Follow the Leader

Flying in a group can be fun, but it can also start a string of events that lead to tragedy


A balmy summer day. A low-and-slow taildragger. Some would say there is no better way to wind up a weekend fly-in than a leisurely trip back home, accompanied by a few friends in their nearly identical airplanes.

Flying with friends has its share of joys. The camaraderie is great when droning along. Theres always a friendly face – and someone to have lunch with – during fuel stops. And pooling experience gives some of the advantages of a multi-pilot cockpit, even if those multiple pilots are in different cockpits.

But there are also some dangers, as well. The temptation to fly in formation, even loosely, cannot be ignored. Peer pressure may lead you into weather conditions that make you uncomfortable. But mostly, each pilot becomes outwardly directed, intent on satisfying his companions, rather than focused on satisfying him or herself.

Like any other balancing act, it is one negotiated routinely and without incident by many people. Perhaps that is why, when mistakes happen, they seem so pointless. Like running out of fuel, we all know the hazards, yet sometimes we ignore them.

One summer morning, a group of four Piper Cubs left Lock Haven, Pa., after the end of a Cub fly-in. The two-hour cruise was leisurely (isnt that what Cubs are for?) and the four airplanes landed at High Rock Airport in Dawson, Md., at about 11:30 a.m.

For one of the airplanes, this was the end of the trip. The pilots and passengers who were continuing shared a quick lunch, refueled from gas cans brought to the airport from a local Amoco station, and got ready to resume their journey.

The owner of the private, public-use airport briefed the pilots on departure procedures. The runway ran roughly north/south. There was high ground to the east and west, and a bit to the north as well. A river ran through town to the south, past the east side of the airport, and on toward the northeast.

The airport owner suggested taking off to the south, where low ground over town and beyond would allow plenty of room to climb out, or taking off to the north and making a slight right turn to follow the river valley. He held out a poor mans windsock, a handkerchief that occasionally fluttered beneath his fingertips. A light wind blew sporadically out of the north. The pilots decided to take off into what wind there was.

Launch Sequence
The first airplane to depart was a 65-hp J3 carrying only the pilot. The airplane took off normally in the 90-degree air and, as it reached the departure end of the runway, the pilot began a turn to the left. He intended to stay close to the airport so the airplanes could remain in visual contact during the next leg of their flight, to New Castle, Va. He said winds above the ground were light and there were only a few convective thermals, hardly even a light chop.

The next Cub was a 65-hp L4, the World War II military version, that after the war was re-classified as a J3. Accompanying the pilot was a non-pilot passenger in the front seat. With the lead airplane in sight, the pilot began his takeoff roll. The airplane used most of the 1,700-foot turf runway before it lumbered into the sky. The pilot turned left to follow the first airplane.

Next in line was an 85-hp J3 carrying the pilot and his wife. It took off and also played follow the leader with the first airplane.

As the pilot of the first J3 watched, the L4 was obviously struggling to climb. The terrain was rising faster, however, and the L4 pilot knew there was trouble ahead.

Initially my climb was normal for the conditions, the L4 pilot told investigators later. I turned crosswind and after a few seconds noticed that my climb had slowed down. I was flying up a shallow draw that had two ridgelines that ran approximately parallel to the direction of the crosswind.

With the little airplane at full power, the ground began to rise up to meet him at an accelerating pace. As the pilot tried to squeeze more climb from the Cub, the airspeed sank to 45-50 mph. Even though the pilot could see salvation in the airport to his left, he dared not make the turn it required for fear of stalling or spinning to the ground.

At that point, the former army aviator said, I knew I was committed to land in the trees.

He spotted a patch of smaller trees among the forest and began a shallow right turn toward them. They hit the trees and the airplane dropped to the ground. Battered and bleeding, the pilot kicked open the door and assisted his passenger in getting out of the wreckage. Her injuries, while serious, were not incapacitating and together they moved a safe distance away from the fully fueled wreck.

