While this well-written story recounts an accident in a crop duster, I think we can all learn from it. And a big plus is that it’s told in a captivating style.
I found it on BeechTalk and got permission to post it here.
The morning of June 25th, 1994 was exceptionally clear and pleasant in central Arkansas and found me sitting at the end of a very scarce asphalt runway in my robust aerodynamic Ag Cat. It was 85 degrees Fahrenheit and the winds were calm. I was ready to roll with half a tank of gas and a hopper crammed full with 1800 lbs of dry fertilizer and waiting to hear the flaggers were set up and ready in the rice field needing to be fertilized. The location of the field in relation to the runway was such that I decided to takeoff in the direction heading away from the field. This is very unusual.
While fertilizing earlier in the morning, I had come to a familiar conclusion, “It’s going to be a good day.”
Getting the word over the radio, I crack the throttle to alert the ponies. The relaxed herd appears all present and accounted for. Its mood is about to change dramatically. With a final, commanding push on the throttle to spin the needles around their arc to the red lines, the ponies snap to attention eyes and ears forward as their nostrils flair and lungs open wide to gulp and consume their supercharged breath. I release the brakes and they start stampeding down the runway. In no time, with a little coordinated forward stick and right rudder pressure, we're "tail up" and rolling on the main gear. A short moment later, I apply back pressure on the stick and away we go into the element for which we're made. The takeoff storm is always a rush. The tight shoulder and lap straps holding me firmly against the seat inside the small cockpit give me the sensation of wearing the very loud machine smelling of old chemical and a hot engine while vibrating throughout from the explosive reactions within the nine supercharged cylinders arrayed in a circle and a large two bladed prop spinning at 2250 rpm churning out 600 willing ponies. When the mood is right, so very right, pilot and machine meld together and become one heart light. During these moods, when the thoroughbred heart of the machine is called upon to perform at the extreme limits of its performance capabilities or put through its steady, demanding working pace, the lead stallion occasionally glances back smiling knowingly at the pilot -- "Mmmm......." The pilot grins back acknowledging their secret conspiracy of mated souls of joy and purpose.
“Sht and giggles" are the understood standing orders between pilot and his spirited, hard working thoroughbreds.
Time being money, “Charge for the guns!” is the standing work order. Very shortly after we break ground and there’s clearance enough to avoid dragging a wing tip, I roll quickly into a shallow climbing, 40-50 degree bank to get turned around about 150 degrees to head for the rice field.
Crop-dusting is very much a seat of the pants affair. With the exception of regularly and visually checking the engine oil pressure and temperature in the relatively high and obstruction free turns back to the field, I hear and feel the temperament of the machine. While working the fields, I’m normally too close to the ground to divert my attention away from looking out the windshield the time required to have an intelligible look at the few gauges inside the cockpit. The airspeed indicator and altimeter come to mind but they aren’t of much practical use in a crop-duster and, truth be told, don’t work anyway. So, the seat of the pants nature of crop-dusting combined with the flight control demands of low level flying and things being what they are in the cockpit of this Ag Cat (and many others, by the way), my attention is focused outside the cockpit in a large effort to maintain my line across the field and avoid running into something. There’s a truism among crop-dusters: What you don’t see, you’ll hit. They don’t call it a truism for nothing.
I’ve got the stampeding herd firmly in hand in the turn when it suddenly and unexpectedly hesitates. The initial fading of the heart and forward momentum of the machine is rather subtle in the sensory storm of the takeoff stampede but something is definitely amiss. Being in a rather rambunctious mood that morning, I first think I’ve been a bit too rough with the old bird. OK. Fine. “Sorry girl.” I quickly roll wings level, ease the back pressure on the stick to allow the machine to gather herself up and get back to our purpose in life. I give her a few seconds to straighten herself out. “Com’on girl…” It ain’t happening. For some mysterious reason, some of the ponies have decided to abandon the air ballet. And me.
