Old friends

December 1, 2003

ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg remembers good times with old friends.

Rare is the aviator who does not feel some kinship with the machines that make flight possible. They carry us in good weather and bad, fulfill transportation and recreation needs on demand, and bring us the joy and satisfaction that make general aviation happen.

I started wondering what had happened to some of these old friends, just like curiosity about old school chums. Cruising the AOPA Air Safety Foundation accident database, the aircraft equivalent of the obituary page, I looked for my reliable old rides. Sadly, quite a number were listed. Properly maintained and loved, aircraft should last 40 years or longer, so why were so many gone before their time? Behind each demise there is a story to relate. Tail numbers have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

The Piper J-3 Cub in which I soloed had been carefully restored and was one of the cherriest J-3s in the fleet. Her first mishap occurred when a low-time private pilot, one of my fellow renters, hand-propped her solo. This is not really recommended and, if you must do it, the aircraft should be well secured. The pilot was standing behind the prop but failed to notice that the throttle was partially open. Nine-Eight-Victor sprang to life and pivoted right around him, taking a terrible bite out of a sleeping Piper Arrow parked in the next tiedown. Neither aircraft fared well, but after a few months of downtime Nine-Eight-Victor was as good as new. About 16 months later, though, she suffered a mortal wound.

Two young pilots stole the Cub off the flight line one evening. They contemplated just a short cross-country, and while the Cub had no electrical system, no lights, and only a few instruments, the 700-foot ceiling and reduced visibility was certainly adequate in their minds to make this a reasonable risk. The Cub made it almost a mile before crashing onto a street between the frat houses at the university. Nine-Eight-Victor and two lives went up in smoke. It seems that alcohol and flying don't mix.

Two other Cubs I used as trainers got dinged as well. One incident involved a student who tangled with wires at the end of the runway. He forgot they were there, momentarily, and the Cub got hung up on landing — no injury. The other Cub ground looped with an instructor and student on board. No major issue — it happens rather frequently and the damage was minor.

Cessna 150s

Moving on to Cessna 150s that inhabited our flight school, many made it through to retirement (and some may still be flying) but several did not. One of my favorites was lost when a solo student confused the mixture control with the carb heat. The engine stopped and a small gravel pit intervened to finish off Eight-Eight-Joker, but she protected the student.

Another 150, One-Nine-Joker, in which I instructed, suffered a taxi accident involving a truck parked too close to the taxiway. The solo student was following the centerline and his nose but forgot that wings extend quite a ways out. One-Nine-Joker went on to fly for another 11 years until a pilot making a short-field takeoff neglected to lock the primer. The engine hesitated, and the pilot decided to convert airspeed that he didn't quite have yet to altitude. One-Nine-Joker gave him an additional 300 feet before she rolled off in a left spin. The pilot survived but it was curtains for the 150. Locking those primers is a minor but important detail.

A couple of other 150s I've known also came to grief, one on landing when a 16-hour student pilot landed downwind, decided too late that this really wasn't the right runway, and started a go-around but left the flaps down. There was a gentle stop for the pilot but the airplane took it pretty hard. The other 150 pilot didn't pull the mixture control on downwind, but he also didn't pull on the carb heat. A wide traffic pattern when the engine stops usually leads to an early arrival.

The last of the Cessna 150 mishaps occurred in a military flying club that I belonged to out West. High density altitude and some really gusty winds factored into a fatal spin that occurred right after takeoff. The pilot did not get a weather briefing, although the aforementioned phenomena were obviously present at the airport. Light aircraft frequently do not fare well under these conditions and neither do flying clubs because the management is usually not tolerant of these mistakes. Many a club has been shut down or unable to get insurance as a result of poor decisions or airmanship.

Fuel mishaps

The pilot of a Cessna T210 in another of my flying clubs attempted a nonstop flight from the middle of the country to Florida. If you have read ASF's Safety Review on the 210 you know that it is fairly common for line service to inadvertently leave the tanks a bit short even though they appear full. It has to do with the geometry of the tank and the wing. The aircraft frequently winds up with 30 to 40 minutes less fuel than the pilot thinks. Just two more minutes of engine run time would have turned this into a hangar tale and a lesson learned. If you're going for maximum range in a 210, be sure that the tanks are truly full. ASF's one-hour-reserve rule also helps, just in case the gauges aren't exactly right.

