By Mark Murray, EAA 394554
Whenever I heard a two-stroke approaching, it was never a surprise. It was sort of my buddy’s calling card. I’d hear him long before he’d swoop low over the house. My parents had just arrived to enjoy a meal with us, so this time he had a bigger audience. However, as he made tight circles around my house, I noticed something was different.
Hold My Beer
My buddy (we’ll call him “Jack”) came into aviation through the back door, so to speak. Watching us local guys enjoying our little tube and fabric airplanes so much, he approached us with zero experience but lots of eagerness, and we were glad to help. This was during the days of the ultralight training exemptions. In case you’re unfamiliar, before sport pilot, the FAA allowed training toward flying ultralights under a special exemption that lasted several years. Locally, we were fortunate to have such an instructor teaching in a two-seat Quicksilver. But Jack didn’t take advantage of that training right away.
Jack’s first purchase was an early T-Bird ultralight. Unwisely, he decided that he’d just “crow hop” until he figured out how to fly. The idea is that you lift the airplane off the runway, cruise a few feet forward, and then land, hopefully before you run out of runway. Sounds simple, but to crow-hop successfully, you have to learn how to take off, cruise, and land all in one short flight that’ll probably last just a few seconds. And if you time it wrong, there’s not enough runway remaining for landing. Then what? Wisely, my friend realized that if he couldn’t keep the T-Bird, a taildragger, under control on the ground, maybe he shouldn’t fly it. (Note: It’s not unusual for an experienced pilot to use the crow-hop method in slow, simple airplanes for initial flight testing. But that’s a different scenario than using it for self-instruction.)
His next purchase was a fine little Phantom ultralight. It was well used but flew and ran well. Unfortunately, he chose to try the crow-hop method again. I encouraged him to first get some training from our local instructor, but he insisted on doing it his way. Jack’s first couple of hops were actually successful. But, on his third, the airplane climbed a little more than he was prepared for. When he reduced power, it stalled and fell back to the runway. He wasn’t hurt, but everything below the keel tube was damaged. I’ll never forget how it wobbled back to the hangar on its bent landing gear. A sad sight indeed.
He rebuilt it, and now the nose sported a fresh new coat of red paint that more closely matched the sails. And, finally, he agreed to actual flight lessons. I can’t remember if he had two or three lessons, but I do remember that I didn’t feel it was enough. When I asked why he stopped training, Jack said something to the effect that all the instructor wanted to do was practice maneuvers, not what Jack wanted to do. That should have been another warning for me.
But he must have learned something. I wasn’t there on his next attempt, but Jack must have been successful getting air under the Phantom’s wings. Before long he was flying it around the neighborhood. At the time, I flew a Hurricane, a close copy of the Phantom. Over the next few months, we had a lot of fun flying around the area in loose formation.
Growing bored with the Phantom, Jack next purchased a Challenger. He kept the Phantom, and also started flying the T-Bird occasionally. As anyone who owns multiple airplanes knows, keeping maintenance up becomes a real job. The Phantom had developed engine problems, so he chose to park it for a while and just fly the other two.
The Challenger is somewhat less stable than the Phantom, and Jack struggled a bit but eventually became accustomed to it. So, whenever a two-stroke approached the house I was always curious which one it was, the T-Bird or Challenger. After not seeing Jack fly the Phantom for several months, I was surprised to see it circling the house that fateful day. The engine seemed to be running well, but what was more concerning were his turns. Before, they seemed nice and coordinated. Now he seemed to be slipping through the turns. I actually remember thinking to myself, “Please don’t stall and spin into my house.”
When the call came about 45 minutes later, we had finished dinner and Jack’s flyby was already forgotten. It was Jack, and he was asking for help. He was always a character, so when he said he crashed, I thought he was just pulling my leg again. But then I could hear the stress in his voice, and when he told me to bring a hacksaw so I could cut away the tubing and free him, the feeling drained from my face. Yes, it was that kind of moment. If you know, you know.
