When Bad Things Happen to Good Pilots

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There probably isn’t a pilot alive who hasn’t heard the adage: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” But this begs the question: “How does a bold pilot become an old pilot without simply walking away from the cockpit before something serious happens?”

Bad things happen to good pilots in this industry for a variety of reasons and, if you ask an air show pilot how he or she was able to survive an accident or in-flight emergency that could just as easily have ended in a tragic loss of life, the first thing they tell you is how lucky they were. But, as they tell their stories, it becomes apparent that even though luck may have been an element, training, discipline, experience and mental preparation usually made the difference. And, while they say it in a variety of different ways, they all firmly believe that if bold pilots want to become old pilots, bold pilots need to listen to old pilots and heed their advice.

It was just such advice that saved performer Jacquie Warda (aka Jacquie B) last year. She was en route home to California after appearing at an air show in Caldwell, Idaho, when a main oil seal blew in the front of the engine.  Her factory-built Pitts S1T had a small gas tank which limited her range to about an hour. So, to avoid the lack of fuel stops in the desolation of southwest Idaho and northern Nevada, she first flew west to Burns, Oregon where she refueled, and then turned south to California.  It was 9:45 on a sunny Sunday morning.  She fully intended to be home for lunch when the seal blew, shutting down her engine and changing her plans immediately.

“One of my instructors hammered it into me that the most important thing to do when flying is pay attention to where you are and what is happening around you. I never forgot that lesson,” she said. And the blown seal put that lesson to the test. She was climbing through 1,500 feet AGL, preparing to contact Flight Following as the terrain beneath her changed from a flat butte to a steep canyon. “As student pilots, we all learn to constantly be watching for places to land in case something goes wrong, but how many of us really do it anymore? If I had ignored this lesson and been listening to my iPod or texting friends, I would likely not have noticed I had just crossed the last available landing area for miles. I would have wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what to do when the problem occurred. I knew that heading into the canyon was not survivable, but I also knew that turning around afforded me the only chance I had,” she said.

The glide ratio of a Pitts S1T is poor at best and, by the time she turned around, she had lost more than half her altitude. Because of problems with keeping her canopy open in flight, combined with the low altitude, she had no hope of bailing out safely. “The few seconds I saved by knowing what was behind me and not figuring out what to do allowed me to safely turn around and pick my landing spot,” she said.

As she approached the ground, she kept her nose high and wings level. The scrub brush native to that part of the country grows to three and four feet high, and it snagged her bottom wings, slowing her down. “I hit flat, ripping off both spades, then the nose dug in, sending the plane into a tumble,” she said. The plane came up over the right wing, coming to rest upside down. Jacquie was shaken and received a few bumps and bruises, but was otherwise unhurt and able to crawl from the wreckage.

“This episode made a real believer out of me when it comes to heeding advice, and it also justified all of the mental preparation that I routinely do before I fly,” she said. Long ago, she said, she had reviewed every eventuality that could happen when she flies, whether it is cross country or during an air show. “I always remind myself of the decisions I have already made. I know what I will do if I lose an elevator, what I will do if I need to bail out, and I already know not to waste time trying to fix a problem that can’t be fixed,” she said.  “Going from broken to being on the ground during a show routine is often less than fifteen seconds. Those precious seconds you save by not having to rethink a situation can make all the difference.”

It’s an axiom in aviation that good pilots make critical decisions well before they get into their airplanes, because they rarely have time to make them when the unthinkable happens. “Modern air show airplanes don’t glide well, being built for speed and performance. They are designed to take off, do a show, and return. Second guessing yourself takes a lot of time. Flying cross country gives me a lot of time to think, and I spend it thinking of possibilities and how to respond to them,” she said.

Veteran air show performer Sean Tucker is another pilot who put his experience and training to the test in an emergency. He safely bailed out of his Oracle Challenger biplane during a practice session near Shreveport, Louisiana, in April of 2006, when his elevator connecting rod broke as he was making a high-G pull just above the runway.

“I had just completed multiple snaps on the down line, pulled level to the ground at show center, then pulled up at 7.5 G with 220 mph indicated when the rod end broke. I didn’t have to think of what to do because I already knew. My hand instantly went to the trim tab to try to get some control. Had I not done that I would have been in serious trouble,” he said. Fortunately, his aircraft was pitched up when the rod broke, giving him just enough altitude to maneuver, but the airplane immediately pitched down. “All I had to control pitch was a very slow trim tab,” he said. And the trim tab made the difference.

