Never Again

Incident at Sullivan Lake

August 1, 2004

We departed Paine Field in Everett, Washington, around noon on a warm Saturday, my fiancée Suzanne and I in a 1967 Cessna Skyhawk. Winds were light from the south with scattered cumulus along the west side of the Cascades as we climbed eastbound to 7,500 feet. Once clear of Stevens Pass, most of the scattered clouds fell behind as we climbed to 9,500 feet in light turbulence and picked up the forecast tailwinds that zipped us along at 140 mph.

Crossing over Lake Chelan, we looked down at the Grand Coulee Dam and followed the waters behind it upriver to the northeast. At about 2 p.m. we passed over the airfield at the tiny town of Ione and descended into the valley that would lead us to Sullivan Lake State Airport, near Metaline Falls, Washington, for a weekend of camping. Dropping below the surrounding ridge tops, we followed the road in the valley and soon the lake was in sight.

We descended to 1,000 feet above the water and flew over from south to north to study the field. There were two windsocks, one at each end. I located the north one and saw it hanging limp in the mid-80-degree Fahrenheit afternoon. Given the slight uphill of the runway to the north, I made a right turn in the rather tight valley and headed back down toward the lake to set up for landing. The terrain rises sharply on all sides of Sullivan Lake so I flew to the west shoreline and made a left turn to the east to set up for my approach. As I turned a long final, there was no indication of wind and none of the light bumps we had been in for most of the trip.

The approach was stabilized and steady, flaps went to 40 degrees about a half-mile out, and I held the airspeed a bit slower than normal since the field was short — less than 1,800 feet long — and I wanted to plant the airplane early. As we crossed the shoreline, which is also the runway threshold, I pulled the nose up slightly to bleed off the last of the flying speed. The airplane began to settle, the stall horn sounding, and I verified that my touchdown spot was in the correct location as I viewed it through the windscreen. That's when things began to go wrong.

Instead of the expected thump of the wheels on the grass, the airplane began to float. I pulled the nose up a bit more to compensate and felt the sink return. I also rechecked the throttle to make sure it was fully closed. Once again I waited for the thump, and once again it didn't arrive. Instead the airplane continued floating. I had almost no flying speed, the nose was pointing skyward, the stall horn was blaring, and still the airplane wanted to fly.

A go-around wasn't an option. I was far too slow and low, and, given the hot-day conditions, a slow 172 and steep terrain all around made this into a "have to" landing. We had traveled to the midfield point, and I saw the marker that represented that spot slip beneath me at about the same time I heard Suzanne in the headset screaming, "The end of the runway is right there!"

The wheels finally touched grass but I had next to no runway remaining. I have a vague recollection of both feet planted hard on the brakes even before we touched down, some part of me hoping against all odds to find a way to stop. Apparently we settled on the right main first because the airplane turned 90 degrees to the right. I remember seeing the trees along the east side of the runway through the windshield. We were still traveling down the runway, skidding sideways, sort of like a kid on a bike locking up the rear brake and sliding so he can kick up dust. With another 50 ft of runway, I think we could have pulled it off. Instead, the left main gear slipped off the end of the runway, hit a tree stump, and tore the gear off at the fuselage.

Runway 34 at Sullivan Lake ended with a 50-ft cliff, with a paved road at the bottom. As the left main sheared off, the airplane was knocked slightly to the left. We were moving pretty slowly as the entire aircraft tilted left at a steep angle and began sliding down the cliff.

Somewhere during this slow-motion descent, the door on my side departed the airplane. The lack of a wheel under my side caused us to turn left until I was on the uphill side. The airplane scraped and bounced and fell at about a 45-degree angle down and across the slope until we buried the nose into the shallow ditch at the bottom. We were shoved fully forward against the seat belts.

It was quiet, with dust in the air. My cheek and the side of my head hurt badly, but everything else on me seemed to be fine. I asked Suzanne if she was all right and she responded yes, but wanted out of the airplane. I don't remember doing it, but I managed to shut off the magnetos and ignition and turn off the fuel. The headsets were off, crammed into the foot wells against the rudder pedals. My glasses were still on. The entire episode was still spinning around in my head, images of runway and instruments and confusion.

As I got out — with no door, that was easy — there was someone there asking if we were OK. I had missed hitting the car — by three seconds — of the U.S. Border Patrol agent who now stood in front of me. He helped me get Suzanne out and onto the ground. By that time a man arrived and introduced himself as a doctor. Moments later a former Navy corpsman showed up, and then an ambulance was on the scene with a paramedic and a nurse. They called for a medevac helicopter because it was clear by this time that Suzanne had some internal injury — later they discovered a couple of broken ribs — but with no flight available we were loaded into the ambulance.

The doctor on duty at the hospital when we arrived, also a pilot, was supportive and understanding. It was his idea that I take his car and make the trip back to the airplane, to collect our equipment and ensure it was as secure as possible. I'd just finished crashing an airplane, I was probably not quite completely coherent, and yet he handed me the keys as he explained to the staff around him that in the fraternity of flying, we help each other.

The Spokane Flight Standards District Office investigator was at the accident scene and interviewed me when I returned. He reminded me that Suzanne and I had both walked away from the accident and encouraged me to learn from the experience.

The airplane? A total loss. It is unbelievable how completely it was torn up in our little slide down that hill. It did a good job of absorbing the tremendous impact, letting all that energy dissipate into bent metal rather than bent bodies.

I can name several actions I could have taken to possibly avoid the accident. Perhaps a second flyover would have allowed me to see the cliff at the end. Maybe that same pass at a lower altitude would have made clearer the higher groundspeed I would experience because of the density altitude. It's possible a second look would have revealed the south windsock and I would have detected winds I was unaware of. And although I'd done thorough preflight planning — checking field conditions with the state and talking to pilots with previous flights into Sullivan Lake in addition to determining the airplane's performance — the gravity of the high-density-altitude situation didn't hit home until I was over the runway experiencing it. In retrospect, I would have aimed for an earlier arrival to take advantage of cooler temperatures.

And finally, we don't have to land until we're good and ready to. I had grown so accustomed to everything working out every time I flew an approach that it was ingrained in me that it would work that way again. In this case, my last opportunity for escape came with the initial float as I crossed the threshold.

Dennis Willard, AOPA 1115697, has accumulated more than 600 hours in 12 years of flying.

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