Pop and I rushed to the crash site, about 5 miles away. He had crashed into the woods just north of the private runway we shared. It took about another 10 minutes to locate Jack, using both a cellphone and shouting to find his position. By this point, I was expecting the worse. I was imagining that Jack was putting on a brave face, barely clinging to life, amidst the tangle of what used to be an airplane. The Phantom was in bad shape, its nose in the ground, the tail straight up, and the wings twisted and shattered. But in the middle was Jack, smiling like an idiot, trapped in what remained of the cockpit. One ankle was pinned by a bent piece of tubing. One cut by the hacksaw freed him, and amazingly, a sore ankle was his only injury.
One thing I remember clearly was being amazed at how well the Phantom airframe protected Jack. The fiberglass nose was crushed, the engine planted into the ground, but the seat area had basically stretched and absorbed the shock. It also helped that a bunch of branches and vines caught his fall.
Once Jack was free and we could talk, I needed details. Since there had been engine problems before, I assumed the engine quit while on final. But, no, Jack said it was running fine, and looking at the prop, it was obvious that it was hacking tree limbs on the way down. It was a mystery to him. He said he was making a tight right turn from base to final, and next thing he knew, he was looking straight down at treetops. Suddenly, it all started to sink in for me. I asked his airspeed. He said that he couldn’t remember, that he doesn’t usually pay much attention to airspeed when that close to landing, especially so close to treetops. He paid more attention to obstacles.
I could understand his viewpoint somewhat. The runway was pretty short, only about 600 feet long in the middle of a 2,000-foot cotton field, surrounded by power lines and tall trees. Approaching this strip from the west or south would require a tight turn to the right; otherwise, you’d spend a great deal of time over tall pine trees, something us two-stroke engine fliers tend to avoid. The turn could be made slower, but it sounded as if he had made a quick turn to final. In his haste to turn, clear the trees, and drop into the runway, he’d neglected to at least glance at the airspeed.
It all fell into place for me (sorry, bad pun). I immediately remembered his sloppy turns over my house. The lack of recent experience with the Phantom. No awareness of airspeed. I looked over at the final resting place of the Phantom, and it became obvious that he’d stalled and spun in on the base-to-final turn. What saved him was the fact that at his extreme low altitude, there wasn’t enough space available to pick up speed, and the branches and vines arrested his fall. It all could have ended much, much worse.
The FAA collects accidents cases that it refers to as “landmark accidents.” Usually, this is because the lessons learned are so powerful, and the FAA along with aviation safety organizations use these accidents as teaching tools. For me, Jack’s accident became a landmark accident. It, along with a few others, made me take a different viewpoint of ultralight flying and flight instruction. And, over the years, I’ve tried to identify what truly caused the accident. Lots of things led up to it, but I think I’ve identified the core problem.
Looking back, Jack hadn’t approached ultralight flying with the respect it deserves. Maybe you can chalk up his attempts to self-teach to overconfidence or naivety. But even when he did seek out instruction, his comments about his flight instruction in the Quicksilver really point to an attitude, which, overall, was wrong. He simply wanted to learn how to take off and land so he could enjoy the “fun stuff.” The problem with that mindset is that you’re setting yourself up for failure. Sure, learning to land can be difficult. But just because you’ve mastered it doesn’t mean you’re prepared for everything else flying has to throw at you. In a nutshell, it’s not what you know that gets you; it’s what you don’t. And, in this case, he really didn’t know “jack” about stalls, spins, and when they are most dangerous.
Fortunately, Jack continued flying a few more years without any other major incident, and then he gave up it up. The retirement he enjoys now almost didn’t happen.
So, moral of the story is, if you’re interested in flying ultralights, please seek out solid instruction. And respect the instruction. Don’t learn the bare minimum, but be willing to put the time into learning all the potential pitfalls. Understand that any form of flying, including piloting these simple machines, requires instruction, understanding, and proficiency to be safe.
Mark Murray, EAA 394554, of Georgetown, Georgia, was always fascinated by airplanes, and then discovered ultralights thanks to an article published in National Geographic in 1983. In 2008, he earned his light sport repairman maintenance rating and turned his hobby into a business, eventually becoming a CFI and an A&P.