Aw, Shucks (or words to that effect) …
In my defense, I did not say those famous last words when the bottom fell out. I didn’t even think them. Honest.
But I guess this sad story needs to start at the beginning…
The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a crisp, beautiful day to go flying. High thin broken clouds scudded over Washington, D.C., with unlimited visibility and glorious late afternoon sunshine. A nice little tailwind at our cruising altitude would push us homeward after a good visit with our daughter and her family.
Marveling at what a good thing it was to so easily escape the city’s holiday traffic, Rob and I hugged them goodbye. I preflighted, topped the fuel, filed the IFR flight plan, and prepared our 1980 Mooney 231 for the 1.5-hour trip down to eastern North Carolina.
While we waited our turn for takeoff at College Park Airport (CGS), just inside the Washington DC FRZ, a landing aircraft made sure I had time to go over the departure checklist mnemonic one more time. CIFFTRS. Special transponder code set. Fuel rich. OK, clear right, here we go.
Power up, rolling down a charmingly short, narrow runway, lift off normal, everything green, gear up, flaps up, power and prop back a bit at 1,000 feet, climbing over the University of Maryland, and initiate the right-hand eastbound turn, contact Potomac Departure, aim for the assigned heading. Trim to cruise climb. OK…
Oops, what’s this? Not so much nose-up trim. Electric trim was now full nose-up, not responding. Weird. My hand dropped to the manual trim wheel, which didn’t budge, not even a little bit. Not even with all my force applied. Not even with stern language directed its way.
Wow, this is getting uncomfortable. I told the departure controller I was having a problem with the trim, and I was trying to figure out how to set things to rights, without success. It was completely jammed.
I hit the Little Red Button trim disconnect. No joy. Electric trim off, then on. Not that either. Autopilot on, nope, off.
Was my seatbelt caught in the gear or some other crud in the works? Evidently not. Was there a circuit breaker that we need to pull? Not that I could see.
My dear passenger was, at my encouragement, leaning on his yoke with all his strength, too.
“Would you like to return to College Park?” Potomac kindly inquired.
“No thanks. Someplace longer, wider, flat, and very nearby would be nice,” I answered, gazing wistfully at Andrews AFB right off the nose. She offered several options, none of them military.
“I’m declaring an emergency for you,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
I stifled the urge to say, “Oh, no, we’ll be fine…” in favor of a meek “Yes, please.” We did seem to be in a spot of trouble.
I agreed that we’d aim southward for Stafford Regional Airport (RMN), just north of Fredericksburg, Virginia. It would take far longer than a Mooney usually takes to go 40 miles or so. I got a block altitude of 2,000 to 4,000, and struggled to stay within it.
The speed needed to be comfortably above a stall, but more throttle made the pitch harder to control. Some kind anonymous soul suggested half-flaps. Done. Not helpful.
By now, a half hour into our wild ride, both of us were shaking with the strain. My husband brought his knees up to his chest, and lodged them against his yoke. I muttered darkly that this airplane might well now belong to the insurance company. Prophetic words.
Despite the bright setting sun now full in my eyes, we finally saw Stafford, and entered a passable left downwind for Runway 33. Stafford ASOS reported wind from 290, 7 gusting to 17. Not too bad.
Add some more flaps. Slow to 100 mph. Turn base. Turn final. Full flaps. Not so much pressure. Ease up a bit. Tighten seatbelts, shoulder harnesses. Be ready to open the door.
Over the fence at 50 feet, 100 mph, just a bit fast for short final, ease up on the forward pressure again, whew, we might even make this! 25 feet to go, and 5,000 very nice feet of asphalt ahead of us, still a little fast, but Halleluiah, we are still flying, and have the runway made. We’re just over the threshold, ease pressure on the yoke, pop the door. And then a sudden sickening crunch.
The last 10 feet or so beneath us had evaporated. Just like that. We skidded sideways into runway lights. Crunch. Again.
I’d managed to collapse the nose gear somehow, and there was a distressing wrong-end-down view of a nice long, mostly-unused runway.
WOULDA, SHOULDA, COULDA
We were about to be the stars of a humiliating show, as line crew, fire engines, ambulances and police zoomed our way.
I shooed my husband out the door, and shut off fuel, mags, master switch, grabbed my purse and followed him up the wing. As I surveyed the scene, I began the self-flagellation that continues to this day. Woulda. Shoulda. Coulda.
