Ultralight Trip 3-11-2004
Although many people are tired of hearing me say it, the weather so far this year has been atrocious, for flying, anyway. And lately it seems there'd be a few nice days during the week -- when us working stiffs can't go fly -- but the weekends turn rainy, windy and cold. Ok, enough whining.
So, I called Rick and suggested we play hookey by going flying some afternoon. Monday was a no-go because of a Presidential TFR. Tuesday and Wednesday we both bumped into other obligations, but Thursday looked good.
We met at the airport around 4:45pm for a nice late afternoon flight, when the winds should be calmer and the thermals dying out. Temps were in the low 70's, the sky was mostly blue, and the engine fired right up. The only thing giving it the "near" in "near-perfect" was that the wind was a cross-wind... but it was only a 5-7mph crosswind, so nothing to worry about.
I took off first, and headed south to I-10, then turned west, and Rick was right behind me. Rick commented later that it was the best take-off he's ever had. He had lowered the pressure in his tires repeatedly, and each time he did, the plane handled better and better. When I turned West I looked back at the airport and saw him ascending and it looked like he was really cooking!
The many times I had flown around to the northwest of the airport, I had seen a small turf airstrip that looked in good condition. It never looked like anyone was there, so the idea was to find it, and do some touch-n-go's on turf. But, as these things usually happen, when I wasn't looking for it, I would run into it all the time. Today, though, I was looking for it and simply couldn't find it.
We did run across a private home, with a hangar and nice turf runway and an even nicer bi-plane parked outside, but that wasn't what I was looking for. So, our Plan B was to head for Sport Flyers and do the touch-n-go's there. We turned to the southwest, me out in front and Rick about a mile behind me. Only a few minutes after we made the turn I heard Rick say "Robert, I've just had an engine out."
I immediately radio'd back and asked where he was, but there was no response. I made an immediate hard left turn, 180-degrees from my heading and started looking. Later, when I reviewed my GPS track, I did it perfectly and went almost right over him, but I didn't see him because he was just off my starboard side. I estimated that I'd already passed where he would have been, and looped around again (and, again, I was right on the mark... I just wasn't seeing him).
Then I flew almost all the way back to the private house and airstrip ("M03" on the GPS track), then back again toward Sport Flyer. Again I made that long oval pattern, changing it just a little, looking hard and hoping to hear him on the radio.
A good friend, John Crosley, was flying his CH701 down near Brazoria County Airport and had heard Ricks transmission. He radio'd me and asked what happened, but he already knew all I knew. He volunteered to come help look. I couldn't really ask him to because it was so late in the day and it'd be tough for him to get back to his home airport if he flew up here to help search. Also, I felt sure I would find him eventually, so I suggested that I could probably find him.
And, I did... but it took me almost 15 minutes from Ricks brief transmission before I saw the wreckage. I was amazed to see a fire department ambulance already on-site, but feared the worst... the wreckage looked bad. Just as I flew over the crash site, Rick came on the radio and said he was ok. Whew! What a huge relief!
I felt helpless, flying around, just like I felt when I was with my brother and he had his first engine out. The big difference was, with my brother, I was right there with him and even watched as he landed; with Rick, I had to find him and that was nerve wracking. The moment of discovery brought me a huge empty feeling in my gut, but the moment later was a huge feeling of relief when I heard that he was okay. What a roller coaster ride for me, but it was even more of a ride for Rick.
Rick, over the radio, asked what I was going to do. I had been searching the area to see if there were a plausible landing area, but I couldn't see anything that looked viable. I was only 10 miles away from the home airport, so I told him I'd head back, land, then drive out and pick him up.
On the way back I contacted John Crosley and told him that Rick was okay. Another pilot had overheard everything and wanted to chat about it. About half-way back, I passed a news helicopter going the other way, toward the crash site. I guess they picked up the crash information on a police scanner.
As quick as I could, I got to the crash site... looking at it, even from the road, I was amazed Rick walked away from that wreckage! He was one heck of a lucky guy!
As I drove up, the ambulance was pulling away. The only people left besides Rick were a state trooper and a photograper. The trooper had called the FAA, but when the FAA was told it was a single-seat ultralight, they said they weren't interested. The trooper then wanted to call the EAA, but I told him they didn't have an investigative arm, so, he just shrugged and decided there wasn't anything left for him to do. He chatted for a little while about his days as a pilot, then left. The photographer hung around for a little while longer, taking pictures of course, then left.
I asked Rick to pose for just a second in front of the wreckage...
He then told me what happened: "I was headed south at approximately 1200 ft. MSL (about 1100 ft. AGL). The engine acted like it ran out of gas. I was increasing the throttle to gain some altitude and the engine slowly lost power and died. The silence is very spooky. I quickly checked my airspeed and altitude and started looking for a place to land. Straight ahead was houses and trees. To my left was a big clear field. I turned slowly and set the plane on a glide to the field. Unfortunately, I was loosing altitude very fast. Within 30 to 40 seconds I was at 500 ft. I checked my fuel bulb to see if I had fuel pressure. It was hard as a rock so I tried to re-start the engine, but it just cranked without starting. I tried one more time to re-start the engine to no avail then realized that I wasn't going to make it to the field. I was going to hit the power lines that lined the field. The road was busy with traffic so that wasn't an option. I spotted another field to my left, but it had power lines with pine trees below the power lines. However it was real close, so I turned left again but I lost almost 300 ft on the turn and was again headed straight for the power lines. The only option I could think of at the time was to dive below the power lines and try to hit the tops of the trees. By the time I realized I was going to crash, I was too low to pull the BRS. Within a couple of seconds I hit the trees and the plane rolled to the right and hit the ground breaking the right wing off the plane coming to a stop upside down. Gasoline was pouring out of the gas tank all over me and all I could think of was to get out fast. I released the seat belt and crawled out of the plane and away as fast as I could. There were already several cars stopped and within seconds several people were there to assist me. Within less than 5 minutes there were police and Katy fire department trucks on site."
Rick didn't radio me after that first brief call because, on impact, everything that wasn't bolted down flew forward into the nose of the plane, including the radio. So it took him a while to retrieve it and call me.
When the fire department got there, they sprayed foam over the plane and the surrounding grounds because of the gas. It was still evident underfoot when I got there.
Pine branches covered the plane, providing ample evidence of his trajectory through the trees. There was the smell of gas, enough to make you decide not to turn on a switch.
I looked at it for a while and decided that the plane falling on its right wing probably helped cushion his impact somewhat... the fiberglass hull took a lot of the impact quite well, which also helped. Overall, he was one lucky pilot!
The next morning we took apart what was left of the wings, removed the engine from the root tube, and hauled the plane and wings on to a flatbed trailer. Rick and his friend Chuck put the engine into the back of Ricks van. It finally came to rest in its original T-Hangar... a sad sight.
To Ricks credit, he's ready to jump back in the saddle, and is talking about rebuilding the Buccaneer -- from scratch if he has to. What a guy!
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