The only time Ive performed what I consider to have been a for-real high-altitude takeoff, it went fine. I was at Albuquerque, N.M.s Double Eagle II airport, elevation some 5800 feet. It wasnt the middle of summer, but it was a warm, sunny fall afternoon. I dont recall which runway I used, but it offered more than enough length for my Debonair, which carried only me, some gear and full fuel. As Id been trained, I leaned the engine before the takeoff and let the airplane fly itself off the runway. I handled it gently until gaining enough airspeed to establish a proper climb and I had some altitude.
After a low pass over the field, the pilot returned to land. On final approach, he was blinded by [the] sun and the tailwheel hit vines growing near the airstrip, causing the airplane to stall. The left wing, left main landing gear and propeller were damaged during the hard landing. According to the NTSB, [b]ecause the pilot did not hold a current pilot certificate, nor did he meet the medical certification requirements, he was not legally authorized to act as pilot-in-command of the airplane at the time of the accident.
Radar data depicted the airplane flying northerly until about 1138, when it initiated a right turn to the south at about 400 feet msl. Witnesses then saw the airplane turn right to a westerly or northwesterly direction over land while radar depicted the airplane descending to about 200 feet msl. The airplane banked sharply left, and one witness observed the banner twist and separate. The airplane then banked to the right and impacted a 19-story condominium near its top floor. The airplane fell to the second floor deck and came to rest on its left side. Witnesses described the engine sound as either sputtering, operating normally or being at a low throttle setting.
All other things being equal, one of the benefits of a primary flight display (PFD, which presents flight instrumentation on an electronic panel) is its use of a solid-state attitude and heading reference system, sometimes known as an AHARS. By using an AHARS to determine which side is up and in which direction the airplane is pointed, the vacuum-driven system is avoided and usually only an electrical system failure or failure of the display itself can eliminate the flight instruments. (Certification rules require backup flight instruments when a PFD is present but not when steam gauges are energized by a vacuum pump.)
As the airplane was vectored to avoid cells and areas of heavy precipitation, the controller queried the pilot about his inability to maintain assigned headings. The pilot reported that his autopilot had kicked off and that the winds are really weird up here. At about 1310, the airplane slowed to about 70 knots groundspeed on a northeasterly heading before it began an accelerating 90-degree right turn to the south. By 1313, the controller again asked, ...appears you've turned back to the northwest and...are you going to turn back eastbound? The pilot replied, I don't know what's going on up here. I'm working on instruments…acting really goofy here. Shortly thereafter, the airplane turned and descended from a northerly heading sharply to its right. The radar track tightened to the right as the target rapidly descended, then disappeared at about 1315 in an area that depicted heavy precipitation.
Upon raising the landing gear after takeoff, the gear motor continued to operate longer than normal, and the pilot heard an abnormal sound toward the end of the sequence. The right main gear was hanging at about a 45-degree angle, and the left main gear was not visible. The pilot completed the appropriate checklists, without change. The pilot declared an emergency and ATC confirmed during a fly-by that the main gear was not extended. During the landing, the nose gear remained extended and the two main gear were retracted. The airplane came to rest on the runway and the passengers egressed without further incident.
After flying south through the Cajon Pass at 6500 feet msl, the airplane turned west and encountered what the commercial pilot presumed was leeside turbulence from the mountain range. She turned back south to find smoother air but the turbulence became more severe and the airplane began to descend rapidly. As the airline transport pilot struggled to change frequencies in the turbulence, the airplane descended to 2000 feet msl (about 500 feet agl). The commercial pilot applied full power but the engine did not respond. After the airline transport pilot enrichened the mixture and applied carburetor heat, the engine momentarily regained power. At about 2300 feet msl, the engine again lost power, and the ATP decided to land on the westbound lanes of a freeway. As he attempted to avoid a vehicle, the airplane landed hard.
When I was a student pilot, I was lucky to have some grizzled mentors. There were a lot of do this and dont do that admonitions, a lot of tips regarding shortcuts and rules of thumb, plus some sage advice about decision-making. A lot of that advice could be broken down into the old Its better to be on the ground wishing you in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground genre, but it was often accompanied by a Let me tell you what I learned the hard way kind of introduction.
Vintage aircraft often have vintage owners. Familiarity being a source of contempt, long-time owners of aircraft seeing little activity may also see little need to perform preventive maintenance or conduct regular inspections. It was just fine when I parked it; what could possibly have broken while it was sitting in a hangar? can be a familiar refrain to pilots who have owned the same airplane for a significant time. After a while, the pilot/owner is so familiar with the aircraft, he or she can tell somethings wrong just by the slipstream noise.
According to the pilot, he was delayed about 10 minutes by traffic before completing the engine run-up and takeoff roll with no anomalies noted. After the pilot lifted off and retracted the landing gear, the engine stopped producing power about 300 feet above the runway. There was no time to perform remedial actions to restore power, so the pilot lowered the landing gear and touched down on the remaining runway. The airplane went off the departure end of the runway, down an embankment and across a road before coming to rest upright 384 feet beyond the runways departure end in low brush.
My airplane has wingtip-mounted fuel tanks, installed under a supplemental type certificate (STC). In many ways, theyve transformed and improved the machine by adding greater loading flexibility, thanks in part to a gross-weight increase. What drag they produce isnt noticeable, and the additional endurance means the airplane is faster over some trips than it was before. For many of my destinations, I can depart with full tanks, fly to my destination, shoot an approach, miss it and fly home with reserves.