Within seconds, I KNOW I’m in trouble. Really BIG trouble. The “time is money” mindset of crop-dusters and anyone else whose pay is commensurate with the actual production of their efforts has caught up with me. The turn was so quickly executed, or perhaps – though unlikely – not executed quickly enough, that when I roll wings level I’m headed in the general direction of the rice field 20-30 feet off the ground but, as fate would have it, there’s a house directly in front of me. Just beyond the house there’s a bayou. Were all 600 ponies accounted for, this situation wouldn’t have reared its ugly head no matter when I rolled out of the turn. However, now that some of the ponies have stumbled, the “solemn occasion” is suddenly upon me. With little room or airspeed for maneuvering, I have few options. With the house looming and the airspeed quickly deteriorating, I pull the emergency hopper dump handle and feel it go slack indicating the cable has either broken or the large door at the bottom of the hopper has opened allowing the fertilizer to dump. I don’t have time to concern myself with which scenario is in play. That’s all I can do in this regard – Pull handle. End. Stop. Move on. I quickly go back to concentrating on flying for ALL I’m worth in my efforts to keep the plane in the air and get it over the house.
If I recall correctly (and I do unfortunately), it was at this time I experienced an ever so brief moment of genuine panic. Though understandable, to this day, I find this very brief mental lapse shameful. Still. Being the generally levelheaded, rational sort who doesn’t scare easily, panic is an unknown emotional state at the time even though I’d been in a number of precarious situations in the past. "FCK that!" I shout aloud at myself. I quickly snap out of it. The front teeth, the fangs, come ROARING back. (NOTE: It’s rather interesting how one falls back on day to day attitudes and thinking patterns – habits – during times of personal crisis or emergencies when there’s little time to think.) Feeling the airspeed deteriorating and seeing my options dwindling, I’m convinced I’m a dead man. The flying dynamics are precarious at best. I’m thinking I may get over the house – just – but I’m quite unable to conceive of even a minimally happy ending after tangling with the bayou.
The personnel dialogue continues…
“This is the last ride,” I tell myself and resign myself to my fate. With the acceptance of my pending doom, I relax. ALL that matters now is that I make my way over the house and then end on an aerial high note; that I FLY to the very end and die like an aviator. I’m rather calm as I focus on the technical problem and existential situation I’m convinced will finish me. “Just keep it off the house,” I tell myself. “Don’t make this situation anyone else’s problem and everything will be all right. You knew this could happen. Time to ante up. The world is in order. Now fly like you know how.”
The nose high, tail low attitude of the plane is such that I can no longer see the ground or the house in front of me. I’m flying on the ragged edge of the stall and try to maintain my bearings by glancing out the side of the plane while I struggle with grim determination to “Just keep it off the house.” During the wild ride approaching the house, the plane porpoises up and down as I manhandle it to the limits of aeronautical good sense to keep the plane in the air, struggle to get and maintain more altitude and get over the house I can no longer see. Every inch counts. Finally, from the intuited duration of the struggle to keep the plane in the air, I merely sense I’ve cleared the house. “Good.” My primary objective satisfied, I ease up a bit on the rough handling of the old bird.
Clear of the house, the tops of the trees and bayou are quickly approaching. Fortified now with a serenity granted only to the genuinely inspired at the end of a good fight or just to the truly unbalanced resigned to their unavoidable fate – take your pick – I go flying into the trees at an estimated 65-70 mph with my eyes WIDE open to savor my last moments. “I GOTTA see this! This is unbelievable! Am I dreaming?”
What’s left of the 600 ponies pull the plane and drive the big prop round’n round slicing into the spring foliage. It sounds like a weed whacker on steroids. "Fck." The engine abruptly goes quiet. The prop has hit something big and solid and comes to a sudden stop. Realizing I’m finished flying, I look down and notice I still have a hold on the stick – “I won’t be needing this anymore.” – and turn it loose. Even while being held snug by the four point harness, I hold on while waiting for what I’ve concluded to be the inescapable termination of my life this beautiful June morning. “Just let it be quick.” Tree branches are snapping and scrapping against the engine, fuselage and wings. The scrapping creates a screeching sound similar to running your fingernails across a chalk board as the plane now turned inept bulldozer pushes its way into the tree tops and starts to somersault tail over nose. I then come to the realization that I’m not falling very fast. “The trees are breaking the fall!” Suddenly, miraculously, my demise is looking less than inevitable. Being good at math, I start “recalculating” the odds. With considerable surprise and optimism, I tell myself, "Holy sht! You just might make it!"
It’s not the fall that kills, it’s the sudden stop. The slower the speed the deceleration process begins and the slower the deceleration, the better your odds of surviving.
