May 1, 2006
Teaching people to fly has always been my special, favorite thing to do, and I thought it would be a lot of fun and an interesting change from our flying club's Cessna 150s to offer flight instruction in a conventional gear aircraft, better known as a taildragger. Several club members agreed, so I set out to buy one and lease it back to the club.
I zeroed in on an all-metal Luscombe 8E based in Arizona, and I agreed with the seller on a price. The next steps were to get a reliable pre-purchase inspection and then check out the airplane in the air.
My first 140 flying hours had been in a Piper PA-18 Super Cub and a North American AT-6; both taildraggers. But I no longer felt confident to fly one since that had been years ago. Fortunately, a local Luscombe pilot offered to practice flying in his airplane, and after several flights and many landings, I felt a lot more comfortable.
Now I had to arrange with the seller to fly the Luscombe before completing the purchase. We had agreed on a price of $21,000. He wouldn't let me fly it without a $2,500 cashier's check deposit. By now I was sure I wanted this airplane, so I agreed. I had used AOPA's aircraft valuation service to determine the airplane's value, and I was aware of the recommendation to open an escrow account, which meant that the funds would be held until the sale was finalized. Ignorantly, I figured I didn't need this safety measure for the purchase.
It was Friday the 13th when my flying club friend, who had said he was experienced flying Luscombes and other taildraggers, accompanied me to Arizona to conduct the pre-purchase flight check. I now was comfortable flying a taildragger, but I thought it would be nice to have backup and maybe have some moral support. We flew to the seller's airport in my Cessna.
When we arrived, the seller waved us toward the waiting Luscombe. I asked him about insurance. He assured me that he had full coverage and his insurance policy would cover any contingency. Caveat emptor.
We got into the airplane, I in the left seat and my friend in the right seat. He was also a certificated flight instructor, and we agreed that he would be pilot in command in view of the fact that he was more experienced in flying taildraggers than I.
I slowly advanced the throttle, and we started down the runway. As expected, the airplane drifted to the left. As I eased in a little right rudder, my friend cried urgently, "Right rudder!" Then, he almost immediately cried, "I've got it!" With this, he shoved my hand off the throttle and held the throttle full forward while he applied a lot of right rudder and held the stick full back. The airplane veered to the right about 30 degrees from the runway, heading into the grass between the runway and a parallel taxiway.
The airplane was gently leaving the ground in attempted flight, and then gradually settling back to the ground, repeatedly. My friend now had let up on the right rudder, but we were speeding through the grass on a course about 30 degrees to the right of the runway heading.
I was completely floored by this unbelievable occurrence. As soon as I realized what was happening, I pulled back on my friend's left arm — trying to get the throttle back — while yelling at him to release the back-pressure on the stick. And, of course, all this happened in less than a minute.
We were now charging through the grass, across the parallel taxiway, and toward the fence along the right side of the airport, bumping along uneven terrain as we repeatedly lifted off and settled back down. As we neared the fence, my friend seemed to let up on the power and steered the airplane a bit to the left to parallel the fence. Then — his first utterance since his takeover — he said, "Put on the brakes!" which I did.
I applied the brakes just short of a deep ditch, washed out by the last heavy rain, which ran across our path. The wheels, naturally, slid into the ditch. The empennage slowly rose up behind us, arced over us, and slammed down — inverted — on the other side of the ditch. We were both hanging there, upside down, in our seat belts.
I switched off the ignition. The right door wouldn't open because the right wing pressed down on it,and my left door was also hard to open for the same reason: But with my adrenaline flowing, I forced it open. We both then tumbled out of our seat belts and crawled out the left side.
The airplane was a mess. Totaled. The rudder and fin were mashed down. The horizontal stabilizers were bent up. Both wings were tilted up from the inverted fuselage. The prop and the engine were shot.
I had scraped both of my shins on the left doorjamb as I scurried out of the airplane on my hands and knees. I just about depleted the FBO's Bandaid supply on my shins. Other than a small nick on his forehead, my friend was uninjured.
The Luscombe's owner was distraught. With a hint of tears — spiced with a little sarcasm — he suggested I just pay him the rest of the purchase price and keep the airplane. After we had all calmed down some, he admitted that the airplane was actually insured for less than half of the agreed-upon sale price. (He hadn't increased the value in 23 years or so.) Of course, he was keeping my cashier's check.
I learned several things — the hard way — from this incident.
Never buy an airplane without having a reliable third party, like an escrow service, hold the funds until the sale is complete.
Don't take friends on a pre-purchase check flight to rely on their experience unless you're sure of their recent experience in the same make and model.
Be cautious if someone says that you're covered by his or her policy. Read the policy yourself. A lot of people have no idea what is and isn't covered by their insurance policies. Also, many FBOs will say they have "full coverage" when that coverage is only for the FBO.
I like to say I'm not superstitious, but whenever it's Friday the 13th, and I'm at the airport, I can't help but think back to that beautiful Southwest flying day, which eventually produced the most surprising and scary flying experience I'd ever encountered in decades of flying both United States Air Force (USAF) and general aviation airplanes.
Maj. Brook Evans, AOPA 684330, is a World War II veteran and retired USAF pilot. He owns a Cessna 150 and a Grumman Tiger and has accumulated more than 8,200 hours flying USAF missions throughout the world. A retired college professor, he is currently a flight instructor in Camarillo, California.
You can find additional information on tailwheel flying and tips on aircraft proficiency and aircraft purchasing at the following links:
Look for the latest installment of Never Again, in the June issue of AOPA Pilot. The story reveals how a certified flight instructor learns an important checklist lesson — the hard way.
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