asked me things like: 

“Did you maintain pitch with trim?” (The trim tab was completely disconnected from the control cable, hanging loose.)

“Why didn’t you go to Dulles? They have huge runways, and it’s nearby.” (Riiight—fly nine, 10 more miles with massive structural damage, through the Class B airport pattern full of airliners, and shut down one of their huge runways?)

“Why didn’t you land in a field?” (I’ve pretty much covered that, but, yeah, land in a muddy, hilly field with trees, rocks—throw in a pond or fence—instead of on a concrete runway?)

If I had to do it all over again, there probably are a lot of things I’d do differently. But everyone is still around to talk about it, so I guess I didn’t do too badly.


Matt Johnson is former U.S. Air Force T-38 instructor pilot and KC-135Q copilot. He’s now a Virginia-based flight instructor.


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