We had reached an altitude of just 700 feet when the engine quit. The prop stopped without a quiver, and after that, the only sound was the whistling of the wind around the canopy, and my voice, as I said, "Oh, shit!"
I checked the altimiter, and saw that I was at the minimum altitude at which I could execute a 180 degree turn. I rolled it to the left, and when I gave opposite aileron to roll out of the turn, it kept rolling, and the nose kept going down. I'd stalled it, it was entering a spin, and at that moment, I experienced a little shock of surprise that I was about to die. But years of aerobatic practice had made spin recovery automatic for me, and I put the stick forward, got the plane flying again, and pointed it towards the runway.
It was quickly apparent that we did not have enough altitude to make the runway. As the trees mushroomed in the windshield, my passenger tightened his arm around me, instinctively trying to protect me although he knew he was going to die.
When I was a girl, I used to sit in class and daydream about airplanes. I imagined tiny, radio-controlled airplanes, which I'd built, flying around the classroom, swooping by the teacher's head as she stood at the blackboard, zooming out of the open windows into the hot summer day, and back in again. The planes in my imagination would swoop and roll and loop around the room, relieving the boredom of the other students and bringing dismay to the teacher.
I made many little planes of paper and cardboard and balsa wood, and flew them at the end of a string or glided them across the living room and down the hall at home. I hardly dared dream of flying a real airplane, much less of building my own, and eventually the admonishments of my teachers and parents, to concentrate on acquiring skills to earn a living, crushed my fragile dreams, and the fantasies faded away.
Then one day, when I was grown up, a true friend took me flying. As I flew his airplane over the jewels of light in the velvet carpet of an autumn night in Connecticut, the dream awoke.
Four months later, I had my private pilot's license, and that summer, I had my first aerobatic ride, in a P-40, the same type whose shark-nosed grin had fired my childhood imagination. Soon, I'd begun aerobatic lessons - and ordered a kit for a small aerobatic airplane.
As the plane began to take shape in my basement, I found it to be a much bigger task than I'd been led to believe - and than I'd wanted to believe it was. As the expected completion time went from months to years, there were times when I felt so overwhelmed, it was impossible to believe that the plane would ever be done, that I'd ever fly it. But I learned from it. I learned to make it into a thousand tiny projects. I learned to go down to the basement or out to the garage and do one small project each night.
After 3 1/2 years of tiny projects, I finally felt the wonder and joy of having my own plane, which I'd built with my own hands, lift me into the air and fly me high above the countryside. Tentatively, and then with joy and gusto in the days that followed, I flung my little plane about the sky. I found myself executing every aerobatic maneuver I'd learned in two years of aerobatic training, from simple loops, rolls, and hammerheads, to rolling turns and inside-outside eights. I even did some inverted hammerhead pushouts, my most feared maneuver.
Over the next two years, I tinkered with the plane, refining and improving it in many small ways, as I flew it and developed my skills. A year ago, I flew it in my first aerobatic competition, and received many compliments on the way it flew and on my own flying.
During this time, I also had to come to terms with its limitations. Dynamically unstable, it was a joy to fly in calm air but a challenge on a long cross-country in bumpy air. Its two-stroke engine, and 50+ mph stall speed added an anxiety factor, and the need to always fly near good-sized landing areas. These factors, I eventually realized, limited my practical range for trips to contests to about 200 miles, thus limiting me to two contests per year. Also, the plane's tiny engine and lack of noise factor clearly affected the perceptions of most judges, who, I found, downgraded me for things which I'd done quite right. Only the most experienced judges seemed to grade the plane fairly.
But as I came to accept the airplane's limitations, so I found myself enjoying it even more. I found myself relaxing, no longer flying with clenched fist around the stick, waiting every moment for the engine to stop. Instead, I found I could sit back and enjoy the flights, keeping one eye peeled for fields, and the other on the instruments, but still, trusting my little engine to keep on pulling.