Another fuel-related mishap occurred when a high-time solo student pilot ran the tank dry in her Piper Arrow. It was my first complex airplane and I have many fond memories of taking Seven-Two-Tango on special cross-countries. The pilot did as she was trained, ran the emergency restart checklist, and touched the fuel selector valve without moving it. There was an airport nearby but some trees got in the way — she was uninjured but the Arrow was broken.

One of my favorite Cessna 172s, which belonged to a friend and in which I had given a lot of instrument instruction, was stolen and crashed in a successful suicide.

Another involved a buzz job where a young CFI at our flight school fortunately did no injury to himself or to people on the ground but totaled a nearly new airplane. The last 172 was a flight school leaseback that moved south many years later. The oil cooler finally succumbed to old age, the engine seized, and the pilot did a nice job of landing in a field where the old girl gently flipped over, protecting the occupants but ending her career.

Twins I have known

Moving onto twins I have known, the ancient Piper Apache that served me so well as a multiengine trainer lost power on the left engine, regained it, and then lost it again. The Apache, like many light twins, has two engines because it needs both of them to fly. The old lady sagged into the terrain surrounding the airport with no injuries to the pilot. While the engine ran on the test stand the NTSB found some loose tank sealant near the fuel pickup that could have caused the malfunction. The pilot made the right choice to land rather than push a bad position.

A Cessna 310 that I had flown when working for the Cessna Aircraft Company was minding its own business idling near a taxiway when a Cessna 206 that was passing by attacked it, slicing up the 310's wing. Possibly it was a case of engine envy or just inattentiveness. Neither aircraft went flying that day but I'll bet the pilots got to know one another real well.

Another former Cessna factory 310 flew IFR into the North Country during a snowstorm. The visibility wasn't great so the pilot called on the unicom for the airport manager to turn on the runway lights. No answer. After several unsuccessful calls the pilot saw a row of lights. He landed between the runway and taxiway in 14 inches of snow. The accident report noted that the airport had pilot-controlled lighting and that a few clicks on the CTAF would have done the job.

Looking back on the tally, it seems that about 10 to 15 percent of "my" airplanes have come to grief. That seems like a big number and with few exceptions, it was generally pilots doing things that they should have known better or done better.

The student mistakes generally belong to the CFI because students are still learning. There were some design-induced errors but when we fly airplanes we accept them as they are. Interestingly, there were only two mechanical emergencies. I would have expected to see more, especially given the age of the fleet, but that is a tribute to the A&Ps who maintain the equipment. Two aircraft were stolen with tragic results, which means, especially these days, that good security is a good investment.

This column was something of a downer to write, but I did come across a favorite 172 on the ramp 130 miles from where we said goodbye so many years ago. Back then she had been young and shiny with the best equipment, and she helped me to learn and to teach instrument flying. Like her human counterparts, she was showing the mileage that life bestows on survivors but carrying the load well. There had been no facelifts or cosmetic surgery. She was just an honest hard-working aircraft introducing another generation of pilots to flight.

To all who are flying my old fabric or aluminum comrades, please take care of them and yourselves. General aviation needs both of you to be healthy and flyable for many years to come. To help keep pilots flying safely in the new year, if your circumstances permit, consider a year-end tax-deductible donation to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation to help fund the new seminars, publications, and online courses that are available to all pilots. Your donations fund the majority of ASF's activities — visit the Web site.

Charity begins at home and in the air

Every year tens of thousands of pilots personally support the AOPA Air Safety Foundation with their donations. Did you know that AOPA provides less than 10 percent of ASF's overall funding? That is why we appeal to you during this holiday season.

Your tax-deductible gifts make it possible for Bruce Landsberg, ASF executive director, and his education staff to develop and offer 175 live safety seminars for more than 33,000 pilots each year. Your gifts also help us expand our virtual university of air safety online. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation is working for your safety.

This is the time of year that most of us make important charitable donations. In the spirit of the holiday season, please make your tax-deductible gift to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation now.

By giving back to GA and to AOPA, through ASF, you will save the lives of pilots and passengers. This is one cause close to every aviator's heart. Please mail us your generous check payable to ASF to:

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You can also donate online, by clicking the "You Can Help" button. Please donate today. — Phil Boyer