When you’re at 8,000 feet altitude and your engine is shutting down, you have limited time to work with the problem. Descending at 800 feet per minute, with only 10 minutes to touchdown, and with the single prop wind-milling, that is what Idyllwild local Dave Pelham had to do — concentrate on working the protocols for which he had long been trained as a pilot but had never had to use outside of a simulation.
On Thursday, Nov. 10, Pelham and pilot companion Drew Womack faced an emergency situation that was intensely real with limited options for success. They had been up for 45 minutes when the small craft’s single engine sputtered and lost function. Pelham hadplanned the scenic flyover to aerially reacquaint Womack with the mountain and the condition of browned-out and dying pines in the Idyllwild area. Womack lives in Hawaii but has a cabin in Idyllwild.
When the emergency began, Pelham thought to send a “mayday” but had too little time to do so as he worked through available options. First, he switched back and forth between fuel tanks and tried to determine if the electric fuel pump was working properly. With no response from the engine and a forced descent beginning, he next had to set the best glide speed to give them the most time in the air before emergency landing. And finally, and most importantly as it turned out, Pelham and Womack had to scout and pick the best emergency landing site in an urban Hemet Valley area with residences, commercial buildings and highways with traffic.
At just after 10 a.m. on a normal workday, traffic on local streets was busy, especially on potential landing target Florida Avenue. “Our first choice was a dirt road near the Santa Ana River, but I saw we were not going to make it,” said Pelham. “Second choice was an open field near the road, but we were not going to make that either. So I cranked the plane into a gentle left turn and took the rough field that was our last available option.
“You can’t see relief [ground condition] from the air, how high things are or how rocky an area is.” What they could not tell, until just before landing, was just how rocky the rough field was. As Pelham prepped the landing, Womack looked out the window from about 15 or 20 feet altitude and said, “Oh, this is going to be rough.”
“Flaps out, yoke back hard, touchdown with a good attitude, and immediately the soft dirt and rocks flipped the plane over violently,” recounted Pelham. The impact hurled Pelham and Womack backward into the luggage area of the small single-engine plane, an area that was structurally one of the strongest in the plane. The plane came to rest on the Soboba Reservation at the dirt extension of Indian Creek Road. It was upside down and both Pelham and Womack were trapped inside. According to a Riverside County Sheriff’s Department press release, deputies and emergency personnel responded to the crash at 10:41 a.m.
“With the condition of the plane after impact, no one could believe neither of us was significantly injured,” said Pelham. “We could have walked away, but we were pinned in the plane and had to be extricated by emergency responders.” And because it was an aircraft crash, emergency personnel were required to backboard and transport both Pelham and Womack to Riverside County Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley, a trauma center.
“We were extremely fortunate,” said Pelham. “I have the mother of all stiff necks, but we are both fine with no serious injuries.”
Pelham said he does not know what caused the fuel emergency. He noted his craft did not have a fuel gauge in the traditional sense. Fuel consumption can be tracked during flight by viewing narrow glass tubes with float balls, but there is not a traditional fuel gauge on the instrument panel in front of the pilot.
According to information about Pelham’s plane, the Grumman AA-1C Lynx, those tubes can be “hard to see” during flight. Pelham explained that the tubes, one for each tank, are located on the left- and right-side bottom front of the cockpit of the plane near where the legs of the pilot and passenger are — legs that block easy viewing of the tubes during flight.
Having conducted a pre-flight check before taking off, and knowing the time they planned to be in the air, Pelham did not anticipate a fuel shortage. Adding to the mystery of apparent fuel loss, Pelham was told by the company that transported the plane to an inspection holding site after the crash landing that there was fuel left in one of the tanks. The company representative estimated about 4 to 5 gallons remained in one of the 11 gallon tanks. “I’d love to have an answer,” said Pelham. The investigation of the cause of the crash is being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board and the insurer of the craft.
What is extraordinary is for both Pelham and Womack to have survived relatively unscathed in a landing that crushed much of the plane. And for Pelham to have maintained clear focus during the descent and to have calmly determined landing site options least likely to injure people on the ground, was a testament to his training and level-headed handling of the crisis.
Even after the crash, Pelham was working the problem. He had had a camera around his neck while flying over Idyllwild and used it to record the widespread browning-out of pines in the downtown area. After the crash, with the camera still around his neck while he lay flat on a backboard, with emergency personnel around him, Pelham raised the camera, turned on the video function and scanned the side of the plane nearest him from one end to the other. “I also took some stills to document the damage,” said Pelham.