A Hard Lesson Learned

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Submitted for publication by Tim Rittal.

Sunday, October 7, 2007 was a beautiful evening with clear skies and calm winds, a perfect time to get some take off and landing practice in my GlaStar. I took off from Lake Hood strip north across the inlet and then on towards Birchwood. En route I dialed in the Birchwood automated weather. Winds were calm, and I flew over and did a nice landing on runway 01. Since the weather was ideal, I decided to go on to Knik Glacier area where I knew of a long, flat grass strip where I had done some training a few days before. There are lots of practice strips in the Knik Valley but I liked this one because it is relatively long, maybe 1,800 feet, and relatively flat and wide. No rocks. A nice straight path is obvious where other aircraft have done similar work but you could actually land on either side and be okay.

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I liked the margin for error. I did a fly by to check the strip and the wind, which was calm, and set up a normal landing pattern and approach. My three point landing was clean and on target. However, on roll out, I got on the brakes about the time my wheels rolled through a slight dip and the next thing I knew I was on my nose and over on my back.

GlaStar landing accidentIt happened so fast I never had a chance to react. I was in total disbelief of what had just happened and now I am hanging upside down in my shoulder harness. I had presence of mind to unhook myself and switch off all the electric. I can testify that I was not thinking 100% clearly at this point. It occurred to me I needed to get out of the aircraft in case of fire, but where the hell is that door knob??!!

What seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, I found the door latch and out I went. I was pretty well stunned at what had just happened so fast. Now what? I need to call my wife and tell her I am okay.

Back up a bit. As I was leaving my house this fine evening my wife says, “Are you going to take the satellite phone?” “No” says I, “I am only going to Birchwood and then to Knik and I have my cell phone!” What was I thinking? Ten miles up Knik Glacier Valley your stinkin’ cell phone is not going to work. All those beautiful mountains, I should have realized that. Back to the plane. I reached for my cell phone and dialed. No signal. I began walking out into the valley where I might get a clear shot down towards Palmer. No signal. Further, no signal. Once I realized this was fruitless I jogged back to the plane. My ELT was transmitting, and I removed it from the plane and attached the external antenna and let it continue. I checked for fuel in the cockpit and around and decided to give the radio a try. Long story short: no response on all sorts of different frequencies including the ELT 121.5 both through the radio and through the ELT itself. Looks like I wait for the National Guard to extract me.

It’s about 8 PM by now. The worst part of this whole mishap was knowing my wife was going to worry sick not knowing my condition. She knew where I was, and I was sure help would be along soon, but it would a long wait for her. New policy: no flying without the satellite phone in my vest. By 10:45 PM it was starting to get a little chilly, and I am thinking I might be spending the night. If no help by 11 I’ll set up the tent, which was in my survival gear bag. By 11:30 PM I was in the tent and lying comfortably on my seat cushions. $2,000 seat cushions make great sleeping pads for anyone interested. I was settling in for what I figured was going to be a real long night and sick about what my wife must be going through when I heard a low whup, whup whup. That must be my ride!

Enter the Air National Guard with a crew of six wearing night vision goggles. They landed 100 yards away, and two guys came and asked if I was okay and escorted me to the chopper with my bag of essentials and the ELT, now turned off. I left the tent to ward off any bad guys. First thing I did once I was buckled in was ask the guy nearest me if he would let my wife know I was okay, and he said yes. That was a huge relief. They flew me to Kulis, which happens to be about a mile from my house. My wife and her brother were waiting to drive me home. It was a very happy reunion.

The next day, after notifying FAA and NTSB and my insurance agent, I flew out to the plane with Matt Freeman and together we pulled all the panel boxes. The radio, the 2 Dynon flight instrument and engine instrument units, transponder, CO detector and 2 electronic ignition boxes.

Fortunately all these had been expertly wired by Ron Braun and mounted in frames, and they slid out easily. The whole job took less than an hour. I wanted to get them out of harms way from men and nature. We looked the plane over in the light of day to see the extent of the damage. The windshield was broken, one blade of the prop bent, one strut bent and obviously the top of the rudder was smashed down. One wing tip had a foot long ding and the cowling had a couple of 3″ cracks. Overall, the wings looked straight and in good shape, the horizontal untouched and the vertical looked good as did the entire fuselage.

