My Parachute

On the day before Thanksgiving 2018, the small airplane I was piloting experienced an engine failure.

It didn’t quit, exactly, though I wish it had. Rather, the engine’s power oscillated uncontrollably every three seconds between idle and nearly full. This is not an easy way to fly an airplane.

The arc of the oscillations slowly moved to the idle side of the curve. Eventually, as the airplane and I approached Earth without the privilege of an airport below, the engine finally gave up altogether.

Fortunately for me, the airplane was equipped with a device engineered to lower the entire aircraft to the ground in an emergency, while providing a measure of survivability for the occupants: a parachute, which is deployed by the occupants via a rocket so they may live to tell their story.

After my rendezvous with the ground, I left the disabled aircraft in a frozen field, broken and askew on a large center-point irrigator, and went home and wrote down my experience. I then posted it on the internet. A few days later, Paul Lundgren, a proprietor of Perfect Duluth Day, asked if I would share my story here. I replied, “I will. But not yet. Maybe not for awhile.”

Now, in mostly self interest, here is the original piece that Paul requested, as published on the private internet forum of the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, and on Facebook. I have added a small amount of background, and added or deleted a few minor details.

There is more to the story of my parachute, but those narratives are still being written in my life. The ride did not end when I hit the irrigator. That was, maybe, just the beginning.

* * *

November 22, 2018, Duluth

It’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll just tell my story so I can process and begin to move on.

Internally, I’m a mess. Constantly on the verge of tears, surly, impatient, sad, spaced out, still terrified. The adrenaline is gone and now I’m just sore and distracted. Sleep is horrible. I have no appetite. I replay the event constantly in my mind. I beat myself up for perceived mistakes, for almost panicking. I re-taste the mortal fear and confusion and disbelief, and then the indescribable relief and awe and joy. I hear everything, the unnatural growling of the engine, the hiss of the wind, the sound of the fuselage hitting the irrigator. It is all still present, completely, here and now.

So I’m a mess, and I’m not sure those around me really understand how bad it was, how traumatic and awful, how utterly alone I felt, and ultimately, how different I am now, so suddenly. In the end, I flew the airplane in a controlled manner to a point where I knew I had to make a decision. And then I reached up and pulled a handle which ignites a rocket, which deploys the parachute. And here I am now, coming to tears, but very much alive.

I won’t speculate as to the cause of the loss of power; the airplane is almost entirely intact, so those answers will come in time. But I will describe the symptoms, the sounds, my physical and emotional reactions, the whole thing, in as much detail as I can remember.

My plan was to climb to 15,000 feet so I’d be well on top of any cloud layers, with a tailwind, on the way to Caldwell, N.J. (KCDW) with a fuel stop in Akron, Ohio (KCAK). The sky around Cumberland, Wis. was clearing, and I didn’t expect to be in instrument meteorological conditions (clouds) at all until my final descent into Akron three hours later. I departed Cumberland and called Minneapolis Center at 4,000 feet to get my instrument clearance as I continued to climb to the southeast. The controller was busy, but she gave me a transponder code and told me to stand by for my clearance. I leveled at 7,500 feet because there was a very thin layer above me to the south that I didn’t want to penetrate until I had my clearance. She soon came back with my clearance via LSE and KELSI, two waypoints to the southeast. All engine indications were normal.

The previous week I had been wearing an oxygen cannula for many hours, and I hate those things, so I decided to wear an oxygen mask instead. After receiving my clearance, I set an indicated airspeed climb of 130 knots to 15,000 feet. I put on the mask and was adjusting straps, checking flow and saturation, etc. just to ensure everything was working. This took about seventy-five seconds. I had a 45-knot tailwind. Throttle and mixture were full.

As I climbed, after I was satisfied that the mask and it’s internal mic were working, I sensed or felt an almost imperceptibly-subtle surging. I then noticed that one cylinder-head temp was 404 °F, and all the others were abnormally high. Turbo inlet temps were abnormally high, as well as all exhaust gas temperatures. Everything was “in the green,” or in ranges that did not trigger any warnings or annunciations, but abnormally high, nonetheless.

I picked up my phone and took a picture of the engine page, intending to text it to Jim, the owner of the maintenance shop I’d just left, as I made the decision to cancel my instrument clearance and turn around. I then watched the cylinder head temp rise to 406 °F and saw that a turbo inlet temp was almost 1,700 °F. I felt then that something bad was about to occur. At that second, at about 10,000 feet, the engine began a horrendous surging, back and forth, in and out, to the extreme, the pitch of the airplane changing with each surge, each peak and valley.

