In accident reports, the NTSB may call it maneuvering flight, but most of the time it has a more colorful name: buzzing – or flat hatting to use a World War II term.
Most pilots have been guilty of it. Some dont get bitten, some learn the hard way and live to tell the story. Some find they fail the final exam. Not everyone, it appears, is as lucky as I was to survive a crash while buzzing.
The AOPA Air Safety Foundations Nall Report says buzzing in single-engine airplanes continues to be one of the largest producers of fatal accidents. Furthermore, the report says, 34.5 percent of the fatal maneuvering accidents resulted from maneuvering during low, slow flight. That reminded me of one of my just-returned-from-the-war flight instructors, who advised me, Son, I dont want to be teaching you how to buzz. But I know youre gonna do it. So if you do just remember, always buzz fast, never slow.
My slice of humble pie came early and made me much more careful for the rest of my life. At age 17, with a three-week-old Private certificate in my pocket, I was sitting in the lounge at Auburn (Alabama) Universitys Pitts Field, hoping the strong gusty winds from an early October cold front passage would die down and let several of us practice for a flying competition that was scheduled the next day.
Around noon, the dispatcher, a graduate student in the universitys aviation program, asked if I would accompany another freshman pilot while he practiced for the event. He needed weight – ballast actually – to keep the J-3 Cub on the ground after landing. In truth, the wind was so strong we needed wing walkers because it was dangerous to taxi. Ever eager to build on my 45 hours of flight time I quickly volunteered.
In addition to spot landings, we were to practice bombing with five-pound paper sacks of flour. From 300 feet over the airport our target was to be a 100 foot circle. Sitting in the front seat, I was to be his bombardier. As luck would have it, preparations were in progress on the field for the weekend event, so it was off-limits to us.
Never one to be thwarted from the mission at hand, I suggested an isolated place I knew of with a derelict old farm house near the city water works. We hedge-hopped over the trees to the large lake, then set up for the flour-sack drop from 300 feet. It was fall and the leaves were ablaze in the sweet-gum trees.
As we passed over the dilapidated structure I heaved a flour sack out of the open doors of the J-3 Cub. We quickly lost sight of it, so I turned around to face forward and get set for another run. Yet in a fit of juvenile enthusiasm to keep the bag in sight and score the hit, the back seat pilot suddenly stomped on the right rudder and snatched the control stick full aft and to the right.
The training for my Private Certificate had been heavy on spins, and I immediately recognized his snap-roll input. But by the time I grabbed the controls we were inverted, with the yellow and red leaves showing through the plexiglass roof. This was my first experience with the possibility of sudden death.
I could hear my companion behind me screaming, but I immediately chopped the power and popped the stick forward to break the spin. We were headed straight down toward a small pasture, so I pulled hard and added full power.
The open space of the small pasture allowed room to recover from the high-energy snap, and we missed hitting the ground by inches. Unfortunately there were three very large, tall pines in our climb-out path and it was obvious we wouldnt top them. Nor could I get aligned to go between them. So I pulled hard and just nicked the tops. My last recollection was of the wooden prop breaking off and the pines brushing our underside.
When I regained consciousness, I was overwhelmed by the strong smell of gas. The reason, of course, was the ruptured fuel tank that sits between the front seat pilots legs. My legs were pinned by the jagged metal from the ruptured tank. While my brain was still a bit foggy, it was obvious I needed to get out fast.
Thus, with the help of the uninjured back-seat pilot, I ripped and tore flesh until my legs were free. My face was a mess, thanks to the instrument panel; with a nose mashed flat and a giant strawberry oozing blood from my forehead. Shoulder harnesses were not installed in Cubs at the time.
We struggled through the brush and honeysuckle vines then finally found the main road. Looking back it was just the slap in the face I needed to introduce me into the real world. There is a price to be paid for mischief. Unfortunately the record shows each year many others are not so lucky.
The Nall Report shows that, as in our case, 50 percent of the fatal maneuvering accidents in single engine airplanes during 1998 were attributed to loss of control. And interestingly, over the years warbirds have figured prominently.
A few months ago, a P-40F crashed while performing a fly-by at Peyton, Colo. Witnesses said the pilot was performing a low fly-by over runway 33. After passing the departure end the engine suddenly quit. In a desperation turn back toward runway 15, the aircraft caught some wires and hit short.
A few years ago a P-51D was making a low pass down the runway at Dyess Airport, near Abilene, Texas. At the end of the runway, the Mustang made a climbing right turn at what was reported to be a slower than normal speed. After turning about 90 degrees, the bank angle increased rapidly, the nose dropped and the airplane crashed. The NTSB accident brief listed Low Pass – Performed, Airspeed – Not Maintained, Stall – Inadvertent.
This is a familiar finding. When making a steep climbing turn after a high-speed pass, what many pilots neglect to consider is that the indicated airspeed at stall is a function of bank angle and applied g-force. For example with a bank angle of 60 degrees and 2 gs applied, stall speed increases almost 40 percent. Thus a P-51D with a 101 KIAS wings-level stall speed at 9,000 lbs. gross weight would stall at 141 KIAS. Up the bank to 75 degrees and apply 4 gs and the stall speed doubles to 202 KIAS.
