Memo From Mac

 

                                                                   

The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Burlington, Iowa


Death Leers 
October 27, 1977

I was in my 1720th hour of safely flying old 7942 Bravo. Then just after noon Wednesday at Des Moines, death came hurtling by. It leered into the little cabin, taunted me, and then, glanced away.

This closest call came, not as I always expected in some inhospitable patch of sky or from engine failure or some dumb goof. I was peacefully taxiing out for takeoff on a beautiful cloudless day, heading home after a brief meeting. I was following procedures that have become routine in scores of departures from Des Moines airport over the eight years I've been flying.

Suddenly there was death's ugly gray grin chilling my windshield, in the guise of a pair of wobbling wings. Another airplane, in trouble, was veering away from the runway, down from the sky directly toward me.

The twin-engine Piper Cheyenne, with two men aboard, was practicing landing on Runway 12. That runway runs toward the southeast, 120 degrees on the compass. When I radioed from Des Moines Flying Services, near the passenger terminal, to announce my intention to depart, Ground Control directed me to Runway 12.

I was to proceed northwestward toward the far end of the runway, using a parallel taxi strip, which runs along the north side of 12, separated from the runway by about 75 feet of grass. As I rolled slowly northwest, planes were taking off in the opposite direction on the runway beside me. That's normal.

I never go all the way to the far end of the 9,000-foot runway, preferring to use an intersection about halfway along its length. That still gives me well over twice the takeoff distance my little fast- climbing planes needs, and is approved procedure.

As I neared the intersection, in front of the National Guard hangar, I first noticed the Cheyenne in what I assumed was a take-off climb. He would, of course, pass well above me and to my left. I turned my attention to the taxiway and began to turn into the intersection and up to the yellow line, where you stop and make your "run up," the last checks before you call the tower and ask for takeoff clearance.

When I looked up again, I realized the Cheyenne was not climbing, but coming toward me, flat-out, no more than 50 feet above the runway. Perhaps he was landing rather than taking off and I thought if he were, he certainly had landed long. But he couldn't be landing. His wheels were up. Then I saw the left wing dipping toward me, and the engine on that side did not have power, its propeller idling.

There was no time, even for panic. The plane was slanting down on a direct line for me. There was nothing to do but watch in fascinated disbelief. The Des Moines Register would report later that I was "able to accelerate out of the way," but that was a reporter's error. I started to turn toward the right, away from the runway, but a taxiing plane moves slowly, awkwardly. You can't make one jump sideways. He would hit me. I accepted it.

But just in front of me, the Cheyenne seemed to slough a little sideways, away from me, as its left wing dipped down until the plane was almost perfectly on its side, its wings perpendicular to the earth. When it was about off my left wing and I'd guess 30 feet away its left wing dug into the ground, flinging chunks of sod against the aluminum sides of 42 Bravo, cart wheeling over, as if in slow motion, scattering parts and chunks of sod. And then it splattered on its belly in a fat, orange burst of flame.

There hadn't been a word on the radio all through this a warning or otherwise, but now Ground Control was saying "42 Bravo, hold your position." I had a numb moment of realization that I'd been missed. I stared at the crashed plane. There was no movement. The cabin did not seem to be crushed or burning. I realized I was the closest to it and had to get the people out.

But by the time I got my engine shut down, my belt unhitched, the door open and got out to the ground, the occupants were scrambling from the wreckage and the rescue trucks were already arriving. (They are stationed right there, at the armory.) Before I could move toward the downed plane, men in asbestos suits were dousing the fire with foam. There was nothing I could do, except get in the way, so I walked around, scraping chunks of damp sod off my fuselage and wing and tail surfaces.

The ambulance came and took the two men away. They both walked into the hospital. One was out and being interviewed by the FAA investigator by the time I got to Burlington. The other had only minor injuries. It had not been their time to go either.

(Pilot and owner of the $600,000 plane, I would learn later, was Ray T. Townsend, Sr., 64, prominent Des Moines businessman, a 19-year veteran pilot, who was taking a refresher course from William N. Wagner, 34, a Des Moines Flying Services flight instructor. They had begun the landing with one engine throttled back, simulating an emergency. They hadn't actually touched down, but had come down to within 100 feet of the runway. Then Townsend was trying to climb back up on one engine when the practice emergency turned into a real one.)

When they let me taxi again, I went back to the ramp to inspect my plane for damage to make sure I hadn't been hit by anything harder than the sod. I made a couple of phone calls, one to the FAA to tell them what I'd seen. Then I got some change from the girl at the desk and went to the coffee machine. It was only then, when I tried to put the coins in the slot, that I realized I was trembling,

I finally got the coffee and sat down and thought about it. No panic, no last frantic burst of emotion, no thought of one's state of grace or even one's insurance policies. Just fascination and disbelief at the slow unfolding of those last moments, when the wobbling wings had seemed to hang there motionless, death poised taunting and then slipping, almost playfully, away to one side.

I wondered if that were only fate, or luck, or whatever other funny names we give God's will, or if that pilot, in that last desperate moment before he hit the ground, had consciously tried to miss me. I thank him, anyway. Whatever it was that got him in trouble, he made a good landing. We all walked away.

There were no more dents in 42 Bravo than it's always had so I taxied out again, this time to another runway, because they were still cleaning up the wreckage, and I flew home, comfortably above the ground haze, over the familiar valleys of the Des Moines and Skunk rivers.

Tomorrow, I'd be off to Kansas City for a company meeting, with the promise of another good flying day. But I would not soon forget the thump of sod on my airplane sides, of the sight of that strange, slow cartwheeling dance of death.

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