Christen Eagle II
August 10, 2002
On August 10, 2002, my partner and I had to bail out of our Christen Eagle II. The story below is from my viewpoint as PIC in the backseat. Hopefully, my partner (Andrew) has written his own account of what happened. Also hopefully, the two stories are similar. I have left a ton of information out of this, because to write everything that happened could easily fill a book. The mind has a tendency to stretch time in these situations, just the way they say it does.
My disclaimer: I have had a bunch of really smart folks and great pilots help me try to figure out what I could have done better. We haven't come up with much, and you can second guess me all you want, but don't bug me about it. Yes, I already know luck was THE major factor. Lastly, those of you who take offense at the humorous way I've written my story, please be sure it does not matter to me. I'm here and fine, and so's my passenger.
The Plan was to fly to a small airport about 40 miles North, where I was going to do the Sportsman aerobatic sequence in front of a crowd, some judges, and even the FAA. While I would wait for my flight, Andrew would take the plane up to a different local airport and do pretty much the same thing in front of a bunch of other judges and some folks who offered to coach. This is why we were wearing our chutes on what would otherwise have been a very uneventful flight.
About 10 minutes after departing our tower-controlled home airport, my partner says "Dude-Oil Pressure." So I look again (I had just done my scan around his head to see the gages VERY recently) and stared dumbfounded at the oil pressure gage, which was reading very low, but not zero.
I did a 180 back towards home, and started looking for better ideas. Finding none, I called the tower and declared a Precautionary Landing. They cleared me for any runway, and I told them I'd like to make it to 9-27 but I might have to change my mind later. Then, I started my run back towards the airport, which is actually past what you might call a "no-man's land" of quarries, forests, and hills. During this portion of the flight, I had an internal struggle between climbing higher and descending towards home. The vision of me being at 5000 feet over the end of the runway and exploding in a fiery ball of irony made me stick with what I had; I stayed at about 2300 feet AGL.
Trying to make it back but keeping an eye on the gages and the very limited emergency fields to put down in, I waited for things to get better or worse. They got worse. The engine started losing power, and there's was no way we'd glide it back. Biplanes like the Eagle glide about as well as you would, with a bunch of flying wires and crap hanging off of you.
So, I called up the tower guy and told him we were declaring an emergency, and putting it down in a field. The field (Andrew actually saw it first, for some weird reason) looked beautiful, like a sod farm that had been harvested to leave a light brown dirt square just big enough to put down in. I tried to make that field, leaving the engine to help with some intermittent power if it felt like it. Of course, I had one hand on the throttle ready to deal with a busted prop, or a thrown rod, or whatever. I already had bits of the various articles from years past floating through my mind, about engines flying off the front of airplanes due to vibration. Yes, I squawked 7700 and all the rest of that stuff, too.
Morbidly interesting sidebar: When you hear my voice later on, and the tower guy asked how many "souls" are on board, you can tell I'm disappointed that he made it official. I sound like "Alright, fine, so I'm really in trouble here, and if you want to count how many arms and legs are left in the wreck, look for two of each."
So, trying to make the chosen field, we got a bunch of smoke in the cockpit next. I told my partner to get ready to get out. I told the tower we had smoke in the cockpit, which was the last they heard from me (pretty inconsiderate in retrospect--I should have at least mentioned the revised plan to depart the aircraft). Right about that time, the engine made a big "Bang!" and started to shake the airplane violently. So, not only could I not see the panel through the smoke, but I probably couldn't read anything anyway with all the shaking. I was ready, though, and yanked the throttle to idle pretty darn quick.
This is where a lot more stuff went through my head, but the short version is I decided for sure we had to get out of the plane.
I yelled at my partner (sitting in front, remember) to watch his head and pulled the canopy jettison handle. The canopy absolutely failed to do exactly as planned. Instead of flipping away leading-edge-up and getting clear of us, it kinda sat there bouncing slightly along on top of the fuselage. In retrospect I swear it was making little teasing noises like "whatcha gonna do now, dumb ass?" So I pushed up on the only part of it I could reach, with my left hand/arm, above my head.
