Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Fairly Bad Week (Part 1 of 2)

Last week began and ended with flights that I will not cherish as warm and glowing memories of my aviation experience. And the first is going to be rather painful to discuss here.

Monday began with a disarmingly uneventful flight from the DC area up to Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR) in Connecticut. The weather was clear and dry at about 0915 local time, when N631S and I landed on Runway 29 and were cleared to taxi to parking via taxiways Hotel and Alpha.

Approaching the tie-down area I took note that a rather large aircraft, a Piper Navajo, was parked in the last space of the row behind my assigned spot. That space is usually occupied by an Archer and so I thought that as I maneuvered N631S into its tie-down I'd have to be very careful to avoid the big Piper's wing.

Well, I succeeded after a fashion. As I turned 45 degrees to the right exiting the taxiway I carefully monitored the position of my wingtip relative to the Piper. Once sure that it was clear, I started to swing the nose to the left to align with the tie-down centerline. That's when I heard the sound of aluminum striking aluminum and felt '31S decelerate (from 3 or 4 mph) and yaw a bit to the right.

What I saw when I looked to the right was dismaying. I had completely disregarded the Piper's high, wide-span tailplane and my wingtip had struck and damaged the larger plane's elevator. Sick at heart, I shut down and got out to examine the extent of the damage. Pretty quickly, I had company.

Tony came out from Three Wing's maintenance hangar, looked up at the sad sight, and called the folks that own the Navajo. Meanwhile, I was calling Dan Schrager, of The Aviation Insurance Agency. He asked the basic questions and said he'd get back to me soon.

It appeared that N631S had come through the incident in pretty good shape. I couldn't see any significant damage to the wing. The Piper had been less lucky. The right elevator was clearly toast, and worse, the outer third of the horizontal stabilizer was bent down at a significant angle. It looked like I'd made a rather costly mistake.

Tony said they'd wait for the Piper's owners before separating the aircraft so I went to my office, having said I'd return if and when I was needed. That happened about two hours later when I received a call saying that the FAA was headed to the airport and had asked that I be there. So I hustled back.

The Piper Navajo that I'd damaged was in Part 135 service for an air charter operator, 'Fly the Whale'. As a "for hire" operator, they had to report the incident to the FAA and the FAA had to do an investigation. If the Piper had been a Part 91 aircraft like N631S, no FAA involvement would have been required.

While waiting, I met Andy, the CEO of 'Fly the Whale'. I apologized for the inconvenience I'd caused and he was extremely understanding and a perfect gentleman about it. He was the first, but not nearly the last, to tell me that, "Hey, things happen in life, nobody got hurt, it's OK." (No...it is not OK.)

The FAA inspector arrived, surveyed the scene, and asked if we could talk. A brief, cordial and professional interview ensued. I told him exactly what had happened. He asked a few relevant questions. I gave him my contact information for follow up and he joined the growing group saying to me, "Hey, things happen in life, nobody got hurt, it's OK." (No...it is not OK.)

And, yes, I've filed my NASA ASRS form.

I also heard from the insurance company, USAIG. Rob, the adjuster on the case, had been informed of the incident by Dan, my agent. Rob said he'd e-mail me a 'Report of Hull Loss' form to get the claim started and asked me for contact information for the shop and the other involved parties. Starting then and throughout, the service provided by Rob and USAIG has been impeccable!

The next day I returned to Three Wing, where both aircraft had been moved into the maintenance hangar. The news was better than I'd expected. N631S's right wingtip had been removed and the interior of the wing structure inspected. The shallow dimple in the leading edge was nicely between ribs and purely cosmetic. The remedy would be an application of aerodynamic filler, i.e., "Bond-O" at the next annual. N631S was, meanwhile, airworthy.

The right elevator of the Navajo would, as expected, need to be replaced along with the plastic tip of the stabilizer. But the apparent bend in the outer portion of the stabilizer that had worried us proved to be entirely elastic in nature. When the load imposed by N631S was removed the stabilizer "unsprung" back into its normal configuration. A thorough inspection revealed no consequential damage. The repairs would still be rather costly (elevators for big twins aren't cheap) but not nearly as bad as had been feared. And the time out of service for the airplane would be fairly brief.

So I felt much better. Not good...but better. You see, I had hoped to get to the time when I hang up my headset for the last time without having bent an airplane. I can no longer achieve that goal. I can't dismiss the loss of situational awareness that I had on Monday – which led to the incident – as one of those "hey, stuff happens" things. I've been committing aviation for 18 years now and have logged 1,500+ hours as Pilot-in-Command...and now I have a clear understanding of an area where I need to get better.

At least N631S was good to go for Friday. The forecast was telling me that a large ridge of warm air would be arriving in the East on Friday bringing rain but no risk of icing. I could plan for a wet IFR trip home to the DC area. Which was how I got to the second part of my Fairly Bad Week (to be covered in the next post).


Dave Starr said...

Even though I fly very little, I have always felt justified in saying I never put a scratch on an airplane ... as a pilot, that is.

