By David Jack Kenny
Like the low-altitude, high-speed pull-up, it’s a maneuver that seems benign until things go wrong. You want to give yourself or your passenger a good, close look at something on the ground, so you descend, slow the airplane, and bank hard to maintain tight orbits around that point. At low airspeed, the increased load factor imposed by the turn makes the airplane begin to descend, but you want to stay slow enough to study whatever you’re looking at, so you don’t add power. Instead you pull back on the stick, simultaneously tightening the turn and increasing the angle of attack. You’ve just set yourself up for a classic accelerated stall.
If you’re smart enough, or just plain lucky, you’ll have kept the ball centered and maintained enough altitude to recover. You’ll probably still get the scare of your life when the nose drops, most likely without much warning, while you’re close to the ground in an attitude from which most of us haven’t practiced many stall recoveries. Even so, count your blessings. That’s the kind of scare we can learn from. If you had been skidding the turn, or simply entered it too low, it would have been game over. The ground would have intervened before you could recover.
The name they’ve given this kind of crash in Alaska and the mountain West reflects the frequency with which it catches hunters out trying to spot game: They're called “moose stalls.” But it happens everywhere, not just in the wilderness. A spectacular example ended just yards off the boardwalk on New York’s Coney Island in the spring of 2005 when a CFI giving three prospective students a demo flight below the floor of Kennedy International’s Class B lost control of a Cessna 172 attempting to make a turn at 60 knots.
That said, the backcountry version may still be more typical. In that sense, the fatal crash of a Cessna 170B on Sept. 5, 2013, was just another chapter—not even the most recent—in a sadly repetitive history.
A friend who’d been hunting with the Cessna's pilot in a remote part of southeastern Alaska (about 74 miles northwest of Glennallen) told investigators that earlier that day the pilot had shot a moose in an area of tall brush. He had dressed the carcass, but hadn’t managed to mark its location before hiking out. After returning to their landing site on a ridgeline, the pilot decided to search for the carcass from the air. His friend saw the Cessna take off and do “a series of low-altitude maneuvers”; he guessed that it passed him flying at about 45 mph perhaps 80 to 100 feet above the ground. After circling one spot, the pilot flew by again and gave a thumbs-up signal, and then returned to the spot he had circled. The airplane then began a left turn, only to have the nose drop abruptly. It began to spin before hitting the ground nose-first. The pilot was killed; fortunately, he was flying solo.
His aeronautical experience is difficult to gauge. He held a private pilot certificate with an airplane single-engine land rating; no logbooks were recovered. His most recent medical application, filed more than two years earlier, listed 186 hours of flight experience, and of course make-and-model time weren’t requested. It appears that he had attained some proficiency in off-airport operations, but in Alaska that’s not uncommon.
Unfortunately, accidents of this type aren’t uncommon, either. In the wilder parts of our country, they happen often enough to inspire their distinctive label. Sometimes there’s an actual moose involved.