After several thousand hours of flying this type of airplane, I had never heard such a thing, or felt such a thing. There is no adequate way to describe the emotion at that moment, except to imagine some combination of shock, confusion, and fear. But while I was addled in many respects, my movements were still logical and calm.

I instinctively disconnected the autopilot and declared an emergency to air traffic control. I remember the sound of my voice, and how it was strained and under severe stress, but not panicked, as I physically tried to control the airplane. My right hand went to the mixture and just moved it. Not abruptly, but with care and precision. I then moved the throttle in a similar way. I then varied from low boost, to off, to high boost, and back. I also switched tanks. For the next ten seconds I did all of this over and over in different combinations, just trying to stop the extreme surging, trying anything and everything, as the shock and disbelief and fear increased.

As I did this, my left hand remained on the stick, flying the airplane, turning around, seemingly reacting to the surging and pitch changes. After a few more seconds, I looked up and saw that I was indicating 207 knots, exceeding the never-exceed speed for this particular airplane. Then I heard the wind, felt the forces, and I knew I was diving. At that second the chute entered my mind for the first time. I very gently pulled on the stick to arrest the speed and descent, for there was nothing about the power I could change. I was cognizant that I could control the airplane.

I looked for Nearest — a button on the primary flight display screen used to locate the nearest airport — and I might have pressed it and gone through the correct sequence. I’m not sure. But here is where something strange happened. As I flew the airplane, slowing down, just keeping the wings level, the softkey menu and lower quarter of the primary flight display seemed to be blank, and I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing, or why I was seeing it. There was no Nearest button, no inset map — nothing except the primary instruments. It made no sense, and I remember thinking that maybe the airplane was also having some sort of avionics failure. But I think it was just my state of mind, my cognitive vision failing.

In retrospect, it was both. In moments of extreme stress and danger, the brain focuses on only those things that will help ensure survival. In this case, I believe I already knew that landing on a paved airport surface was unlikely to occur. What mattered in that moment was the aircraft’s attitude (pitch and roll), altitude, airspeed, and descent rate. So, that’s what my brain allowed me to see. After studying the recorded data, and through a particular means for remembering and reprocessing traumatic experiences, I learned that I did indeed find and press the Nearest button, but that it took a great deal of concentration to do so.

The air traffic controller asked the nature of my emergency. In an oddly casual voice, I replied, “Uh, I think I lost a cylinder. I might have to pull the chute.”

I asked for a vector to the nearest airport. She said “Chetek, twelve o’clock, seven miles,” and “Rice Lake, nine o’clock, 18 miles.” I was below 6,000 feet at that point, and I remember thinking how ridiculous that sounded, as if I had any chance of flying another 18 miles. I was realizing that my landing options were indeed nil. My right hand continued to adjust all the engine controls.

I could hear the controller talking to other aircraft about me, but only in the background, as I continued to fly, to manage the airspeed, because that’s all I had. She asked me to state my intentions. I pushed the mic switch and repeated in a truly scared but also annoyed voice, “I’m pulling the chute! I’m pulling the chute!,” irritated at her question, as if I had any other options.

But I didn’t pull. I continued to fly, to manage the airspeed, to monitor the altitude, work the controls, just hoping, hoping that I could get the engine to run normally again.

Then 4,000 feet. I was still working the engine controls, but I noticed the engine had become smooth and quiet, when, in fact, it had quit, or nearly so, and the windmilling propellor was forcing power through and registering as engine sound. At least that’s how it seemed. The engine did not seize.

I turned the fuel off, waited a few seconds, then turned it back on. I looked up and saw nine percent power. The prop was moving. I moved the mixture and throttle to no effect. I didn’t have the time or capacity to look at, or to register, RPM, manifold pressure, fuel flow, etc. I just saw nine percent power. The engine seemed to be making noise, but it did not respond to any fuel or air inputs.

A very large component of my psyche could not comprehend or accept that this was all actually happening. I could feel the aircraft decelerating, I looked at my instruments and saw 125 knots airspeed and 3,500 feet, about 2,400 feet above the ground. I took the time to put my phone in my pocket, and my iPad in my flight bag, which I moved to the backseat. I reached down and tightened my harness. My left hand continued to fly. I transmitted, “I’m pulling the chute.”

I remember having the thought that I was sorry, really sorry, that this was going to happen to Mark’s plane. Mark, of all people. And Jim, of all people. Mark had hired me to ferry his plane to New Jersey, and was one of the smartest and most meticulous aircraft owners I knew. Jim is a friend, and his shop has one of the best reputations in the industry. I just couldn’t believe I was about to do this. I was consciously afraid of what it would feel like, how violent it would be. A very small part of me wondered if it would work at all, but mostly, I knew it would. I trusted it. I shut the fuel and mixture off, turned off all the switches, reached up, and pulled.

