This column will appear in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of COPA Pilot magazine. It reflects on an accident with my Cirrus SR22. Writing this column has been more difficult because it happened to me. Most of the time, I act as a detached observer, looking at photos of wreckage and discerning what happened. In this event, things are different. Personal and emotional reactions flood over me disrupting my normal flow of logic and analysis. After a bit of struggle, here is my personal story about a significant event in my flying experience.

“Cirrus N858CD experienced a runway excursion in Canada”

That’s the way I started my call to my insurance broker on August 2, 2018. I was reporting an event at a grass strip near my family’s island retreat because my airplane impacted trees off the runway.

I took photos of damage to the wing tip, rudder, leading edge, main landing gear, prop strike and fuselage. My instant assessment was that the aircraft was beyond repair, but I was totally unfamiliar with the process of making such a claim.

The Event

After Oshkosh, I flew to Ontario, Canada, to spend a couple of weeks on the island where my family owns a share in several cottages. I cleared customs near Ottawa then relocated to a grass strip at Rideau Lakes Airfield (CRL2), which was closer to the local boat dock for the trip to the island.

To entice my 86-year old uncle to attend, I offered to fly him and his 65-year old friend from Montreal to the Rideau Lakes so they could avoid a three-hour drive.


Rick and his 86-year-old uncle before departing from Montreal to the grass strip at Rideau Lakes Airfield.

Pilots are poor witnesses, as they know too much

Having participated in several accident investigations, we joke that pilots are poor witnesses – because they know too much. They quickly shift from reporting what they observed and what they did to what they think happened and why. While retelling my story, I frequently caught myself doing exactly that: it is so tempting to jump to conclusions!

What I recall observing

The flight from Montreal (CYHU) to Rideau Lakes Airfield (CRL2) was uneventful until landing. I had landed there perhaps 10 times over the years, including the day before, and felt confident of landing my SR22 on the grass runway.


Runway 25 at Rideau Lakes Airfield (CRL2) near Westport, Ontario, Canada, on the shore of Upper Rideau Lake, showing most of the 3,118-foot runway. Note the gravel center of the runway starts about a third down the runway. Also, the trees that were hit off the runway appear at the bottom-left of the photo.

We joined the traffic pattern in the normal way for Canadian airports, crossing midfield, checking the wind sock and flying downwind over the lake for final on runway 25. The winds were variable crosswinds but the wind sock was not straight out, so perhaps 10 knots max.

As I touched down, the airplane was slightly left of centerline and felt like it had been pushed by a crosswind gust. My control inputs, right brake and right rudder, could not bring it back to the centerline. The aircraft drifted inexorably to the left in a slight curve towards tall grass and weeds. I recall powering up just before leaving the left side of the runway in an attempt to gain rudder authority and go around; nothing I did changed the leftward drift off the runway.

The airplane rolled in the tall grass and weeds towards trees. I don’t recall the first hit with the left wingtip, but I recall N858CD rotated 90 degrees and slid sideways deeper into a copse of trees. As it came to a rest, I recall it titling up and heard a crunching sound.

My instant exclamation is the title of this story: “That sounds expensive!” Immediately, I checked with my uncle and his friend – everyone was okay, no injuries, no discomforts, just a bit of shock. My uncle’s friend did admit that she closed her eyes!

We exited the airplane through the pilot door and gathered our belongings. We then took pictures, made our way to the car and drove to our boat dock for the family weekend at our island retreat.

What happened? Shifting from observations to analysis

The next day, I returned to survey the damage and try to assess what had happened.

The runway has a mix of turf and gravel. In the direction that I landed, the first third is all turf and sometimes soft, except I had walked it before I relocated and it was firm and dry. The next third has a gravel center while the last third is all gravel across the width of the runway.

The grass had been mowed, but I noticed that with the crowned shape of the runway, the center was quite thin and the edges were much thicker with lush green grass. The wheel track showed a consistent, shallow, left turn towards the edge. No obvious skid marks or ruts.

