The Day the Imitutor Fell From the Sky by Scott Jackson
July 2004 - Thanks to all of you for your kind words of commiseration and support.
The best news is that both our oldest daughter Vanessa and her instructor are alive and doing reasonably well. Vanessa is covered with long, deep scratches on her arms and legs, some deeper cuts, and abraded spots on her one knee and elbow. This afternoon, angry welts appeared on her shoulders along with faint bruises on her hips, probably from the harness.
The instructor's hands are quite badly scratched and scraped, as he was the one who used the canopy chopper to break enough of the plexiglas for them to crawl out. His one lower eyelid has a dark, red mark, which has caused his eye to slowly turn red, and I think I saw some more injuries inside his hairline.
The cuts and scrapes are almost exclusively from the broken canopy as they egressed, the other injuries appear to be from flailing in the cockpit during the pitchover. The G-meter reads minus 8G.
Vanessa and I had done an hour's circuits on Saturday evening, then, while I was away at work, she did a lesson, landed at a golf course out near CWK for a bite to eat and another briefing, then had another lesson while flying back to BB and commenced to do some circuits, her fifth hour of official dual.
On the fateful takeoff, the rpm decayed at about 200' just as they crossed the shoreline taking off from runway 12. The instructor immediately took control and pitched the nose way down to maintain the glide and turned toward the footpath on the dike. Unfortunately, the engine did not recover from the standard cockpit drill in the short time they had available, and the footpath was obstructed with Sunday-evening pedestrian traffic. With power lines on the left blocking the way back to the airport property, the only option was to turn back to the right, out to the marshy tidal flats.
Vanessa selected full flaps on the instructor's command and they touched down almost at a stall between logs and ponds and piles of beach debris. The aircraft was almost stopped when the mainwheels rolled into a depression with a steep far side, which caused it to noseover.
It plowed up quite a pile of soggy earth with the nose, packing the inlet air box solid and clogging the filter, then rolled over the mound and flipped, so that the cockpit landed right in the freshly-dug mud.
The engine had stopped completely before the rollover event, causing five of the annunciator lights to come on; very fortuitous as the cockpit went completely dark except for them, sinking into the ooze.
The aircraft spent the night on its back on the tidal flats, coinciding with record high tide in the wee hours. Blissfully unaware of what had happened, I slept well. My fellow RV enthusiasts, however, were there in the knee-deep mud at 0100 and 0300 to see if any of the ocean made it to the aircraft. It came close, but didn't appear to touch it. The local paper has a picture of a tiny aircraft on its back completely surrounded by the sea, it looks like it's floating.
The next day, a kind friend offered his credit card to pay for a sling back to the airport. Using ropes tied to the axles inboard of the brakes, they were attached to the sling point of the A-Star and the Imitutor was airborne again in no time, balancing perfectly from the gear. It was gently laid in deep grass in the airport infield, still inverted. This is certainly the way to move one if it experiences this kind of misfortune; the only damage is two crushed brake lines.
I arrived home from a quick trip to Hong Kong to find the family anxiously awaiting me in the kitchen. I had already found out about the accident when I went through flight planning on arrival, to get changed to ride the motorcycle home, so I immediately apologized to the family for making such a crummy aircraft that it wouldn't keep running.
I was surprised when this caused Vanessa to immediately burst into tears. She feels very badly indeed about what happened to "her" cute little airplane, and has already asked me if she can rent someone else's to try to get her PPL before she goes to university in Calgary in September.
I'm not soliciting here, as I think it's a bad idea, and we couldn't afford it anyways - I'm already looking at a four-figure bill for two minutes of slinging the wreckage back to the airport by chopper. But I am encouraged by her gung-ho attitude. She thinks it's no worse than falling off a horse, just climb right back on. In fact, the second-most upsetting thing to her is losing one of her favorite earrings in the incident.
