Never Again

Over the top

August 1, 1997

Like most open-cockpit biplane enthusiasts, I had a slight, but hopefully undetected, feeling of superiority over the Cessna pilots who shared the local airports in and around Mobile, Alabama. After all, everyone knows that Stearman pilots can land in 500 feet and do several touch-and-goes while the Cessna pilots are out on the horizon, turning from base to final. Being based at a grass field had probably heightened this high-and-mighty attitude, as most of us likened ourselves more to Waldo Pepper than to Bob Hoover.

More times than I can remember, I had landed on a particular polo field across Mobile Bay from us and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful landing spots in our area — 1,400 feet of closely mowed grass, maintained by a professional grounds crew, with great approaches that allow you to set down right at the edge of the field.

This is where I take my flying guests on those hot summer days — a place where you can land on grass, taxi over to a shady spot, pull out a couple of apples to snack on, and have a cool drink of water from a spigot usually reserved for watering the horses — a place where you can act like Waldo Pepper himself, leaving the hot tarmac for the Cessna boys and their 2-mile finals.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, I had with me a 25-year-old flying enthusiast. A recent applicant for U.S. Navy flight training, he had been begging me for months to take him up in my yellow Stearman with its Navy markings. I would make this a day for him to tell his grandchildren about. How right I was.

We took off in the early afternoon and spent a leisurely 30 minutes over Mobile Bay, flying near several boats full of madly waving sailors, then low over the wharves and boathouses that lined the shore.

There was no windsock on the polo field, so I checked some flagpoles about a mile away. They were hanging limp, and I assumed that the winds in the area were calm.

As I set up my approach, everything seemed to be right on the money. I touched down in a three-point attitude just where I expected to, but perhaps a little fast. I was on the ground and rolling, but much faster than I had expected. "So what?" I thought. There was lots of grassy field ahead and plenty of time to slow down. Seconds later, I realized that this landing was going to be tight.

I was on the brakes hard now. I had already waited too long to go around. I was slowing down, but it was too late — the lake was approaching fast.

I shoved on the right rudder pedal and stepped even harder on the right brake, desperate to ground loop the big taildragger. But the nose had already started over, and suddenly I felt the prop strike the ground. For one long second we stood on end, then fell completely over on our back. In another couple of seconds we might have been sinking upside down into the lake, still strapped in our harnesses. Rather, we were hanging upside down at the end of the polo field, mercifully unhurt.

I realized that, regardless of what the nearby flags had indicated, I had just made a downwind landing. The wind was definitely blowing here.

The only serious injury was to my pride. I had actually flipped an airplane upside down. I had seen pictures of upside-down airplanes before and had wondered how a pilot could be so incredibly stupid. Here was my beautiful yellow Stearman on its back with the wheels in the air … like a dead animal.

The airplane went to the shop with a bent propeller, crushed rudder, and dozens of broken ribs in the upper wing — relatively light damage under the circumstances, but enough to keep me out of the air for several months.

Naturally, I got a lot of free advice from my fellow pilots during the ensuing months. The best advice I got was from a retired Air Force pilot who told me three simple rules: Know your limitations and the limitations of your airplane; fly as if your life depended on it, because it does; and don't do something stupid.

And what did I do while waiting for my Stearman to be repaired? I begged rides from my fellow pilots. You know, the ones who fly the Cessnas on their 2-mile finals.

T. Gunter Smith, AOPA 962222, of Mobile, Alabama, is a stockbroker and private pilot who is again flying his 1942 Stearman.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.

Topics Pilots