C'est La Vie
Dear Stuart and Viv:
What lucky people you are, to have destroyed your airplane and still be alive, to come home, to be able to read this letter, to see friends, and continue on with your lives. I'm so very sorry to hear of your misfortune, and I anguish for you, but it's just a piece of machinery. It's people that are important. I have lived through the awful experience of dealing with three fatal accidents in Falcos, and I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to hear you've survived with only bruises and a couple of broken ribs.
When your heads clear, I hope you'll take the time to write it all down so that others can learn from this. Just tell the whole story. Put us in the cockpit with you, and let us go through the experience with you. Let all the pain, fear, surprise, anguish, and the whole panoply of emotion come though. I want people to see, feel and experience the awful reality of what it's like to go through this.
by Stuart Gane
This article appeared in the September 1995 Falco Builders Letter.
The following paragraph appeared in a local Belgian newspaper the day after the crash of our Falco. 'Sunday, just before 1600 hours, an English aeroplane fell into a wood near the runway of St. Hubert aerodrome. The two occupants, Mr. Stuart Gane and his wife, were not seriously injured and were transported to the hospital at Libramont.'
So ended a most extraordinary week for Vivienne and me. To paraphrase Harold Wilson, a week is a long time in aviation, as Vivienne and I were soon to find to our cost. During a period of seven days, we experienced pride and pleasure in having our Falco awarded two prizes at the Popular Flying Association Rally at Cranfield, followed by what for us was unprecedented media interest, to surely what must be any pilot and their passenger's worst nightmare, a serious aeroplane crash.
The success at Cranfield brought with it a certain amount of media interest the following Monday. By then the local newspaper had heard about our awards and wanted to run an article on the building of the Falco. This interest was taken up by a regional newspaper who sent along a photographer to take the standard picture of the proud builder beside his aeroplane. There is a certain ironic touch to the article's headline-'Pilot's home-made plane hits heights'-in the light of subsequent events. The regional TV station was keen to have some film of the Falco flying for the network news, and they sent a cameraman to film the Falco doing a couple of touch-and-goes.
After all this media attention, Vivienne and I decided we had to leave the country to get some peace. We were becoming concerned that the Paparasi would be hanging around the entrance of our hangar with their telephoto lenses focused on every NACA inlet, waiting poised to set off a cacophony of clacking Nikon shutters and night-vision-shattering flash bulbs every time the control column moved. Actually, we had planned some time ago to go to Belgium, to their National Homebuild-ers Fly-In at St. Hubert near the Luxembourg border. I had met Francis Warlomont, a Belgian Falco builder who lives near to St. Hubert airfield during the 1994 Cranfield rally, and he invited us to stay with him if we came to the fly-in.
Friday was the day of departure. The weather forecast for the planned route and destination was clear. As soon as Vivienne was free from work we set off, and the countryside rolled away beneath us in what appeared to be an exquisitely detailed paper map. In two hours, we landed at St. Hubert. The touchdown was smooth but the Falco was reluctant to slow down on the rough, down-hill runway. We taxied to the parking space with the help of half a dozen marshallers, a bit excessive as there were only three other aircraft on the field at the time.
Stuart and Vivienne Gane had a bad air day in July
Each marshaller was not so much directing us along the correct route to the parking slot, but appeared to be trying to advertise his particular parking space for us through various gesticulations and vigorous body movements. It was very amusing to observe from the cockpit, if not a little confusing, to become judges in a 'choose me' competition. I couldn't differentiate between the various Mr. Bendy men, who were gyrating in almost unbelievable contortions to gain our favour, so I decided to choose my own parking slot facing into the wind.
This left the marshallers a bit limp and deflated, or so I thought. Having lost the parking competition, there was a sudden rush to provide aircraft tie-downs. Marshallers in official-looking overalls and others dressed in more casual clothes moved as fast as decorum allowed to get to the tie-downs first. Old men, young men and some in between vied amongst themselves to get back to our aircraft with suitable tie-downs. Before you could say Sequoia Aircraft Corporation, we had an assortment of tie-downs to choose from, some so heavy they had to be wheeled by barrow to the parking lot that probably could have held a Boeing 747 down adequately in a hurricane.
