Technology advances but there’s no substitute for pilot decision-making. A Vultee BT-13 pilot shows what happens when the latter is lacking, in a fascinating story of a flight over southern California.
Read this latest installment and other original “Never Again” stories published each month on AOPA Online.
Preflight planning the night before showed it would be like so many other central Texas morning flights; everything looks good as long as you get up before the morning fog rolls in. The trip was from Taylor, just north of Austin to Kendall-Tamiami Regional Airport, which is west of Miami, Florida. My route was the same as always, east to Marianna, Florida, for a fuel stop, then south toward Miami. This trip was particularly early since my airplane, a 2007 Piper 6X, was scheduled for its first annual and had to be at the shop by early afternoon. So the day before, my son and I went up for a little fun and sightseeing, topped off, put my gear and logbooks in, and locked her down for the night.
At about 4 a.m. the next morning, I departed, climbed to 7,500 feet, dialed in my flight plan and set the autopilot. The next three and a half hours slipped away and the sun rose to a beautiful morning. Then it happened. My engine suddenly stopped. My first thought was what did I do? or what did I touch? But instinctively my training took over—not fear. I quickly trimmed for best glide speed and turned toward the closest airport, which was 13 miles away in Wiggins, Mississippi. I tried restarting the engine, turning on the fuel pump, switching tanks, but nothing worked. It seems like a lot of time went by when looking back, but I can tell you that it only took a minute. At about 6,800 feet, I squawked 7700 and declared Mayday on 121.5.
ATC in Gulfport responded. After going over emergency procedures and exchanging vital information, the controller began to notify ground personnel of the situation. I continued heading toward Wiggins, but at about 5,000 feet, my GPS told me the airport was still 11 miles away. Based on my glide distance and my remaining altitude, I came to the realization that I was not going to make it and had to find another place to land. Unfortunately, the area was nothing but forest. The controller mentioned Highway 49 was nearby but at 7:30 in the morning there were just too many cars on the road for me to risk landing there.
Then I saw a small clearing in the woods where they had cut down some trees. It seemed to be the best place and with only about 3,000 feet left, I committed myself to an off-airport landing. The controller kept in touch and knew my intentions. At about 1,800 feet, I keyed the mike and told ATC that this would be my last communication since I was shutting down all power, equipment, fuel, and preparing for a crash landing.
As the terrain got closer, I began to see tree stumps and debris. Nevertheless, I was committed. So at about 1,000 feet msl, off went the power and the fuel, I cracked the door open, located the fire extinguisher, secured loose items, and grabbed my jacket to protect my head at the last second.
I continued to fly the airplane, always monitoring the feel of the controls. I knew my survival hinged on touching the ground as slowly as possible without stalling. When I felt ground effect, I pulled the nose up as high as I could so the tail would drag and help slow me down even more. Once the tail touched the ground, it was all over in seconds.
The airplane came to rest upside down against a bank of tree clippings and I was alive. I quickly unhooked myself and crawled out the door that was now missing and briskly walked about 100 feet away from the airplane before stopping to check myself for any serious injury. A bruised leg and a minor cut was all I could see.
Then I looked at the airplane and saw the extensive damage. The left wing was severed and resting against the fuselage. The tail section and right wing were twisted and bent. Let’s just say the airplane was totaled. The section of the fuselage where the seats are located was the only area that seemed to be completely intact. Even the nose gear was intact.
I made it to a road and a passing motorist lent me his phone to call 911. Since ATC had already notified emergency personnel, help arrived within minutes, and I was on my way to the hospital. On the way, I reflected on those last eight or so minutes before crashing and credit my instructor and flight school for their emphasis on emergency procedures. They taught me to stay calm, in control, and to always keep flying the airplane. Was I scared? The answer then and now is no. I was too busy to be scared.
I stayed nearby for the next two days while the FAA, NTSB, and the insurance company arranged to have the wreckage sent to Dallas. Then I flew commercial down to Florida where the fine people of Southeast Piper met me and we jumped right into their new Matrix for a two-hour flight around town. We all knew it was important for me to get right back into an airplane and get flying again. It felt great—especially the landing.
As for what caused the engine to stop, it was a faulty plug in the fuel servo that was discovered just days after the airplane arrived in Dallas. I have to say that the manufacturer of the servo moved quickly in researching the problem, helping to issue an emergency AD, and subsequently resolving the problem. I believe my accident was the only in-flight failure, and the rapid response helped ensure the safety of others.
I can’t help but think that a lot of positive actions have resulted from this mishap. I have a lot of confidence in the general aviation industry and the manufacturer of my aircraft. That is why I went right out and purchased a new Piper Saratoga and hope for many years of flying enjoyment. Just remember to fly the airplane, and practice those emergency procedures. It could save your life one day.
Dennis A. Almendares is a real estate developer residing in Hutto, Texas. He’s a private pilot with more than 300 hours, and is the owner of a 2007 Piper Saratoga II.