I now look around to see if any dead snags will be piercing the cockpit and perhaps then skewering the happy-go-lucky pilot turned reluctant passenger as the plane continues flipping over in a noisy, wood scrapping on sheet metal, relatively slow descent. As the tail goes past the vertical, the descent rate of the plane and angular velocity of the tail increases but is slowed or maintained by the increasing flat silhouette of the tumbling plane as we crash through the thickest lower branches and foliage. As luck would have it, we are fairly close to the ground by now and the plane has little time to accelerate in a free fall as it clears the lower branches and continues the descending somersault. The mangled but still intact winged chariot hits the water inverted slightly nose low with a splash, the tail completes its angular downward arch and the plane settles hard with the fuselage almost level.
As is the practice of pilots flying Ag Cats with no air-conditioning, I flew with the large left cockpit window off to provide a poor boy’s version of this modern convenience. This is a very loose usage of the concept “air conditioning” but it definitely helped to keep the heat inside the cockpit within tolerable limits during the hot summer days. With the large cockpit window removed, the cockpit immediately filled with water. A brief, panicky physical reaction to the sudden, unexpected aquatic environment ensued as I struggled to get my head out of the water and get a breath. I had no idea how far under water I had plunged. I just knew I was upside-down underwater in an Arkansas bayou with an Ag Cat strapped to my back. In any event, more of what doesn’t work, STILL doesn’t work. I may be unbalanced but I’m not insane. Within a second or two, I stop struggling to get my head out of the water, tell myself “Relax!” in the still snug harness holding me upside-down in the seat and again start to focus on my new predicament.
The personnel dialogue starts up again. “THINK David! You have about 20 seconds to figure this out. OK, first things first. Get out of the harness.” I reach up to the single point buckle and release it. The harness turns me loose. “Good.” I float away from the seat. I have no sense of weight on my shoulders or weight at all, really. I have the sensation of being in an Olympic size pool. Being a good swimmer, I feel comfortable in this environment. “OK, you’re upside-down. Get yourself into a ball and rotate yourself right-side-up.” During the righting process, I somehow manage to avoid hitting or getting tangled up with anything in the cockpit while watching swamp funk float past my face as I fan my arms and give it a breaststroke or two to complete the maneuver. The personal dialogue continues throughout the maneuvering. “Ya know Dave, I hear drowning isn’t all that bad a way to go. Just suck it in and be done with it. Beats burning to death. Now where’s that hole? There! The light! Put your hand into the light!” I extend my arm toward the light, grab hold of the edge of the cockpit frame and start pulling myself toward the window opening. As I pull my head through the opening, I break the surface of the water coughing and gasping for breath.
After I stop coughing and catch my breath, I feel for pain from any injuries while the rest of me floats inside the plane. I wiggle my toes. Everything seems in working order. While still floating inside the plane, the image of and a conversation with a toothy 10 foot alligator comes to mind, “Nicely done, Dave! No, really. Bravo! I mean it. Now all you have to do is get by me.” He’s smiling confidently and playfully snapping his jaws at me. That mental picture livens things up a bit. Having survived 50’s technology in such a dramatic fashion only to end up as so much alligator sht in an Arkansas bayou would clearly qualify as a “Ain’t that a bitch!” moment. I get busy paddling, breast stroking and pulling my floating remains through the window opening.
Free and clear of the plane, I stand up, take off my helmet and start sloshing my way to shore through the crotch high water. I make it to shore looking like what I appeared to be – a disheveled, dripping wet, I-damn-near-drowned pilot.
Someone saw me fly into the bayou. While sloshing to shore, I can hear them squealing their truck tires desperately trying to locate me. I shout, “I’m OK! I’m OK!”
Amazing enough, it wasn’t long before the EMS personnel and their life saving, red truck show up in the middle of this “Where the hell am I?” patch of Arkansas. Though I was feeling fine, I was instructed to go to the hospital and get checked out to be on the safe side by the individual who owned the plane I was flying and I was working for at the time. “Fine.”
While sitting on the padded bench inside the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the female EMS person gives me a puzzled look after she finishes taking my vitals. “You’re vitals are all normal,” she tells me. “Heart rate. Blood pressure. All normal.” I look at her and smile, “Why not? This is the easy part. The hard part is over. I made it.” Not feeling much worse for wear, I smile all the way to the hospital. I had some bruises on my shoulders from the harness but that was it. Not a scratch, not one scratch. They gave me a tetanus shot all the same for good measure.