In yet another case a P-51D crashed into a potato field after striking an electrical wire running at a right angle to its ground track. It struck the ground, then a building, then disintegrated, killing the highly experienced 50-year-old pilot/owner. Hearing about that one led to another flashback. During my teenage years, while buzzing the seemingly endless river delta country of south Montgomery County, Ala., only a glint of light from the power lines, courtesy of the late afternoon sun, kept me from joining other crispy critters, as my grandson would say.
Another danger pops up over the water. Unless you fly seaplanes youve probably never heard of glassy water effect. And why should you, since with a wheel-equipped land plane you are not going to be flying low over any lakes. Yet a floatplane pilot knows all about how a body of water can create a mirror image of the sky on a calm day, rendering your depth perception useless.
During WWII, when the Civil Pilot Training program was going strong, I encountered a couple of pilots who had just learned about glassy water the hard way. I was 14 and camped out with a friend on the shoreline of a large lake. It was just after sunrise on a cool November morning and the air was calm.
Around the shoreline, patches of advection fog were rising from the waters surface. A CPT instructor and student in a bright yellow J-3 Cub were practicing forced landings – or so they said. From our tent camp near the shoreline I was watching, since even at that tender age airplanes were fascinating. After completing their approach to a field bordering the lake, the instructor in the front seat initiated a go-around, then decided to stay low and buzz the large expanse of water.
With the lakes surface mirror-calm, he made it to about mid-lake, whereupon his wheels touched the water inadvertently and they both were out for a swim. The water was icy-cold and they quickly climbed onto the top of the now floating airplane. My friend and I went to the top of a nearby knoll to watch and when they saw us they quickly yelled for help.
Lacking a boat, we ran about a mile around the shoreline to a boat that was chained to a stump. With two of my seven precious shotgun shells, jealously hoarded for duck hunting, I blasted the chain loose and we paddled out to the thoroughly chilled pilots.
By the time we made it to shore a rescue group from the airport had arrived. Without so much as a thank you, the entourage drove off as the pilots attempted to explain their misfortune. It was not until several years later, while getting a seaplane rating, that I recognized their mistake.
Another classic glassy water mishap involved a Beech Travelair. It was a quiet Sunday morning on Lake O.H. Ivie, near Paint Rock, Texas. The sky was clear and the winds calm. And, as with the Cub mishap, the calm winds were the key factor.
The pilot of the Travelair was flying cargo for a Part 135 operator. He had departed Waco for San Angelo at 09:00.
At around 09:50 CDT a witness, who was fishing nearby, told investigators, The airplane appeared from the Elm Creek slough, flying straight towards me…at 50 to 100 feet above the water. I watched the plane closely because it seemed to be buzzing the lake. I saw no indication of engine trouble.
The plane skimmed the top of the water, much like a float plane landing, he told investigators. I saw spray explode around the airplane, and heard a loud clap noise, (then) it immediately began to climb. I noticed the plane had a climb attitude but did not gain much altitude after the first 15 to 30 seconds immediately following contact with the water. Spray and what I now believe was smoke poured from the aircraft as it climbed.
The plane then began to bank in a more or less normal manner to the right. As the right bank continued I lost sight of it behind a small hill. I could hear an airplane engine at what sounded like high RPM. Then I heard a crump and the engine noise quit.
As every seaplane pilot recognizes, this pilot too was the victim of glassy water effect. In short, when the wind is calm and the waters surface is mirror smooth, a pilot is unable to judge height over the water. This is because there are no surface contrasts such as waves, wind-streaks or floating debris for visual reference. The lakes surface is like a mirror, which precludes normal depth perception. The same phenomenon occurs in winter when a blanket of snow covers a large expanse of flat terrain – especially when visibility is limited by haze or a light snowfall.
Limited visibility and rain can do it too. In Alaska the pilot of a Super Cub made a couple of low passes over the landing area. On the second low pass he headed toward up-sloping terrain. With rain on the windscreen obstructing his view, by looking to the side he could see the terrain was rising sharply. Consequently he began a turn away from the slope.
During the turn his landing gear struck the tundra and the flight ended abruptly. The cause was listed as Failure of the pilot to maintain adequate altitude/clearance from terrain during a low pass.
FAR 91.119, Minimum Safe Altitudes says that the pilot must always be at an altitude that with an engine failure allows an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface. Over congested areas such as a city or town, the FAR requires the aircraft to be at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within 2,000 feet of its flight path. In my opinion this rule is too generous.
For example, from 1,000 feet a Cessna 182 has a glide distance of slightly less than two miles. Over a large metropolitan area, such as Sacramento, Calif., where I live, an engine failure leaves you with the choice of a city street, the top of a building or someones house. Obviously this subjects numerous persons or property to undue hazard.
In my book it is unthinkably selfish to bring others into your self-induced dilemma. Thus either complete avoidance of the city or a more practical 3,000 to 5,000 feet is a more functional minimum altitude. You simply must be capable of gliding away from populated areas. In addition, the reliance many instructors teach on roads as an emergency landing site is extremely unfair to motorists.
Next time you are tempted to buzz, think twice about the hazards involved. Every year someone learns the lesson the hard way.
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-by John Lowery
John Lowery is an aviation safety consultant and a former Air Force and corporate pilot.