Of course, when you do this, the front edge flies at you as the bubble leaves. It hit me square on the right side of the headset, since I only had time to turn away a little. I think maybe it busted my David Clarks at that point, but I was a little busy. So I yelled about a dozen times "GET OUT" to Andrew and waited for him to do so. He had a little trouble getting out, maybe due to the belts or headset or something. Again, we've avoided collaborating our stories so everyone can get the raw data first.
He must have gotten his headset troubles worked out, because they also hit me on the way past. So, before I got hit with anything bigger (like him), I finally got smart enough to duck. He went sailing over me. He got out around, maybe, 1000 AGL.
Then it was my turn. I had to let go of the stick to unlatch my harness, since one lever goes right and the other goes left (safety reasons!) which is where, in hindsight, I learned something valuable. When the front seat of your tandem, rear-seat solo Eagle II suddenly gets empty, and the canopy ain't on the plane no more, and the airplane was trimmed for cruise with power before everything hit the fan, then there will be a nose-down tendency if you let go. Another important factor: I think I tensed up my legs so much trying to get out that I loaded up my harness and made it tougher to unlatch. So, when you are in such a situation, try to relax. It might make releasing your harness easier.
With all the smoke (gone), shaking (gone), loss of power (still lost), wind whipping at me, harness problems making me look down inside the cockpit, and getting hit in the head a couple times, I did not have much altitude left when I had the harness free. I had so little, that my first clue was seeing green out the sides of my peripheral vision. So once I got the harness unlatched, I grabbed the ripcord with my right hand and pushed on the stick with my left. The theory was I could pop myself out the top of the plane, and when I got the circle where the spring is for the pilot chute clear of the turtledeck behind me I would yank the rip cord and close my eyes, so I wouldn't have to see whatever would come next. I'm a chicken.
All of it worked. Especially the closing-the-eyes part. My partner told me later he figures I got out at about 100 feet. I thought he was wrong, due to his maybe being excited, and hanging from his own chute, and being far away, and since I wasn't dead.
When I brought my chute to a guy who has a great reputation as a rigger, he figured it was somewhere between 100-200 feet. He found black paint on the pilot chute fabric and the strap that runs from the pilot chute to the main canopy. This paint came from the black front face of the turtledeck that I was hoping to miss when I pulled the 'cord. Close call.
So now I have a hairline fracture of my L1 vertebra which hurts a very small amount and a slightly tender tailbone. Not bad for getting hit with a planet in the back. I also have a very funny photo of the hole my body left in the soybeans, where I landed 10-12 feet from the top-right wing tip of the Eagle, which hit about 75-80 degrees nose-down. A friend from work found my ripcord, 20-25 feet farther back on course from the wreck which was ironically about 200 yards from the intended emergency landing spot mentioned earlier. The insurance company has the remains of the airplane, which isn't saying much. I jokingly asked for the propeller, so I could have the only wall clock propeller that can be mounted around a corner.
The guy who packed our chutes is Julian Morgan, from Sky Savers Rigging at Chicagoland Skydiving in Hinckley, Illinois. He saved our lives, and he and his wife are set for coffee (they don't drink) for as long as they wish. I felt really stupid giving them a signed photo of the wreck, when they are the ones who should have been giving away autographs.
Of course, I will be buying Para-Phernalia Softies for as long as I need chutes, and I'm happy I already own another one for a homebuilt I'm working on (so I don't have to sell it to buy a replacement Softie). The rigger that looked at my chute told me that without a doubt, the excellent pack job and the specific model pilot chute that came in my Softie rig is what kept me from killing myself. Damage to the rig when I did the "Wile E. Coyote" into the beans (I landed flat on my back) was limited to a bunch of popped threads where the container attaches to the harness, and is likely due to the bag stopping on the beans and my body moving onward a couple feet.