Tuesday afternoon, we went out to the airport so that I could see the damage. Despite the very strong winds, it was easy to talk Ran into using the front-end loader on the airport-mowing tractor to lift the airplane, as he was the airport manager and not happy about this curiosity on display for all to see. Hoisting it from a stout rope again attached between the axles, was relatively simple . With RV-7 builder Rob Prior and I holding the tail up, my three daughters carrying the old-tire bumpers, and Vanessa's instructor balancing the wingtip with his painful-to-look-at hands, we slowly conveyed it into the big hangar and out of the wind.
We laid it back down on the old tires, reattached the rope to the tail spring, and summoned all the young ,strong mechanics from the businesses in the hangar. With about five of them on each wing leading edge, the front-end loader pulled the tail up to vertical. With all the muscle keeping most of the airframe's weight off the nose, and the spinner and prop already toast, it went over surprisingly easy and with no further damage.
From then until ten pm, much-appreciated volunteer help removed the spinner, prop, cowlings, one wingtip, canopy, flaps, rudder and vertical stab, along with disconnecting everything in the wing roots and pulling up the cockpit floors to loosen all the wing bolts in preparation for removing them tomorrow morning.
The list of damage was initially surprisingly light, it is a very strong design. The standard noseover-event items, of course: a new spinner, propellor, canopy, wheel pants and vertical stab and rudder. Minor damage to a flap trailing edge, aileron outer rib, and wingtip, two slight cracks in the lower cowl.
However, as in most cases, the list is growing the further we get into the structure. It would appear that the damp earth that the airframe spent the night inverted in was quite salty, as many of the panel components show a thick, crusty, salty coating, including the comm radio, and all the upper instruments' mounting screws. Some of the instruments are about a third filled with water, the newly-overhauled clock is wound tight but not running, the digital OAT is blank, and the knobs on the intercom are reluctant to turn, as it was further underwater than the comm radio.
The wings came off the next morning, and, using a wooden frame to hold a barn door hinge over the tailgate of the Suburban to which the tailwheel bolt was attached, the fuselage was towed home in the evening darkness. With the tailgate down on the freeway, the wind was shrieking through the airframe in reverse, and I swear that it sounded as if she were crying.
Further investigation revealed the -expected, further damage. Nothing structural, although one tire appears to have a little too much toeout.
But there is a definite white tidal mark running diagonally across the upper firewall, the instrument panel, and the subpanel. The engine dipstick showed an increase in the oil level of two quarts, which had to be seawater. Even with this amount of seawater, when inverted, the cam and front bearing are still immersed in oil.
Drained the sump, refilled with fresh oil, and motored the engine on the starter. None of the engine instruments work, but an ohmmeter across the pressure transmitter's terminals indicated a change during the cranking, meaning the oil was being pumped throughout the engine. Pulled the plugs and inspected the cylinder innards before corrosion-proofing them. Dialed the crank for runout; less than .002". The vacuum pump had a cup of water in it, and the Electroair firewall unit was submerged. The vacuum regulator was full of water, as were the hoses and gyro instruments. All instruments were removed, the fronts removed, then submerged in fresh water, followed by a bath in a gallon of alcohol. Only the actual gyros themselves show any corrosion. Most of the engine gauges are filled with water, the two trim-tab position indicators have a visible water line, half of the switches are covered with the green, salty crust.
All these items were removed, and the airframe given a good soaking with ACF-50, especially the skin laps. So, in addition to audibly crying her way back to the shop, she's now sporting long, purple tears, too. Good thing the airframe was alumiprepped, alodined, and zinc chromated.
What should have been a devastating blow has been softened considerably by the fellowship of RVer's. So, far, a friend in Alberta has offered a new vertical stab and rudder surplus to his kit, the local radio shop has a used, slide-in direct replacement radio for our fried one, and a propellor has already been located, ready to bolt on. Even the young man who cut all the decals for the Imitutor has come forward and offered to recut and install any needing replacement, all for his cost of material only. This kind of camaraderie will get us back in the air in very short order.
