Fly conservatively this July 4 holiday

This holiday weekend, give an extra thought to flying safely. I have a special reason to ask. And that experience still gives me pause each July 4 weekend since 2002 when I had a “box seat” for a base-to-final stall.

Few of us know what a stall looks like outside the aircraft and up close. I learned that weekend. I was outbound from my home field of Leesburg, Virginia, when I heard a Mayday returning south direct to KJYO along US 15. I radioed I was standing by to assist; he briefly acknowledged. He said he’d gotten power back about 10-15 miles north and would continue across town straight-in to Runway 17.

Sure enough, there he was. I swung around and fell in-trail. I radioed again with no answer, so I wasn’t going to join-up. In-trail kept him in sight but me off his mind and out of the way. Further radio was a no-no — not time to bother him. I did advise CATF/UNICOM he was inbound coming up on downtown Leesburg.

In trail, it was obvious he was barely making 70 knots – the cruise speed of my old L-16B. Was this slick two-seat Diamond on partial power? Worse, he was slipping lower and sinking right into town. Suddenly, there was a big loss of airspeed; I had to pull power fast. He made a quick 180 away from downtown.

I steered wide left to stay out of view and executed the same 180. About then, he turned east to set up downwind to the town park. His downwind looked OK but a little tight on his intended field, a short one at that. Now it was time to decide where to turn base. He turned too soon, too close in. Seconds later, there was a steep left onto a very short final.

Then he was riding an elevator down. He sank FAST in an unrelenting, left-wing-low vertical drop onto someone’s driveway. It took mere seconds. He had had it made. Then, he was done.

I called it in and the equipment arrived. I circled a while, flew to the airport and was driven back. Thankfully, the pilot’s son – a new USAF pilot candidate — suffered only a broken ankle in the right seat. His father — a highly experienced Boeing 777 first officer — was on the low side of the crash and did not survive the fall.

State Police on-site were clueless. The FAA never followed up with me. The lawyers did, though! I twice flew planeloads of attorneys on accident re-creations. I was also visited by the father/grandfather of this three-generation Air Force family. He wanted answers, a lawsuit and “justice.” I had to explain what I saw happen.

The incident caused some critical speculation, including the old saw that airline pilots are a long way from single-engine flying. (I myself recalled handing over a 182 to an airline pal for long final into Fort Worth Alliance’s 9600-foot runway. He wallowed, he fidgeted and he fretted all the way down to 300 AGL before yelling, “Just take it!” The speed sensations and sight picture are just too different in MD-80s.)

This Diamond pilot – a superb aviator I’m told – had but five hours in type. And, as you may know, the Katana — derived from a glider – is slicker than your old Cessna or Piper. It appears this approach got way too tight for the Diamond’s glide profile.

That field WAS short. I can see being on top of it would shake him up as his field came into view. Could he have extended base, overshot final and come back? It’s tough to move away from your landing spot at low altitude, especially with trees to cross coming back. Or could he have just landed long and accepted the overrun?

I wondered why the pilot had over-flown 15 miles of nice pasture land — some of it admittedly rolling with rock outcroppings, but some not. The answer is probably two-fold: First, he had restored some power and it’s hard to put down a running engine. Second, I suspect that multi-engine pilots always focus on staying in the air and getting back to the airport.

This pilot saved the day for my little town. He finally saw the writing on the wall (literally, on downtown buildings) and turned away. How close that runway across town looked to us. Even closer was the big area of green (back then) that extended towards downtown below the final approach. So close and yet so far.

But there’s no gimme. Flying is a fluid thing and, at its extremes, inexorable physics prevail. At some point, all energy and option is used up. Then, the die is cast and the rest is (gulp) written in stone.

Bottom line? Act early, before you absolutely have to — while you still have options and resources. Don’t press the issue and don’t throw away options (like keeping open land below you.) Gut up and accept a less-than-pretty outcome, if necessary. Sacrifice the plane. Forget the cost. Take the blame. Just get out of it the easiest and safest way possible. Facing bad weather, questionable fuel status or suspected mechanical problem, call the game early. Forget the inconvenience, schedule pressure, ego hit or get-there-itis. (Easy to say, but harder to do, I know.)

On major holidays, we fly more. We’re often traveling. We want to have fun. But after each holiday weekend, there’s a cluster of accident reports for the FAA the next workday. Let’s do our special best not to make our holiday weekends aloft part of the same accident spike we suffer on the roads.

Fly conservatively, relax and enjoy. That’s it, my simple motto for the July 4 weekend. We can discuss the deeper complexities another time.


© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved


  1. unclelar says

    Good article. We just had a guy do the same thing with a perfectly running Rans S-12 at our airport a few weeks ago. Two on board and they hit a pond on the approach end to the airfield about 8 feet from shore. Huge plume of water. Both walked away from it. Eight feet from dead. The pilot had crashed his Quicksilver ultralite several times before and even put one of his crashes on YouTube. And to cap it off it was the other guy flying with him that owned the aircraft. It’s good to hear these stories every now and then to remind you to keep your speed up in turns close to the ground. Thanks.

  2. Linda S. Berl says

    That must have been as very traumatic experience for you…to watch an airplane accident unfold. Thank you for sharing.
    I saw a young glider pilot “pancake” it in many years ago at Kutzown Airport. He wasn’t killed, but was badly injured from the stall. I was flying the glider behind him.

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