Recalling an Aviation Tragedy Borne of Hubris

Paint Creek Valley. Martha Lunken

It’s become a ritual: flying every autumn to my “secret place” in south central Ohio. This unique area exists because a series of glaciers, having scoured everything to the north and west into flat prairie, mysteriously (at least to me) came to a halt. The sudden, abrupt change in topography here at “the edge of Appalachia” is dramatic.

Geologists say these gentle hills were originally as high as the Himalayas and eroded over millennia into what are now densely wooded flat-topped mesas. My favorite go-to place begins at the west end of a modest gorge through the hills called — here goes my secret — Paint Creek Valley. Now, from six-, seven-, eight-thousand feet, you’d never notice it; I discovered it years ago flying my Cub to Chillicothe one afternoon at, oh, maybe 300 or 400 feet. It was, well, flat-out gorgeous, and I was enchanted. Every year, these heavily wooded hillsides are dressed in vivid, flaming colors. Paint Creek meanders through the valley, curving around a striking palisade near the east end. And every year, when I go back, I smile, remembering a red convertible parked off the road next to that palisade, with a guy and his girl surprised by the little yellow airplane flying overhead.

The valley has two airfields. Sort of. One is still on the chart, and the other … well, I’m not sure since the 172 that was tied down there is gone. Called Valley Vista, it sits right alongside the creek, and I think maybe I remember several romantic fly-in picnics on the bank of that stream. These days, clustered on the hillside next to the strip is a group of low, ugly buildings — a state facility called Lighthouse and home to 15- to 18-year-old male juvenile serious offenders.

But the strip looks smooth and mowed, so I’m pretty sure the 180 can get in and out. Well, at least “in.” If somebody decides I’ve landed with the intent to bust out a Lighthouse guest, “out” might be a problem. But I’ll try this summer. Lord knows I’ve talked my way out of worse predicaments — a solo landing in a rather large balloon inside the Larimer County Correctional Facility in Colorado and taking off in the 180 from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, to name a couple.

The other valley airfield (17OI) is a 1,900-foot private strip that was owned by Bob Haas, a mountain of a man and a splendid person. Bob was a mechanic with a shop on the field that kept a bunch of airplanes in south central Ohio flying. For many years, even after Bob passed, the family hosted the all-time best Memorial Day fly-in breakfast ever — one you didn’t want to miss.

And therein (for those of you not used to my rambling, “stream-of-consciousness” style) lies the heart of this story.

Who hasn’t had the urge, arriving at or departing a small airport open house, fly-in or airshow, to make a low pass over the runway? And normally, unless the feds are lurking nearby, nobody gets upset about it. But it might be helpful to know that low passes aren’t legal, and if the feds are around (they will be if it’s a waivered airshow), you could be in trouble. Or at least in for scrutiny, which few of us — or our airplanes — are squeaky-clean enough to escape unscathed.

But feds or no feds, ugly and sometimes deadly things can happen when egos get in the way of good sense. I’ve seen more than my share of accidents that resulted from a botched low-altitude aerobatic “demonstration” or from a spectacular low pass with too abrupt a pull-up — like one that happened at the Haas breakfast.

While the National Transportation Safety Board report says the pilot lost control of his RV-4 on takeoff and crashed into an adjacent cornfield, that’s not exactly the whole story.

Working for the FAA but not “on duty,” I’d flown my 180 out there early on that Memorial Day morning. I was proud of having won enough trust to be invited — simply as a fellow aviator — to private fly-ins, even the ones out in the boonies where the FARs were sometimes rather loosely interpreted. Working for the FAA while still flying for fun and personal travel wasn’t too common among inspectors and could be something of a balancing act. I couldn’t ignore or simply warn a pilot who did something blatantly illegal — especially with witnesses around. And I certainly wouldn’t ignore anything unsafe, witnesses or not. But neither was I looking for trouble.

For example, about a month before this breakfast, I’d attended a wedding at another private, country airport. Guests were seated in a large hangar, and in front of the doors, a charming arbor had been set up for the exchange of vows in front of a local pilot-cum-minister. One of the guys told me they were planning a special low pass in the Stearman just as the couple — both pilots — exchanged rings.

“That’s OK, like, legal, isn’t it?”

Reluctantly, I said it probably wasn’t because this low-altitude pass would be over what’s considered a congested area but “not for the purpose of takeoff or landing.” A worried look crossed his face, and I pointed to what I was wearing: a lavender linen dress, creamy pumps and a large-brimmed, flowered straw hat.

“You know, I didn’t realize it, but this darned hat makes it impossible for me to see much of anything.”

I guess he relayed the information that all was well; when I heard the roar of the approaching biplane, I tugged the brim down and leaned over to adjust the strap on my shoes.

Back to the Memorial Day fly-in breakfast out in the valley. After stuffing myself with pancakes and country ham and hanging out with old friends, I flew the 180 back to Lunken. I was barely inside the house when the phone rang. There had been a fatal accident at Haas’ not long after I left. So I called my boss and came back down to the airport, where I picked up an airworthiness inspector, and we flew out to the strip.

I guess the pilot, knowing I was gone and anxious to show off his newly built RV-4, took off and circled back around to “dust off” everybody gathered outside the hangar at the east end of the strip. Just beyond the end — and going like a bat out of hell — he pulled up very steeply and abruptly; some witnesses say he tried to roll it. Anyway, the airplane appeared to “wobble,” went out of control and impacted the cornfield, inverted. Which, to quote Rick Durden, “is precisely how a lot of buzz jobs terminate: an aggressive pull-up into a stall, incipient spin and a steeply nose-down ground impact.”

I’m not immune to the lure of a low pass down the runway. Oh, I try to justify it — the runway is plenty long with no obstacles, I’m talking to the air boss on the frequency and I’m well aware of the “pull-up and stall” syndrome, and besides, who doesn’t love seeing and hearing the AT-6 roar by a few feet off the ground. But it’s a dumb move, especially when I was a fed because it’s outside the law and can encourage somebody with less skill or experience, flying something far less powerful, to try the same thing. Yeah, it’s sure huge fun, a crowd-pleaser, and it makes you a “hero,” but it isn’t mature or wise. Sadly, I’ve never been known for my maturity or caution.

It’s worth knowing that, curiously, there’s nothing illegal about low passes over a runway at a towered airport — so long as you request and are “cleared for the option.” But at a nontowered field, it isn’t legal, period! And if you want to make a low pass — no aerobatics, just a pass — at a waivered airshow, you’ll need to attend the pilot briefing, show the feds your pilot certificate, medical and evidence of a flight review, and have the aircraft and engine logs on hand to prove the airplane is legal. That’s for nothing fancier than a wings-level fly-by!

Thank goodness, there’s nothing (yet) illegal, immoral or unsafe about skimming those gorgeous treetops and then diving the Cub or Cessna 180 down into Paint Creek Valley on a pretty October afternoon.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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