Never Again: Control failure

February 1, 2010

I planned to fly my Cessna 185 to a remote airstrip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho for a day of deer hunting. The trip from my home base in Caldwell, Idaho, in October 2008 wasn’t very far—but it required traversing some of the most rugged and spectacular wilderness in the United States.

Everything was normal during the engine start, taxi, and pre-takeoff checks that included full control movements. The first light of day was just beginning to emerge in the east when I took off at 7:15 a.m. and headed for my destination in VFR conditions.

I monitored the Boise Approach radio frequency as I climbed and heard a controller ask a passing airline crew about icing conditions. The pilot reported light rime ice between 14,500 and 16,500 feet, but that wouldn’t affect me because I planned to stay at 9,500 feet, well below the cloud base, and make the entire flight in visual conditions.

As I approached the airstrip at Bruce Meadows (U63), the ceiling lowered and a light rain was falling, but the visibility remained very good and I could easily see the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The rain disappeared and visibility improved even more as snow showers obscured the tops of the mountain peaks well above me. It was an absolutely beautiful morning as I followed the winding, rocky river.

I had just started to make a slow left turn to follow the river through the deep canyon rising on both sides when I felt a strange bump through the control yoke. I turned the yoke a bit more to steepen the turn but nothing happened—the usually obedient Cessna didn’t respond at all. I turned the yoke harder, and it went well past its usual stopping point, but the airplane continued on its original path. I reversed the yoke and turned it all the way to the right, but again there was no response. The airplane stayed in its shallow left bank, and it was suddenly obvious that I had no aileron control whatsoever.

I pulled the yoke back and it nearly came out of the instrument panel and plopped in my lap. The rudders still worked, but the yoke on the pilot’s side had come loose and was useless for controlling the airplane. I leaned to my right and grabbed the co-pilot controls. The ailerons on the right side didn’t work either, but there was a hint of elevator response. The co-pilot control column seemed to be binding on something, but it was better than nothing.

The airplane settled into a 25-degree left bank and stayed there. I was concerned the roll to the left would continue to steepen, but it didn’t. The rudders were helpful for yawing the airplane, but it occurred to me that I was likely to roll inverted or crash into one of the canyon walls, and no one would ever know the true reason for the accident.

I made several mayday calls on the radio using the 122.9 MHz backcountry frequency. I received no audible responses, so I repeated the mayday call on 121.5. This time, I got a nearly immediate reply from a UPS freighter passing high above. I broadcast my location and said that I had a control failure and that I planned to attempt a landing at Indian Creek, an airstrip about seven miles away.

I lowered the flaps 20 degrees in an effort to help stabilize the airplane, and it definitely worked to dampen the rolling motions. Using gentle rudder pressure, I was able to keep the airplane in the center of the canyon without overbanking.

I started a 360-degree left turn inside the canyon and reduced the power to idle to start a descent. Using rudder to control the aircraft, I kept the bank shallow. I still had no aileron control, and I was having great difficulty guiding the airplane accurately with rudder and partial elevator. I skidded the airplane around a bend in the river and headed toward Indian Creek, now about three miles away.

I added full flaps to quicken the descent and slow my aircraft. I was headed toward a tall stand of pine trees and hunched over the co-pilot controls while manipulating the throttle with my left hand. The left wing dropped about 10 degrees, and the nose of the Cessna was pointed at a Forest Service guard station. I applied full right rudder and the left wing started to come up, but not all the way to level flight. The airplane missed the pine trees as I pulled on the co-pilot yoke as hard as I could. The Cessna’s main landing gear touched down on the edge of a tie-down area near the guard station, bounced slightly, and touched down again closer to the runway. Control on the ground was good, and the airplane actually rolled to a stop on the runway.

A pair of Forest Service employees let me use a satellite phone to contact the Idaho Department of Aeronautics and call off any search for me. I also called my wife to let her know I was fine, and that she might be hearing from rescuers. She said she had already been contacted by phone.

I went back to my airplane and examined the flight control system. I found a bolt on the floor in front of the left seat that had fallen out of the control column behind the instrument panel. The bolt was meant to connect the control yoke tube to the chain and cables that control the ailerons. The bolt hadn’t been properly secured during a recent servicing.

The repair was relatively simple. A mechanic from Middle Fork Aviation in Challis, Idaho, flew in, fixed the problem, and I flew home later that day.

The failure couldn’t have happened in a worse place because of the mountainous terrain and remote location, and I remember thinking at the time that the best I could realistically hope for was a survivable crash. The actual outcome was far better, however, and the only advice I can offer anyone confronting a similar situation is not to give up.

Dennis C. Scifres, AOPA 546298, is a CFI living in Boise, Idaho, where he specializes in mountain flying instruction.

“Never Again” is sponsored by the AOPA Insurance Agency.