As pilots, I am sure we have all thought about death and the possibility of being involved in a plane crash. If you are like me, you can hear a small plane fly overhead before you see it and look to the sky whenever practical. We read literature on the subject, study and perform refreshers, and try to plan for the possibility that one day we will be forced to endure the five minutes of panic for which we have prepared.
A few months ago, I had the unfortunate opportunity to witness a pilot during these five minutes. It seemed like eternity to me and I cannot imagine how it felt to him. You would think that this pilot was somewhat lucky since he was able to get to an airport when he encountered his emergency – smoke in the cockpit [Preliminary Reports, February].
I became forever linked with this pilot when he notified that he was three miles east of Peachtree-Dekalb Airport in Atlanta. I was taxiing out to runway 2L. Although I was on ground frequency, transmissions were being broadcast about the situation on all frequencies. I realized that the pilot was three miles east of the airport and preparing for an emergency landing on the same field where I was crossing runways during my taxi.
I continued on to my destination, runway 2L. Once at the end of 2L I pulled into the run-up area while ATC announced that the pilot was now one mile east of the field and preparing to enter a downwind for 2R.
A standard traffic pattern with smoke in the cockpit and a runway 27 available? I wondered how much smoke he was breathing, and whether that would impact my decision to just get the plane down on a shorter runway (9/27) or set up for a standard approach I was more comfortable with. I vowed to practice short approaches so that I would be more comfortable with a quick approach and landing if necessary.
By now the fire trucks were being prepared and, according to the official reports, were parked on the intersection of runway 9/27, about two-thirds of the way down 2R. As the pilot turned final, a little high, but OK considering the length of the runway, I noticed the gear was not completely down and locked. Simultaneously, ATC confirmed what I was seeing and said the pilot was going around.
I thought the smoke must be minor if the pilot was going to make another complete circuit, but then I saw a puff of smoke from the pilots window as the plane banked to the right. Once the plane passed the 180-degree mark, it appeared that the pilot was going to try to land on runway 27, a shorter runway, and the one the fire trucks were parked on. At this point, it was clear the pilot was somewhat in control of the aircraft and the engine was producing some power. Again he opted to go around.
As the plane flew low over 9/27, I tried to anticipate the pilots next move. As he neared the departure end of the runway, the pilot banked to the left, turning directly toward myself and at least four other planes in the run-up area.
At this point, according to the reports, ATC cleared the pilot to land on any runway. As the pilot banked left, I lost visual on the plane due to the trees directly behind me.
This is when I first questioned my own demise and whether my time was up. I froze.
Even if I could shut down the airplane and jump out in time, where would I go? I thought about my family and the fact that all I wanted to do that day was take a peaceful flight and celebrate life on my 30th birthday.
For a split second, I glanced away from the trees behind me and toward the end of the runway at about my 2 oclock. When I looked back the pilot had banked the airplane sharply to the left and was just feet off the ground. I watched the plane and pilot come to rest in the grassy area between runways 2L and 2R.
All I could hear was ATC yelling on the frequency and my heart pounding. Was the pilot going to get out? Where were the fire trucks?
It seemed like an eternity before the fire trucks arrived and put out the fire. I prayed for the family and the victim moments after witnessing my first and hopefully last plane crash. The plane came to rest less than 50 yards from where I was that day, and the picture is etched in my memory.
I sat in my rented plane for a few minutes before I realized that some of the other pilots had shut down their engines and were getting out of their airplanes. I gingerly eased out of the airplane and my body felt strange. It was a mixture of fear, adrenaline and pain (physical and mental). After a moment or two and a few words with a local instructor (who was with a student) in the plane next to mine, the other planes began taxiing back to the ramp.
I got back into the plane and taxied back, too – after I figured out how to read the checklist and start the airplane.
The flight school employees swarmed me as I parked the plane. I tripped over my own feet so many times I was afraid my legs had forgotten how to walk. I was done for the day. I just hoped I would be able to get back into a plane again.
Just days before I had mentioned to a friend that I expected that one day I may witness an accident because I am always looking in the sky as planes fly over. I never expected it to be so soon.
I spent the rest of the day with friends and played the incident back in my mind for hours. I believe that the direction of flight the pilot took in the last seconds of the flight was to avoid the five airplanes at the end of the runway. A few days later I pulled out an old Aviation Safety and reviewed fire-in-flight emergency procedures. Would I have done the same thing in this situation?
I hope I never have to find out, but I will constantly prepare for the five minutes of panic that pilot must have endured. I have been flying several times since the incident and my body gets that same strange feeling it felt that day. I will continue to fly even though with each departure I cant help but look over at the spot where the plane came down that day.
I will always remember that unfortunate pilot and his last flight. It has made me a better pilot and I will continue to spread the word about being prepared for any emergency.
Thanks Again, Dad
My father recently passed away after being a private pilot for more than 20 years. I had flown with him since I was so small I could not see over the panel.
After I obtained my VFR license a couple of years ago, we flew in different flight conditions in order for me to gain experience in the difficult mountainous area of Caracas, Venezuela. He concentrated on teaching me to plan ahead for any unforeseen event, to keep calm no matter what the circumstance and to take immediate action when needed.
All of this came in very handy on a flight that I will never forget.
We were returning from a nice weekend in Los Roques, a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. There are no flight services in this airport and the weather on the ground looked fair so I decided to take off. Once in the air I was told that the conditions in Maiquetia, a waypoint in my route to the Caracas airport, were IFR.
As a result, I decided to go through Higuerote, where the conditions were clear. Nevertheless, I had to go through a wall of clouds and avoid a 13,000-foot mountain range. I spotted a place that I thought I could go through but halfway there I realized my C-182 did not have the performance to make it.
The space to turn around was very limited and I made a steep turn to try to stay away from the clouds. Needless to say, I had not planned ahead as I should have, and I went into the clouds at a very steep bank.
Once inside I became disoriented and the next thing I knew my airspeed was at redline, my bank was around 60, the vertical speed indicator was off the scale and the altimeter was unwinding like in a Hollywood movie. I was in a textbook death spiral.
My brother-in-law, who was sitting next to me, had taken some flight lessons. He looked at me in terror and said that he had never seen anything like this before in his life. I remained cool and immediately did as I was trained. I idled the throttle, leveled the wings and then raised the nose.
My wife and my sister-in-law started to feel the g-forces generated by pulling out of the dive and started screaming. By now the airplane was recovered but I was still inside the cloud. I looked at the heading indicator and realized that we had already made a 180-turn and lost about 2,000 feet.
All I had to do now was wait to break out of the clouds. When we finally did, I continued to look for a place to go around the clouds. Going back to where we started was as bad as trying to continue to my destination.
Finally, after passing the clouds, I could see the airport in the distance and one of the most beautiful sunsets Ive ever seen. Suddenly on the radio I heard the call sign of my fathers old BE-58 Baron. He had flown this airplane for more than 15 years until he traded it for the airplane that I was flying that moment. The airplane was coming from an airport in the same group of islands that I departed, was flying IFR to my destination, and was going to land a couple of minutes before me.
Anybody can think that this was pure coincidence and it probably was. However, for some reason, on that final leg of the flight, I felt like he was accompanying me again, just like in the old days.
I silently made a prayer and gave him thanks for everything that he had taught me, because all those hours of training surely saved our lives.