Dodging A Bullet

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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.

Comments (12)

Mate, go buy that ticket! I sincerely hope that Mr. Siebring and pax are ok. Rob, Victoria, BC

Posted by: Rob Hughes | May 13, 2013 3:44 AM    Report this comment

Back when I was in college hang gliders were new and had low aspect-ratio (Rogollo) wings. They were fine on the coast where the air was smooth, but in Colorado the air could get turbulent as it came off the mountain. When the Rogollo stalled, one half of the wing would deflate, putting the ship into an instant spin straight into the ground.

My professor gave me some advice for that: "Don't fly any higher than you want to fall."

Since then, hang gliders have started to look remarkably more like airplanes, with higher aspect-ratio wings.

Still, when it comes to 'flying cars,' one may not want to fly any higher than one wants to fall.

Posted by: David Rosing | May 13, 2013 8:22 AM    Report this comment

Hi Russ, I'm glad to hear the accident didn't turn out as bad as it could have; best wishes for the crew's recovery.

Your story reminds me of the time years ago when after completing my runup at the runway's end in my little ragwing Piper, I waved goodbye to a pair of OV-10 Bronco pilots who were next in line for takeoff. They waved back, and I departed. When I got home, I was stunned to find out that the Bronco crashed on takeoff with no survivors. I was the last one to see them. This is definitely where that saying applies "There, but for the grace of God, go I." It is humbling to consider the fragility of life.

Posted by: A Richie | May 13, 2013 9:51 AM    Report this comment

Russ: I echo what Chuck R says. I have seen the Maverick going through its paces here in Vernon and have decided that it is a solution for which there is no problem. I am glad that Ray and his passenger did not receive serious injury and I sincerely hope he has a long sober look at what he wants to accomplish with this machine. I think it would be a handful even for a high-time fixed-wing pilot with several hundred para-jumps to his name. When it comes to taking the Maverick aloft, if you are a low-time pilot with no time under a canopy, you are a test pilot - and a poorly paid one at that! John

Posted by: John Swallow | May 13, 2013 10:15 AM    Report this comment

Russ, I am glad everyone is ok. I have been flying Powered Parachutes for over 13 years and about 1000 hrs. I fly a Buckeye Breeze with a Chiron 340 high performance ellipitical chute. Once these chutes are fully loaded in flight they are rock solid and it would take some extreme wind or mini tornado to collapse them. As you said the day was perfect weather so some link to the chute must have failed. I would be very curious to see what the findings turn out to be. I fly a Trinidad for speed and the PPC for fun and they are usually very stable and very safe. Evan

Posted by: Unknown | May 13, 2013 1:53 PM    Report this comment

It's a freaking parachute give me break ! You make it sound way more dramatic than need be.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | May 13, 2013 6:44 PM    Report this comment

Randolph, you do know that a parachute is basically an airfoil, right? Do you think an airplane, even a slow one, would fly well if half of one of the wings suddenly and violently deformed?

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | May 14, 2013 12:42 PM    Report this comment

This video clip only shows the Rogollo stalling and, in two cases, tumbling out of control after the stall. Note the wings are deflated during the tumble and can't produce lift properly. Also note that hang gliders aren't designed like this any more as they have higher aspect-ratio wings and battens to hold wing chord in the proper place, even during the stall.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vio9KF3xKQ

Posted by: David Rosing | May 14, 2013 1:18 PM    Report this comment

Bah. No video. put 'Youtube.com' in front of the following to get the right video.

/watch?v=7vio9KF3xKQ

Posted by: David Rosing | May 14, 2013 1:20 PM    Report this comment

Part 1 of 2: Man, my first wing (back when I was young and stupid) was a Rogallo (UP-AS90).

Nowadays that I am old and stupid I wonder sometimes how I've made it this far...

An I still fly hangliders on a regular basis. I also skydive, but the ride in the canopy is minimal and unavoidable. Paragliding is an animal that I would fly in Kitty Hawk, but not ever like those real men that fly in Colorado. No no...

In my late twenties, already a private pilot without much chance of ever being in control again, I used to fly every opportunity with my dear friend Alfredo. Anytime Alfredo called, I ditched work, class, girlfriend, mother day, you name it, and I would go flying with Alfredo. He was considered a good pilot but I didn't have the experience to evaluate him. He was indeed a GREAT friend. He had the job of my dreams. I'd (healthily) envy him flying everyday while I was confined to my computer geek cage.

Posted by: ENRIQUE TROCONIS | May 14, 2013 10:08 PM    Report this comment

Part 2 of 2: One day Alfredo went grounded for a few weeks. He finally got the plane back and went to pick it up with another friend, who also is the brother of my brother in law. Right before the departure the control tower called the airplane back because of 'incomplete paperwork' (hey, this is South America!)

The following day, ignorant of the events of the previous day, I found Alfredo rushing to public offices to complete the paperwork and finalize the return-to-service test flight of the C-310. He was eager to go back to work. I offered to drive him around and of course I'd go along on the flight with him. At the eleventh hours, for reasons that I can't still comprehend because I ALWAYS went with him, I decided to drop him off and pick him up later.

I never saw Alfredo again. The investigation was inconclusive because the airplane sank on 3000 feet of ocean about half a mile from the shore, and all that was ever recovered was his pilot certificate and his agenda book.

It was a sad day.

It is still a sad day today that my 'other brother' and I still remember and wonder: how close can you get...

Posted by: ENRIQUE TROCONIS | May 14, 2013 10:09 PM    Report this comment

There are some statements about Rogallo wings that are in error. I am one of the early era hang glider pilots who began flying in the standard Rogallos and continued for 30 years. A standard Rogallo cannot spin due to its very low aspect ratio and 4 degrees of sail billow. Spins became possible only when the aspect ratio increased and sail billow decreased. I was involved in both sales and flight instruction of hang gliders for many years and flew dozens of different designs. All the ones that were capable of spins recovered easily with minimal altitude loss.

Posted by: Ric Lee | May 15, 2013 7:47 AM    Report this comment

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