A Scary Moment (9 kb)

I recently had a real scare, one which made me a lot more aware of how quickly things can go from fine-and-dandy to fatal-accident-imminent.

One bright, sunny morning in July, I spotted an ultralight on a private grass strip. Since I had permission from the owner to land there, I went down to check it out. It turned out to be flown by a newly-licensed BFI (ultralight Basic Flight Instructor), who I'll call Bruce. I'd been thinking of starting to work on my BFI, so I asked him if he would be willing to do some dual with me. He was delighted, and said he'd meet me later that day at his home airport, which I frequent.

I mentioned that I was looking forward to learning how to fly ultralights (I fly an aerobatic homebuilt but have very little time in ultralights). He laughed and said, "I don't have anything to teach you; you can teach me!" I pointed out that I had only a couple of hours in ultralights, a couple of years before, but he seemed unconcerned. I didn't know it then, but that was clue number one that I was going to be in big trouble later that day.

I landed at his home field and walked over to his plane. He was working on his instrument panel. There was an open circuit in one of the EGT probes. I helped him find the problem, and he soon had it fixed. Meanwhile, a buddy came up and said he was going on a photo flight; would he like to come?

"Sure," said Bruce. He looked at me. "You want to some along?"

"Thought you'd never ask!" I said.

"Want to fly front seat or rear?" he said. On his Maxair Drifter, the front seat is where the PIC or student sits.

I thought a couple of seconds. "Front." Might as well get started.

On takeoff, a right crosswind yawed the plane to the right. I applied what seemed to me like a normal amount of rudder, and nothing happened. We scooted over the edge of the runway (these things accelerate quick!) headed right for a runway light. Running out of options, I eased the stick back, and we were airborne, clearing the light by a couple of feet. I rolled left to line up with the centerline and climbed out. During all this, Bruce said and did nothing. Clue number two.

When we reached cruise altitude, Bruce came in on the intercom. "Say, this is great! I hardly ever get to just sit back and enjoy the view!" Clue number three.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, and we had a wonderful time following the other plane around in the warm summer air, the late afternoon sun casting long mellow shadows and golden highlights on the fields, trees, and houses below. By the time we got back to the airport, we were both feeling pretty fine.

Bruce had me do the pattern at 300 AGL. On downwind, as we approached the end of the runway, he said, "Don't fly over those houses," The houses were just ahead, under where I would normally do a base leg, so I rolled into a short base leg, letting the nose drop a bit in the turn, and cut the power, just as I would do with my plane.

The Drifter, all wires and tubes and floppy fabric, needs to be in a relatively steep dive to maintain airspeed without power on. When I pulled the power off in my shallow dive, it simply stopped flying.

Suddenly I found myself with the stick almost all the way back, looking down at rows of crops maybe 250 feet below my feet, and thinking, "I can't believe I'm going to die in this field here!" Just like that, we were headed for a classic stall/spin accident...and Bruce, still enjoying the scenery, had no idea what was happening!

An experienced private pilot had died at this same airport in the same type of plane just a few months before, in a stall/spin accident when the engine went to idle on takeoff. I saw the wreckage. The medics said his body was like jelly when they took him out of the plane; the G forces on impact had completely destroyed his body's internal structure.

I believe that Bruce and I had maybe four seconds to live, unless I did the right thing in the next two seconds.

My aerobatic training and experience in spin recoveries saved our lives, I believe. I overcame my instinct to pull the stick back, and pushed it forward and gave it full throttle - not an easy thing to do when the ground is only 200 feet below and rushing up at you! But the Drifter started flying again, and I pulled out of the dive, set up a go-around, and said to Bruce, "You land this thing!"

I talked to him afterwards, and he said that he did not know I was in trouble until I came in on the power. He thought I was just avoiding a bird or something. Had it been up to him, I think we would have died, for in his mental state of overconfidence in me, he was not aware of either the stick position or the airspeed, and in another two seconds or so it would have been too late.

I think the moral here is not to stay out of ultralights, or that ultralight instructors aren't any good, or any such nonsense as that. There are incompetent CFI's, I'm sure. And Bruce is normally a good, careful pilot. But he was distracted by my private pilot's license and by having seen me do aerobatics, and he assumed that this meant I could fly a li'l ol' ultralight, no problem. Lots of private pilots, and even some ATPs, have made the same mistake in judgement about themselves, and some have paid with their lives.

Nevertheless, there is no question in my mind that it was his job as instructor to keep us safe. He made a major mistake, and if we had crashed, he would have been responsible.

But more importantly to me, there were clues about his mental attitude that *I* ignored. He demonstrated by both word and deed that he was not treating me like a student, and yet I assumed that he would act like all other instructors in my experience and monitor my flying so he could rescue me if I got into trouble. I knew I was not qualified to operate that airplane solo, but I ignored his not-so-subtle warnings that he was, in effect, allowing me to do so. My mistake.

Finally, let me put in a plug for aerobatics and spin training. I took up aerobatics because I like doing them, not to become a better pilot. I *did* have an instructor show me a few spin recoveries when I was working on my private certificate, but I didn't like stalls so I didn't practice spins at all. It was not until I got into aerobatics that I learned to recover from spins, and that was out of necessity since I kept making mistakes that would end up in spins. Eventually I did inverted spins with my instructor, and by that time, spin recovery was almost second nature. Good thing, too!

Point is, if I'd just been a good little pilot and done what the FAA told me to do, and didn't get into that whacky pursuit of aerobatics, today I and Bruce would be statistics, and his poor wife would be a widow.