I know what we're all wondering: what caused the engine to quit? Everything under the cowl appears to be in order, and a five-gallon pail plus was drained from the one tank, with less from the other, before the aircraft was slung back to the airport. When the aircraft was turned right side up, the fuel line was removed at the carb and a little fuel ran out. The gascolator was empty, although that might be from being inverted. There was no fuel in the lines in the fuselage. Before the wings were removed, a quart of fuel was put in each tank and feed verified all the way to the carb, with the pump priming within five seconds from dry. The tank vent lines are not plugged. There was a blue stain on the top of the crankcase and lots of fuel in one cylinder; which comes from the carb vent when inverted and into the cylinder on the intake stroke. One of my helpers inadvertently proved the ignition system was working while we dialed the crank. Sorry about making you jump, Rob. The carb venturi is intact and all engine controls have continuity. The 0-320E2D has 150 SMOH on a first-run by Aerosport Power.
What else can we glean from this? Vanessa was wearing shorts and a halter top, while the instructor had a T-shirt and jeans on. Only his legs are unscathed. The cockpit sidewalls, instrument panel, fresh air eyeballs, even the stickgrips, have muddy footprints on them, indicative of the struggle to egress from an inverted aircraft through a small, sharp-edged opening, partly buried in mud. Had the mud been up to the wings, where would they have gone once they got out? My flying suit was rolled up in the baggage compartment, along with my helmet. Would wearing it have helped reduce the injuries during egress?
Despite the low speed at which the aircraft nosed over, Vanessa's sunglasses were on her face with the temples under her headset, yet they ended up behind the rudder pedals. Had the aft fuselage been compromised or the harness suffered a wardrobe malfunction, without a helmet, their foreheads would have gone right into the glareshield overhang with a force they could not counter, stunning them at the least.
Half of the reason I installed a canopy chopper was to add to the military-cockpit look I was trying to achieve, the other was that I thought it was a good idea. The instructor advised that an RV-6 cockpit, inverted, hanging from the straps, in instanteous darkness, is an awful place to try to generate enough force to break the canopy. I suspect some of the reason it would not break more easily had to do with the weight of the aircraft pressing the canopy into the thick mud. More force would have helped, but, with no more room to swing, only more weight would have helped. The canopy is surprisingly strong, having retained most of its impressive thickness throughout the forming process. It's like trying to break Lexan.
The ship's fire extinguisher is an ample size, not a "meet-the-letter-of-the-law" spray bomb. It's also mounted on the front of the left wing spar, beneath the pilot's legs. It can be located, reached, and removed with the cockpit in any attitude. This was important to me, although the downside was that it's between the fuel selector and the boost pump; I mitigate this by wearing Nomex gloves. It didn't play a role in this incident, but it was ready to.
Lifejackets were in the baggage compartment as well. Although also not indicated in this incident, it doesn't take but a few seconds of flying time to be over water here on the West Coast. Sometimes I wear it, even just for circuits, but not religiously. I suspect it's alot easier to just pull a toggle and relax, than to locate, unravel, don and fasten a lifejacket while treading water.
Lastly, although from two hundred feet to touchdown doesn't take very long, the canopy is modified to be jettisonable, by replacing the bolts that hold the canopy frame to the front roller brackets with tractor pins, which look like huge bobby pins. I understand that the air loads on the canopy in flight keep it down and forward; I'd hope to be able to generate enough force to lift it just enough to get the airstream inside, which should take care of getting rid of it. I was catering more to bailing out-yes, I wear a parachute too, but it might have helped in this case as well. Don't know if I'd want to ride through a noseover without a canopy, though.; could strike our heads on rocks, etc.
With incidents of this nature, it's important to "get back on the horse" as soon as possible. Two days later, with much mutual ouching and straining against stiffness and soreness, her instructor slipped Vanessa into the front seat of another type of taildragging homebuilt and they were off, with her immediately trying her hand at crosswind work from the grass strip, with heartwarming success. Got to get both of my girls back in the air!
Those with military experience will realize what the callsign my formation friends have bestowed upon me means. Now I should probably rename the airplane, too....
Fly the airplane and be prepared!
Scott "Bingo" Jackson