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Return to the runway
Dear Editor,

I have never contributed to the Aviation Safety Letter (ASL), although I read it without fail, and never trivialize the value of the information it provides. As I write this, it has been about 6 hr since I heard the last frantic words of a pilot before his aircraft plunged into a grass field after taking off from Runway 35 at the Brantford, Ont., airport. I had just left the Grimsby, Ont., airport at 12:30 p.m., enroute to a private field near Delhi, Ont., and planned to have lunch at Brantford afterward. I switched to the Brantford frequency to determine the active runway for the return from Delhi and after about 10 min of "chatter" I heard "Mayday, Mayday..." and then silence. Brantford UNICOM responded, but there was no further call from the aircraft in distress. I switched to 121.5 MHz in the hope of getting more of the emergency call and possibly offer assistance (flying a Maule taildragger, a close-field landing is often possible), but there was only silence.

After a short time, Brantford UNICOM responded to an inbound aircraft request and confirmed that the downed aircraft location was known and help had been dispatched. At the time of the distress call, I was probably less than 20 mi. from Brantford. I returned to the Brantford airport about 30 min later, and was able to determine that the plane was a Ryan Aeronautical Navion with a man and woman on board. I also learned that a witness had reported seeing the aircraft losing control after the engine failure, and then crash nose first into the field. The possibility that the pilot may have been attempting a return to the runway was raised.

My departure from Brantford coincidentally took me near the crash site, and it was clear to me that there was no chance of survival. The location of the accident also disturbed me. It was about 1/2 mi. from the end of the runway and within the first 1/4 –1/3 of a grass field which ran in the same direction as Runway 35. On most days, this could be a field of choice for an emergency landing. The wind was almost directly in line with the field at about 10–12 kt. Basic flight training stresses and re-stresses the risks associated with an attempt to return to the runway after an engine failure; yet, pilots of all experience levels get caught trying to do it, often with fatal results.

Early in my flight training, and thanks to excellent flight instruction, I developed a habit of including emergency landing preparation in my take-off checklist. I look down the runway, determine if trees or obstacles will require a deviation from a straight line landing, or if the wind favours a left or right turn to another runway, if available. And then I tell myself that I will not try to return to the runway if the engine quits-I will fly the airplane to the best possible forced-landing site available and live with the consequences. My concern will be for my life, and the lives of my passengers, and not for the aircraft. As the years have gone by, and my experience has grown, I’ve sometimes felt that I am being too careful and worry too much.

I can only express an opinion at this time with the limited information available. I offer my sincere condolences to the families, friends, and flying acquaintances who will be touched by the loss of these people. I did not know them, but I owe them a terrible debt of gratitude. I will never question my own careful habits again. I hope there are other pilots out there who feel the same. If not, there should be.

Greg Wallis
Caledon, Ont.

Thank you so much for writing. Your strong testimonial is much appreciated, and your introspection into this accident, admittedly based on preliminary information, reflects how many of us learn from the misfortune of others. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) is nearing completion of its investigation into this occurrence (TSB file A05O0258), and the ASL will report on its findings after the final report is released. The TSB permitted me to say that the investigation could not ascertain whether the pilot made an attempt to return to the airport. Nevertheless, I have also long advocated great care in this controversial topic. Most agree that it is a very dangerous manoeuvre, yet some argue it can be done. I refer all readers back to ASL issue 1/2005, which had its cover story about the 180° turn. -Ed.

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The Aviation Safety Letter (ASL) is looking for more personal learning stories, such as the one above. We would like to hear about any situation or event-from the seemingly insignificant to the more severe-in which a lesson was learned. Send your accounts of mistakes you have made yourself, or witnessed others making, so we can all learn from them.

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