I Crashed My Airplane

Just 12 hours after penning my giddy previous post about how I had bought the airplane of my dreams, I crash landed said airplane in an East Palo Alto marsh.

Needless to say this event has caused myself and my family much grief. We are all extremely grateful that Jassen and I were not harmed during the crash. At the same time, I miss my plane terribly. And I feel horribly about wrecking such a beautiful machine. I had many plans and dreams for that airplane, all of which have been dashed.

We can only speculate as to the cause of the accident. The NTSB is conducting a full investigation that will hopefully reveal the true cause. That being said, my instructor and I each have a theory. Jassen's theory is that the fuel selector valve malfunctioned, thus burning fuel from the left tank for the entire duration of our flight, even though we had selected the right tank for the majority of the time. The result would be that we ran the left tank dry and starved the engine on takeoff. My theory is that we were bit by Beechcraft Service Instruction 0624-281, which was issued some time after the airplane was manufactured, and which Jassen and I knew nothing about. The SI reduced the usable fuel quantity and warned not to attempt a takeoff with less than 11 gallons in each tank. Since we had about 5-6 gallons in the tank on our final takeoff, my guess is that the fuel pickups unported. Once again, the engine would have been starved of fuel on takeoff.

My insurance company, USAIG, has been great to work with so far. They want to total the plane and send me a check for the full insured value, which would more than cover my purchase price. Since the plane is still mostly in great shape, I'm going to get an estimate for the cost to repair it before I sign the total loss agreement, just in case.

As to the questions of whether or not I will fly and/or own an airplane again, I hope the answer is yes, but I will be taking some time off to think about it. The accident was frightening, to be sure. However, we were able to land safely and I definitely think that the experience will make me a better, safer, and more cautious pilot for the rest of my life. It will take time for the wounds to heal, but when they do I will be stronger for it.

Here is the report that I submitted to the FAA:

On the evening of Monday, August 22, 2011, I arrived at Palo Alto Airport at 6:30pm. I did a pre-flight inspection of my plane, started it up, and taxied over to the fuel island. I filled both tanks up to the slot in the tab (the 20 gallon mark). I set my fuel totalizer to 40 gallons to reflect this fuel addition. I then taxied back to transient parking and waited for my instructor, Jassen Todorov, to arrive. He arrived around 7pm. We took off shortly thereafter and flew straight to Hayward Airport. We did about 10 touch and goes at Hayward. The fuel totalizer is set to blink a reminder light after every 5 gallons of fuel burned. This is to remind the pilot to switch tanks; if you hit a button the light stops blinking and the 5 gallon counter starts over. I don't remember which tank we started on, but I do remember that I switched tanks twice while at Hayward. We then flew back to Palo Alto, landed, and parked the plane in transient (I was still in the process of getting my own tie-down for the plane). The whole flight lasted about 1.5 hours and the airplane flew fine the entire time.

On the morning of Tuesday, August 23, 2011, I arrived at Palo Alto Airport at 8:30am and started my pre-flight inspection. Jassen arrived just 2 minutes later, during my inspection. I drained all 3 fuel sumps and found no water or debris in the fuel. I checked both fuel tanks. The right tank was at exactly 15 gallons (the bottom of the tab), the left tank was well below the tab and I estimated it to be at roughly 10 gallons. I did some mental math as a sanity check: we had started with 40 gallons the previous evening and burned about 15 gallons that night, so a total of 25 gallons now made sense. In hindsight this means that we must have started with the left tank on Monday night, switched to the right for 5 gallons, and then back to the left. I didn't really think about that at the time, but I definitely noted that the right tank was more full and thus I started our flight on Tuesday morning on the right tank. I also performed a full 360 degree turn of the fuel selector valve as specified by the pre-flight checklist. The valve felt normal. We took off from Palo Alto at around 8:40am and began a series of touch and goes. After burning a little over 5 gallons (about 6 landings) I noticed the blinking light and switched to the left tank. About three takeoffs later, at 9:40am, the engine sputtered once and then quit completely when we were about 300 feet AGL on our upwind leg, just after takeoff. We had not observed any problems with the airplane or engine before this point. Jassen immediately took the controls and started playing with the throttle and mixture to make sure they were both all the way in. He then asked me to radio the tower and tell them that we had an emergency. I said over the radio, "Palo Alto Tower, we have an emergency!" They responded to ask for my tail number and I said, "79V." Then they asked if we could return to the airport and I said, "No, we can't." They said that they would dispatch emergency crews. Jassen was focused on landing the plane. I don't remember him saying anything after that until we were on the ground. I yelled out at one point, "Watch out for those power lines!," and "Go for that dirt road!" I'm pretty sure he had already picked the dirt road as his landing spot. It must have been less than 30 seconds between engine failure and landing. I braced myself for the landing, knowing that I hadn't yet installed shoulder harnesses in the airplane, something that I planned on doing as soon as possible. The landing was very smooth. We struck a tree shortly after touching down which sent us swerving a bit and eventually skidding sideways off the dirt road and into the marsh. It was kind of a bouncy ride, but my back never left the back of the seat and Jassen and I felt completely unharmed once we came to a stop. I immediately took off my headset and angrily hung it on the yoke in front of me, after seeing the damage to my left wing. Jassen radioed the tower to inform them that there were no fatalities and no injuries. We both climbed out of the plane to assess the damage and we started talking to each other about what might have gone wrong. Jassen went back in to gather up our personal effects, which had been strewn about in the back seat. I eventually went back into the plane to get my flight bag and headset. Emergency crews and press crews arrived shortly thereafter. We informed them that we weren't hurt, and the medical crews packed up and left. One of the firemen or police officers asked me to put the fuel selector in the off position, so I did so. My wife, son and in-laws arrived around 10am. We waited out there until about noon for the FAA team to arrive. At some point I went back down to the plane to lock the door and luggage compartment. At around 1pm we went back to the airport to get some lunch and I was contacted by my insurance company during lunch. The FAA crew also caught up to us at lunch and took some documents from me (my logbook, the plane's airworthiness certificate, and my temporary registration for the plane), which they promptly returned to me after scanning. After that we went home. I got a call from Nicole at the FAA around 4:30pm asking me to go back to the scene and try to start the plane's engine. My wife and I returned to the scene, but the FAA officer there said he didn't want to try starting the engine after all. They had entered the plane through the luggage door (the latch had been bent during the accident, so it wouldn't shut completely). He told me I could lock it back up, which I did before we left.

On the morning of Wednesday, August 24, 2011, my wife, son, and I arrived at the accident scene at 9:30am. The Open Space officers were at the scene and they wouldn't let us walk out to the airplane until the NTSB called them to clear it. They told us that they had arrived around 8:20am and nobody was guarding the site when they arrived. Apparently the private guard hired by my insurance company left around 8am. At 10am Dennis James from Plain Parts arrived with his truck and trailer to retrieve the airplane. He called Van at the NTSB and they convinced the officers to let us through. Right before we entered, Ken Steiner from USAIG, my insurance company, arrived. He walked in with us. I asked him if we could measure exactly how much fuel was in the right tank when it was drained. He said they would try to do so. I also asked if I could turn on the master switch in the plane so I could read some numbers from the fuel totalizer. Dennis called Van back to ask for permission for me to do that, and Van granted it. Dennis took photos of the fuel totalizer while I was reading it. It showed 24.7 gallons used since the last time fuel was added, with 15.3 remaining. I remarked that these numbers were exactly what I expected them to be -- we had burned 15 gallons on Monday and 10 gallons on Tuesday. We left as they began preparing to dismantle the plane and haul it away.

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