Never Again

Midair

September 1, 2007

I had flown my Avid Flyer experimental aircraft, and my friend had flown his Hurricane experimental ultralight aircraft, to Perris Valley Airport located in Perris, California. After landing on the ultralight flying club's dirt strip, which parallels the airport's hard-surface runway, we enjoyed breakfast at the airport restaurant.

While we were preflighting our aircraft for the return trip home, we were unaware that a Beechcraft Baron was doing low passes over the runway for someone on the ground to confirm that the Baron's gear was extended. Apparently the three green gear-down indicator lights in the cockpit had not illuminated.

The wind was five knots out of the north, but we departed the dirt strip to the south since both our aircraft could lift off from the 600-foot strip in less than 200 feet and because there were fewer obstructions to the south. The north and south runway patterns are both on the airport's west side to clear the jump zone. The ultralight traffic pattern is at 500 feet agl — 500 feet below the 1,000-foot general aircraft traffic pattern — and each operation uses its own frequency.

We made a right crosswind departure to the west and began a climb to 500 feet agl where we leveled off until we were well clear of the 1,000-foot traffic pattern. I was in the habit of checking for traffic to the south where descending jump planes normally approach 90 percent of the time so I was focusing my attention out of the left side of my aircraft. My friend in the ultralight was about a half mile ahead, off the right of my aircraft's nose, and just a bit higher when I heard his warning, "I just saw a twin go below and behind me!"

I immediately shifted my focus out of the right side of the aircraft and there at my 2-o'clock about 200 feet away, at my altitude, was the Baron bearing down on me. The closure rate was so fast I had barely time to move the stick to avoid the Baron. Thankfully the Baron pilot saw me just before I saw him and he had quickly dumped his airplane's nose.

I remember looking down seeing three sets of eyes staring up at me with a "deer in the headlights" look as the Baron passed just under me. I could hear the roar of its engines over mine and I felt something hit my aircraft from underneath. The Avid Flyer quickly rolled right and I found myself upside down with the nose at about 45 degrees to the ground.

I must have been squeezing the stick hard, inadvertently keying the transmitter, because my friend said he heard me say, "Midair! I'm going down!" I managed a split-S and pulled out about 75 feet above the surface.

My friend had seen the midair and turned back to do a fly-around looking for damage. He reported seeing none, and the aircraft was behaving normally, so I opted to return to the field.

The touchdown was as smooth as an uptight pilot could manage in a tailwheel airplane. I rolled to a stop, cut the engine, and sat there catching my breath.

My friend and I walked around the airplane looking for a contact point, but found none. "Are you sure he actually hit you?" my friend asked. "Oh, yeah!" I responded.

As we prepared to depart once again the airport manager drove up and asked if one of us had just had a midair. We recounted the recent events and he asked us to get in the truck. He drove us to the parking ramp and there was the Baron with a black tire skid mark about 18 inches down the left side of its rudder.

It turned out that the Baron's rudder had traveled just behind my airplane's prop, missing the right front main gear and striking the front of the left tire causing the gear to extend outward stretching the bungee cord. The left gear bungee, located under the pilot seat, had pulled the gear back into position causing the thump I had felt under my seat. The contact with my airplane's left tire and the wake turbulence caused by the close passage of the Baron had caused my little aircraft to roll right onto its back.

I told the pilot of the Baron that I would be filing an accident report, but he suggested that we just forget it and he'd take care of the damage to the rudder. I insisted on reporting the incident and reminded him of our obligation under the law.

I called the local FAA flight standards district office to report a midair using the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) Form. The FSDO told me that since our aircraft had actually touched, I would need to immediately contact the NTSB. Since there were no injuries and minimal damage I was granted permission to file a NASA ASRS Form.

I filed the report and received a receipt that I keep framed on my hangar wall as a constant reminder of the importance of the mantra "see and be seen" to prevent a midair collision.

I have recounted this story at local flying club meetings and one ultralight club member, a World War II P-38 fighter pilot, told me, "Son, our mantra was: 'It's the one you don't see that'll get you every time.'"

John Miller, AOPA 4257578, holds a commercial pilot certificate and works as an aerial photographer. He has been flying since 1963 and has accumulated 7,000 hours in single-engine general aviation, experimental, and ultralight aircraft.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to neveragain@aopa.org or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.