The old Ag Cat did what it was designed to do (to protect the pilot), I did what I was supposed to do when it goes against you in the air (FLY a flyable craft as far into the accident as possible), kept my head about me and was lucky to boot.
It was a good day, indeed.
I slept like a baby.
I never found out what happened to the engine. Since I didn’t hit a school, a church or some such or kill someone, no one but me seemed to care about this minor causal detail. The mangled plane was just lifted/dragged out of the bayou a few days later and taken away.
I say no one seemed to care about the cause of the accident but that’s not entirely correct. A pilot’s best friend (and I use the term very, very loosely), the FAA, was considerably more than “just curious” about the causal details of the accident. They wanted a detailed written report. I was also required to show up in Little Rock to participate in an official “Your pilot’s license is on the line” oral examine and check ride (at my expense, of course) with a Mr. Crook to evaluate my aeronautical knowledge and flying ability because, well…quite frankly, they didn’t believe me – “The engine crapped out.” Can’t say I blame them. Pilots are notorious for having their engines “just crap out” when things go wrong.
The FAA is also, unfortunately, aware of the reasonably confirmed fact that pilots, like fishermen and women wooing poets, are natural born liars and, under these circumstances, any pilot worth his or her salt is more than likely to stick to their “It just crapped out!” story straight faced to the very end much like the morally challenged six year old caught red-handed with scissors in hand and pet hair all over the floor – “Not me!” And why not? (Ya see! You just gotta love their chutzpah.
My relaxed manner apparently surprised Mr. Crook. At some point after answering many questions, he says to me, “Your license is on the line, you know.” “Yeah, I know,” I reply. He looked at me still a bit puzzled and then continued asking more technical questions all of which I answered correctly. The FAA was apparently concerned about my ability to hold an altitude in a steep turn and my ability to avoid stalls. The two 180 degree, slow flight, “steep” turns – one to the left and then one back to the right – while holding altitude in a lethargic 152 were masterful. We executed no stalls. Intentional or otherwise. Mr. Crook appeared well satisfied with my performance and we headed back to Adam Field after about 10 minutes of air work.
After the check ride, Mr. Crook, who I must admit appeared to be a rather reasonable and solid citizen – surprise, surprise – was actually apologetic for putting me through the whole ordeal and stated, “There’s nothing wrong with your flying.” On that happy note, so ended the FAA’s interest in the accident. NOTE: Crop-dusters have a well deserved reputation for being some of the best stick and rudder pilots around. The explanation is simple. They have to be if they’re to survive year after year “dusting.”
It turned out the emergency dump door did open and the fertilizer was dumping all the way to the bayou. It’s a rather slow process with dry fertilizer, however. I still had perhaps 600 lbs of fertilizer on board when I flew into the trees but the plane still wouldn’t climb even being 1200 lbs or so lighter. At this total weight with the prevailing weather conditions, this plane would (and should) get up and scoot in a very solid fashion at working power, let alone at takeoff power.
Later in the day, I went back to the scene of the accident to have a look around to see whether I had missed some options, what I could have done differently, etc., and there, on the roof of his house, I spotted the owner of the house I had avoided sweeping fertilizer off the roof. I had bisected the house almost in two equal parts. Weeks later, you could see my flight path by the color contrast in the grass approaching the house and then on past the house the short distance to the rendezvous with the bayou.
During the same visit, I was told a 5-6 year old boy had witnessed the event and it had badly frightened him. I don’t know if it helped but I looked him up to let him know everything was OK.
The accident rattled me a bit but I was good to go in 3 days. A replacement winged chariot didn’t show up for another 2 or 3 weeks, however. I went back to work a bit wiser but just as willing as ever before the accident. All the personal calculations had been made before the accident and nothing in my life had changed that warranted a recalculation. I finished out the season and flew the next three seasons with the same operator for a total of ten seasons. After the tenth season, I went on to start something new for reasons unrelated to the high risk flying.
