Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Fell off a Tractor in Tennessee, part IV

I've never experienced a helpless feeling in an aircraft. When we left the runway, heading toward the hill, with minimal ability to control our path, I still didn't feel helpless. If I ever do, I don't know how I will take it. That hill was 12-15 feet high, and we were still about 3 feet off the ground, slow, and turning. When I first realized I would not be able to recover it, I was thinking about trying to get partway up the hill, intending to get dealt a glancing blow instead of anything that would give us a sudden stop. There's a saying in aviation: if you have to crash land, hit the softest thing around at the slowest possible speed.

However, beyond that hill, lay fences and houses. You never want to jeopardize other people if you can avoid it. And even if the houses were not an issue, that would require hitting the hill with more speed. So I decided to stay as slow as possible, and hope to hit the embankment with the nose up, and at the 45 degree angle from which we were currently approaching. At a time like that, you really don't care what happens to the plane, as long as you minimize human injury.

We were about 40 knots right then, which is around 65 feet per second. All of that decision-making process took no more than 2 seconds. When I came back to the crash site today, I was thinking about that, and became really impressed that a trained human brain can process that much in such a short time.

If we'd still had any airspeed, it might have come out a little better. As it was, we were only a couple knots above a full stall. The nose came down just before the hill, and hit a small ditch, causing the nose gear to collapse. When that happened, we still had more speed than I wanted, and were hitting the hill much closer to straight on. The plane immediately flipped over its nose, and planted itself inverted on the bottom of the hill.

The force of the impact pulled me up from my seat, and my face went right through the plexiglass ceiling panel. I remember it in vivid detail. No brilliant, insightful thoughts. All I was thinking was "this is going to hurt."

A couple seconds later, everything is still. I open my eyes. I'm looking at broken plexiglass, covered with blood. I'm watching the blood continue to drip down. For just a moment, I wondered how long it had been since the crash. A few seconds, or an hour. Except for those few seconds after the impact when my eyes were still closed, I never really lost track of what I needed to do though. DC was saying he was having trouble removing the harness. I got mine off, opened my door and rolled out. I reached back in to shut off the fuel selector and master switch, and pull the magneto key, in order to avoid a fire. My next concern was to get him out of the plane, but he was already free and crawling out.

With the plane basically secured from fire, and both of us extricated, I looked toward the buildings at the ramp, and a couple of guys were running toward us. I glanced down at my door and saw more blood than I expected, and knew I had a reasonably deep gash. I thought my nose might be broken. Looking down at my shirt and jeans, I saw mostly crimson stains increasing in size.

DC is very healthy and quick-witted for being 75 years old. But I was still primarily concerned for him. I figured I'd be ok, but I had no idea what had happened to him. A couple of times he had to reassure me he was fine. I'm a bit taller than he is, so he barely bumped his head. While I tried to be sure of his condition, the guys were trying to rush me over to their truck, to get me to a hospital. They had quickly torn up a shirt and given it to me to put pressure on the cut, but I had to remove it just once to glance in the mirror before getting in the truck. Morbid curiosity, I guess.

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