July 1, 2004
It was the warmest day of the year so far in Montrose, Colorado, as I examined my 1973 Piper Arrow on the ramp. The Arrow was fresh from an engine rebuild and annual inspection, and had a brand-new three-blade prop installed. The new engine had been run up on the ground the night before but had yet to fly.
The owner of the engine shop suggested I go along with him on the test flight so that he could show me how to use the new prop. I was somewhat reluctant but it was already noon. I had to take the airplane over the Continental Divide in order to get it home, so I was anxious to get some flying time in before I had to take it cross-country.
I'd taken in the airplane at the end of December in order to have the engine rebuilt. Since the annual was due the owner suggested that the shop could do it at the same time that it reinstalled the engine. It was now mid-March and the airplane was weeks overdue. I'd been told the airplane was done the week before so I'd been in Montrose for four days waiting for it to be finished. I was not looking forward to yet another night stranded in Colorado.
So despite the little voice in the back of my head telling me not to, I agreed to go up on the checkout flight as soon as they "finished up the paperwork." Bad decision number one.
The runup and takeoff were completely normal. Since there were three other airplanes in the pattern we departed to the northwest of the airport (bad decision number two) and climbed to 8,500 feet (about 2,700 feet agl). We'd planned to circle back on a very extended downwind and do some testing before returning to the field. Once back on the ground we could examine the engine for any leaks. Just as we leveled off and started to cycle the prop, however, the engine began to run very rough. Smoke briefly poured out of the cowling, and then the engine seized.
I've always complained about the noise inside a single-engine piston airplane. Let me tell you that you cannot imagine how quiet it is when that single engine stops. Doing a simulated engine failure doesn't even come close to repeating the effect. Except for the wind whistling by the windows it is completely silent.
With the engine stopped we immediately had to decide where to put down. We were too far from the airport to make it back. That left two choices: We could continue south down the river valley where it was flatter but there was nothing but open ground, or we could turn north where it was rougher but there was a road.
For bad decision number three of the day, we turned north toward the road. With no power to it, the new three-blade prop became the world's most efficient speed brake. The auto gear extension on the Arrow had previously been set to activate at such a low speed as to be nearly disabled. However, as part of the annual it had apparently been set back to factory settings (to extend at speeds under 110 mph). This meant we were at 8,500 feet on a warm day with the gear down and a three-blade prop completely stopped. Best-glide airspeed still had us falling at 800 feet per minute.
We did not make the road. With nothing but bluffs and hills around us our landing choices were limited. We picked out the only place available, which was on a hilltop — a relatively flat 700 feet to work with. Clearing the ravine in front of it took up 50 feet and then we touched down. Unfortunately, our speed and angle of descent led to a rather big bounce. We used approximately 660 feet on that rebound, eating up our entire landing area.
Bouncing over the hilltop, we had no clear idea of what was on the other side of the hill. We could see the riverbed a half-mile away and several hundred feet below but had no idea if that drop-off was a smooth one or another bluff like on the other side of the hill. On our second bounce we landed going downhill. The force of the bounce caused the left gear to be forced up through the wing and the front gear completely collapsed. That put the nose of the airplane into the dirt and caused us to spin around 90 degrees to the left. The net result was that on the second bounce we stopped in only 80 feet. Another 20 feet and the slight downslope would have become much steeper.
Somewhat unbelievably neither of us was hurt at all. The crash had happened just a half-mile from the Delta Correctional Facility, so within minutes there were about a dozen prison guards on the scene, and within 30 minutes the sheriff and ambulance arrived.
The NTSB later determined that the crash was caused when the engine seized because one of the oil lines had been hooked up incorrectly. Apparently a constricted fitting coming off the engine had no oil line attached to it at all. Because of this it only took about 10 minutes to completely empty the engine of oil.
Once I was back home, the fallout from my previous bad decisions started. First was the call from the FAA. It had done a preliminary examination and wanted to know if I was aware that the airplane I was flying (and had crashed) was three months out of annual. I told them that was impossible because the annual had just been completed prior to the accident.
It turns out, though, that although the annual had been completed and all the paperwork for that annual had been filled out, the mechanic had been instructed not to sign the logs until after our test flight. Since I was the owner of the airplane and flying at the time of the accident I was responsible for confirming that all paperwork had been completed. Since I did not confirm the logs were actually signed, I was cited with flying an unairworthy aircraft.
More fallout from my decision to go along with the test flight came in the form of a bill from the engine shop. It seems that since I went along on the test flight, the shop claimed that as evidence that I "took delivery" of the airplane. Despite the fact that the new engine and prop are destroyed, the airplane is totaled, the engine was not put back on properly, and the annual was never signed off, the shop claims I now owe it more than $24,000. In addition, the shop is now adding interest to that total at a rate of about $260 a month.
The lessons here should probably be obvious. First, never, ever get in an airplane that has not been thoroughly tested after repairs. Doing so not only put me in harm's way but also has given the repair shop a reason to say that I took delivery of the airplane.
Lessons two and three are to never leave the pattern with a newly repaired airplane and never go for a slim chance at a road in the hills when a river valley will do. However, these lessons never should have been necessary because lesson number one says don't fly the airplane in the first place.
The most important lesson for me, though, was to always check the paperwork and never rely on someone's word that it has been completed. I've talked to numerous mechanics since and many have admitted that they routinely do not sign the logs until after the airplane has been flight tested. However, the rules are clear. The airplane cannot leave the ground until the paperwork is completed and signed. Failure to check the logs puts the pilot in violation.
Chris Owen, AOPA 3709930, has logged 700 hours in three years of flying. He has returned to flying another Piper Arrow.
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