You hear a whoosh, then a godawful cracking and creaking and breaking. You feel the new air. It is an extreme deceleration and pitch up. You are forced down into your seat as the nose rises. I remember feeling the whole weight of the plane rise underneath me as the nose swung up. You linger there for a brief second, slowing, and then the worst thing happens, and the nose drops very violently straight down, and you are looking straight down at the ground rushing up at you, hanging from the shoulder straps, absolutely helpless, in shock, and at the mercy of who knows what.

But you know this is part of the process, and you are strangely calm, just waiting, just waiting. And it’s so quiet except for the creaking and the chute and lines flapping in the wind. And you wait, hanging from your harness, looking straight down. You have long enough to consider what’s under you. A field, a tree, a road. And then just as suddenly, you feel a change, and hear a change, and the tail drops and you are level, and all will be fine, and it has worked, and you will live. That’s what it’s like.

My mind immediately wondered upon what, exactly, I would be alighting. I thought that someone down there must’ve heard the rocket and seen the chute. I seemed to be drifting to the side and slightly backward. I looked out the window and saw a beautiful empty field. And I saw the irrigator. I watched the ground approach over maybe ten seconds as I drifted toward the irrigator, incredulous that I was actually going to hit it, consciously aware that it presented the opportunity for a detached wing and fire. I kept hoping I’d drift over it, and then I knew I wouldn’t, and at the very last second, literally the very last, I audibly stated, “I can’t believe I’m going to hit this thing!”

The impact was incredibly hard and jarring and jolting. It was loud and painful.  And then it was over. I unbuckled, opened the door, and stepped out. The giant chute was still fully inflated and quietly flapping in the peaceful field. It was amazing to see it there, having done its job perfectly, almost majestic in its size and duty delivered. I struggled to catch my breath. I took a few steps away and turned around to look at the plane, canted there on the big metal pipe. In the moment, I seemed to have zero injuries. It immediately occurred to me to start filming.

I took a very short video of the chute and plane and irrigator, exclaiming, with expletives, about the chances of hitting this irrigator in the middle of this huge empty field. My feeling of relief and elation and joy and life was overwhelming. My physical senses were extremely piqued. The air and field and trees in the distance were all incredible. I was in shock. I called my wife but it went to voicemail. She texted that she was putting Willie down for a nap and would call back. I replied, “Pulled chute. I’m fine.” Then I called Jim and Mark.

Shortly thereafter, a pickup came driving through the field, deer hunters in blaze orange. I gathered my personal items and some aircraft documents, took some photos, and the hunters took me into Sand Creek, where I talked with the local volunteer firefighters then went next door to a small cafe and drank a cup of coffee. Jim and Lisa eventually showed up and Jim wouldn’t let go of me.

The rest is … the rest.

In my mind, the whole sequence, from the initial subtle surge, to hitting the irrigator, occurred in about thirty seconds. But I know it was much longer. Flightaware says three minutes. I just can’t assign any memory to any more than about thirty seconds.

The thought of pitching for Best Glide Speed never occurred to me. I think that may be due to the initial shock and over-focus on stopping the surging, resulting in loss of command, when I let the aircraft dive, and the effort, concentration, and time it required to slow from 207 to 125, while simultaneously working the engine controls, identifying the nearest airport, trying to communicate something, anything, flying the plane, trying to fix whatever is wrong. All while dealing with the extreme mental and emotional stress exploding into existence. There just wasn’t time for Best Glide to enter my mind. And it didn’t.

The thought of landing in a field never entered my mind. The decision to pull was made long ago. Statistics overwhelmingly favor deploying an airframe parachute, if possible, as opposed to attempting an off-airport landing.

I’m not sure where to go with this new me. Not sure how to approach flying anymore. It’s not like I can just quit. It’s how I make a living. I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and offering of help and well-wishes. The Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association is full of wonderful people, and I appreciate this community and it’s deeply human connections.

So that’s it. My upper back and neck are sore from the impact and physical forces. I’d like to see the aluminum honeycomb. I told Mark it’s a good excuse to schedule a massage. I have to deal with the Flight Standards District Office, Federal Aviation Administration, and National Transportation Safety Board. And I gotta go back out and make a living.

My wife and daughter are at my wife’s favorite uncle’s funeral in Grand Forks. A lot of aviation in that family — it’s just in the blood. So it’s just me and two-year-old Willie this weekend. We had a quiet day. It warmed up. It’s raining. Life is incredibly sweet.

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