I found the first tree that the N858CD hit about five feet inboard of the tip (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: First point of impact, a tree that sent the plane skidding sideways into the trees beyond. A piece of composite remained impaled in the tree trunk.

The most obvious damage was a broken wingtip (Figure 2).


Figure 2: The most obvious damage was to the left wing, where the wingtip was broken off from impact with a tree.

That included a section of destroyed top skin, bottom skin, leading edge and had exposed the last couple of feet of wing spar (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Close-up of wing damage that compromised the spar and resulted in an opinion from Cirrus engineering that the wing was not repairable. Oh, and Cirrus no longer makes wings for G1 or G2 aircraft!

I documented the damage to the left wing and noticed that the rudder was bent from impacting a tree; the right wing had about four feet of crunched leading edge resting against a tree; the wheel pants were broken; and the prop tips were bent. The more concerning issue was subtle damage to the fuselage (Figure 4) where the wing attaches to the aft carry-through torsion-box. The CAPS channel cover was separated and the wing walk crunched as we exited the plane, clearly no longer firmly attached.


Figure 4: Subtle damage to the fuselage where the wing attaches to the interior torsion box.

Eventually, I took a picture of the fractured floor that forms the aft carry-through torsion-box under the rear passenger seat behind the pilot (Figure 5). This would not be a simple (or cheap) repair as it requires replacing the whole floor, something that only a few shops could do.


Figure 5: The floor crack under the left rear passenger seat that represents an expensive and complicated repair.

For a low-speed runway excursion, this added up to a lot of issues suggesting a major repair bill, if in fact it was at all repairable.

Insurance claim

Knowing what I didn’t know, I contacted my insurance broker immediately in California. They initiated the claim and I soon received a call back from the claims representative from Starr Aviation Insurance (see the COPA Member advantage program sponsored by Starr). He walked me through the process, sent me a request for some preliminary documentation, and suggested that a claims adjuster from northern New York would contact me. That left me wondering how cross-border claims would work in Canada …

The next day, a local claims adjuster in Ontario contacted me and we started the whole process. I began collecting my documents and writing the accident reports. What surprised me was that one day later, on a Saturday, he flew in with a recovery team to get my airplane out of the trees and properly assess the damage.

Recovery

With the aircraft nestled in the trees, I expected to have to cut some down to get it out. Nope; the recovery team strapped the main landing gear together and then used a longer strap to the airfield tractor to pull the airplane out sideways (Figure 6).


Figure 6: Preparing the straps and plywood skids to pull the plane out of the trees.

Within the hour, N858CD was pulled sideways onto the runway then towed into a secure hangar (Figure 7).


Figure 7: N858CD, damaged, but secure in a hangar. Note that it only fit because the wing was now several feet shorter.

Paperwork

Despite being a straightforward process, completing the paperwork became an unfamiliar and stressful experience. I wondered how to answer their questions to achieve the best result. Was the airplane repairable? Did my actions influence their decision? Was the hull value too high, so they would decide on a lengthy repair?

Most documents requested were handy so I simply scanned them with my phone (thanks to the Scanbot app) and others I already had in electronic form (thanks to SavvyMX):

  • Registration
  • Airworthiness certificate
  • Pilot certificate
  • Medical certificate
  • Weight and balance
  • Maintenance logbook entries
  • Accident data and contact info for passengers

Then things became a bit uneasy: a statement of what happened.

Eventually, I wrote “Pilot failed to maintain directional control and airplane left runway then hit trees.” The claims adjuster remarked that it sounds brutal, but it’s what I expected an accident investigation would determine, in this case, my own!

COPA Support

Despite being on an island in eastern Ontario in Canada, I still had access to COPA and its generous and knowledgeable members. Who better to assess reparability to my Cirrus than those who do major repairs?

