Never Again

Runway incursion

October 1, 2004

That morning began as most Saturdays did, with the weekly routine of flying with my longtime partner. While preparing to leave the house for Montgomery Field in San Diego, my eyes were drawn to the television screen showing the contrails of space shuttle Columbia disintegrating as it passed over clear Texas skies. Perhaps this should have been an omen that this was not going to be a good day to fly.

A weather briefing confirmed what I could see looking out my window — clear skies in San Diego plus favorable winds following us to our destination in Quartzsite, Arizona, about 30 nm east of Blythe, California. Our tanks needed topping, so upon arrival at Montgomery Field, a tower en route IFR flight plan was filed to McClellan-Palomar Airport, in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. We completed the noneventful flight to Palomar where both tanks were topped, and we activated the prefiled IFR flight plan to Blythe.

We were given vectors to the Julian VOR, and while climbing out we were told by approach control to fly a dogleg to the north for traffic overtaking us.

Back on course we proceeded to Blythe at 9,000 feet with both my copilot and me on oxygen until we started our descent toward Quartzsite.

We were joining several airplanes at Quartzsite for an unofficial fly-in, and we had reviewed photos of the nontowered private airport with a dirt strip that our flight leader had previously taken.

Upon entering the traffic pattern, I radioed on our chosen frequency, announcing my intention to land to the west. I extended my downwind leg to give me time to descend to the proper altitude. Once on final with full flaps, and the gear down and locked, I anticipated a normal landing.

Touchdown was smooth, and as I began to roll out, I glanced ahead and saw a brown sedan enter the runway on my left side and continue slowly across my landing rollout path ignoring the signs.

My immediate thought was that the car would clear my path, but then it stopped directly in front of the airplane. Impact was imminent, and as we bore down on the vehicle, I applied full aft elevator, and the airplane had just enough forward speed to lift approximately one foot or so off the ground, in ground effect. As my left wing passed four inches above the roof of the auto, thus missing the side windshield post, the thought crossed my mind that we might not make contact.

This thought was quickly quenched by the sickening sound of impact as my left landing gear smashed into the car's right front bumper, ripping the landing gear from the wing. Following contact, the left wing slammed onto the roof, which threw the airplane sideways, and in a millisecond, I was transformed from a pilot into a terrified passenger.

The airplane hit the ground going sideways on the right landing gear, nosewheel, and left wing tip. We again became airborne and then smashed into the ground as we continued a counterclockwise rotation, coming to rest at the side of the runway, still on the right main gear, nose gear, and left wing tip. Somehow there was no prop strike.

My copilot had reached over and pulled the mixture control and turned off the switches at some point during the incident.

We both exited the airplane with the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) screaming; however, neither of us received so much as a scratch.

I learned several lessons from this experience.

First, know your airport. Residents living near the airstrip commented that they had expected this to happen since there is a road that intersects the runway. Following my report to the NTSB the owner of the airstrip was contacted and advised to close the road.

Second, landing lights would have made the airplane more visible. The front profile of an airplane is not too large, but a landing light, even in daytime, is harder to miss.

Third, make sure that your aircraft is adequately insured. Our 1965 Beechcraft Bonanza was insured for $100,000. The damage repair estimate was more than $68,000. When damage nears 70 percent of insured value, the insurance company may elect to total the aircraft and sell it for salvage in order to cut its losses. (The woman driving the car was insured for $15,000, which left my insurance holding the bag for the difference between her maximum and the $68,000.) Our aircraft should have been insured for $120,000 — there may have been less of a dispute with the insurance company concerning the repair. Our Bonanza is flying again following repairs that came to a total cost of more than $73,000.


Paul E. Thomas, AOPA 265653, owns a Beechcraft S35 Bonanza.


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An original "Never Again" story is published each month on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/never_again/), and you can see an index of "Never Again" articles published in AOPA Pilot ( www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/idxna.html).