After all that effort, I couldn't let them see we had, in fact, brought our own tie-downs so by sleight of hand Viv and I managed to unload the aircraft and keep our equipment out of sight. The task was made no easier by the spectators who were going over the Falco as though they had never seen an aircraft before.
I mention this episode because it typifies the whole weekend in St. Hubert. Everybody we met could not have been more helpful or shown more interest in the Falco. We had a very enjoyable time and both of us were made to feel very welcome indeed. It was more than a pity it should end in such a disastrous way.
Viv and I spent Saturday visiting the towns of St. Hubert and Bastogne. Bastogne's principal claim to fame is that it was the centre for the Battle of the Bulge during the Second World War when the Germans made their last major offensive. Many Americans and Germans lost their lives during the battle. Every major road into the town has a gun turret from a Sherman tank placed in a commanding position as a memorial to that last great centerpiece battle.
Saturday evening Francis and his wife Francine invited us to a barbecue with the rest of their family to celebrate the graduation of their son and daughter, Pierre and Veronique. Although we could not join in or understand all of the French conversation, we both enjoyed ourselves immensely and certainly felt part of the family. With the flight home the next day we decided to retire to bed before the end of the barbecue.
Sunday was another very hot day with the sun beating down relentlessly from the moment it appeared above the trees of the Ardennes forest. The Warlomont's house is built in a beautiful clearing deep in the forest with only the sound of a small river tumbling over rocks and fallen trees.
After breakfast we made our way to the airplane where we puttered around for an hour or two enjoying the superb weather, talked to various people and watched the gliders being towed skyward by a Maule. St. Hubert is the national residential training school for gliding in Belgium, and this ensured there was lots of activity with students and their instructors keen to make the most of such idyllic conditions. One glider made a high-speed pass along the runway about 200 feet before soaring back into the sky with a phenomenal rate of climb, such was the strength of the thermals.
By mid-afternoon it was time for us to leave. The weather back in the UK was good with nothing forecast en route that would cause a problem. I filed a flight plan for a 1600 departure and then used the next hour to load the aircraft with fuel and baggage. Because of the air temperature in the high eighties and the uphill slope of the runway, I was careful not to overload the aircraft with fuel.
I noticed the wing walk had become so soft from the high temperature that it had lost virtually all of its adhesion, which allowed the sheet to slide down the wing under the pressure of my feet. I lay a coat over the walkway to allow the temperature to drop sufficiently for the glue to stop turning itself into treacle.
We said our goodbyes and called for taxi clearance. The information-only tower could speak virtually no English and replied "runway 140". I set the altimeter to 1847 feet and taxied to the hold for 140. Everything was satisfactory on my run-up checks, and I called for permission to enter the active runway. There was no reply from the tower, so I reckoned they could not understand me. I checked for approaching aircraft, taxied onto the runway, and lined up in front of the gliders waiting for the return of their tow aircraft.
I was told later this was a mistake, but nobody, either the tower or the glider pilots, gave any sign that I should have continued to taxi past the gliders and line up adjacent to them. Nobody could have forseen the possible effects of starting the takeoff run from that position since there was 1000m of runway ahead, certainly more than adequate. I made one final check for approaching aircraft and pushed the throttle forward. The Falco accelerated, but not as quickly as normal. I told myself this was due to the uphill slope and the reduced air density.
As the plane gathered speed, the unevenness of the surface became increasingly apparent. The wheels seemed to jump off the top of each ridge. Each bump became more pronounced, and I pulled back slightly on the stick to reduce the pressure on the nosewheel. At 60 kts, we ran over a really big bump which launched the Falco into the air. We climbed for about two or three seconds, but the controls felt sloppy. The engine was running at full throttle, but the ailerons were not giving the normal feedback from slight control inputs.