I have the following list of considerations which we ought to try to address if we fly, build, do akro, or design akro airplanes. Not all of them are valid for all cases, of course, but they each deserve your thought.
1. Consider adding pitch-up trim in a tandem airplane which has both people aft of the CG once things start to go wrong. That would help counteract the nose-down pitching moments from losing so much mass aft of the CG. Think also about the mass of the canopy going away.
2. If the oil came out of the prop hub, or otherwise over the top of the cowl rather than blowing in as smoke through the firewall seals or nooks and crannies, we'd be dead, or burned, or blind, or a combination of these. The Eagle has no fixed windshield, so once you let the canopy go you are subject to whatever is blowing aft.
3. Why is the jettision handle on many of these akro planes on the right? Because we might use it instead of the throttle lever? It means letting go with your right hand (from the stick) to yank it. At a minimum, you have to swap hands. My homebuilt's handle is being moved to the left, and if anybody grabs it rather than the throttle, I will hopefully interest them in another hobby.
4. Our radio was mounted very low, in front of the stick. Tough to tune to 121.5 or whoever, especially if your belts are tight or the airplane is shaking itself apart.
5. Good thing: When we left the tower's airspace, I turned the volume down but left the tower frequency dialed in. Try this if you have nobody else to talk or listen to. Bad thing: the volume knob is not much easier to deal with than the tuner, and maybe lowering the volume at the headset would be better, especially if you could wire the plane and headsets to give you intercom AND radio volume adjustments separately, or add a volume knob somewhere else (like the left side of the cockpit).
6. My homebuilt will also get a spring-loaded aluminum "flap" that will pop up after the canopy is unpinned. This way, the hinge pins get pulled out of the canopy hinges first, then an air load on this flap that sticks up at the leading edge of the canopy will cause it to lift at the front and blow off cleanly. You could also think about spring loading the entire front of the canopy frame, depending on the design.
7. I know all the safety reasons for making my harness latches operate in two different directions. It is a good idea, but maybe a way to quick-release both latches when you really need it is possible. I know of no good way to do so and maintain the safety feature right now.
8. I wish there was a way to get all the benefits of rudder and/or elevator surface positioned forward of the hinge line without having the surface there to get snagged on as you depart the aircraft. This goes double for some unlimited akro planes with "spades" on the top of the rudder. The Eagle has no such surfaces.
9. There was a chance (later disproven during the tear-down inspection) that the failure was due to the 3-way valve of the inverted oil system getting a stray particle in it or sticking "open" due to galling or pitting of the two balls inside. Apparently, this has caused a few problems in the past and folks who have been around awhile know about it. I wish we had a way to check the operation of the inverted oil system during a preflight, even if it was just some way to ensure the stuff was all floating freely and seating well. No ideas there, except be sure to follow the Christen manual to clean and maintain the valve and separator during the appropriate inspections.
10. I always got out of the airplane as if I was going to have to do so in a hurry. I never really thought during these "dress rehearsals" about doing it without looking down at my belts, or having to hold the stick against unknown forces due to a busted airplane. The practice is a good idea, but think about the various situations and attitudes in which you might have to depart the airplane.
11. I never wore a helmet in the Eagle since the one I own restricts my peripheral vision and limits the amount of head movement I can accomplish for polishing the maneuvers. It is the wrong kind for this style of flying. I'm looking at a new fighter-style helmet (HGU-55?) that has cut-outs for better field of view and better range of neck bending. Wearing a helmet might have expedited my ejection after getting beat up by the canopy and the headset.
Again, thanks to Para-Phernalia for the Softies, Julian for the excellent pack job, Andrew for doing what had to be done as fast as anyone could, and my other partner in the plane (who was on vacation at the time) who did not kill me when he heard about the wreck.
Todd W. Ashcraft