May Day!

It was early in the morning on May 1st, 1982 and I couldn’t sit still in the car as my Dad drove us to the airport. I was anxious to get there so we could get airborne and make our way to the air show. We were meeting up with three other pilots and would be flying our Quicksilvers in loose formation to another airport where the event was being held.

Ultralights

I didn’t know it at the time but I would never make it to our intended destination.

As we were performing our pre-flight inspections, my Dad discovered a mechanical problem on one of the aircraft that needed to be addressed before it could safely fly. Having the patience of a 13-year-old kid, I asked my Dad if I could take “my” bird up for a quick flight while he was working on the problem. He agreed and off I went.

I grabbed my helmet and gloves and strapped myself into the swing-seat. And in just a few minutes I was gently climbing above the plateau in beautiful, spring morning air. I floated along taking in all the sights. I never got tired of seeing the world from above.

After 20 or 30 minutes I headed back to the airport in the hope that everyone would be ready to launch. I landed on the narrow, gravel strip and taxied up to where I could see my Dad still working on the other machine.

may_day_2

I was a bit disappointed as I could’ve stayed up longer, had I known.

I shut the engine off and walked over to where everyone was gathered as I removed my helmet. It soon became obvious that this repair was going to take a bit longer and since we only had a certain window of opportunity to enter the airspace where the event was being held, we needed to start heading off pretty soon.

It was decided that three of us would head out first and my Dad and another pilot would follow as soon as they could. Considering that I was flying the slowest of all the ultralights in our group, I definitely needed to get going.

Once the decision had been made, everyone began an organized scramble to get up in the air. Since I had just returned from a short flight, my aircraft and I were first in line and ready to go. I was strapped in and airborne less than three minutes later, with the other pilots not far behind.

I knew they would catch up with me quickly so I wasn’t worried about losing them. As expected, they soon pulled up … one on either side. They had to throttle back a bit to stay with me and we flew like this for a few minutes. Eventually, they pulled ahead of me and I trailed behind. One of the pilots would periodically circle back to see how I was doing and I’d give him a “thumbs-up” each time.

After about 45 minutes, I noticed that I wasn’t moving across the ground as fast as I was before. I realized the headwind had strengthened and it was slowing my progress considerably. This is where I started to feel a strange, gnawing sensation that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it but even with my low experience level, I knew there was a problem somehow.

As I looked over the aircraft trying to spot any problems, my eyes came to rest on the semi-transparent fuel tank above my head. The previous gnawing sensation now became a large knot in the pit of my stomach.

I was almost out of gas!

I recalled that in my haste to get airborne for the second time, I’d neglected to replace the fuel I had burned on my first little jaunt. It appeared to me that I had only a few minutes of fuel remaining, that I needed to find a place to land, and had better do it quickly.

I spotted a field up ahead and decided that it looked like a suitable place to set down. I could even see there was a gas station nearby. How fortunate.

I began my descent toward the field and just as it appeared that I was going to make it, everything became very quiet. The fuel tank was dry and the only sound I heard was the wind in the wires. At this point, I really wasn’t too concerned as I had practiced “dead-stick landings” many times in the past. In fact, it was a very common thing to do and actually quite enjoyable.

This morning, however, “my” bird wasn’t cooperating.

In spite of shifting my weight all the way forward, she pointed her nose to the skies as if she knew the Earth was going to bite us today. I knew that without thrust, this nose-high attitude wasn’t going to last very long. It didn’t. She lost all forward motion, pitched her nose toward the ground, and my airspeed began to increase rapidly.  I shifted my weight to the rear to see if I could get her to level off and for a moment, it worked. But that didn’t last as she pitched up again in spite of my efforts to keep her level.

Once again, I was looking skyward as the airspeed bled to zero. Another dramatic pitch-over and I found myself looking at the Earth again. It was now growing much larger than a few moments before.

This scenario repeated itself two more times.

I thought it was interesting that my reaction wasn’t more hysterical.

