Wire Strike!

By Ron Wanttaja (ron@wanttaja.com)

(Posted to rec.aviation.misc February 1995)

Originally posted in February, 1995, with updates.  The NTSB web site has the final report .

Auburn (WA) airport, my base, has a set of high-tension lines about a quarter to a third-mile north of the runway, crossing the extended centerline at 90 deg. Many a pilot here has been known to dwell on them; pilots of fast-but-shallow-climbing airplanes like Long-EZs tend to sweat takeoffs in summer's heat.

Last month, someone hit the wires. The Warrior was making a night approach to the south and got too low. According to the paper, the plane landed normally and the single occupant was unhurt. I kind of ignored the incident... assuming the contact was just minor.

But last night, I talked to a buddy. "Ron, you've GOT to look at that plane!" Seems it was still parked in an open hangar at Auburn.

So, today I noon I went to look at it. Spent the rest of the day trying to scrub off the shoe polish from the bottom of my jaw....

Spinner Photo The first thing I noticed was the spinner. It looked like a bodybuilder had smashed his forearm into the top and made a long dent all the way to the prop hub. The bottom of the dent was round... the plane had hit a 2" cable, and it seems the cable hadn't broke. You could see the imprint of the individual cable strands in the bottom of the dent.

Leading edge photo The outboard leading edges of both wings were twisted, like a giant had tried to remove the washout. The incidence wasn't really changed, but both panels had long, deep wrinkles running nearly parallel with the leading edge. Like the spinner, these wrinkles showed the cross-hatch evidence of wire contact.

Aft was where the scary part was.

The trailing edge of the rudder was *parallel to the ground*. And it was still firmly attached to the vertical stabilizer.

I repeat: The entire vertical stabilizer and rudder had been bent straight backward almost 90 degrees. The bottom of the rudder had telescoped a bit, being compressed into the tail cone. The vertical stab spar was *exposed*, and bent at (I estimate) 70 to 80 degrees. The stabilizer, while separated from all attach points other than the spar, had its bottom pointed directly forward. Various electrical wires still ran from the exposed fuselage top to the open base of the stab.

About 12-18 inches down from the tip of the vert stab was a broad flattened area. It wasn't torn; it just looked like someone had carefully worked the leading edge of the vertical stab into sort of a teardrop shape.

There was very little other apparent damage. The top of the windshield had a largish piece missing. The stabilator was untouched. The landing gear was fully intact. The prop blades had some rough scuff marks.

Tail Photo What I think is the most amazing fact was that the plane hit the wire right on the prop spinner, yet the wire didn't slip over the cowling to slice off the entire cabin top. About the only thing I can think of is that the turning prop caught enough purchase on the wire to fling the nose downward, causing the wire to clear the cabin and catch the very top of the vertical stabilizer.

The pilot, from what I've heard, has about 80 hours and a fairly fresh private ticket. Incredibly lucky, true, but she recovered from what must have been an incredible jolt at extremely low altitude, and flew that plane the remaining 1000-2000 feet to the runway and landed with no additional damage. Gutsy and skillful... no question.

And the newspaper headline the next day: "Woman pilot avoids injury".

Sigh. Even as non-PC as I am, that headline bothers me...

Ron Wanttaja


[An update, a few days later:]

I drove out to look at the wire impact area. There were two or three wires with obvious splices at the expected impact area. Even stranger, there were more wires between those spliced wires and the runway. The plane must have jerked upwards or downwards to miss them. I'm a rotten judge of vertical distance, but the wires were probably 100 feet or so up.

Using my odometer , I estimated the wire impact area was about 1500 feet from the runway threshold. There was about a 500' smooth grass threshold that she might have touched down on first. If the plane was flying 70 MPH, it stayed airborne for at least 10 seconds after impact.

A fellow netter was actually in the area when this event happened!  Northwest Aero Products had a shop space in a building just a few hundred feet away. Roy Johnson saw the wires sparking and twisting on the ground after the accident.

A second-hand account of the accident: It happened at night, of course. He noticed the Piper had made an elongated pattern and had descended quite low while still a ways from the airport. The pilot apparently added power to drag it towards the runway...which *did* have an operational VASI.

[Final note: The pilot went on to get her Commercial.] 

[Final note 2:  About five years after this, I was walking through the airport, and found this very airplane....completely repaired.  I would have thought it would have been totaled.  As of October 2022, it was registered to a company in Florida.] 

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