Back to town and a huge thank you to Matt (and Ron). My insurance agent told me they would handle the transport of the plane to the shop, and that an adjuster would be contacting me. Kevin Wyckoff of Alaska Claims Services, Inc. called me and after briefing him on the situation he said he would arrange for a helicopter to pick up the plane and fly it to Palmer. No choppers were available that day but could do the job the next. I was relieved for the help, but after thinking about it and talking to others who had been in similar situations I decided I wanted to be there when they lifted the plane and to prep it by removing the horizontal stabilizer which was unscratched. Kevin was fine with this arrangement and he gave me the contact numbers for the helicopter outfit, Northern Pioneer. Owner Jim Acker said no problem, call him in the morning to set up a time as their chopper was in Delta Junction till morning. Once again, Matt Freeman came to the rescue and took time off work to fly me back out and help with the prep work prior to the chopper arriving. Right on time the copter showed up with pilot Shamus and assistant Matt (another Matt). Very professional and very skilled. Oh, oh! Upside down and pointed the wrong way!

They had my baby back on her feet in no time without causing any further damage. We strapped the horizontal stab on top of the wing and off they flew to Palmer. That GlaStar goes through the air beautifully, even while being dragged by a rope.

GlaStar helicopter recovery

Matt and I arrived at the airport just about the time the copter did and they set it down ever so gently. Matt and I rolled the airplane off to a tie down. I was very happy to have her back in town and right side up.

Next step was to get the plane to a shop for evaluation. Kevin, the adjuster, could not have been more helpful. We talked about various shops that might work on an experimental/homebuilt. Eventually I decided to try Wick Air in Palmer. Kevin located a trailer and arranged a time to meet me at the airport. Meanwhile, John Davis offered to help if he could, and I was off to Palmer.

Arriving first, I prepped the plane for trying to fold the wings, which is pretty handy for trailering down the highway.

Kevin came next and graciously helped me fold the wings, which they did nicely, much to my relief. Bolted in place she was ready for the trailer and the road. John flew in about this time in his RV and taxied up to assist. The first trailer was enclosed and too narrow. Kevin took off for a different flat bed. What a trooper. Soon the GlaStar was on a trailer and off to Wick Air with me following and John off to another appointment. Kevin introduced me to the owner, Mel Wick. I was immediately impressed with his attitude and demeanor.

He just felt like the kind of professional I wanted working on my banged up baby. I left her there in his care and hope to hear by next week the full extent of the damage. I am very hopeful. That will be another story.

Now, the lessons learned. First, if you have a satellite phone, don’t leave home without it. Even for just a short hop.

That single item would have saved my wife a terrible evening of worry and anxiety, and I could have called a friend to come and get me without calling out the National Guard. Those six guys who had to leave their homes and families to come pull my butt out of the mountains would have appreciated it.

Have a list of phone numbers you will need in an emergency stored with your phone. It will be mandatory equipment in my vest from now on.

Second, file a flight plan. Get comfortable and proficient with this and it will become as automatic as buckling your seat belt. Matt was a great example of this. He has a master plan on file with Kenai FSS and he can file and open a VFR flight plan in about 30 seconds. Done. He filed both times on our short hop to my GlaStar.

Third, make sure your spouse or other concerned person knows what to do if you do not show up on time. Have a written procedure with up-to-date phone contacts. Annie knew this and it helped her when the time came.

Fourth, have survival gear on you or at least on board — best on you. My tent, food and flashlight were a nice source of comfort as it got dark and the temps started dipping into the 20’s. Not real cold by Alaska standards but not much fun either. A head lamp is far superior to a handheld light since it leaves your hands free. There are lots of good headlamps with LEDs, which last a very long time on one set of batteries.

Fifth, have a list of local radio frequencies at your finger tips in case of emergency, whether in the air or on the ground. In my case, the radio would not reach out but circumstances could have been different. A back up hand held radio would be good especially if you do not have a sat phone.

Sixth, have and use a cargo net or other adequate baggage tie down method. My 30 pound survival bag was held down by two medium duty bungee cords, which were joined in the middle and hooked to four tie-down rings in the floor. The bag did not come forward but at least one of the bungee hooks was straightened out. Thank goodness I did not have a toolbox or other hard, heavy gear back there.