I sent my photo album (thanks Dropbox) to Ross Robillard of Midwest Aircraft Refinishing and asked for his assessment. Within a couple of hours, he replied that it looked like a total loss and he included a reference to Cirrus engineering, whom he had contacted to look at my wing damage photo, because they determined it was unrepairable.

Surprisingly, that simple communication provided a huge relief. Just like I have seen many times before in COPA, help comes quickly and generously. Thanks, Ross. Oh, and Cirrus noted that they no longer make G1 or G2 wings!

 “That sounds expensive!” as coping mechanism

I made that statement as a reflex response to the accident. It was so matter-of-fact that my uncle remarked later how “serene” I was about the event. He admitted waking up the next morning acutely aware that it could have been much worse. Yet, none of us were hurt, not even strained necks the morning after.

My family cross-examined me during lunch about what happened, why it happened, what about the parachute, what about Cirrus accidents, how investigations happen, and more. Frankly, I enjoyed the discussions as it kept me in that detached observer mindset. It kept me from dwelling on a traumatic event.

Still, that exclamation telegraphed another realization that occurred to me as the plane was coming to a stop – this would become a significant transition for me in my aviation life. What next?

Trauma happens even when we’re not physically injured

From talking with several COPA Pilots who survived CAPS pulls or other accidents, I’ve seen the delayed effects of mental anguish and psychological trauma. I have coached several of them to give themselves permission and time to deal with the upset. Now I needed to apply that to myself. Easy to say, not so easy to do!

One big issue for me was the uncertainty of the insurance claim process. If the airplane was repairable, then I knew it would be a lengthy time to get it back. If the plane was totaled, what would I do with a big check?

I jokingly told people that I had three real options:

  1. Get a big check and buy a cheap replacement
  2. Get a big check and rent.
  3. Get a big check and stop flying.
  4. Have a drink and decide later.

Everyone helped me choose option 4!

Still, on numerous occasions, I found myself replaying the event knowing that something I did or did not do contributed to the bad outcome.

Many of those thoughts were stressful:

  • Why did I let the airplane land off to the left of centerline?
  • Did I only use the right brake or was I pushing the right rudder pedal all the way?
  • Why did I attempt to power out of the runway excursion?
  • What else could have gone wrong and more severely injured my uncle and his friend?
  • What was my future in aviation safety now that I had totaled my own airplane?

I had to repeatedly give myself permission to allow these thoughts to wash over me and dissipate. It took effort, and it’s still not complete two months later.

Could this happen to you?

Okay, I had an accident. Pilots make mistakes. But the safety guru from COPA? Really?

Having flown thousands of hours in my Cirrus, traveled across the country into many airports big and small, taught at over 100 CPPP weekend events, participated in several accident investigations, it seems obvious that I’m no longer a newbie or inexperienced pilot. Yet, here I am dealing with putting an airplane in the trees and it will never fly again.

One line of thinking raises the question: if this could happen to me, could it happen to you?

I believe that I did not handle landing on that grass strip correctly. Why land off the centerline … anytime? While I had lots of experience in other things, grass strips were close to the edge of my envelope of safety. I had experience in well-groomed grass strips and not the vagaries of this one.

What You Can Do

Please forgive this lengthy article. It has been part of my process to dealing with this significant transition.

If I may, here are some suggestions for you. Foremost, please realize that your envelope of safety may have some sharp edges. Mine did. Also, consider your personality, if you can humbly declare “this is more than I know how to handle.” I thought I was willing and prepared to go-around, except I left it too late in this accident. Would you?

Finally, appreciate that you are surrounded by people who will be affected by what happens to you. Family, friends, co-workers, community acquaintances, COPA members, lots and lots of people whom you probably don’t realize care about what happens.

Fly safely. Fly humbly.

Discussion and comments are welcome in the Cirrus Flying forum accessible to members. See this thread:“That Sounds Expensive” -- It Happened to Me, Could It Happen to You?