Progress in aviation, like hard-won safety, is frequently taken for granted. There was a big reminder of this yesterday when a vintage Stearman biplane, which flew in to help publicize the premier of an IMAX movie celebrating a century of aviation progress, was involved in a landing mishap at Washington Reagan (DCA)
The incident, in which the aircraft nosed over on landing on runway 01, highlighted the fact that accidents happen – no matter how much planning is involved – and drove home the Stearman’s reputation as an aircraft that can be tricky to land.
That the Transportation Security Administration, FAA, DCA and a host of other authorities had even granted permission for the fly-in was enough to make it newsworthy. In the end, the organizers got more publicity for the premier of the 3D movie ‘Legends of Flight’ than they could have ever imagined on an otherwise slow news day in DC.
Getting ready to go - the aircraft nearest the camera is the Stearman involved in the mishap. (All photos and videos Guy Norris)
I was lucky enough to be invited to the event and was in the front cockpit one of the eight Stearmans flying down the Potomac to DCA. The formation was divided into two main flights, the first being made up of three Stearmans’ belonging to a Virginia-based flying circus. The second, of which my aircraft was a part, was made up of Stearmans owned and operated by a group of pilots from Pennsylvania.
Taxiing for take-off and (below), preparing for take-off and depature from Manassas.
The aircraft I flew in, a beautifully restored 1941 N2S-2 U.S. Navy variant, is owned by ardent Stearman enthusiast Jack Roethlisberger. A USAirways pilot, Roethlisberger had rebuilt the machine practically from scratch after buying the tangled wreckage from scrap dealers following a crash in 2000.
En-route to DCA (above) and landing (below)
Flying down the river towards DCA I heard ‘Stearman 1’ – the callsign for the first group – cleared to land on runway 33. The Stearman 1 leader then requested a last minute change to land more directly into wind on runway 01. This was approved and then, just seconds later, I heard air traffic suddenly call for the remaining aircraft (Stearman 2) to change approach to runway 33. We then drew abeam the end of runway 01 where, to our concern, we saw that one of the aircraft was clearly inverted. The only good news was the sight of the two occupants standing unharmed by the side of the runway.
On approach to DCA
The pilot of the mishap Stearman, Mike Treschel and passenger Ashley Halsey from the Washington Post, had thankfully escaped without injury. Halsey’s video of the accident can be seen here and will no doubt be carefully studied by the NTSB as part of the investigation.
To say the incident put a downer on everyone’s spirits would be an understatement. However once news came through confirming that all were safe, the focus turned once more to the Legends of Flight. Yet, while the press conference went on in DCA’s original art deco terminal building, many glanced outside to watch recovery efforts on the aircraft. Eventually the Stearman was lifted back onto its wheels and towed, still intact, to a hangar. Experts reckoned the damaged prop, upper wing skin, shocked engine and battered tail fin would cost around $75,000 to put right.
The damaged Stearman is craned back on to its wheels.
The main thing, as everyone was reminded, was that nobody was hurt, and we all headed off to watch the premier with a new found respect for the story of the aviation pioneers, the technology they created and the risks they had overcome along the way.