The photograph is haunting, if you know when it was taken.
Most of the upper part of the frame is filled with a bright yellow wing, banked fairly steeply to the right. The flap is down a notch; the aileron too is deflected slightly downward. The lower part of the picture contains a patch of bare ground, three widely spaced hangars and a little group of people who are certainly looking up at the airplane, although their faces are not discernible. The airplane’s heading, judging from its relationship to objects below, is about 300 degrees.
The picture was taken from the back seat of a CubCrafters Carbon Cub, a light-sport cousin of the Piper Super Cub, by a passenger, the father of a Girl Scout whose troop had been invited to see the flight demonstration. It was his first ride in a light airplane. When he snapped the picture, the spin that would take his life and that of the pilot in the seat in front of him had already begun.
The accident took place at a dirt airstrip southeast of Denver. The weather was VFR, but with a gusty wind blowing out of the south; the nearest reporting point, Centennial Airport, 12 miles distant, called it 12 knots gusting to 26.
A number of people, including the wife and daughter of the passenger, witnessed the accident. The most detailed description given to NTSB investigators came from a 350-hour private pilot who watched from the driveway of his house just across the runway. After running up, he reported, the airplane took off southward, directly toward him, from a large open area north of Runway 5/23. It broke ground in 200 feet, made a slight left turn into the wind and climbed steeply. “The angle of attack on climb was significant,” he wrote. “I would estimate [it] to be more than 30 degrees and as much as 45 degrees.” The airplane “hovered” for a moment — that is, its groundspeed appeared to drop to near zero — at a height of 150 or 200 feet.
Then the right wing dropped “sharply” — the photograph was taken — and the airplane descended vertically, turning. It struck the ground not far from where the onlookers in the photograph were standing. At impact, the witness said, the nose was coming up; it was, he guessed, at a 30-degree angle to the ground.
From the description of the airplane seeming momentarily to hover, it appears probable that the Carbon Cub, which like the Super Cub boasts exceptional low-speed and climbing performance and resistance to stalling, maintained 40 knots or so into the wind. The implausible-sounding angle of attack (probably meaning pitch angle) of 30 to 45 degrees makes sense when you consider that the airplane probably stalls at 20 degrees, the wind-aided climb angle could have been as great as 25 degrees, and the witness’s head-on perspective deceptively foreshortened the climb.
The pilot, 49, was a 9,000-hour ATP and United Airlines instructor with 747 and 777 ratings who had flown P-3s and E-3s — reconnaissance types, the latter carrier-based — in the Navy. He had 3,000 hours in Carbon Cubs. Obviously, lack of experience was not the problem.
In addition to witnesses who saw the accident, several others volunteered earlier observations of the pilot’s flying, all tending to create an impression of ostentatious recklessness — though the low-speed capabilities of the airplane are such that its maneuvers might look reckless even if they weren’t, and these testimonies were offered with benefit of hindsight.
A woman had been driving southward on the road alongside the airport the previous day when she saw the bright yellow airplane turning so low that she thought it had crashed. She stopped and turned back to look for it.