Never Again: Hardheaded pilot

October 1, 2008

Even though the single-seat Pitts biplane has a tiny cockpit and not much headroom, I make it a point to wear a helmet and parachute whenever I fly one. I take some ribbing from my friends who question my hardheadedness. But aerobatic and formation flying have inherent risks, and it seems like a good policy to mitigate them wherever possible. On this gusty, autumn day at Gen. DeWitt Spain Airport on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, the safety equipment sure came in handy.

I was in a three-ship formation flight that included two good friends flying an RV-8 and an Extra 300L.

We were about 1,500 feet arl (that’s “above river level”) and I was in a gentle, right-hand turn behind the Extra when it suddenly felt as though someone had smacked me from behind with a two-by-four. The canopy shattered and twisted, and the aft portion of the canopy frame was pushing so hard against the back of my head that my chin was pressed against my chest.

I didn’t know if I’d collided with another airplane or a bird, or whether the canopy structure had simply failed.

My only view outside came from the clear Lexan panels on the floor and sides of the fuselage. I had no forward view at all. Looking down at the river, I did my best to level the wings. But as I did, the Pitts pitched suddenly and violently upward, and the G forces slammed me hard against the seat. I pushed forward on the stick, and the airplane pitched down.

It was time to bail out

I quickly went from denial (“I can’t believe this is happening!”) to anger (“This shouldn’t be happening!”) to reality (“I need to get out of this airplane right now!”).

The first step was getting rid of the canopy. I pulled an emergency handle to jettison it. But the bent canopy frame remained stubbornly locked in place. The frame moved slightly forward, but it was so twisted and tangled that it wouldn’t come loose from the airplane.

The canopy’s slight forward movement seemed to increase the pitch stability, however, and it gave me a glimpse of forward visibility. But I still didn’t have complete control of the airplane and was determined to bail out.

I slowed the airplane down to about 120 miles an hour from 150 and tried to push the canopy off manually. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it to release. Then, I noticed something else that had escaped my attention. While trying to get rid of the canopy, I’d steadily descended to about 800 feet—too low to bail out with any real chance of success.

It was time to give up or fly—and I chose to fly.

I also had to chuckle. A light-hearted placard on the instrument panel admonished the pilot to: “Don’t do nuthin’ dumb,” a reminder to avoid aerial impulsiveness. Now, I regarded the words as advice to think clearly and carefully.

I pushed the throttle forward and climbed to about 1,200 feet and pointed downriver, toward the airport. I was able to maintain altitude and dampen the pitch oscillations.

My friends in the RV-8 and Extra had been trying to contact me on the radio, but my microphone had become unplugged so I couldn’t answer them.

“Gary, if you’re OK, wag your wings,” one of them said.

I didn’t respond.

The RV-8 pulled up alongside.

“Gary’s in trouble,” I heard him say. “His canopy is shattered and has partially come off. Looks like it might be holding his head down.”

The Extra also joined up, and he had some strong advice.

“Damn it, Gary, get out of that thing!”

Speaking only to myself, I muttered that if I could have jumped, I would have already.

The Extra pulled in close on my left wing, and my friend asked if I could hear his transmissions. I gave him a thumb’s-up sign to affirm. He told me that he and the RV-8 would stay in loose formation and guide me toward a straight-in approach on Runway 17. They would also make the appropriate radio calls on the airport’s common traffic advisory frequency and let me know if I was drifting off course or glide path.

It was quite soothing and reassuring to know that I had two friends and skilled pilots right there, ready to assist.

They had me lined up with the runway more than a mile out, and I watched familiar landmarks come into view through the clear floor of the aircraft: an island, a rocky shoreline, the airport boundary fence. I closed the throttle and held the speed at 120 miles an hour in a steady descent. The runway numbers flashed by, and I flared and pulled the stick all the way aft. I wanted to touch down as slowly as possible.

Once on the ground, the airplane tracked straight ahead with little input from me. The oversized Pitts rudder and locking tailwheel did their jobs well. Once I came to a stop, I grabbed the canopy and tried again to throw it off, but it still wouldn’t let go. It merely flopped over to one side of the airplane and hung there while I taxied back to the hangar.

After climbing out of the aircraft, I literally had to pry the canopy frame from the airplane. The right side of the airplane looked as though it had been blasted with a shotgun. There was a large tear in the fabric-covered rudder, presumably from the shards of Plexiglas and the huge yaw moment that took place during the initial event.

The horizontal stabilizer was firmly in place, although the leading edge had a deep dent in it, and the stabilizer bar was bent.

To this day, I still don’t know what caused that canopy to fail so suddenly and spectacularly. The canopy had been modified extensively from its original design, and turbulent air from the wake of another airplane could have contributed—but that shouldn’t have been enough to damage the sturdy frame. There was no evidence of a bird strike, or preflight damage to the glass, or corrosion in the support structure.

The pitch oscillations and control problems resulted from the bent frame and one large remnant of Plexiglas directing disturbed air over the tail.

Looking at my helmet gave me perhaps my biggest surprise, and a bit of vindication. On the lower left side of the military surplus Gentex HGU-55, a narrow but deep hole went completely through the rear portion of the shell. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t been wearing the helmet, but the outcome probably wouldn’t have been nearly so favorable. And I’ll never fly a high-performance sport airplane without one.

Gary Austin, AOPA 1164452, has logged more than 1,500 flying hours in a variety of aerobatic and racing airplanes including the Pitts, T-6, and Hawker Sea Fury. He is director of maintenance and quality assurance for the Commemorative Air Force and was named International Formula One rookie of the year for 2007.