But in the same year I got my student license I proceeded to drive an airport tow tractor right into the lower engine cowling and the left wheel pant of a Cessna 195 that I was supposed to be getting hooked up to the tractor for towing.

Not only was the sound of the collision about the most sickening thing I have ever heard ... 50 plus years ago and I remember it as yesterday .. the airplane's owner, the FBO owner, (kind of a foster-father figure of mine), and the newly hired chief instructor of the operation were all standing there to observe, jaws hanging open.

"Lower than a snake's belly" can hardly describe how I felt, but as you know, life goes on. It is NOT OK, as you say, but life happens. Don't let it shake you any more than it already has ... you know the feeling will fade ... it will never go away, but the rough edges will wear off. Fly on.

Chris said...

Frank, reading your account gave me that awful feeling in my gut; I'm sure you know the one. I imagine the reality was much worse for you.

You strike me as someone who makes a concerted effort to be careful, safe, and professional. And you are clearly the sort of pilot who will not pass something like this off as "bad luck", but will internalize the experience and learn from it.

At the end of the day, nothing was hurt that cannot be fixed...and that includes the blow to your self confidence.

Best wishes...

Gary said...

Frank, just reading this is painful. Nobody was hurt except for some pride and everything else can be fixed. Chris hit it on the head, "You strike me as someone who makes a concerted effort to be careful, safe, and professional." Sometimes crap happens.

Frank Van Haste said...

Dave, Chris, Gary...

Thanks so much for your comments. Yeah, I feel rotten about the incident and yeah, I'll get over it.

Incidentally, I parked in the same space at KBDR today. The Navajo, waiting for its elevator, was there too. Let's say I adopted a MUCH more circumspect path to the spot.

Thanks again, friends...


Anonymous said...

Frank - I'm guessing Part II is going to heavily involve the word Fog. It was an excellent weekend to discuss fog and IFR basics to curious non-aviation people.

- Chris in Alexandria

Frank Van Haste said...

Alexandria Chris...



No Longer a Factor said...

Hi Frank,

I’m sorry about what happened. After nearly 35 years in ATC, I’m familiar with the feeling. Loss of situational awareness is one of many things that dog us on the other side of the mike too. Flying in and out of busy airspace such as the DC metro area, you must have seen or heard several examples by now. ATC, like flying, can be exhilarating, humbling, humiliating, depressing and terrifying. Pick any one and I’ve been there; usually more than once. Stuff does happen and you shouldn’t dismiss it. Just accept it. You’ve already taken one big step toward getting past what happened. You have turned the incident into a great learning experience for others by writing about it. Thanks for that!

Factor (What the Air Traffic Controller Saw)

Cedarglen said...

Frank, I share your OUCH!. While it is NOT t he end of the world, I understand the feelings about the now 'imperfect' record. Funny, I've yet to meet a "Perfect" pilot. I share your feelings, but I know that it hurts a lot more on your end. Insurance and full disclosure helps everyone except you, or so it may seem at the moment. Your actions were professional and appropriate; you've learned. By posting the details on this public forum, you've also helped others to avoid a similar event. In short, a professional and a gentleman. I won't repeat the "stuff happens" line, but please... don't let it consume you. Last I heard, you were (at least, semi) human. Those readers, including this one, who remind you that no one was hurt, are spot on and let's all be grateful. I'll stay tuned for part two. Best wishes, -C.

Frank Van Haste said...

NLAF, Craig --

Thanks, guys. I'm trying to make lemonade out of a lemon here.


Comrade Misfit said...

It hurts to be responsible for bending an airplane. I know from personal experience.

Eck! said...

Ouch Frank,

Hope all goes well for you.

Many years, now decades I caught a snow pile that KBED was famous for and crunched the conical wingtip and the leading edge like yours. Replaced the tip then it was maybe 80 bucks for the plastic. took a plastic mallet inside the wing to pop out the ding. minor wrinkle if that showed. Yep paying more attention to the plane on my right than the hard as ice show pile on the left.

In the scale of things life went on and my skills included wingtip repair.

Keep the pretty side up.


Frank Van Haste said...

Miss Fit, Eck!, thanks for your kind words and understanding. Been over a week now, and emotionally I'm pretty much over the hit to my ego -- but I'm determined not to forget how it felt, the better to avoid recurrence.


Sarah said...

Oof! Glad to hear that everyone was ok, but I know exactly what you mean. I slightly bent something once with a student (I caught his slow airspeed a little late on landing and we knocked the tail tie down ring off and broke the plastic rudder cap); it's a terrible feeling and never feels ok. The best we can do is pick up, learn from our mistakes, and when possible share them with others so they don't do the same thing.

I think I have a pretty good idea of what's coming in your next post; I was working approach that day and worked the first guy into (and right back out of) VKX. I almost got to say hi to you, but then watched you fly off my scope. Good call! That weather was no joke. Can't wait to hear how it all ended... :)

Frank Van Haste said...

Sarah, thanks for the kind words of understanding. As to "how it worked out", I'm finally about to post "the rest of the story..."