The pilot then returned to the airplane to get his handheld radio and an antenna. He tried calling on the agreed-upon air-to-air frequency and on emergency channels, but got no response.

Meanwhile, the other two pilots watched the drama unfold.

Im Going In
The pilot of the third airplane had noticed the airplanes inability to climb, as he was about 100 feet higher than the airplane that took off before him and a quarter-mile in trail. Ed, Ed, did you see that? he called to the other pilot on the radio. The first pilot, apparently addressing the airport Unicom, said Call 911, the L4 went into the trees.

The third pilot flew to the crash site and looked out his open door, where he saw the two occupants emerging from the downed airplane. As he turned to the right to maneuver around the area, the pilot said he, too, was hit by a downdraft. About 20 seconds after the L4 crashed, the third pilot called to the first, Ed, Im going in.

The first pilot thought this communication meant he was returning to the airport. Instead, the third Cub crashed into the trees. After a few seconds, a fire erupted in the nose of the airplane. The pilots wife, sitting in front, had taken the brunt of the impact. In trying to rescue her, the pilot received third-degree burns on both arms. He was unsuccessful in rescuing his wife.

When the first pilot spotted the smoke from the burning Cub, he thought it was the L4. He looked around and did not see the third Cub, so he assumed it had landed back at the airport. As he maneuvered to find a road or other route for rescuers to get to the crash site, he spotted the wreckage of the L4. It was then, he told investigators, that he realized the true meaning of the third pilots last radio transmission.

With smoke marking one crash site and the first pilot orbiting the other, rescuers were able to find the three survivors in fairly short order.

In researching the crash, investigators came upon several factors that may have played a crucial role in the unfortunate chain of events. The turn toward rising terrain, the reported downdraft and the relatively high density altitude (3,000 feet) were given their due. But other problems also turned up.

First, the L4 was equipped with a cruise propeller that would eke out a bit more airspeed than the standard-issue prop, but at the expense of climb rate. But there may have been more.

The pilot calculated the weight at takeoff at 1,214 pounds – just under the airplanes maximum gross weight of 1,200 pounds. In making the calculation, the pilot estimated the weight of his luggage at 20 pounds, the maximum allowable in the baggage compartment. However, the first pilot, who recovered the large duffel bag and took it to the hospital, estimated it weighed at least 50 pounds. That would have made the airplane about 4 percent overweight when it was in a configuration where climb was marginal in the first place.

The other crashed airplane was in a similar condition. Although it had a more powerful engine and was not hindered by a cruise prop, it did carry extra fuel in auxiliary wing tanks. With those tanks full, the airplane was carrying an extra 96 pounds of fuel. Calculating the weight and balance of the airplane at takeoff gives a takeoff weight of 1,323 pounds using the pilots estimate of 20 pounds of baggage. However, the first pilot also retrieved the luggage from this airplane and estimated it at about 50 pounds. In any case, the airplane was at least 9 percent overweight at the time of takeoff.

The accidents point out several factors that many pilots tend to ignore.

One More Straw …
A few pounds overweight sometimes does matter. Overloading airplanes has been around for as long as wings have been slicing through air. Most pilots have done it at one time or another, whether they knew it or not. Some do it routinely and insist their single-engine airplane can carry 100 pounds more than the book allows. Maybe it can, but maybe it comes up short when you ask it to do something it should be able to do because youre following a similar airplane.

In addition, most people think of mountain flying as something you need to do to fly from Denver to Los Angeles. In fact, hills affect the flow of air. Attention to those flows is crucial to the safe conclusion of any flight where the terrain is higher than the runway. An easy check is to check the pressure at surrounding airports. Be wary if a nearby airport has higher pressure and there is a hill or ridge between the two. Conditions for downdrafts are ripe.

Most of all, be aware that flying with friends can be great, but it can also lead to being a follower instead of pilot in command. The pilot in front of you cant watch out for you nearly as well as the person sitting in your seat.

-by Ken Ibold


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