After all, I was only 13 and attempting to fly a completely uncontrollable airplane.

I knew that this was a bad situation and I was trying to logically figure out a solution. But nothing was working and I began to feel helpless.

I now had the overwhelming sensation that I was going to die in a very short amount of time.

As I was deep into my next dive, I felt as if I had stepped outside my body and was looking back at myself. I noticed that I was involved in an uncontrollable scream that came from deep within my being. Even though I was screaming, I actually wasn’t all that frightened. I remember thinking that I should be more scared.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to survive the impact but I wasn’t really ready to go. I had so much more to do with my life. There were so many things yet to experience and I was going to miss out on them all.

The plummeting sensation eased slightly and with my weight as far back as I could get it, the aircraft began to slowly pull out of the dive. It seemed to take forever, but the closer I got to the surface, the faster everything seemed to happen. Would we pull out in time, or was it too little, too late? I could see the ground rushing toward me and was overwhelmed with a feeling of utter helplessness. I was doing everything I could think of to avoid a fatal impact.

It worked.

The “Quick” and I somehow managed to pull out just above the ground. This was a relief to say the least. I had just cheated death and if I’d had the time, I would’ve laughed.

Unfortunately, “death” decided to make one last attempt to catch me. The nose of the ultralight pitched up for a fifth time and as it did, the right wing impacted a tree.  This caused the machine and me to perform some kind of cartwheel.

During this maneuver, the aluminum tubing made contact with a stretch of power lines and electricity arced through the entire aircraft.

Finally, the fabric, wires and tubing had had enough and the entire mass fell straight to the ground, nose first. I braced myself for impact, and as I landed on my hands and knees, was stunned that I felt no pain.

Part of me thought that even though I had cheated death only a few seconds earlier, maybe dying wasn’t painful and I actually was dead. But it only took me a few seconds to realize that I had escaped injury.

I stood up, separated myself from the wreckage, and quickly assessed that I was not even scratched.

Apparently I was invincible. Most 13 year olds are.

But deep down I knew that if I was anything, it was just flat-out lucky.

The other pilots landed in a nearby field just a few minutes after the crash. And as they ran towards me, I could see their faces were drained of all blood in anticipation of what they might see. After the initial shock was over, I explained what happened and we headed off to find a payphone so I could try and contact my Dad. It turned out, he hadn’t been far behind us, landed at a nearby airport, and had heard about an ultralight crash. He got a ride to our location and, after reassuring him I was fine, we disassembled the now crumpled Quicksilver in order to transport her back home.

Quicksilver

You will often hear pilots say that once you’ve had an engine failure, or especially a crash, that the odds are astronomical against having another one …

If only that were true.

Photos © Scott Burris (including that last one … which is not from the day of the crash).

About the Author

Scott Burris’s father taught him to fly ultralight aircraft at age 13, but due to the lack of access to a two-seat trainer at the time, Scott’s first solo flight was also his first flight… ever.

Despite starting at such an early age, Scott didn’t actually get his first pilot certificate until he was 22. Since that time he has obtained an ATP with 5 type ratings and flown over 9000 hours in many different aircraft, ranging from a Quicksilver ultralight to an Airbus A330, (his favorite being a 1941 D17s). He has worn 5 different airline uniforms over his 19 year aviation career and is currently flying for a foreign airline based in Seoul, South Korea.

He recently acquired a 1957 Champ, in need of restoration. When he isn’t flying, Scott enjoys working on and driving his classic, 1969 Mustang and riding motorcycles. He lives in Gig Harbor, WA with his wife, Kim, (who is also a pilot), his dog and 2 cats.

About Scott Burris

I was taught to fly at age 13 by my father and have been “hooked” ever since. I’ve been fortunate enough to fly many different types of aircraft ranging from ultralight aircraft to widebody commercial jetliners. I’m currently flying for a foreign carrier that takes me to places I never thought I’d go. I’m currently in the process of restoring a 1957 Champ and hope to soon be flying it near my home in the Pacific NW.

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