Your Accident: Film at 11!

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Except it won't be 11, it'll probably be five minutes after you crawl out of the wreckage, if you're so lucky. That seems to be the most compelling message from Tuesday's noseover of a nice vintage Stearman at Washington's Reagan Airport. In case you missed the story, a formation of Stearmans flew into DCA to publicize a new IMAX film called Legends of Flight.

They got publicity alright. There are no fewer than three camera angles on this accident, including one from inside the cockpit shot by Washington Post transportation reporter Ashley Halsey. Kudos to him for first escaping unharmed and second, sticking to the view finder throughout the noseover sequence. We'll know later if he deserves a razz for inadvertently planting a foot on the left brake, for in this CNN footage, it sure looks like the left wheel was locked up, which may have precipitated the noseover. Why it was locked will be for the investigators to determine. (Check out the beeping sound in Halsey's footage. What does that mean? WARNING! Your airplane has turned over! WARNING!)

There but for the grace of God (and persistent luck) go us all, I suppose. I have a little bit of Stearman time and my sense of it is that if well-handled, it's no different than any other traildragger. But where my little Cub will leave bite marks on your butt if mishandled, the Stearman will take off an entire cheek. It's heavy, has a lot of power and brakes powerful enough to nose it into the runway in a heartbeat. I've been reading Robin Olds' biography and he notes that during World War II, an accident like this was a several-times-a-day event. At one field he trained at, there were nine accidents of various aircraft in a single day.

So, lemme see. The takeaway? Always wear your nice flight jacket, because if you screw up, it'll be on TV and YouTube at the speed of heat. Also, this: There are so many clichés in aviation that you never know which to believe. But the one about never relaxing in a taildragger until it's tied down seems to be an enduring truth. A few Sundays ago I was out sticking landings in the Cub, working on wheelies and trying maintain the centerline within inches.

After four or five perfect examples, I exited the runway—first turnoff, of course—and while taxiing along in that smug aura of the self-satisfied expert airman, I came within a dozen feet of plowing right into a Cessna Conquest. I caught it because I saw the tail of the twin just in time to swerve. In a Cub, you either S-turn to see what's out front or lean out the door periodically. I had done neither as I relaxed in a haze of self-congratulation.

Like I said, there but for the grace of God who, fortunately, seems to look kindly upon idiots who can, nonetheless, occasionally do decent wheel landings.

Comments (23)

With a taildragger you fly it til it's tied down, then you back away.

Posted by: Richard Montague | June 9, 2010 2:08 PM    Report this comment

Good words on taildragging.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | June 10, 2010 8:46 AM    Report this comment

No experience with taildraggers, although an endorsement is in the longterm plan, but I'm also working through Robin Olds bio. Now that's "the Right Stuff"!

Posted by: ROGER HAMILTON | June 10, 2010 9:13 AM    Report this comment

Maybe the safety brief should have included "keep your feet off the pedals"? I'm curious to read what the federales come up with for probable cause.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | June 10, 2010 9:51 AM    Report this comment

The wing top landing was on youtube within moments, it seemed. I've no experience with TD's but even I saw what appeared to be a lock-up of maybe, both brakes? (it flipped so evenly) and thought the pilot would never do that.... maybe the startled passenger or a malfunction. Anyway the poster on youtube headlined the accident as the pilot's fault, and in the spirit of softening another aviation black eye I commented on the above possibilities other than pilot error. The video poster agreed he jumped the gun but still didn't change the biased title. The guy is a pilot, too. Glad to see both people walk away from it, tho.

Posted by: David Miller | June 10, 2010 12:21 PM    Report this comment

Paul, A very reasonable question to ask: did I mistakenly hit the brake pedal. And Will asks a good question too: should the safety brief have included "keep your feet off the pedals..." Here are the answers: Mike's very thorough safety brief did include that, and I was very careful to stay away from the pedals throughout the flight, including on landing. I don't know what caused the crash, but I do know Mike's a very fine pilot and I look forward to flying with him again. Best, Ashley Halsey The Washington Post.

Posted by: Ashley Halsey | June 10, 2010 9:47 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, Ashley. I hereby unconditionally withdraw the razz. But hadda ask. Look at this way, no one else in the newsroom can claim such a spectacular arrival at DCA. Thanks for checking in.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 11, 2010 4:35 AM    Report this comment

Bad day - truly sad to damage such a great aircraft. I've known of pilots who had the old-style drum brakes lock up - I wonder what system this Stearman had?

