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Circling the Smoke
copyright 2010 by H. Paul Shuch, All Rights Reserved

The accident really had me rattled. Not that I hadn't lost friends to aviation accidents in my half-century of flying. But I had never before directly witnessed a fatal mishap, which made this one different.

Mel and I didn't actually see the Centurion go in. We were coming back from the south practice area after a good session of dual flight instruction, when we heard the first call. The pilot reported eight miles southwest, crossing the ridge line at two thousand feet, and asked whether fuel was available. The airport manager answered in the affirmative. To both of us, the call on advisory frequency sounded perfectly routine.

A couple of minutes later, as we were crossing the departure end of the runway and preparing to enter the pattern, we heard the second transmission. Four miles southwest, inbound. Again, a perfectly normal traffic call. No urgency in the pilot's voice, no declared emergency, nothing. I told Mel, "a Centurion is much faster than we are. Instead of swinging north to enter on the forty-five, why don't you just drop down to pattern altitude now, and make a direct downwind entry? That way, we can be out of his way before he lands."

Mel was, by now, a seasoned pilot. This was his last practice flight before his checkride, which was scheduled for the following day. So, he had no trouble complying with my suggestion. He turned right downwind for 27 Right at precisely 1000 AGL, in slow flight with one notch of flaps, exactly parallel to the runway. When we reached midfield, a beautiful, polished silver Comanche 400 taxied out from the south hangars, announced a straight-out departure, and started his takeoff roll.

I had seen that plane earlier in the week; it had been here for our annual fly-in. I guessed the Comanche driver was now heading home, and kept an eye on him. He lifted off before crossing under our wing. "Departing traffic no factor," I told Mel. He continued to fly the pattern. I remember wondering where the Centurion was, confident that he was following us around the pattern, so also not a factor. Still, why didn't he report entering the downwind?

As Mel was turning base and setting up his glide, a voice on the radio reported an explosion just west of the runways, and smoke rising. "I hope it's not what I'm afraid it is," the unknown voice added. Turning final, I could see the dense, black smoke billowing up, just beyond the departure end of Runway 27. Its color was alarming. Mel and I both feared the same thing: that the fully fueled Comanche had crashed on takeoff. "My airplane," I told Mel, and initiated a go-around. We circled the departure end, 500 feet AGL, but could see nothing through the smoke.

Next time around the pattern, we saw fire engines on the scene. Circling again, we could see nothing that looked like an airplane. Our worst fears seemed confirmed. By the time we landed, taxied to the hangar, and shut down the engine, my cellphone was ringing. The local FAA Safety Team leader asked me what I knew about an accident on my airport. Must have been the departing Comanche, I told her.

Only, it wasn't. Witnesses at the university reported seeing the Centurion overfly campus low, engine sputtering, trailing smoke. Two loud bangs were heard. The pilot, apparently too busy fighting a rapidly disintegrating engine to make a mayday call, had pointed straight for the Runway 9 threshold. He almost made it. His wing barely cleared a utility pole west of the fence, but his horizontal stabilizer didn't. The plane nosed straight in, just a few hundred feet short of the airport boundary. Three lives lost in an instant.

Mel was visibly shaken. He canceled his scheduled checkride. I didn't second-guess his decision. I gave my report to the local police, and the FAA, and the NTSB, and headed home in a daze.

Next morning, I took the plane up by myself, ostensibly to clear my mind, but actually hoping Avalon Eden would show up. She didn't disappoint. While exiting the pattern, I caught a glimpse out of my peripheral vision, of my guardian ghost materializing in the student's seat. She always seems to know when she's needed.

"He was at pattern altitude when the connecting rods separated," Avalon reported to me, "but two miles out. He didn't have a chance."

"Then why did he try for the runway?" I asked. "Why didn't he put it down in the river?"

"I don't know. I'll have to ask him." And I knew, wherever it was that the pilot had gone, she'd meet him there, and she would inquire. I wanted so much to ask her about where departed pilots meet and greet, but as usual, was afraid I wouldn't like the answer.

"It's OK to talk about it," prodded my first and favorite flight instructor, reading my thoughts every bit as well as she had when she was alive.

I flew along a while in silence, mustering my courage. Finally, I managed a single word. "Hell?"

"For our kind, hell is never being able to fly again. You dodged that bullet last year, after your open heart surgery."

"So I did," I agreed, "and thank God for the Sport Pilot rule!"

"No, you can thank the FAA for that. They only think they're God."

"Then, what about heaven?" I asked.

"You're there right now, living your life to the fullest. Be sure to pass that on to your students; they need to know what a gift they've been given." And I knew she wasn't talking about my instructional talents.

A week later, Mel had rescheduled, and aced, his checkride. He's well on his way now, to becoming a better pilot than I. That's what every instructor hopes for. "How did it go?" I asked him, already knowing the answer.

Mel grinned broadly. "It was like touching heaven."

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