Scott Johnson

It happens rarely, but any city that has an airport is eventually going to have to deal with a mishap involving an aircraft. We have all heard that it is safer to fly an airplane than to drive a car. After all, before every flight, pilots inspect their aircraft and an FAA licensed mechanic must inspect the airplane annually. In addition, pilots spend many hours of training before they receive a license to fly and then must engage in periodic training to maintain their knowledge and skills. For these reasons, with few exceptions, airplane accidents are rare. Last week was one of those exceptions.

A very experienced and well-respected pilot took off from the seaplane base at the Grand Rapids-Itasca County Airport. The airplane, a high wing single engine Stinson on floats, had been purchased in Canada by an out of state buyer and ferried to the airport where it had not flown for a number of months. The aircraft recently underwent an Annual Inspection and was returned to service but had not yet been flown. The pilot that day was alone and was taking the airplane up for the owner.

After the crash, Investigator Jeremy Nelson and I went to the hospital to learn from the pilot what had happened. He told us that he was very meticulous in his inspection of the airplane.  He took off from the lake on the north end of the airport and began climbing out to the west when there was a reduction in the power the airplane’s engine was delivering. The airplane was too low to perform a 180-degree turn back to the lake and in the meantime, the pilot tried everything he could think of to get the engine operating properly. With the engine producing limited power, climbing to gain altitude was pretty much out of the question. The pilot made a gradual turn back to the east with the intention to make another turn to line up and land on the lake. Unfortunately, the airplane had other plans as the engine quit dead. The only sound was that of the air rushing past the airframe. 

Resisting temptation, the pilot knew that he must not turn back toward the lake at that low altitude and airspeed. To do so would mean certain stalling of a wing and the airplane would have spun into the ground. 

The pilot’s many years of experience and training kicked in. He knew he had to land nearly straight ahead and was losing altitude rapidly. The only place to land was between a sewage treatment pond and a steep bank within the fenced in Waste Water Treatment plant. The landing site was not nearly long enough, but it was the pilot’s only option and he chose it. 

He touched the floats down on the grass at the slowest possible airspeed, just above a stall.  After a short distance the tip of one float dug into the grass, which caused the airplane to start going up onto its nose and pivot sideways. The left wing came into violent contact with the ground, causing it to collapse. A door ripped off and the rivets holding the aluminum on the top of the wing were sheared off, expelling one of the fuel tanks. Although the airplane was destroyed, because of his training and decisions, the pilot was not seriously injured. The next morning, Jeremy and I met at the crash site with two very experienced FAA investigators, Ed Martin and Nick Halatsis. They will conduct a thorough investigation and find the reason why the engine quit. They are very good at what they do and will get to the bottom of it.  

I have been to eight or nine airplane crashes during my career. Some of them didn’t have very good outcomes. I cannot help but contemplate the similarities between flying airplanes and performing police work. You know, the pilot had to undergo many hours of rigorous academic and practical training before he was licensed to fly. Police officers must do the same before they are licensed to practice law enforcement. The pilot was required to periodically refresh this training to stay current. Police officers do the same. He trained for the worst-case scenario. He had to deal with the unanticipated and unexpected and quickly come up with a plan. Police officers train for this religiously with shoot/don’t shoot scenarios and defensive tactics. The pilot had to quickly plan a course of action and then modify it at the last instant. As police officers, it seems that all too often the planned course of action changes. People are unpredictable. Sometimes, so are airplanes. Finally, the pilot did not give up. He flew that airplane as far as he could into the crash. Police officers are also taught to never, ever give up.

In both professions, we prepare for the worst and pray that it never happens. As was once said by Captain A. G. Lamplugh, a British WWI pilot, “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” I guess the same can be said about police work.  

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