A Fight to Survive
Surviving pilots of a midair last November over Houston have several tips that can help you survive a catastrophic emergency. Unfortunately, a Houston-area pilot died in the accident after his Cessna 152 and a Cessna 172 collided above Interstate 10 on Houston’s west side.
Aboard the 172 were aircraft owner Ed Oppermann and pilot Diana Orendorff. Oppermann was asleep in the right front seat as Orendorff cruised at 1,900 feet above the ground.
Orendorff said she was able to avoid becoming a casualty thanks to her habit of constant scanning over a wide arc. That’s how she saw a Cessna 152 approaching from behind her left shoulder and headed for her door, giving her just enough time to pull up and bank away, limiting the damage that resulted from the collision. Still, the impact tore off the right main landing gear of the 172 and severed a portion of the right wing, bending downward a large chunk of the wing tip and causing life-threatening drag.
Oppermann, awakened by a bump and a sudden change in aircraft attitude, remembers seeing trees that appeared to be spinning in the windscreen. Then he saw the collapsed wing tip: He grabbed the controls. The Houston-area dentist said that he felt anger at the thought of dying, and the anger kept him focused.
“I thought more about what not to do than what to do. I knew I shouldn’t stall, and that if I reached an airport, I shouldn’t land short,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t going to live through it.”
It took two clockwise spins and a half-turn counterclockwise spin before Oppermann could get the plane under control — at 400 feet. Two hunters below videotaped only a portion of the spin before putting away the camera and running toward what they suspected would be the crash scene.
At first Oppermann planned to land in a plowed field directly below. Then he saw that the right gear was missing, and knew the results would be fatal as the left gear snagged in the furrows.
There were several reasons that he was able to avoid panicking, aside from anger. After getting his certificate (he now has 600 hours’ total flight time), he had insisted on getting comfortable with flying from the right seat. He had also practiced stalls often and felt comfortable in unusual attitudes, thanks to his “air combat” fun flights at Texas Air Aces at David Wayne Hooks Memorial Airport, northwest of Houston. Also, a friend had shown him loops and spins in a Decathlon aerobatic aircraft.
He needed full throttle to maintain level flight at 90 knots but couldn’t turn left. “It was like dancing on marbles,” Oppermann recalled. He applied full left aileron and full left rudder and navigated along a right arc toward West Houston Airport. Approaching the runway, his prediction of the outcome changed from certain death to serious injury.
“This will be the best d— landing I have ever made,” Oppermann promised his friend. After the left gear touched down and the right wing contacted the runway, the airplane left the runway, slid through two shallow ditches, and returned to a taxiway where it came to a safe stop. Neither pilot was injured.
Both pilots have dedicated themselves since the accident to improving safety. Oppermann now is researching possible improvements to the present cruising-altitude rules — some of them proposed many years ago — that he feels would reduce the possibility of midair collisions.
Orendorff has begun speaking at safety meetings on how to avoid midair accidents. Among her concerns are yoke-mounted GPS receivers that draw a pilot’s attention away from the windscreen. Both pilots have become soldiers in the war against accidents. — AKM