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The Day I Crashed My Airplane and Almost Died

It was the coldest day in Tennessee History for March, 8° F. It was the first week in March that year. I was a flight instructor and my student was going to take his multi-engine check ride. He was an excellent student. He was to fly from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Knoxville (Downtown Island airport), Tennessee to meet with the Federal Aviation Administration designated examiner for the check ride.

I had no qualms about signing him off to fly up there. After all we had done every possible type of training except land upside down. He had excelled at everything. We had done turns, climbs, descents, stalls, landing, single engine landings, and the whole shebang.

The night before his check ride, I had a nagging feeling, so I called him and told him I wanted to bum a ride with him to Knoxville and back for his check ride. I told him he could do all of the flying. He said sure.

We arrived at the airport and pulled the plane out of the hangar. We did the preflight inspection, started up, ran the engines up, and took off. It was a twin engine Piper Seneca. The air, was so cold and dense, we shot into the air like the shuttle taking off from Cape Canaveral.

As we got airborne, I took a good look around. The sky was clear, with a few clouds above 20,000 feet. The visibility was over 10 miles. I told my student, "today is a great day for this flight check, and the weather is great." He said, "yeah, great, all but the cold." When he said that I looked out at the outside air temperature gauge at 10,000 feet, it was minus 23° F. Yikes.

 We got to Knoxville in short order, and I looked down at my watch and we were an hour early for the check ride. I said, "Let's do a few practice takeoffs and landings since the runway is so short, and you have never been here." He said, "Sure."

The runway length was not what was so intimidating, it was the fact the airport sat on a little island in the Tennessee River, and both ends of the runway dumped off right into the river. As we were on final approach in to the airport, I looked over to my left and saw the University of Tennessee Volunteer Stadium, and then I looked down and saw the river. I told my student, "hit the numbers on the end of the runway, and hit the brakes hard, it is too cold to land in the drink, and I chuckled." He said, "Not a problem". Little did I know what was about to happen.

My student did a text book approach; airspeed perfect, altitude perfect, approach perfect, and touched down right on the threshold, right on the numbers. As we were rolling out, I said "perfect!"

We turned off the runway, taxied back to the departure end of the runway, reset the airplane, taxied on to the runway and lined up for takeoff. I said, "Brakes, full power, then release brakes." We took off again, text book perfect. He lined up again for landing. He touched down text book perfect again.

I said "we have time for one more." I should have kept my mouth shut. We lined up for takeoff again, and shot into the air. He flew another perfect pattern and lined up for landing. He touched down right on the numbers again.

About 3 seconds after touch down, he screamed "I don't have any brakes!" I barked, "I have the airplane!" He let go of everything. As I peered down the runway, it did not look good. By the time he landed, tried the brakes, let me know he did not have any brakes, and I got the airplane, over 70% of the runway was gone, and we were still doing 60 MPH. My student screamed "TOGA! TOGA!" TOGA stands for takeoff and go around. I said, "Are you nuts? We will never make it. HOLD ON!"

The island was small. I looked to my right, and there was nothing but a long row of parked airplanes, just full of fuel. I did not feel like going out in a blaze of glory and I sure did not want to go down that embankment and disappear in the Tennessee River.

I looked over to the left, and saw a small field with a drainage ditch, and a row of trees. So I gunned the right engine to steer us off the runway. As soon as we hit the grass, it was so frozen, the airplane started sliding sideways. Here we were sliding sideways, looking out the pilot side left window going straight at 40 MPH toward the tree line.

Just then we got lucky, we hit the drainage ditch, and it snapped off the left landing gear, dug the wing in ground, and we were still sliding, but came to a stop 35 feet before the tree line.

I was already shutting fuel off, shutting engines down, and opening the door so when we stopped we could just jump out, in case of fire or explosion. I jumped out and turned around and saw my student was not behind me.

I stuck my head back in and said "are you going to get out, or sit there and blow up." He said "oh." And jumped out. He was so stunned he did not know what to do. I could hear the fire trucks off in the distance and on the way. Then I saw the Federal Aviation Administration designated examiner walking toward us.

He asked "what happened?" I said, "I wasn't going into the subzero drink, that is what happened." So hours later, after the investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration examiner said, "I just have one question for you." I said "yes?" He asked, "Why did you not TOGA?"

I said "TOGA, are you kidding? I will show you on paper." So we sat down with the aircraft manual and I figured our exact runway remaining, airspeed, and distance to takeoff when the brakes failed. It turned out we would have hit takeoff speed 50 feet into the river. I said don't forget there is a 50 foot embankment on the other side of the river, with a 50 foot power line on top of that. So we would have had to clear a 100 foot obstacle on the other side of the river. He said, "Good enough."

Later investigation determined the O ring seal on one of the brakes had failed, and all of the hydraulic fluid to the brakes had leaked out, and it took the first two landings to get all of the fluid out to where the brakes failed on the third landing.

The airplane was totaled; we rented a car and drove home. Later, my student did pass his check ride with flying colors, and no crashes.

Now I know why I had that nagging feeling the night before...

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