Never Again

Seen and unseen

November 1, 2003

"Brainard Tower, this is Grumman Tiger Two-Eight-Eight-Five-Seven, 11 miles southwest, inbound with Alpha." (Information Alpha at Hartford, Connecticut's Hartford-Brainard Airport was reporting winds at 240 degrees and 10 to 15 knots, traffic using Runway 20.)

Not too bad, I thought to myself, a slight crab at the onset maybe, and then a little right aileron with left rudder.

"Grumman Tiger Two-Eight-Eight-Five-Seven, report entering a downwind for Runway 20," the controller said. "What?" Which downwind, right or left, I thought to myself, and I decided to just acknowledge by repeating her instruction verbatim.

Then, seconds later, "Grumman Two-Eight-Eight-Five-Seven, report entering a right downwind for 20." Ah, that was better. "A right downwind for 20; I don't have the airport yet," I replied, scanning through the haze.

"It's off your twelve to one o'clock at about four miles."

"Looking, Two-Eight-Eight-Five-Seven." Soon afterward I told the controller that I had the airport, and she cleared me to land.

I flew onto the downwind, turning base and then final with full flaps, flying at 200 feet agl. With less than a mile between the airplane and the runway, another aircraft came into the picture. It appeared to be approaching Runway 2 from a left base. "What's he doing?" I thought to myself.

"Tower, an aircraft is coming at me from the opposite direction," I told the controller.

"That's a Grumman on final; he's no factor," she said.

"The Grumman on final is the aircraft calling," I replied.

"Well, if you would use your numbers I would know who's calling." She, of course, made her point and was right. "That's a helicopter in an air taxi; he'll be landing on the pad; he's no factor," she said. The helicopter turned out to be a Black Hawk.

"Thank you, Two-Eight-Eight-Five-Seven." I made sure to use my numbers that time.

I forget the pad she named, and I would not have known where it was even if I remembered, but the taxiway could be seen paralleling Runway 2/20 on the west side, with the pad at the northwest end of the taxiway. This pad is at a 350- to 360-degree heading from the numbers on Runway 20, at a distance of somewhere between 200 and 300 feet.

Coming in with full flaps at 60 knots, leveling off, and floating over the numbers at about five feet agl, I pulled back the power to idle. In response to the wind and airspeed, I turned in a little right aileron and eased the nose up a bit, while the sole of my left foot touched in a bit of rudder, to let the airplane come down nicely, tracking straight.

At the moment I expected to feel the tires touch down on the runway, the airplane lifted up into the air and twisted like a leaf blowing in a gust of wind. The windshield picture went from the runway centerline to a hazy sky. And, also, at that same moment, the stall warning horn blasted through my ears as I put in full power.

The entire airplane lifted nose up — how high, it's hard to tell — and it twisted to the left like it was being spun on its tail. The tail never hit concrete, thank God.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I realized what must have happened. The unseen wake from the helicopter was blowing the Tiger around.

After twisting in the air, it came down hard on the rear tip of the right wing, like someone had wrapped their hand around the fuselage and used it for a hammer. When the wing tip hit, the airplane came level about five feet off the ground and went to a heading of about 170 degrees. (An eyewitness told me later that it sounded like a loud pop that could be heard throughout the airport.) I only heard the stall horn.

Now a tailwind was pushing the airplane, keeping it in flight. I was flying with full flaps, full power, stall horn blaring, in ground effect, and was heading straight into a 50-foot berm that parallels Runway 2/20 on the east side.

The prop would dig into the berm if the plane didn't bank to the right.

I was banking to the right while close to the ground, with the stall horn full blast; my intentions were to try to land, in a bank, on the slope, but the airplane kept flying.

I was flying by the sound of the stall horn getting louder and softer in order to keep the left wing from hitting the slope, trading off between bank and angle of attack. The airplane never buffeted. It was a trade-off between angle of bank and angle of attack to keep the left wing from hitting the slope.

As I was approaching the top of the berm the airplane started slanting toward the horizontal. I was able to come level at about a 180-degree heading and maybe 10 feet agl over the Connecticut River, allowing the airplane to gain speed.

Now, however, running along the opposite shore of the Connecticut River, which is narrow at this point, and coming at me fast was a row of trees well above my altitude.

Banking right again, but not needing to climb — hearing that stall warning again, but not as loud — I turned and leveled out on a 200-degree heading, straight down the river.

The immediate danger of crashing, at this point, I knew had ended.

Banking in slow flight at 70 kt, still with full flaps, I could see the airport on the live moving map in the windshield.

I leveled off at about 60 feet agl on a heading of 290 degrees. Just east of the numbers of Runway 2 the controller came on: "Two-Eight-Eight-Five-Seven, what are your intentions?"

"My intentions are to get into a downwind and land." She cleared me to land.

The airplane suffered severe damage to the aft corner tip of the right wing where it hit the concrete. The leading edge of the outer section of the right wing was deeply wrinkled, giving evidence to the vector of the pressure. But I sustained no damage, miraculously, from this encounter with the helicopter's wake turbulence.

I learned that while helicopters themselves are hard to miss, their wake is invisible. As pilots, though, we are responsible to see and avoid things seen and unseen.

Richard Keegan, AOPA 719857, is a training officer for a Coast Guard Auxiliary aviation flotilla in New York.

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