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Experimental Aircraft Association 
t h e    E x p e r i m e n t a l    A i r c r a f t    A s s o c i a t i o n   --   C h a p t e r   3 4 7

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  Test Flight Gone Wrong
    a story, by David Bucklew

August 27, 2011

[Note:  The following story was written by David Bucklew, who is wholly responsible for all content.]

Looking in the mirror I say to myself, “stupid, stupid, stupid.”  Have you ever done that?  Now don’t lie to me.  If you haven’t perhaps there are times when you should have.  Those dumb decisions that you knew perhaps shouldn’t have been made but you did it anyhow.  Ok, all together now, “stupid, stupid, stupid.”  I call them stupid days.  I had one of those days that almost turned out to be a permanent stupid for me.  

On August, 13, 2011 it was going to be another one of those hot Houston days as I departed on my recently purchased Harley Classic to Bailes Airfield in Angleton, Texas.  Temps would hit the three digits again but I was excited for today I would test fly Ron’s airplane.  He had called me three days before asking me if I would like to test fly it.  After asking him about the weight and balance calculations and if they were correct I said, “Sure Ron, I will take her up!”  

Ron is a good builder and it is a passion of his, but he had little tail dragger experience and knew I did.   This morning the excitement built as I headed down to Bailes for that first flight.  Thing about pilots, they are a little crazy and it is difficult to turn down an offer to fly another man’s plane especially if they brag a little about you.  Yet, in all that excitement I had a worry going on in the back of my mind about the plane especially the weight and balance.  It is always a concern for any new plane, amateur built.

As I pulled in on my Harley the airfield was full of pilot/builder buddies that hang out at Bailes.  It is always a festive morning at Bailes on Saturday and this morning was no exception.  Donut’s anyone?  I think Bailes is the capital city of donuts on Saturday morning.  To this day I am not sure who brings all of those donuts.  One thing about it you can get your sugar high Saturday morning at Bailes.  That morning I did the usual Saturday thing, say hello and head for the donuts.  Little did I know that several hours later I would be transported to the Memorial Herman Hospital Trauma Unit in Houston, Texas.  Funny how life works out at times. Normal days can turn into extraordinary days filled with new trials or joys and perhaps that is what is so exciting about life, the journey.

After inhaling a donut I visited with Ron who was tinkering with his plane, the Fisher, Horizon II.  Below is a picture of one.  Gosh, is that what it looks like in the air?

 As I greeted Ron I asked him if he was ready to pull her out for him to show me a few things about the plane.  “Sure,” Ron said and in his usual fashion and excitement he commenced to tell me all about the instrumentation, mag switches, flap control etc.  I was still a little concerned about the weight and balance for he had a non-standard engine on it and I heard it also might also be underpowered.

After spending a little time with him, I cranked her up and prepared to do a fast taxi to get the feel of it and do a little hedge hopping to check her out before full light. With this baby, you fly it from the back seat.  Felt pretty good as I hit the ignition and immediately she cranked up.  Didn’t take but a minute and I was turning 360’s in it having a ball with its ground capabilities.  This plane was like a go cart on the ground.  Ron had installed another tail wheel and it worked beautifully.  I just love those tail draggers.  Nothing like them.   Once you have experienced and mastered a tail dragger, tri gears just don’t cut it anymore.   As I did a run up all seemed well.

First thought was to try a short field take off with 20 degrees of flap.  As I held her back and opened the throttle, immediately she tried to go down on her nose, wow that was close!   The prop must have missed the ground by six inches or less.  Not good, I thought to myself as I remembered some of my concerns about the weight and balance.  Oh well, close call but no prop impairment.  Off to a gradual roll and down the runway I go and go and go but no airspeed.  Do I dare or not?  I dare not. Back to the hanger I go for a look at that pitot tube.

Maybe this is not the day to fly this plane, I thought.  “Ron, the airspeed indicator is not working.”  “I don’t understand that,” said Ron.  He loves another challenge so after a little rigging and a little more taxing she was good to go.  If that was the only problem everything would be fine…but what about that weight and balance?  I decided to lift the tail before climbing back in and it seemed pretty good to me. Another pilot/builder checked it out by lifting the tail and thought the same.  It must be alright, I said to myself.  

