Alabama Bob

In November 2014 my wife and I were flying home from a few days at the beach.  I had purchased the 1962 Cherokee 180 a few months before, and was enjoying trips with  IFR-certified GPS and autopilot for the first time in 2000 hours and 18 years. The weather was easy IFR with a strong south wind but no turbulence.  An easy 2 hour flight.


I turned final for the south runway of the grass strip I had flown out of for more than 10 years, landing over the same power lines I’d passed over a thousand times.  I noticed on pretty short final I was getting too low.  I added full power and almost immediately heard a loud noise and we were on the ground just past the lines.  The airplane had turned about 60 degrees to the right and impacted about 30 degrees nose-down.


Me immediate thought surprised me.  “I’ll never fly again, this is too dangerous”.


I did what I could to shut off the airplane.  My friend/CFI who keeps the strip was sitting about 30 yards from where we hit.  He called 911 and got the door open.  My wife had a broken collarbone, beast bone, and 4 ribs.  She was in ICU several day.  My wrist was badly broken, from my hand on the throttle, my right ankle had an open compound fracture, and my left foot was broken.  We both left the hospital after 5 days.  My 4th ankle surgery was an ankle fusion, and I might need one more surgery later this year.  My dear wife’s neck and chest still hurt, and her foot and leg that were injured.


But we are so happy to be alive!  I understand most wire strikes are not survived.  We give glory to Jesus for keeping us alive and helping us through many dark days. 


I wrestled a lot with the guilt of the accident being “my fault” and due to pilot error, especially since my wife and best friend of 37 years was injured.  To her credit, she never said a word of blame and I don’t think it even entered her mind to blame me. I felt guilty for the loss of income from not being able to work for several weeks. We basically used the insurance from the airplane for living expenses the next couple of months.  And for the unbelievably expensive helicopter rides that neither of us enjoyed!


I made a couple of trips to visit my friend at the air strip while the Cherokee was still there behind the hangar.  I couldn’t even look at it and had to avert my eyes as we were pulling in. I remember once seeing from the car another Cherokee come in to land at another airport and I had to look away; it just freaked me out.  At first I got chills looking at power lines.  Someone local bought my airplane at salvage, and I finally worked up the nerve to go see it, mainly because I wanted my portable gps charging cable.  By then there had been enough emotional healing that I was able to get a good look at the damage and could see the floor on my side pushed up, and how the yokes and the frame had been cut to get us out. Wow!


Within a month I was thinking about flying again, and even talked to a friend about a partnership in a Champ.  5 months after the accident I flew a 172 twice with a CFI,  walking on a newly re-broken ankle and didn’t know it.  I was delighted to find that I wasn’t nervous in the air and still enjoyed flying.  And I still knew how.  It wasn’t until a year a after the accident that I started regular flights with an instructor. A great broker helped my find renter insurance, after 2 others told me I’d have to wait until 3 years post-claim.  I prepared for and passed my flight review, an IPC, and my combined medical flight test/709 ride with the FAA guy.  Not my best flight ever but I passed.  I had several more instructor flights before the big day came for my second solo.  I could still fly!!


I’m not flying as often as before, mainly because of the long drive to where I can rent.  And I’m not flying for travel, at least not yet. I don’t know if my wife will ever fly with me, so just local flying for now.  And practice practice practice!  I’m getting much more frequent dual than before, and working through the wings program.  I think a lot about what I could have done differently that day.  If I had thought about the implications of a 20 kt headwind on landing it would have just been another nice day of flying.  As my CFI said: 10 more kts on final and one less notch of flaps.  And my few PA28 hours probably contributed. I had somewhere picked up the habit of removing carb heat on final (base??) in order to have full power for a go-around.  My friend/cfi who watched the whole thing said he never heard the smallest increase in power when I put in full throttle.  Carb ice?


My advise to someone who is struggling after an accident?  First, I think it’s fine to quit flying. I know this isn’t politically correct, but I would have quit if I sensed that my wife would be worrying every time I flew.  She worries, always says “be careful” but she’s ok with it.  And I’m ok with it. I told myself I could make all my flights with an instructor for the rest of my life, and did so at first, until I felt ready. The doubts and fears have diminished greatly with time.  I’m more aware than before that an accident can happen to me, that I can mess up.  I no longer think that I’m an exceptional pilot, probably just a decent pilot who will probably make other mistakes, but hopefully not the same mistake.