With nothing but clear sky over the nose, I glanced to my left and could see we had drifted off the runway. We were about 20 feet above some rough looking grass. The runway had disappeared. Right rudder made no difference. The aircraft was simply not responding in the normal way. I gently lowered the nose to gain speed. To my horror, ahead at our level a large wood spread its green arms on all sides of the cockpit and seemed ready to ungulf us, There was no way we were ever going to clear the tree tops. We still had about 100 yards or so before we entered the trees. Instinctively I pulled the throttle back. Goodness knows what went through Viv's mind, at that moment, for she said nothing.
Almost instantly the aircraft struck something-the ground, a tree, I don't know. There was a tremendous crunch of splitting plywood and the awful noise of the Falco breaking up. The bright sunlight had disappeared. Unfocused objects spun around our half-light world. The noise vibrated right through my body. I wondered if something was going to penetrate my body, but I wasn't frightened. It was all happening too quickly. As suddenly as the noise started, it stopped. There was total silence. Nothing moved.
A crowd of about 30 people had gathered to watch the Falco take off, and they watched as the plane wallowed in the air and then cartwheeled into the brush on the far side of the runway. Francine burst into tears. A plane flying overhead radioed down, "Don't bother to call for medical services. They're dead."
I could smell grass and the faint disinfectant aroma when you break the bark on coniferous trees. I looked to my right. Where was Viv? I couldn't see her. I called out and asked if she was all right. To my relief she said very calmly, "I'm okay."
I was lying partly on the side of the cockpit wall with my head just touching the grass. Viv was somewhere underneath me, I later learned. My mind just went into auto mode. I turned off the master switch and the fuel cock. I began to smell avgas. We had to get out quickly.
I tried to slide out over the cockpit wall but my foot was held tight by a seat belt strap wrapped around my ankle. It would not loosen its grip just by being pulled. The more I pulled, the tighter it seemed to grip. I became really frightened and thought we might not get out alive. The smell of fuel was getting stronger. The straps would not let go. Any moment, I expected the 'whoomph' as fuel tanks exploded. With a concerted effort, I managed to release my trapped foot. I squirmed my way out between the rear tank and the parcel shelf. Still lying on the ground, I rolled over, looked back for Vivienne, and for a few seconds wondered if I was going to watch my wife burn to death.
This is the opening that Stuart and Vivienne crawled through
After what seemed like an eternity she appeared crawling on hands and knees, out through the same hole I had just evacuated, head down, doggedly padding her way to safety. We half-walked, half-stumbled to rest some 20 feet away from the aircraft. By then I was having difficulty breathing. I had do lie down. I looked up at Viv who was standing beside me. I asked her again if she was all right. "I'm fine, but what about you?"
Before I could reply a man came running through the scrub, and breathlessly asked if we were okay. After reassuring him, he suggested that we move further away from the scene because of the fire danger. We managed to stagger a few more yards, but my breathing was so difficult I could not go on. I slumped to the ground and looked back at the Falco. It was a terrible mess, but I was so relieved we were alive I didn't feel upset at the sight of the splintered, shattered aeroplane which only a very short time ago had been a very beautiful machine.
Francis, Francine and the others were prevented by the authorities from going near the scene, but somebody returning from the accident site told them I had been very seriously injured and was dead, and Viv was hurt but not badly. We were both taken to the hospital by ambulance, and it was not until I was being wheeled into the hospital on a stretcher that they realized this was obviously not true.
Viv had a black eye and some internal bruising, which only became apparent some four days later. She was not kept in hospital. I had two broken ribs and some stitches to a couple of cuts on my face. We were very lucky.
In the days following the accident, our new friends in Belgium could not have done more to help us through the maze of bureaucratic problems that beset any aviator when dealing with authorities. Francis and Francine who originally were only expecting guests for two nights found themselves visiting the hospital, arranging storage for the damaged Falco, dealing with the Belgian authorities and coping with a whole host of other associated problems, all of which took about a week of their time and never once did Viv and I feel we had imposed on them.
At first it may appear that the first week in July ended in disaster, but that is not so. On reflection it was not only a memorable week but a terrific one at that, for we had found the value of friendship in a time of need, we had survived the potential tragedy virtually unscathed, and I can start repairing the Falco, a job I will really enjoy this winter. C'est la Vie.