As we stood on the edge of the runway, staring at the airplane, I felt incapable of talking. The airplane sat motionless, its fuselage at a 45-degree angle to the ground, the crumpled nose resting on the asphalt. The blades of both propellers curled back from their former shape, now useless. I was stunned, only able to think, "How did this happen?"
Looking back, it's shocking how quickly circumstances can get out of control. Hearing or reading a story of an accident is one thing, but living it is another. You never think it will happen to you.
Working as a flight instructor was an exciting and interesting experience. The job of teaching people to fly is a unique and satisfying occupation that often teaches the instructor more about the intricacies of flight than it does the student. I took my job as a flight instructor seriously. The skills that I passed on to my students might either save or cost the lives of others. I practiced my skills, studied all I could on flying, and zealously read the accident reports describing flights that inevitably turned into nightmares. Throughout all of this, I never really believed that others might someday read of my accident.
A commercially rated pilot in both single- and multiengine airplanes, I was pursuing my multiengine flight instructor certificate. The school for which I worked did not offer multiengine instruction, so I employed the services of a local independent instructor who rented a 1950s-era Piper Apache. The plane was an old, well-worn workhorse, but it flew well.
I would meet the instructor on weekends and after work and fly the Apache out to the local practice area. He would have me simulate teaching him to fly a twin-engine airplane, assuming the role of student as I played the role of instructor. Over time, with breaks to allow me to save money for further instruction, we worked through all of the requirements for multiengine instructor candidates.
After hours of practicing basic flight maneuvers, engine-out procedures, gear failures, and on and on, the day for my sign-off was at hand. My instructor and I met at the airport and agreed to leave the controlled airspace, work on some emergency procedures at altitude, and then proceed to a nearby nontowered airport to practice takeoffs and landings.
The altitude work went well. My skills were sufficient, in spite of my nervousness at the prospect of taking another checkride. We then entered the pattern at a small, single-runway airport. As I looked down at the runway, my feelings were a mixture of excitement for the new experience and trepidation of landing the airplane from the right seat on such a short and narrow runway.
I was at the controls, talking through my actions. The purpose was to simulate teaching a student the tasks involved in landing a complex airplane, while at the same time, polishing my skills at handling the Apache. We lined up on the runway and brought the airplane over the threshold. I eased back on the power and, as gently as possible, set the main wheels and then the nose gear on the runway. As the airplane decelerated down the centerline, my instructor applied the brakes and told me to taxi over for fuel. In the vintage airplane we were flying, there was only one set of foot brakes. The brakes were on the left side of the cockpit and as the simulated instructor, I was sitting in the right seat. This precluded me from stopping the airplane. It was a bit of a juggle, with me controlling most of the airplane, and my instructor applying the brakes, but we had done it on prior occasions. Besides, we were both experienced, competent, professional pilots.
After fueling, we taxied to the runway and down to the turnaround for takeoff. The airport did not have taxiways, save for the ramp area, and all taxiing took place on the runway, which was about six inches higher than the shoulder.
After takeoff, my instructor told me to remain in the pattern to work on full-stop takeoffs and landings. We flew the pattern without incident and crossed the threshold a bit fast and high, but within reason to make a full stop on the runway. As the airplane decelerated on the rollout, the right main gear dropped off the raised runway surface onto the shoulder. The force of the gear dropping off the runway pulled the airplane to the right, causing the nose gear to also leave the runway surface, with the left gear remaining on top.
The airplane quickly approached the end of the runway, which had a larger turnaround area that was also higher than the shoulder. As on previous landings, I waited for my instructor to apply brakes, while I handled power and the control wheel. To my surprise my instructor did not apply the brakes in time to stop the airplane before it reached the raised turnaround surface. Fearing a gear collapse, I pulled back on the control wheel, hoping to lighten the nose gear weight enough to overcome the impact. It didn't work. When the nose wheel struck the runway, it collapsed. The nose of the airplane struck the runway and both propellers hit asphalt, destroying both props and engines. In the proverbial heartbeat, we were sitting on the end of the runway; nose down in the most intense silence imaginable.
I turned off the electronics and cut the fuel to avoid a potential fire. We clumsily crawled out of the airplane and stood looking at the wreck of what was just a moment before a functional old airplane. Thankfully, the only physical injuries were to the airplane and not to either pilot.
At the conclusion of the FAA investigation, one thing became painfully clear. On our flights, with two experienced pilots in the airplane, we never fully decided who was pilot in command. We should have agreed on who would control what during every part of the flight. In essence, there was no pilot in command. We thought we could handle it, but we didn't. Thankfully, only a bent airplane was the result.
James Keldsen is a commercial pilot and former flight instructor with more than 1,000 hours.
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