Never Again

Close call

September 1, 2003

Maybe you fly a docile puppy dog rather than a rip-snorting Yakovlev Yak-52, but don't think that what happened to me can't happen to you.

I pulled up to the pump to refuel the Yak, a Russian-designed aircraft certified to plus-7 and minus-5 Gs, after a few local hops. A young woman I had flown with earlier came to me and said her boyfriend wanted to fly. I decided I had enough fuel for a quick flight.

Under a 4,000-foot ragged ceiling I did a loop, a slow roll, and an inverted flight demo. Then I turned toward the field and entered a Cuban eight at 2,700 feet agl, which was 2,100 feet msl. The Cuban was normal. I floated over the top at about 3,300 msl at zero G and let the nose fall to 45 degrees inverted. I stabilized inverted and rolled out, then stabilized again in the dive. When I started the pullout the stick was frozen.

I pulled harder. Nothing happened. For a second I thought maybe I was much faster than normal and that the stick resistance was because of aerodynamic load on the elevator. I checked the airspeed indicator and saw it was going through 160 knots. I knew the stick didn't get stiff until about 200 kt. I pulled more. Nothing happened. I watched a windscreen full of dirt getting bigger and picked out the impact point. I pulled the throttle to idle, put both hands on the stick, and pulled as hard as I could. I didn't feel any give in the stick, but the nose started to inch upward.

The dive angle slowly decreased; the impact point sluggishly migrated away from me. I began to think I might make it, but it was a hell of a horserace. I bottomed out at 300 feet agl.

With the nose up and a slight climb going I started a shallow turn around the field. I asked my backseater if he was restricting the stick movement. He had ridden through the dive in blissful ignorance — this was apparently his first indication that something was wrong. I told him to help me pull back on the stick.

I called unicom and continued to circle the field. I then told the backseater that I would need his help to get us both through this. His reply reassured me: "Just let me know what you want me to do." The guy wasn't a pilot; he was a professional disc jockey — but he remained cool.

I climbed as high as the clouds allowed, and the hair came up on my neck when I looked at the fuel gauge. It was down to 20 liters on the left and 10 on the right, about 25 minutes at economy cruise. I decided to head for a long runway, 10 minutes away, and think about what to do when I got there. (The home patch was a 2,500-foot grass strip.) I called approach, declared an emergency, and asked them to roll the equipment.

I began a controllability check before I got over the city, checking control response at various speeds and configurations at a safe altitude to determine whether I could land normally, with some modifications, or not at all. I decided not to do the check with the gear down because I needed to save fuel. I found roll and yaw control still normal, but when I pulled off the power to slow down the nose dropped like a rock.

I had been considering the bailout option since the dive recovery. With the gas low I felt pressed to decide right away, but a huge wildlife preserve lay directly south of the airport for which I was heading. That would be the bailout area. If I didn't like what was happening on final approach I could go missed straight ahead and bail out as soon as I had the altitude, assuming I could get it.

What bothered me most was how hard we were both pulling on the stick to keep the nose up. I was afraid that something back there would break — a cable, pulley, something. If that happened and the nose pitched down on final approach, there would be no bailout time.

My passenger was a real crewmember. I told him first to tighten his harness and then to lock his fingers around the stick. I told him that he was to slowly apply pressure backward when I said "more" and to slowly release it when I said, "ease off." I emphasized that if he was abrupt, jerky, or if he suddenly let go completely, we might be killed. That was no exaggeration.

I lined up on final and checked the fuel: 10 and 5. I decided to keep the speed at 120 kt and the flaps up. The gear was an unknown because I hadn't put it down in the controllability check. I regretted that. Luckily putting it down had no adverse effect. The backseater did a great job with the stick pressure as I coached him down final. The approach angle was flat but I felt that was necessary because I did not want to flare.

At about 10 feet I saw that the nose was lower than I anticipated and I made a big mistake: I reduced power and tried to flare. The nose dropped. I yelled, "More, more, more!" to the backseater but we could do nothing. We hit nosewheel first with a big jolt, but the Yak stayed put.

I taxied to the ramp and filled out the fire department's papers with a nervous hand. I saw that there was no damage and thanked God for the Yakovlev Flying Tank Factory. I went back to the tail and pushed up on the elevator. It wouldn't budge past neutral. I pulled it down. It went all the way and I heard a metallic plunk. What I had suspected, I now knew.

I took off the panel under the left horizontal stabilizer and pulled out a 7-inch vice grip tool. It had apparently been lodged between the elevator bellcrank and a portion of the tail structure. I felt sick as I stood there staring at that thing in my hand.

People asked me why I didn't pump the stick forward to dislodge the object. I didn't have a lot of altitude because of the ceiling, and I was afraid the jam would follow the stick forward. That would have left us stuck in a perpetual outside loop, and I didn't think there was a happy future in that. If I had started the Cuban eight at the FAA minimum altitude of 1,500 agl we would not have made it.

I rarely give passengers a bailout briefing, but this time I had briefed my passenger on the signal and techniques for exiting the plane. I was glad of that when I was considering that option. I also wished we had helmets. The bailout option is scary, and it deserves more thought than most aerobatic pilots give it.

A little investigative work solved the mystery of how the vice grip got in there. Two months prior, a couple of friends were helping me reattach the rudder cable after painting the airplane. After using the vice grip it was laid on top of the horizontal stabilizer, which had its fairing removed. Somehow it got knocked into the tail section.

My co-owner and I considered ourselves equally responsible for not thoroughly searching the airplane during and after the reassembly. In the future we intend to account for every tool used on the plane, perhaps by attaching clothespins on the airframe for each tool used. Job done with two pins left? Find and account for two tools.

Yaks are experimental, allowing hacks like me without an A&P certificate to work on them. But I wonder how many owners of Normal category airplanes are aware of what techniques their mechanics use to avoid leaving souvenirs from their toolboxes inside airframes. A conscientious A&P should not be offended if a customer wants to know.

I have been asked what was going through my mind during those few seconds when the pullout was in doubt. To be nakedly honest, I was thinking, "So, this is the way it ends. I hope they find out this is not my fault." Of course, it was.

Ego is a faithful pal. He sticks with us all the way to the crater.

Alan Cockrell lives in Huntsville, Alabama. He is a United Boeing 737 captain and a retired U.S. Air Force pilot.

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Topics Pilots