Using a combination of the trim tab, ailerons and power, he was able to stay wings-level, gain about a thousand feet of altitude, and bought himself time to sort out his situation. “I knew instantly what broke and where. Fortunately, I had plenty of fuel, so I had time to try a few things, but quickly realized the plane was way too slow to respond to the trim tab,” he said.

Tucker used the altitude beneath him to attempt several landing sequences without compromising his safety and — by the time he was down to five gallons of fuel — he knew there was no way to make a safe landing. “As I experimented with options, I backed off the power and let the plane settle, but it was taking a full 60 seconds using the trim tab to get the nose back up. That wasn’t acceptable. My last option was my parachute, so I made sure the plane wouldn’t hit anything or anyone on the ground when it crashed and bailed out,” he said.

Even though the incident happened early in the season, Tucker had already flown his routine fully 100 times in practice…a regimen he follows every year. “We all need good luck, but I don’t want to rely on it. I want to be able to rely on my skills and my currency. I was totally prepared for that emergency. It’s part of the job and, if you’re not totally prepared, you shouldn’t be in this business. This is my profession, not a hobby. I’m very committed to staying alive in the airplane,” he said.

Former air show pilot Wayne Handley is another performer who survived due to his experience and skill in the cockpit. He says he lived through two separate incidents through dumb luck and divine intervention, but — while there may be some truth to his beliefs — far more was involved.

Many years ago, Wayne was flying a Grumman Ag Cat for a movie, following the Arroyo Seco River about 30 miles south of Salinas, California. The sun was setting and he was flying in the shadows down the river. Ahead, the left canyon wall was bathed in sunlight and turned 15 degrees to the right. Unfortunately for Handley, that was not the right canyon to follow. Beneath him, the main canyon – the one he was supposed to follow – made an abrupt 120 degree turn to the left, and he missed it. He quickly discovered that he was in the proverbial box canyon with no way out.

“I always had a plan in case this kind of thing happened and, because I was mentally prepared, I was able to control the emotional side of my brain and let the rational side take over,” he said.

He climbed as high as possible up the right side of the canyon, picked a place to intentionally crash the airplane on the opposite side wall, then dove as far as possible into the middle of the canyon before pulling the nose back up to enable the pitch attitude of the airplane to match the slope of the hill for a moment prior to impact. “It was tight, but it worked,” he said. The airplane was destroyed, but Wayne survived.

A second accident occurred at an air show in Kansas City. Wayne was on his way home from Oshkosh where he had replaced his battery. The new battery was smaller than the original, however, so he fashioned a shim out of a piece of wood to keep it in place, but he acknowledges he didn’t secure it well enough. “I was flying the show and did a tumbling maneuver when the elevator locked. The piece of wood had come loose and jammed the linkage,” he explained.

Unlike Sean Tucker’s experience where the elevator moved freely on its hinges, Wayne’s elevator was stuck. His experience as a Navy pilot taught him to rely on his trim tab to take control, but he says it was his hangar flying experience that taught him how to do it right.

“Your first instinct is to trim the nose up, but — if the elevator is jammed – the trim becomes the elevator and works in reverse,” he says. “I had listened to enough old-timers who had experienced this kind of problem to immediately know I had to dial the trim tab down if I wanted the nose to go up.

He was soon able to stabilize his speed at 90 knots and flew a cautious approach to a landing. “I didn’t know if I had breakage or a blockage, but decided my situation was manageable; so I flew a straight-in approach using the trim tab and adjusting the power,” he said. He made what he described as a so-so wheel landing, and — as luck would have it — the impact of the landing shook the obstruction loose and there were no more problems. “Had I not been taking heed of the lessons I learned in those hangar sessions with experienced pilots, the situation would have had a very different outcome,” he said.

Another pilot to experience potentially fatal accident of his own making was veteran performer Bill Cornick. In September, 2003, he was able to walk away from a dramatic accident in his Pitts S2C at Moffett Field’s Air Expo in San Jose, California. Cornick was performing in a three-plane “squirrel cage” act when his left wing tip hit the ground during a series of low-level aileron rolls, sending the biplane into a series of cartwheels on the infield. After sliding several hundred feet, he was pulled from the wreckage with no injuries and waved to the audience before being taken to a local hospital for observation.