There was also joy of sharing the plane with others, both in hangar flying and in giving them rides. In quieter moments, I would sometimes gaze peacefully at the plane, admiring its jaunty lines, feeling proud of the smooth flowing fabric, the crisp straight lines of the finishing tapes, the pretty curves and stripes of my paint scheme, which I'd so lovingly designed and applied.
And always, I loved to work on the plane. The feel of the hard cold tools, warming in my hands as I worked, the golden gleam of the aircraft-quality hardware, the warm colors of the paint scheme I'd chosen, were sensual pleasures. The feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment when I'd made one more small improvement, and could feel it in the way the engine ran or the way the plane handled in the air. The simple pleasure of having folks drop by the hangar as I stood over the engine compartment, tinkering with something or other, chatting about flying and building airplanes. The well- conditioned drill of preflight, rolling it out, buckling in, running through the checklist and firing it up, and after the flight, hauling it back in, fueling it up, and leaving it covered and ready for the next flight.
I had many happy moments, there in the hangar, with my tools and my little plane.
The first blows, from the smaller branches at the tops of the trees, were not what killed the plane. Striking mostly on the left wing and fuselage, they spun it around 90 degrees to the left, and steepened its angle of descent to over 45 degrees. The second impact was with the ground, driving its right wing straight into the dirt at the base of a row of trees.
As it died, the airplane saved the lives of me and my passenger, for as the wing collapsed, it absorbed the energy and slowed us at a survivable deceleration rate. The enormous loads destroyed the right wing, landing gear, and tail surfaces, and the loads that were carried into the fuselage buckled the massive steel spar carry-throughs. The tail of the fuselage was twisted as it struck the ground, and the landing gear longeron was also bent.
Incredibly, the carbon fiber propeller was intact, though the spinner was destroyed by one of the larger branches we smashed through. The engine was intact, except for the melted piston which had brought us down, and the passenger compartment was completely intact. But with a bent fuselage which needs to be replaced, and a destroyed wing, tail, and landing gear, the parts costs alone will approach the cost of an entire new kit, and the labor to rebuild it will be probably 80% of a new plane. My little airplane is dead.
Why? I will probably never know for sure, but I theorize that, following my annual inspection the week before, the fuel vent inlets on the wings, made of plastic tubing stuck through some fairings, were positioned slightly differently than before. With gravity feed from a mid-wing to a fuselage header tank, the flow is marginal in a steep climb. Without adequate positive pressure in the wing tanks, I believe that the pulse-line-driven fuel pump was unable to lift the fuel from the bottom of the wing tanks to the front carburetor, a head height of several feet in a steep climb.
The front cylinder was the one which seized due to a lean condition. This fact, and an air bubble at the end of the line leading to the front cylinder, substantiate, but do not prove, this theory. I think the reason it didn't happen in my solo post-annual shakedown flight was that flying solo, I had a smaller angle of attack, resulting in slightly less head height.
After 3 years and 260 hours of flying, my airplane was brought down, I believe, by two little flexible plastic tubes which were angled a few degrees differently than before.
[Ed. note: After I disassembled and inspected the wreckage of the airplane, I settled on a somewhat different theory to explain the engine failure. See Aftermath: The Report to the FAA (20 kb) for details.]
[Ed. note #2: During further inspection of the parts removed from the aircraft, I found a crack in a fitting on the coolant overflow tank. This crack would have allowed air to enter the cooling system when the engine cooled after flight, resulting in a coolant level below normal, and an air bubble in the head. In a steep climb, such an air bubble would have affected the forward cylinder first, allowing it to overheat and leading to siezure of the front cylinder. At this time, I believe this was the most likely cause of the engine failure.]
What does all this mean? As Richard Bach said, "airplanes are tools for learning, and sometimes tools get bent." There must be something for me to learn out of all this. Someday soon, I hope to discover what it is.
In the meantime, I cry a lot, sleep very little, and right now I can't bring myself to go back to the hangar.