Among pilots in the Lower 48, it's an item of faith that flying in Alaska is just different. Even those of us without cable TV can imagine some of those differences. The extremes of landscape and climate require Alaskan pilots to be exceptionally resourceful. For most practical purposes, much of the interior is only accessible by air—hauling people, supplies, and even dogs means finding rough strips in rugged country without benefit of instrument approaches, charted airways, or weather broadcasts. A forced off-field landing can leave you out on your own for a long, long time. Along the coast the weather tends to be low and wet, shrouding the hills just beyond the airport’s edge.
Even in Alaska, though, some aspects of aviation work just about the same as anywhere else. If lift doesn’t exceed weight, you won’t be taking off. If angle of attack exceeds its critical value, you’ll stall. And willpower alone won’t overcome those facts.
On May 27, 2011, a Cessna 180 crashed and burned during an attempted takeoff from the Birchwood airport northeast of Anchorage. Skies were clear, temperatures were cool, and the wind was just 4 knots. The accident killed all five people on board—two adults in front and three children sharing the back seat. Two eyewitnesses saw the Cessna begin its takeoff roll on Runway 19R, a 4,008-by-100-foot asphalt runway. One reported that it began veering left before the tail came up. The other was less specific, but both agreed that by the time it lifted off, the 180 was turning left in an unusually nose-high attitude. It wallowed slowly toward a line of trees, and then pulled up just enough to clear them before descending again and turning right. The first witness described a roll “like a wingover” with an immediate descent into the ground, while the second characterized the maneuver as “gentle.” Both rushed to the scene with fire extinguishers, but were unable to help due to the intensity of the fire.
The 46-year-old private pilot had bought the airplane about a year earlier. The CFI who had given him his flight review and tailwheel endorsement the previous June said that he had obviously been flying the airplane but hadn’t logged the time; consequently, his logbook showed just less than 200 hours of lifetime experience, with less than four hours in make and model. His actual experience is not known. A friend who had flown the 180 with him in May 2010 recalled that they had almost stalled on takeoff; he had recommended that the owner not try to fly the airplane without additional instruction. That flight was made about a month before the training that produced his tailwheel endorsement, so it seems he followed that advice.
The CFI who provided that training also described him as “a better than average” private pilot, and thought he was “too good a pilot to let a simple stall get him.” The second eyewitness suggested that the accident was “a classic Cessna seat slid back or broke example,” but after examining the wreckage investigators found “no evidence of seat slippage with the pilot’s seat,” nor any indication that the control lock was still in place.
They did, however, find evidence that the airplane had been overloaded. The pilot’s son confirmed that the tanks had been topped before takeoff. Based on that, the weights of the pilot and passengers, and that portion of the cargo that could still be identified after the fire, the investigators concluded that at a conservative estimate the 180 had been 243 pounds overweight, or about 10 percent above its certified maximum gross weight. The estimated center of gravity was near the middle of the loading envelope, so weight distribution doesn’t appear to have caused the accident.
The extra weight probably didn’t cause it, either, but it surely didn’t help. Four thousand feet of pavement would be an ample takeoff run for most taildraggers—provided they remain on or over the pavement until they’ve built enough airspeed to fly. The NTSB attributed the accident to the pilot’s loss of control, citing the excess weight and the pilot’s lack of make-and-model experience as contributing factors. They concluded that after losing longitudinal control, he had tried to pull the airplane off the ground and over the trees, causing the stall. Lack of currency may have been a factor, too. His practice of not logging every flight makes it impossible to be sure, but the friend who had advised him to get more training believed that the 180 hadn’t been flown since the previous September.
Things are different in Alaska, but not everything. Skills erode without practice, and tailwheel airplanes handle differently than those with tricycle gear. After several months off, the best way to get reacquainted with an unfamiliar aircraft is not to pack it full of people and gear and take off cross-country on your very first flight of the season. And even when the trees close in on your nose, there’s no trading airspeed for altitude before you’ve got the airspeed.