February 2002Flying Safe

Learning Experiences

Analyzing An Accident Chain

A Quartering Tailwind Causes A Crash

I was living in Bakersfield, California, while I worked on a software project. In my spare time I was taking flying lessons. I had been working on my private pilot certificate for nearly a year between ground school and flight school. I had started in Portland, Oregon; had taken more lessons in Medford; and was now continuing in Bakersfield.

The day I was scheduled to fly had been a rough day at work, and I was emotionally drained. After my previous lesson I was feeling a bit down on my air skills because I was being put through the wringer in preparation for my checkride, and I still needed a bit more solo time before I could schedule a practical test. I was stuck with the feeling that today was a bad day to fly. I tried to brush it off, but I looked for excuses not to go up that day. This contrasted with my drive to get these last few hours so that I could take the checkride and the belief that my feelings were probably just carryover from work.

The weather was pleasant around Bakersfield. There were a few developing thunderstorms to the north and south, but they were far enough away that I didn't think that they would be a factor. I had gotten off work a little late and didn't get to the airport until 5:30 p.m. I was not concerned with time since I was only going to be up for an hour or so, and the school didn't need the plane back until 7:30.

I preflighted the Cessna 172 and made sure it was fueled up for the trip. I set up the cockpit the way I like and thought about where I would go. I wanted to do some easy flying and restore my confidence in my piloting. I enjoyed landings, and they brought together so many facets of flying at one time that I figured it would be good to practice those.

I decided to go to Taft. I didn't want the pressure of flying out of Bakersfield Municipal, a towered airport with traffic and everyone watching, and I didn't want the radio work associated with Meadows. I just wanted to fly the plane, and Taft seemed to be the logical choice of the three airports for which I was signed off.

As I became airborne I noticed that the lightest turbulence was putting me on edge. I'd watch the ball float off or a wing barely drop and I was tensely correcting for it. Too many power-on stalls had shown me what an airplane is like in a spin. I could handle it, but the stress was incredible, and it was all I could think about. I checked the weather on ATIS and HIWAS. No surprises. The feeling, maybe edginess, kept coming up. I continued to put it down as irrational fear.

Taft is an unusual airport. The runway is sloped so steeply that the FAA mandated that airplanes must land uphill to the west and take off downhill to the east. When I reached Taft I overflew the field and checked the windsock. To land I would have a quartering left tailwind. I had landed in tailwinds a couple of times, but it makes landing much more of a challenge because the groundspeed is higher. I did a go-around the first time and landed the second. These weren't good landings, so I took off again to nail at least one. Each time I landed I failed to take into account the slope of the runway while airborne, which radically changed my view of the runway on final approach, and I was not setting up well.

For my third landing, I turned base early again, setting me up to be high. To get the airplane down I added the full 40 degrees of flaps. I came in and didn't touch down until I was nearly halfway down the runway. As the airplane slowed I felt it drift right, toward the dirt. Fear hit hard. I was going between 25 to 35 knots at the time. I couldn't figure out which controls I needed to correct for the drift. I had neutral aileron. I was putting left rudder in, but not too heavily because I was worried that I would flip over the front wheel if I overcorrected. At the time I could think of no reason that the airplane would drift right, but when talking with the NTSB investigator afterward, he pointed out that continuing to turn my ailerons to the left would have put the plane into a perfect taxi configuration for a right quartering tailwind. The wind was pushing my tail and turning me right instead of pushing me left as it had when I was still flying.

I was too close to the dirt. I thought about pulling the power and stopping, but I didn't want to admit that I had made a mistake. I thought I could avoid facing the mistake by taking off again. I had been fighting my fear and intuition for so long that day that the only thing I could think of was how to keep going.

I applied full power. This pushed me into the dirt and started the aircraft bounding through the grass. The Cessna was barely controllable as I barreled across the dirt and bunches of crabgrass. The airplane was bouncing around like a roller coaster. I was able to eventually bring it back to the runway but with only about 400 feet of runway left. The plane was headed for several parked aircraft and a fence. I took it for what I could and rotated at 50 kt to clear obstacles.

I put the airplane into a steep climb to avoid the fence and trees coming up on me. At maybe 50 feet of altitude, the airspeed dropped to 45. The aircraft's stall speed is 47. I was barely airborne. The airplane was pitched up so that its tail was about the height of its main wheels. I was headed for a power line that I thought I could clear, but I also noticed that the terrain appeared to be rising. The mental and emotional stresses were pounding me. I ignored the stall horn, the airspeed, and the fear of failure, focusing on what I could do to get the plane airborne. I was only aware of a 45-degree cone in front of me. I could see most of my gauges and what was directly in front of me out the cockpit window. Tunnel vision.

At one point, I considered giving up. This was too horrible to happen. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut, curl up in a ball, and make it all go away. I consciously chose to ride it all the way through and to make it work.

As I thought of ways out of the situation, the only option I could think of was raising my flaps since I still had 40 degrees in from my landing. I had been taught not to adjust the flaps until I had a positive rate of climb. A number of pilots later told me that raising the flaps probably would have gotten me out of the situation. I didn't raise them. Instead, I kept a finger on the flaps without activating them, hoping to see my airspeed and altitude increase so that I could pull up the flaps.

I took the power line with my tail and kept flying. I was about 60 feet high. Ahead was a cluster of juniper trees that I wasn't going to clear. I was concerned that if I turned too abruptly I would fall out of the sky, and I could not lift the nose any higher without stalling. This was something I was doing right. A lot of people are tempted to pull for the sky. But if I had I would have landed on my tail.

I made some minor adjustments to fly between the trees as best as I could. I hit two of them, one with each wing, and topped them.

With the rising terrain and the damage from hitting the trees, I started losing what little altitude I had. I was now headed for some large cables, and there was a large pole with guy wires just to the left of my heading. I was so close to the ground now (40 feet) that the only plan I could come up with was to fly under the wires rather than hit them directly. I was still going to hit the pole, but there was nothing that I could do. I was not too aware of the terrain beyond the pole, but I didn't see any large obstacles. I still couldn't turn because of speed so I flew straight ahead with the guy wires and pole within a half-wingspan of my fuselage.

One thing I had learned to do in any crash is to relax. Roll with the force.

As I hit the pole it spun the airplane hard left, and the windshield exploded. The next thing I coherently recall is the airplane hitting the ground and a cloud of dirt coming up as the plane skidded quickly to a stop.

I started to open the pilot door, but it was wedged shut by the now-crumpled wing. The right landing gear had collapsed so the passenger door was shut. I eventually pushed and pried on the passenger door enough that I could wiggle out. The following hours were a whirlwind. Police, fire, medical personnel all talking with me. A pilot couple from Taft, Randy and his wife, took me in and got me home. Thanks.

What were my injuries? I walked away from an accident that totaled an airplane with a fat lip from hitting myself on impact from the force of the spin, some scratches on my knees, and bruised ribs from a four-point harness that had been installed. I also had a stronger appreciation for aileron positioning during crosswind landings.