Dodging A Bullet
Whenever there's an airliner accident, there's almost always a story the next day about the guy who was stuck in traffic or something like that and missed the flight and I always wondered what must be going through their heads.
I never expected to be standing on the taxiway of a small airport being confronted by that barrage of mixed emotions in the most visceral way possible. You see, the tardy airline passengers don't usually get to see the aircraft that was to take them away crash before their very eyes.
With all the talk of flying cars in the past few days I thought it was kind of deliciously ironic that I'd been able to arrange a flight in the Maverick, which is really just a giant powered parachute. The chassis is road-worthy however and by definition that makes the Maverick a flying car. The marketing slogan for the Florida-based company is The Flying Car That Does, a not-so-subtle dig at the seemingly perennially under-development dream vehicles out there.
Ray Seibring is one of the developers of the vehicle and he lives near my summer residence in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. He imported one of the vehicles on a one-year temporary permit to Canada and when he started flying it naturally got a lot of attention.
So we arranged to meet at the Vernon Airport, a non-towered GA facility where the airport supervisor helps Seibring get set up by loading parts of the Maverick into his truck and driving them to a quiet area of the airport to get set up.
Last Friday dawned cloudless with barely a breath of wind. Ideal for something like the Maverick. I had my AVweb CNN-in-a-backpack video gear and was quite looking forward to a few loops around the Vernon area in what is the only operational flying car so I could report back to our loyal readership. Flying car videos go off the scale in terms of YouTube clicks on our channel.
Seibring clearly decided to make efficient use of the flight window and invited someone who may have been an investor or potential investor for a familiarization flight. That worked out perfectly for me. I shot video of the set-up of the vehicle, the takeoff and first minute of flight and planned to use that as b-roll for my video report.
With the camera stowed, I watched as the Maverick turned base to come and get me. Because it was about a half mile away and the sound was delayed it's hard to put together what happened in my mind but I saw the fabric wing kind of slump ahead of the chassis. The aircraft then spun sharply to the left and dropped like a rocket-propelled stone. It dropped out of my line of sight, I heard the engine scream to full power and then the cracking sound of impact. A guy pulling his plane out of a hangar across the field yelled to another fellow: "They went in!" The airport supervisor also saw it and squealed rubber across the ramp as he raced to the scene.
Then, boy, was it quiet.
I assumed the worst. The Maverick has a light-weight carbon-fiber body and I didn't know how crash-worthy it is. I figured Seibring and his passenger must be dead.
I was on the other side of the field from my truck and Seibring had left his coat, hat and handheld with me. I did about the only thing I could do; bundled up my gear and his stuff and started walking. I got about halfway to the end of the runway before I heard the first siren, which was followed by a half dozen more. By the time I got to the truck, some local flying club members had already been to the scene and returned. "They're ok," said my old friend Barry, which was some of the best news I'd heard that day. My old flight instructor Chuck arrived a minute later and said: "I guess you heard." I told him that I was supposed to be the next up and he replied earnestly: "Go buy a lottery ticket."
I got in the truck and reached the crash site, on the edge of an elementary school playing field, just as the ambulances were taking the men away. The consensus among my many fellow rubberneckers was that they'd be fine and the back braces, neck splints and other first responder accoutrements were precautionary. It looked to me like the chainlink fence they plowed through absorbed the energy and allowed them to walk away. The Maverick looked remarkably intact for everything it had been through so I guess the crashworthiness point might be moot.
I introduced myself to the nearest Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and gave a statement. The first thing he asked me was how I felt, which seemed like an odd question at the time. I was to get used to it.
I gave seven media interviews that day as the guy who dodged the bullet. In every one I was asked if I would ever consider going up in the Maverick and I said truthfully it would depend on the outcome of the investigation (which will be helped by two onboard cameras and a flight data recorder that Seibring was using for the flight).
But the hardest question to answer was about how lucky I felt. And I guess the answer is that we all depend to a certain degree on chance to make it through every day. Most of the time, I suspect, we never know how close we come to being T-boned at an intersection or hit with a falling brick. As pilots we're used to accepting and managing risk every time we fly.
But having that palpable evidence of the fact that it isn't time to get your ticket punched feels pretty good actually.
What was better was seeing a bruised but oddly upbeat Seibring being interviewed outside the hospital and talking about finding out what went wrong and moving forward from there.
Clearly, this story didn't end at the schoolyard fence. Stay tuned for the rest of it.