Seventh, clearly identify your door latches. My black knob was hard to find even in the daylight. I plan to paint it a fluorescent color at least and will probably put some sort of glow in the dark marker like I see on my tent pulls and guide line. Seconds can count if you have a fire.

Eighth, and maybe should have been first for me, go easy on the brakes. I had about 800 feet of airstrip left ahead of me when I went over. I didn’t need brakes at all. It was a stupid mistake and a hard lesson — hard on me, hard on the plane and hard on my family. I doubt I will repeat that one.

The GlaStar is now being cared for by Wick Air of Palmer. The engine is off and into the shop for tear down after the prop strike. The prop, a Hartzell constant speed, is in the prop shop for similar exam. The wings are off and in the shop. Parts have been received from the factory. What appeared to be relatively minor damage is mounting up to be MAJOR cost when you factor in all the time, money and effort going in to make sure nothing unseen is damaged.

Thank goodness for insurance. So far, I have had great service and treatment by the insurance company, Falcon Insurance Agency of Alaska, agent Dean Eichholz and their adjuster, Kevin Wyckoff of Alaska Claims Service. The shop says about 60 days to get her back. I remain optimistic.

So, what if this happened to you? What would you do? Who would you call?

Think about it because few pilots truly do. Since I was interacting with Deb Mosely, a local FAA Aviation Safety Inspector, I asked her for input. She consulted with John Steuernagle and David Karalunas of the FAA Safety Team Office and they offered the following advice based on my two questions repeated below.

Q: If you are on the ground and your aircraft is damaged and you have a way to call someone, who should you call first?

A: The best first option is to call the Alaska ROC (907-271-5936). ROC stands for Regional Operations Center. They have ties to all of the emergency services and standby duty personnel. They are one stop shopping for emergency notification and keep a communications log that can prove the contact was made. Even if you are in another region, the Alaska ROC could get the word to the right folks. The problem is most pilots do not have the ROC number handy. Everyone remembers 1-800-WX-BRIEF (1-800-992-7433). That’s the toll free Flight Service number. It will ring in the area code associated with the cell phone so if you call that number from an out-of-area cell phone number, you will not be directed to the nearest FSS, but to the one that is nearest your cell phone number. Another problem is you are likely to be on hold a long time before you can get to a human. Nothing like running out of battery while you’re on hold. To avoid a long hold time you can utilize the Fast File Flight Plan option. To access this option, dial 1-800-WX-BRIEF, then press 3, and then 2. That way you will get your emergency information on tape and someone would hear it pretty quickly. In any case, you want to think about getting the essential information into the first part of your message. Who you are (name and N number), where you are, number of passengers, medical condition of everyone, survival situation, services required, and lastly who you want notified and their contact information.

Remember, depending on the extent of aircraft damage, you may have a legal obligation to immediately notify the NTSB (907-271-5001) of the accident per NTSB 830.5. NTSB 830.6 outlines the information that is to be included in the notification to the NTSB.

Q: If a friend or relative, e.g., is your flight plan, who should he call and after how long you are overdue should he call?

A: Your friend or relative should follow the same outline above with respect to whom to contact. The ROC or FSS will confirm it is a missing aircraft and that the aircraft is at least one hour overdue. If so, rescue efforts will begin. If you decide to leave your flight plan information with a friend or relative (instead of FSS), be sure to be as specific as possible especially with regard to the intended route of flight, stops along your route and time en-route. Additionally you should give them all of the elements of an FAA flight plan and include the extent of survival gear in the plane. Be sure your friend or relative knows exactly who to contact when you are one hour overdue and can’t be reached. Don’t forget to give them the numbers to call ROC (907-271-5936) or FSS (1-800-WX-BRIEF) and tell them what exactly to tell the ROC or FSS. You may even want to practice an overdue scenario with your friend or relative to ensure they know what to do.

Good advice and much thanks to the FAA folks for taking the time to pass this our way. I plan to put the ROC and FSS numbers (including which keys to press with FSS) in with my satellite phone and survival gear. Maybe you should, too.

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