But here I was, nary a scratch or a bruise. There was my dearest companion, also alive and entirely well. Not even looking alarmed.
There was no smell of fuel, so we waved to the rescuers, and opened the baggage hatch to get our coats and suitcase out. Funny what priorities one adopts to simulate normalcy when things are so far from normal.
“No, I’m fine, really. So’s he. It’s just the airplane that’s injured,” I told the EMT and a gaggle of firemen.
The medic would not be dissuaded. I wanted to talk to the airport manager, who was right behind him, but no, I had to be examined, to make sure I was alive for the time being, verbal cues to that fact deemed insufficient.
“No, thank you very much for your concern, but I am fine, except for my pride. I will not need any examination or treatment, thanks, NO, I absolutely do not need to go to a hospital just in case.” (Hello? What part of NO do you not understand, young man?)
Boy, these guys are insistent, I noted in frustration. He prevailed, and found my blood pressure to be just a little high. Ya think? He filled out his paperwork. I signed on the dotted line to refuse medical advice, shook his hand, and climbed down from his ambulance.
Then it was the State Trooper’s turn to assure himself of my qualifications, now seriously in doubt. Very good folk, there in Stafford County, Virginia, but I just wanted to slink away and hide.
No, Sir, never saw that busted airplane before in my life. I was just taking a walk, enjoying the sunset…The story wasn’t likely to sell. Handed him my licenses and medical, and then, finally, turned my attention to Stafford Regional Airport Manager Ed Wallis, who would prove to be one of the world’s most accommodating and competent airport administrators.
Here he was, on a chilly holiday weekend evening, looking at a couple of wrecked runway lights, a messed-up Mooney blocking his runway, and about two dozen sets of flashing emergency lights painting a very alarming general aviation picture, within full view of I-95, and he made us feel welcome anyway. Now, that’s a rare skill.
It turned out he had a hangar for rent, bless him, and he’d be glad to put my poor dead-looking bird in it. By now it was quite dark, cold, and I was surrounded by sympathetic rescuers.
One firefighter opined, “That was the best airplane crash I ever saw, and I’ve seen a few. You done really good.” Oh, yeah, man. Thanks…
The airport manager excused himself, and went to get a tractor/front-end-loader. He and his lineman returned, gingerly lifted the Mooney’s nose up, twisted propeller first, and strapped it to the loader. He slowly backed up, and the bent airplane obediently followed on its main gear, at least a half a mile to the vacant hangar.
I called our daughter, and shamefacedly begged a ride back to her house in Washington, an hour and a half’s drive north of where we stood. Sigh.
The next call was to confess to our insurance man. He was most helpful, and echoed what others had already said, “So glad you’re here to tell the tale, too many who have had a trim malfunction aren’t. And don’t worry about the airplane. I’ll have the claims representative call you on Monday.”
Meanwhile, back in the nice warm FBO building, the State Trooper returned my paperwork, and now he’d like the story written down. It was among the first of many formal and informal recountings of how-did-this-mess-happen. I filled in a goodly number of blanks, tried to reconstruct in my own mind, for already the 20th time, how things went so far south.
Eventually, we returned to the house we’d left earlier that afternoon, gratefully accepted a splash of “nerve medicine,” and began the long process of regrouping.
My daughter pulled her father aside, and quietly advised, “Dad, get Mom back on the horse. She needs that.” He agreed. How I love those two!
The FAA inspectors would be viewing the remains on Monday morning, so we rented a car and headed for RMN. The Mooney looked no better by daylight. I busied myself unloading headsets, screwdrivers, fuel testers, expired charts, and a bag full of the stuff that accumulates in pockets and on hat shelves.
Two FAA mechanics and their enforcement agent showed up. After pleasantries and the chuckling “We’re not happy ‘til you’re not happy” ice-breaker, they opened panels, peered into the depths, verified that, sure enough, that jack screw and clutch plate were jammed but good. The FSDO regs guy left his wrench-turning experts to their work and set me to writing my story on his form.
I have to say this: Very nice guys. Thorough and professional, but I didn’t get even a whiff of “gotcha.” The inspectors found no pilot error, citing a purely mechanical malfunction. It would be deemed an incident, not an accident.
I stifled my, “Oh, but…” as one interrupted to say it was natural to second-guess, but not to beat myself up. I was standing there able to tell the tale, and that was, they said, noteworthy.
“You did fine. You’re alive. The airplane can be replaced.”