The time was now or never.  As I lined her up on the runway I gently opened the throttle and after a little roll opened her up.  Here we go, 20, 30, 40, 45 knots, come on baby you can do it!  50, gently pull back…air speed, where are you?   I am committed at that point.  Out of runway with a ball park and some power lines ahead I must gain altitude and not stall this plane.  Rotate!  Off the ground she comes but the airspeed is still lacking and it is all the plane can do to lift in ground affect.  55 knots, get up, don’t stall David, I must have altitude!  Almost immediately the airplane began to porpoise.  As I gently lift the nose to try and stair step her into the air the nose would fall, joy stick down David, don’t stall, try and build a little airspeed, watch your altitude, up a little, need altitude!  

This went on it seemed for an eternity but now another problem had developed almost immediately.  The plane began to roll left in a stall and in trying to correct with a gentle pitch down and mild roll and yaw to the right the plane would then try and dip heavily to the right as if in a stall.  Constant corrections were now being made in pitch control and roll/yaw.  I must maintain control, fight it David, stick with it!  With an extended upwind I finally gained an altitude of 375 feet still at full power. I must get this plane around the pattern and land it, don’t give up David, I said to myself.  

Looking to the left I determined a gentle left crosswind could be made and I would clear the high electrical lines that run parallel to the airfield.  It would be close but I could do it.  Alright, I just might make it, I told myself as I mastered the left crosswind and entered the downwind, still at full throttle to maintain altitude.  Airspeed is showing 65 knots.  As I struggled with the pitch and roll affect the plane became more controllable at this airspeed.  I was at max however, still at full throttle.  I am going to make it, I thought.  Once I am on final approach I will have it made.  

As I began to do a gentle bank to the left for my base leg the engine suddenly lost power.  What next?   How can this be happening to me?  As I had begun turning on my base leg, not fully into it, the high line wires that ran parallel to the field were less than 100 yards in front of me.  My rate of decent was rapid to prevent a full stall.  I must do a left or right bank, now!   As I viewed my options I had less than 30 seconds to land this plane.  Straight ahead and dead.  Hard left bank, (as I was not fully into the base leg), would certainly stall the plane with no altitude for recovery.  Only option, a gentle right turn and maintain enough airspeed to prevent a full stall.

Ok, David, you can do this….easy does it, line her up on the field ahead, altitude, 250, 100, straighten her out, oh NO!   I had looked to the right and saw the wires. Airspeed, 65 knots.  Pull it back just a little, come on clear, clear, clear! Immediately the plane hit the wires as I felt the sensation of falling forward and down.  What you read about is true.  When fully focused during an accident, time slows down.  

As I felt the plane fall forward and down, I pulled my hands up toward the fall and downward to catch myself.  It seemed to be in slow motion.  As the plane impacted with the ground it drove me forward and down with the lap belt digging into my stomach.  My hands and arms felt the impact of the ground as the plane crushed in front of me toward my body.  I tumbled with the plane, nose down and then it appeared it flipped over as I did on my back.  Get out David, get out!  Adrenaline was high, no pain. I exited the plane, tearing flesh from my limbs on the fragments of what was left of the cockpit.  As I crawled out, my right shoulder could not be felt, blood was coming from my body but I was alive!

I was disoriented but still conscience and alert.  A Good Samaritan saw me go down.  He reported to the newspapers, “I saw the shadow of a plane go over my truck and knew the plane was going down.”  He met me in that field and called 911. My pilot buddies, however, got to me first and transported me to the Angleton hospital where later I was transported to Memorial Herman in Houston, Texas.

Now what can I say?  Yes, it was the grace of God that brought me through this one.  It was interesting that I had not fastened the shoulder harness before taking flight.  When the doctors saw the extent of my injury they were surprised there was no chest injury to which I explained I had not worn the shoulder harness on this flight.  They in fact thought this may have saved my chest in the end since the impact was so violent as seen by the seatbelt impressions that had penetrated one layer of skin.   As I recuperate I remind myself that pride probably got me into this mess to begin with.  Take pride along with one of those “stupid days,” and it spells trouble.  Pride led me to not listen to my instincts and delay this flight until I thought it through.  Zeal also can get you into trouble.  The love for flying and the experience of flying another plane can sometimes blind one to sound reasoning.   

Some have asked, “Will you still keep flying?”  If I examine that in light of others concerns for me I would say no.  However, as my dear wife Betty often says who loves to ride the Harley, “you can get killed walking outside your house.”  Glad I have an understanding wife.   Sure I will fly again, just as certain as I will have another donut at Bailes.  One must not let fear dictate their lives but faith and ultimately faith in Christ that sustains those who are His in knowing we will be in Heaven one day to enjoy the ultimate, flying without wings.  For now, a plane will do.  I wouldn’t suggest test flying one, however, on a “Stupid Day.”

Copyright 2011 David Bucklew
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