“I’m OK! Are you OK?”
As I hung upside down, shoulder harnesses digging into my collarbones, I tried to make sense of the broken glass, bent metal and wet sand that surrounded me. Just 60 seconds prior, I had been rolling down a beautiful grass strip in the Cascades. I watched the airspeed build and felt the tail come up as I advanced the throttle and worked the rudders through the takeoff. Then came the sickening sound of the prop digging into the turf.
The ground was firm. It was September and it had been a long, dry summer with little rain. Tieton State Airport (4S6) is beautifully situated at the end of Rimrock Lake under the shadow of Mt. Rainier in Washington state. The runway pitches slightly uphill from the water’s edge towards the surrounding mountains and the approach to the airport is over the lake, offering a clear and wide path to the runway.
As I overflew the airport that day, everything was as expected and just as the airport manager had described when I called to check on runway conditions a few hours before departing Seattle.
I was afforded epic views of soaring jagged cliffs, skyscraper-tall evergreens, and crystal blue water, and noticed the lake’s water level was low, exposing a muddy lakebed dotted with tree stumps at the end of the runway. Despite being a sunny Saturday afternoon, there were no other aircraft around, a subtle sign that another summer had drawn to a close.
I touched down on the grass uneventfully, and taxied up the runway to the end to turn around. I paused for a moment to run through a quick pre-takeoff checklist and take a deep breath before taking off again. I eased off the brakes, did one last check of the flap position, and drove the airplane down the runway, mindful of the slightly downward slope and uneven ground.
As the tail lifted off the ground, the aircraft rolled over a bump in the runway, a puff of wind caught the wing and we were airborne. Having not quite enough airspeed to fly, I let the plane settle back down to the ground, but the tail hit first.
What started as a subtle porpoise between tail and mains quickly turned into a full-blown oscillation as each correction input I introduced increased the amplitude.
It was as if my brain was disconnected from my body and I was watching the scene unfold from outside the airplane. Despite my brain screaming “you are making it worse,” my body refused to listen and I continued to chase the see-sawing plane with over-corrective stick movements.
The nauseating crunch of the prop meeting the ground and the subsequent whine of the engine reunited my body with my brain as the runway disappeared below and behind me. Trees, rocks, cliffs, mud, water, tree stumps — I had no good options in front of me and knew that turning back towards the airport could prove fatal due to my low altitude and anemic climb rate.
I scanned the landscape for a solution and determined that a sandbar exposed due to the low water level of the lake was the best of my limited options. I set the mains on the driest looking sand, hoping it would be firm enough to bear the weight of the aircraft, and weaved through the tree stumps and rocks, intent on stopping before the water’s edge on the other side.
As the plane slowed, a stump caught the right main gear and sent the spinner into the sand. In slow motion, the tail drifted over the badly bent prop and the plane somersaulted onto its back, shattering the windshield.
The silence surrounding us as we hung from our seatbelts was deafening. We crawled, uninjured, through the window of the crumpled plane and I stared in disbelief at the wreckage. How could I have let this happen? I was angry, upset, and determined to figure out what went wrong and how I had failed.
The next few weeks were a blur of conversations with the insurance company, the forest service, the salvage company, the NTSB, the FAA, and a multitude of flight instructors and tailwheel pilots. I was fortunate to be supported by an amazing community of pilots who helped me not only navigate the FAA and come to terms with what had happened, but who were determined not to let me give up on tailwheel flying.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of my accident. Though the sound of the prop hitting the grass and the visual of shattering glass mixing with sand still haunt me occasionally, I have come a long way.
In June, I bought another Citabria and flew it from Wyoming home to Minnesota. I have studied and analyzed my accident ad nauseam. I have experienced tremendous joy flying my new “Little Starling” around and taking my friends up flying, but most importantly, I have started to forgive myself for crashing the airplane.
I have realized that despite careful planning and proper training, things do not go right 100% of the time. When things go wrong, a combination of skill, luck, and perseverance are required.
I have since flown over Tieton State Airport a number of times. Each time I survey the scene, I realize how very lucky I was to walk away from my accident without injury.
Skill played a part in the outcome, but so did luck. Had the water level of the lake been higher, there would have been no sandbar. Had there been no stump on the sandbar, I would not have stopped before the water’s edge. Had the plane not had 4-point shoulder harnesses, I would have taken the impact with my head and neck.
Fortunately, my luck bucket had a remaining balance from which I could withdraw and make a deposit in my experience bucket.