Posted by: Josh Johnson | June 11, 2010 1:21 PM    Report this comment

Not the first time someone has landed a Stearman with the brakes on.From the rear seat you can put the brakes on while pushing up with your legs to see better on landing. The Stearman is a beast at times when you get it on a paved runway. I wondered how much Stearman time the pilot had?

Posted by: Jake Jacoby | June 14, 2010 5:12 AM    Report this comment

I watched the CNN video several times and it does appear that the left brake locked upon landing. As the plane begins to nose over, full right rudder is being applied ( to compensate for left turning?) and that could explain why the plane flipped evenly. According to Mr. Halsey's post, he was well aware to keep his foot off he pedals and that he was (and still is ) confident in the pilots abilities. In my mind this leaves some sort of mechanical issue as the cause, but we'll wait for the official report.

Posted by: Roger Mullins | June 14, 2010 5:30 AM    Report this comment

The thought of being on some video is sucking the fun out of flying. Think of the Cathay Pacific Chief Pilot who lost his job over what was done every time they took delivery of a new Boeing. Before I solo a new student they have to demonstrate a safe landing from and simulated engine failure at fifty feet. Now I have to find an airport with nothing around (and it's getting harder to find)for teaching this. Simulated engine outs are "Near Crash" or "Crash Landing at..." Cross wind landing are an "Emergency Procedure". (Remember when that came up in a court case?) How are we pilots and CFI's going to teach what we have too without giving GA a bad name?

Posted by: Dave Stock | June 14, 2010 12:56 PM    Report this comment

I have to wonder also if this particular Stearman had "heel brakes" as opposed to toebrakes as are more commonly found. A lot of older taildraggers including the Stearman have heel brakes. These brake pedals are separate from the rudder pedals and usually set inboard just a little from the rudder pedals. As a taildragger pilot, after landing AND after reaching a slow and safe speed, you would then slowly manuever your heels over to the heel brake pedals to get some wheel braking. Ashley, perhaps you can tell us if you remember whether this particular Stearman had those extra pedals or not. That could've been a factor. Either way, you got some incredible video of your event. What was notable was that as you two were sitting there hanging upside down, someone said "Let's get out of the aircraft...", and there you were video and all, escaping from an upside down aircraft. ...nice close up view of the grooved runway as well.

That airplane was made by Boeing Aircraft, and is a testament to the strength of that airframe! I have no doubt that this Stearman will fly again, after a relatively short rebuild of some key components.

Steven Coonts wrote a book called "Cannibal Queen", which is his story of a summer long love affair with his Stearman. The name "Cannibal Queen" is an appropriate nickname for the Stearman. As a primary trainer in WW2, this airplane did have a tendency to eat it's young with ground accidents such as this...

Posted by: Jeffrey Munzell | June 16, 2010 2:05 AM    Report this comment

Jeff, Do you mean that with heel brakes there were two separate sets of pedals? I recall seeing one set (two pedals) and not two. Mike pointed them out and, more importantly, pointed to the two places my feet were to be kept so that I was well clear of pedals and didn't get in the way of the stick, either. (I had owned that new Sony for all of 10 hours, so I wasn't about to drop the danged thing!) That was Mike's voice getting us clear of the aircraft. He was a real pro throughout.

Posted by: Ashley Halsey | June 16, 2010 8:02 AM    Report this comment

Ashley, Yes, with heel brakes there are definately two sets ( thus four pedals ). It sounds like Mike's aircraft had the more updated toe brakes (or possibly no brakes at all in the front cockpit). It also sounds like he gave you the proper briefing on where to keep your feet.

No more speculation from me. Any good tailwheel pilot can tell you that this type of accident can happen very easily...especially on a hard surface runway. Grass runways are so much easier for taildragger landings...at least for me anyway! Again I say, that was a real testament to the strength of that airplane! Glad you guys are okay..

Posted by: Jeffrey Munzell | June 16, 2010 8:37 AM    Report this comment

I have heel brakes on my old taildragger and I always lift my feet to keep off the heel brakes, but makes it awkward if I have to get on the brakes,I have done a ground loop IN FRONT OF A GATHERING AIRSHOW CROWD,How embarssing!

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