Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has been covering the general aviation industry for more than 20 years.
I use a special red folder to store bizarre aviation tales as they come across my desk. Many of the strange stories get thrown out after a while because in the great scheme of life, they aren't that strange. But after a story survives the test of time and multiple reviews, I deem it weird enough to share with you. Here are a few you might find interesting:
Jaroslaw "Jerry" Ambrozuk was expected to be sentenced last month in Montana for his part in the 1982 death of his 18-year-old girlfriend Dorothy Babcock. It seems that back in August 1982, when Ambrozuk was 19, he and the girl were eloping from Canada to the United States in a rented Cessna 150. At some point during the night flight, Ambrozuk veered off course, ditching the airplane in Little Bitterroot Lake near Marion, Montana. Ambrozuk managed to get out of the airplane. Babcock did not.
After his capture in August of last year — 24 years after the incident — Ambrozuk claimed the girl's seat belt would not unbuckle after they hit the water and she could not get out. When searchers found the airplane 220 feet deep in the lake, the girl was still strapped inside. Her seat belt unlatched just fine; she had drowned.
According to The Associated Press, investigators shortly after the accident noted that Ambrozuk built a fire on the lakeshore to help dry off. They also found on the lakeshore a sealed, waterproof trash bag with a rope attached. Witnesses later said they saw someone matching Ambrozuk's description wet on the shore, but carrying a dry duffel bag, leading investigators to believe the duffel bag had been sealed in a bag as well.
Shortly after the crash Ambrozuk called a friend, telling him of the accident. But then Ambrozuk disappeared.
For nearly a quarter century, using a different name, Ambrozuk apparently led a high-profile bachelor life in Texas as a software developer. According to reports on the television show America's Most Wanted, where the story aired twice, he had wild all-night pool parties at his home in an upscale Dallas neighborhood and drove a Dodge Viper — not exactly the way to keep a low profile. Finally a woman called police to tell them that she believed Ambrozuk was living near Plano, Texas, which is where police arrested him.
He pleaded no contest to negligent homicide, for which he could be sentenced to 10 years in prison. But that's only the start of his problems. U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement may charge him with being an illegal alien for all those years.
Although police may still be curious about Ambrozuk's motives, FAA investigators are wondering why the pilot of a Mitsubishi MU-2 didn't report a late-night engine failure on approach to Chicago Midway International Airport in mid-January 2007. It seems one of the engines on the twin turboprop threw a turbine disc in flight.
Having a turbine disc depart an airplane in flight is unusual, but not in and of itself enough to stay in my red folder. What makes this story memorable is that the 6-inch wheel, made of exotic alloys and probably several thousand degrees in temperature when it departed the engine, landed on a house roof and burned through the roof and then the ceiling of the bedroom below. It hit the floor 2 feet from Dorothy Gohn's bed and smoldered on the carpet. "I heard this thud, and it woke me up," Gohn told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I saw this thing laying on the floor. I went to pick it up, but it was so hot that I burned my finger a little bit."
So what do you do when a turbine wheel burns through your roof in the middle of the night and lands next to your bed? Well, if you're Dorothy Gohn, you go back to bed.
Sweet dreams, Dorothy. My guess is the pilot didn't sleep so well that night.
If it's not exotic metals raining from the sky, it's flyers. Someone flying over the Southern California town of Vista in February dropped thousands of anti-illegal immigration flyers from an airplane. "It was the weirdest thing," Vista resident Jean Smith told the North County Times newspaper. "Two or three, then five or six, then as far as I can see, these papers are floating into the neighborhood."
An FAA spokesman told the newspaper that federal regulations govern the dropping of things from airplanes. He noted that if the flyers came from an airplane, they were dropped illegally. However, FAR 91.15, which deals with dropping objects from an airplane, only says, "No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property." One wonders how much hazard there is in fluttering paper. Littering, well, that's another story, but not a federal offense.
Such acts, illegal or not, make all of us in general aviation look bad and threaten our image with already suspicious nonpilots. The newspaper quoted Jean Smith who saw the leaflets falling. "Whether I agree or disagree with the political sentiment of the flyer, I'm more concerned a plane can spew this all over the neighborhood," said Smith. "If you get mad enough, what are you going to toss out the window next?"
To you pilots who shoveled the paper out of the airplane, knock it off. We have enough problems as it is.
To most of us, declaring an emergency is a big deal. And when you use the "E word," you expect the waters to part. So imagine the surprise of an American Airlines Boeing 757 crew last August when a controller denied a request for an emergency landing on the nearest runway.
It seems the pilots had an indication of low fuel and understandably wanted to land immediately. But, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper, the nearest runway, 17 Center, would have the airliner landing opposite the normal flow of traffic. So instead, the controller told the pilots to go land on Runway 31 Right so as to fit in better with the rest of the crowd. You can imagine the two pilots looking at each other in a puzzled way. Maybe one of them tapped the microphone a couple of times and said something like, "Hello, did you hear me? We have an indication of an emergency here and need to land now."
Perhaps the controller came back with something like: "Ignore 17 Center there in front of you and report a left base for 31 Right because that would be so much more convenient for us."
Fortunately, the 757 made it safely around to Runway 31 Right. As it turns out, the low-fuel annunciator was the result of a bad fuel sensor; the airplane still had lots of gas.
The FAA quickly admitted that it goofed. The controllers union took the opportunity to point out that it was a supervisor who told the controller not to allow the landing against the flow. The agency then summarily sent the controllers and supervisors to a training session to learn that when a pilot declares an emergency they should be a little more accommodating.
Stay tuned. There will surely be more strange tales in the making.
E-mail the author at [email protected]org.