Some may wonder how my blood pressure and heart rate, my “vitals,” could be back to normal so quickly after the accident. The explanation is simple. As previously mentioned, I’d done the personal calculations and looked at the possible outcomes squarely in the face beforehand and had accepted them. Too, there’s a certain mindset common to many active, operational sorts. These individuals are aware and accept that these sorts of things can and do happen occasionally. Perhaps not as dramatic or as life threatening as this episode but something of one variety or another just the same. That’s all a part of getting things done in a hands-on fashion in any dynamic endeavor. The objective is to move through the situation and then beyond it. When the situation is resolved, it’s over. End. Stop. This not only applies to the mental challenge of the situation but also to the emotional element involved, as well. There’s no sense dwelling on what “might have been.” You already know, or should, what “might have been” before you get started with any dangerous endeavor. There’s nothing complicated in the recognition of “pass or fail” or convoluted in the realization of what is at risk and may be lost if you come up short while actively engaged in a dangerous activity. Simple honesty with oneself will do. Just learn the lessons required before you begin and then those to be learned along the way and, if you’re fortunate enough to keep drawing a breath, keep moving forward. Always forward.
A picture of the mangled, inverted plane at the crash site made the local paper. There was a short article, as well. Something about God riding on the fortunate pilot’s shoulder that day.
Two days after the accident, I went to retrieve my watch from the cockpit. By coincidence, my boss had elected to visit the site and look things over at the same time. While we stood looking at the mangled wings and fuselage, he turned to me and said, “Someone likes you.” I didn’t argue with him.
“Whatever…” and “Doubtful.” Personally? Of course. I’d rather have fangs. ALL the time.
It’s difficult to believe anyone could or would be so chatty with themselves during these kinds of situations but that tends to be my habit with myself as I spend a considerable amount of time writing and essentially talking/thinking to myself. It’s my way of focusing my mind. But why I muse or comment about some things during these episodes, e.g., the matter of fact statement about the relative ease of drowning, no longer needing to hold onto the stick or the conversation with and the imagery of the alligator, is difficult to say. However, these relatively quiet cerebral observations, musings and reminders or the profane comments keep me in the moment and my mind primed for thinking about the next step to resolve the precarious situation I find myself. If nothing else, the juxtaposition of the cerebral comments add a lightness and focus that help to keep me relatively calm under the stressful circumstances.
Because many activities in our lives tend to become automatized, we don’t give much or any conscious thought to them, e.g., brushing our teeth, getting the loaded fork to our mouth, stepping on the car brake pedal when needed without consciously thinking about it, etc., but encountering a situation for the first time and/or learning something new requires a different approach. There can be many sudden “firsts” and, therefore, learning situations in any dynamic activity and quick, focused and purposeful thought is required to grasp and evaluate the information available and then react appropriately during these unfamiliar situations. As previously mentioned, chatting with myself during these sudden and stressful new situations is my way of staying relatively calm in the moment, focusing on and identifying the essentials of the situation and then reacting appropriately to resolve the problem.
A pertinent aside.
One very gusty, spring day about a month or two into my first season of crop-dusting, I was knocked unconscious in the cockpit about half way through the turn back to the field for another pass. Due to the gusty conditions, I was flying rather conservatively in the turns back to the field. When the incident happened, I was in a shallow bank fairly close to a stand of tall trees but judged I had allowed enough room to stay out of trouble when a very strong gust abruptly accelerated the plane up and back into the occupant in the seat – me.
My shoulder straps weren’t as tight as they needed to be under the circumstances and my $650 custom fitted helmeted head hit the side window near the dash with such force that I was knocked unconscious. The last thing I saw was the nose and right wing of the plane raising very rapidly and coming at me while being thrown forward to the right and then hitting the side window. In the very brief instant between seeing the plane’s nose rushing at me and my head hitting the side window, I remember thinking, “I’ve never seen a Pawnee pitch and roll THAT quickly” (and I was no slouch on the controls even then). Everything went dark shortly after that registered observation. How many moments passed in this unconscious state is impossible to say but, considering what happened next, it wasn’t many. The familiar shudder of a high power, aerodynamic stall jarred my darkened consciousness to stir. In my still dark, semi-unconscious state, I retightened my grip on the stick and centered it to break the stall. Moments later, my vision returned. My head is still pinned to the right side window and I’m looking out the front windshield at the ground in a very steep right bank and nose down attitude. “Huh!”, I think to myself. “So this is how it looks to spin in from 200 feet.” That bit of very useful pilot information registered in my woozy brain and I realized there was no time to waste. The stick still centered, I put my right foot back on the top rudder pedal and mash it hard. The plane quickly rolls right and my he