“That accident shows that it only takes a lapse of focus for a split second to turn a routine maneuver into a disaster,” Cornick said. Bill says he was not comfortable doing the squirrel cage, but went against his gut feeling and did it anyway. He became so fixated on where the other performers were that he wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing. “My first error was doing the squirrel cage in the first place. The second error was being unable to establish radio contact with one of the performers. At that point, I should have gone wings level and flown out of the box, but I ignored my instincts, continued to perform and caught the wing tip on the runway,” he said.

If there is a bottom line lesson for Bill after this episode, it’s this:  “When I’m mentoring others, I tell them to listen to their sixth sense. Do what I should have done, not what I did. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.”

Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CF-18 demo pilot Major Brian Bews had his close call when he was practicing for the Alberta International Air Show in Lethbridge, Alberta in July, 2010. He was forced to eject at about 150 feet AGL when he met with a surprise during the high alpha pass. It was practice day at Lethbridge and the winds were gusting to nearly 25 knots. Bews had just completed a turnaround maneuver and was returning to show center to perform the pass. This is done at 115 knots with a 25 degree angle of attack.

“As I entered and set up for the pass, everything was in the green, but I was concerned about the gusting winds and decided to knock it off. I brought up the power and the plane yawed, and all I could see out the front of the jet were the VIP tents,” he said.

At that speed, angle of attack and altitude, there are no options if something goes wrong, and Brian relied on instinct and training. “When I set up for the pass, both engines appeared to be working perfectly and there were no indications of any malfunction,” he said. The exact cause of the problem was not determined, but the right engine did not respond to the throttle. At full power and at that angle of attack, the asymmetrical thrust created more yaw than the rudders could handle. “There was no way to stop it from rolling to the right,” Bews said. With less than three seconds before impact, he did the only thing he could do and ejected. He parachuted safely to earth and the aircraft crashed and burned. “We have such a small margin for error during that maneuver that nothing would have saved the airplane,” he said.

CF-18 pilots routinely practice recovery procedures in simulators, but the simulators assume there is an engine malfunction that gives a variety of warnings. In Major Bews’ case, there were no warnings. The engine was functioning properly until he applied power. “I’ve practiced in the simulator repeatedly in case of a flameout and always knew something like that could happen, but didn’t expect it to happen this way,” he said.

When his tour as a demonstration pilot ended, Bews was assigned to 15 Wing at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he is now a flight instructor. “One thing I tell my students is to go into a simulator and ask the operator to surprise them, just as I was surprised. The element of surprise was missing from my training,” he said.

The RCAF had been performing the high alpha pass in its CF-18 demonstrations for 28 years without a single incident. But once was enough. All high alpha passes were halted for the remainder of the 2010 season and none were allowed during the 2011 season. This year, if they are done, they will be performed at a higher altitude to give pilots an additional margin of safety.

With more than 1,300 hours in the CF-18, one of Brian’s earliest lessons that helped him survive still rings loudly in his ears, and he teaches it to every student he encounters. “You strap into your ejection seat before every flight as if you intend to use it. There is a big difference between adjusting a harness for comfort and being ready to use it. Ejection is the last option. You do it when you run out of ideas and luck and you often won’t have time to fix your straps when an emergency occurs,” he said.

Legendary pilot Bob Hoover may well have faced more in-flight emergencies than any other pilot of his generation. “My entire act was an emergency,” he said of his air show routine in his Shrike Commander. Bob would feather one engine, perform a series of rolls and loops, feather the second engine and repeat the series, then make a perfect dead-stick landing and still have enough energy left to coast up to his announcer.

Bob’s stories of in-flight emergencies alone would fill volumes, but a few are good examples of surviving due to planning and preparation. Bob’s Shrike routine, while unusual in an airplane designed for business transportation, was born from his experience test flying aircraft during World War II. One of his first assignments during the war was to a depot in Africa where planes were arriving in crates to be assembled to go into action. “The airplanes were assembled by people from five different nationalities, who spoke five different languages, couldn’t communicate with each other, and didn’t speak English.  They put the planes together and I had to test fly them.” He gets a good laugh from that line today, but at the time it was a serious issue.

“I encountered every type of in-flight emergency imaginable, from fires to equipment failures, and sometimes both at the same time,” he said. This forced Bob to get very good at anticipating problems, quickly diagnosing them and deciding the best course of action to ensure his survival.

After the war, Bob signed on as a test pilot with North American Aviation where he test flew just about every aircraft they made. His favorite, though, was the F-86 Sabre.  Even though Bob considered it a very straightforward airplane and often said it was his favorite of all aircraft he flew, the F-86 — in its early days — developed a reputation as a widow maker because it would unexplainably enter a spin and crash, killing the pilots.  In every case, it was blamed on pilot error. Bob knew the airplane better than anyone, so he was assigned to demonstrate it to military units that were to receive them and help them overcome their anxiety about flying them.