A GUARDIAN ANGEL
The following morning, before I’d downed my second cup of coffee, the phone rang. It was a fellow Mooney owner from Fredericksburg, Virginia, who’d heard about the mishap from yet a third Mooniac. My, word travels fast in this small community.
Lee Fox, CFI and former airline captain, would become my guardian angel. He knew Mooneys, local mechanics, far-away mechanics, and important Mooney factory people in Kerrville, Texas. He would steer me through the confusing days to come, meeting with mechanics to diagnose the problem, tirelessly explaining what they found, offering his thoughts and reflecting on my own.
He asked hard questions, and listened carefully. Was the trim working properly on the preflight check? (I thought so.) Did I verify its proper setting on that last time through the departure check? (I think I did.)
Despite Lee’s encouraging and practical aero-psychiatric help, “If only” elbowed its way into my cranium and hunkered down.
If only I had been a little higher than usual on final approach. If only I had not let a little excess airspeed concern me, with such a long runway ahead. If only I hadn’t instinctively reduced the power as I figured we had the runway easily made. With the trim so far out of whack, the aerodynamics had to be awfully different. A little wind shear contributed, perhaps?
And then “what-if” burrowed in. What if I had been in IMC? What if I had been solo? What if I had had a scared Angel Flight passenger in that other seat?
I don’t think I could have controlled that much nose-up trim for long by myself. It was all the two of us could do, with neither of us panicking, both pushing hard with soon aching arm and back muscles, to keep the pitch within bounds and the airspeed above a stall.
I have learned some things. Now I know from first-hand experience, that full flaps would relieve some of that severe up-trim pressure, but required substantially more power than I normally use when descending on a short final approach.
Could I have flown the entire 50 minutes with full flaps and nearly full power?
Knowing now, at least in theory, that a steep turn unloads some of the wing, relieving up-pressure, too, maybe I could have climbed enough to steeply spiral down over an appropriate airport? Don’t know if I want to go try that, actually.
Some other, mostly better, thoughts fought for space: First, there’s that good thing about Mooney construction. I contemplated on that long ride how exceptionally sturdy these airplanes are. Knowing what a stout roll-cage they have underneath that slick aluminum skin was confidence-inspiring. I figured we would emerge mostly unscathed if only I could keep the shiny side up and level, and avoid the trees.
Thanks to Lee, I eventually learned that the Mooney Airplane Company had issued a Service Instruction some years earlier, subtly advising a fix to the jammed trim issue which was, as it turned out, not a one-off occurrence.
The annual inspections had been done by a number of different mechanics over the years, including several Mooney Service Centers, and nobody had thought to bring that obscure official advice to my attention. This was despite the fact that I’d had a stuck trim nine months earlier, caught it while taxiing out, had it examined, greased, and pronounced fit.
Now, perhaps as a result of my sacrificed airplane, and thanks to Lee Fox’s urging, Mooney has now issued a sterner Service Instruction, reiterating the long-recommended fix, which will, I hope, be more widely promulgated. It might save somebody else’s bacon, and pretty airplane.
I learned just how much paperwork would be involved: Reams of it. I saw how much easier it all would have been with perfectly organized records.
And how long it would take to settle: Three months.
And how many people would be involved in repair quotes, inspections, plans, and decisions: Dozens, all of them extraordinarily dedicated and careful.
And how much replacement airplane one can buy to replace a totaled one: Not nearly enough.
With a new prop and temporary fix to the nose gear, the Mooney, or what was left of it, was ferried to Tennessee, and on to Texas, where it is being repaired by one of the best Mooney shops in the business.
When it’s finished, it’ll be better than it was before I broke it, with new prop, overhauled engine, pretty paint, and other bits and pieces of brand-newness. Will it come back to live in my town? We shall see…
The most important thing I’ve learned and, I suppose, always knew is how very kind and decent my fellow pilots are. The support, online advice, offers of help, ongoing checkups, and more, have been simply amazing. I now have dear pilot friends I’ve still never laid eyes on. I have experts to call on who otherwise wouldn’t know me from Adam’s off ox. All of these people have most generously shared their time, encouragement, and concern.
My insurance company and its representatives were efficient and most pleasant.
The much-maligned FAA/FSDO/NTSB guys really WERE there to help me.
I’m still feeling distressed at having no airplane, still chagrined at the whole scenario, but ever so aware how lucky we two are, all things considered, to be alive.