It was in the sky over Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho, where Bob encountered the same spin problem that had already claimed the lives of several others. The F-86 was one of the first fighters to use full length leading edge slats. No one knew, until it happened to Bob, that a single slat would sometimes deploy on its own, resulting in asymmetrical lift, and send the aircraft into a nasty spin. But in battles with recalcitrant aircraft, Bob usually won.

“Test pilot school was the best thing that ever happened to me because I was able to learn from experienced pilots. I had done all the spin testing in the F-86 and could stop it anywhere I wanted, but this was a spin like I had never encountered. I looked out and saw the wing slat had extended and knew I had a problem,” he said. He also knew that, if he could save the airplane, he could save a lot of lives. He used the standard spin recovery technique of a neutral stick and full opposite rudder, but — instead of reducing power — he went to full power, hoping it would force the slat back into position, and the technique worked. “As soon as I landed, I called the company to tell them what occurred. I also called the Air Force safety office and told them to ground all of the F-86s until a fix was devised,” he said. A fix was, indeed, devised, and the problem went away. Bob also convinced the Air Force to remove the “pilot error” notation from the files of those who died as a result of the slat deployment.

“There is no substitute for being prepared for eventualities. I learned this early on from my instructors and never forgot it. Every time I’ve ever flown, I think about what can happen and how to respond,” he said. While flying during the war, he was often over wooded areas which gave him the opportunity to consider options should he have to come down in trees. It wasn’t until the war was over that he had to do it for real.

“Right after World War II, I bought a Stearman and was giving my wife a ride when we experienced an engine failure. We were over some woods, there was no time to turn around, so I did exactly as I had thought it out. I aimed the fuselage between the trees. All four wings were ripped off which slowed us down and allowed us to stop right side up. The engine wasn’t hurt, the prop wasn’t hurt, so all I had to do was buy four new wing panels and I was good to go again.”

One of the best known incidents occurred when Bob was performing at an air show at Brown Field Municipal Airport on the southeast side of San Diego. “I had two company representatives with me and we wanted to leave the airport at the end of the first day’s show, so I asked the young man who was fueling our airplanes to make sure the tanks in my Shrike Commander were topped off right after I flew,” he explained.

What Bob didn’t know was that, as he was performing in another aircraft, the fueler mistakenly pumped kerosene into the Shrike’s tanks instead of av-gas. At the end of the show, there was enough gasoline in the lines to start the engines and allow him to taxi out, and he took his place in line behind about 50 other airplanes waiting to take off. “Because I was a performer, tower told me to taxi out ahead of all these airplanes already in line and I declined, but the pilots at the head of the line said they weren’t leaving until I left. I accepted the kind gesture, taxied past them and took off. And at 300 feet, the engines quit,” he said.

Too low to turn around, Bob had no choice but to come down in a rocky ravine. Having been through many more harrowing situations than this, Bob calmly eased the nose down to maintain speed, dropped the gear so it would absorb the impact, and then eased the Shrike to the ground. “The impact ripped the landing gear off, pulled the engines down, and wrinkled the fuselage from the nose to the baggage compartment, but our only injuries were skinned shins,” he said.

After getting out of the wreckage, he thought about what may have caused both engines to fail the way they did and confirmed his suspicions by draining some fuel and smelled the telltale odor of kerosene.

Bob had called a Mayday prior to impact and a helicopter quickly arrived to take them back to the airport. Bob’s first action was to immediately seek out the young man who had pumped the jet fuel, not to chew him out, but to forgive him. “I knew he didn’t do it on purpose and was afraid if I came down hard on him he may walk away from aviation forever. So I told him I understood how the mistake happened and that I didn’t want anyone else but him servicing my airplanes for the rest of the weekend. I don’t know what ever became of him, but it would be interesting to find out,” he said.

By the end of his flying career, Bob was still considered one of the best stick and rudder men who had ever lived. But that doesn’t mean he was beyond taking advice from those who gave it.  “I always listened to anyone who had something to say about safety,” he said. “I was never beyond learning and improving what I did.” His greatest sorrows are those air show pilots who refused to heed his advice and lost their lives in accidents that should not have happened. His greatest joy is those who have taken his advice are still alive and flying.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.