“My God, what a beautiful day” I thought to myself as I was flying southbound in my 1954 Piper because for once the California Central Valley was absolutely crystal clear. It was only about 8:30 in the morning, but I had already flown over 150 miles and dropped-off my wife at the small mountaintop airport in the town of Paradise. Now I was halfway back to my home base, a small private field called Sunset Skyranch, about 15 miles south of Sacramento.
But there was something else besides the clear skies that was unusual, and that was the number of large aircraft in the sky that weekday morning. It was shortly before the first Gulf war, and you would have thought the battle was going to take place in Stockton. As I looked out my left window I could see a F-117 stealth fighter shooting an approach at Beale Air Force base, two F-111 fighter bombers were departing McClellan Air Force base in north Sacramento, east of Sacramento a flock of B-52 bombers were shooting approaches at Mather Air Force base, a lone C-141 transport was shooting an approach at Sacramento International airport, and C-130 and C-5 transports were in the pattern at Travis Air Force base in Fairfield. It was an aerial armada the likes of which I had never seen before in hundreds of hours of Central Valley flying, but at that point I had no idea my contact with military aviation was about to get much closer in the next few minutes.
When I arrived at my home field I noticed a two-seat ultralight aircraft was in the pattern for the dirt runway which paralleled the paved runway, and made a mental note to keep track of the small aircraft as I entered the 45 degree leg of the traffic pattern for the paved runway. The landing was uneventful, and except for a couple of people in the transient parking area the airport was deserted as I pushed my plane back into its hanger. As I closed the hanger doors, I could hear a distinct whop-whop-whop that I knew without looking was being generated by the two bladed main rotor of a military UH-1 Huey helicopter.
As I locked the hanger doors, I looked up and saw the little ultralight climbing steeply after just having completed a touch-and-go on the dirt runway, then another aircraft burst into view from behind a stand of trees; it was the Army Huey and he was headed straight for the ultralight at a slightly higher altitude. I watched in a state of shock as the Huey blew right through the traffic pattern and passed directly over the ultralight with an alarmingly small distance of about 40-50 feet separating them. Just as the helicopter whop-whopped right over the little plane, the ultralight went from a steep nose-up attitude to an even steeper nose-down orientation, and the engine began to scream as the craft hurtled towards the ground. The ultralight disappeared behind a hanger and a sickening crashing sound confirmed the fact that the landing had indeed gone very badly.
I dashed across the parking lot past the two other stunned witnesses to the accident and hopped over the barbed wire fence, landing in a field of corn stubble. The ultralight was standing on its nose, its wooden propeller shattered into splinters. A few yards in from of the plane was one of the former occupants, laying motionless face down on the ground. The other occupant was slumped over in the crushed cockpit, but was making faint sounds that confirmed that he was still alive at that point. I went to the man on the ground first, assuming that that he had hit the propeller as he was thrown from the plane and that he was dead. As I hesitatingly turned him over, I was greatly relieved to see that he had not gotten a face-full of propeller and that he was able to make a quiet groan.
By now the two other witnesses had arrived on the scene, and I sent one off them to the field back to call 911. We couldn’t do much for the man on the ground, so we turned our attention to the man still trapped in the wreckage. As we tried to figure out how to remove him and how bad his injuries were, we noticed the Huey had returned and landed about 200 feet away and a very young Airman jumped out of the passenger area of the helicopter and ran up to us. He asked if there was anything they could do, and after we informed him that an ambulance was on the way he quickly ran back to the chopper, which departed as quickly as it came. Finally the fire department, CHP and an ambulance arrived, but only the paramedics, the two other witnesses and myself seemed interested in removing the pilot from his mangled craft. The aluminum tubes and sheet metal that comprised the nose of the aircraft had wadded-up into a ball, with the pilot’s feet in the middle of it.
After some improvising and applying some brute force we managed to at last free the pilot’s feet from the twisted metal, and I helped load him onto a stretcher and carried one end of the load a couple hundred yards to the highway and waiting ambulance, as the CHP officers and firemen stood nearby cracking jokes. I found out later that both men survived the ordeal, but both of them were crippled for life, with the pilot being paralyzed for life from the waist down.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. The cause of the accident was painfully obvious to me, and I was the only witness who had seen the entire event unfold. As the helicopter passed over the small plane the downwash from the rotor blades caused the ultralight to stall, and there was not enough attitude to make a recovery. That was the story I was going to tell the FAA/NTSB, and I left my name and number with someone at the airport so they could contact me.
So I was very surprised when the airport manager called me a few days later and said that I better keep my mouth shut or there would be serious trouble of an unspecified nature if I didn’t. Apparently the ultralight pilot was suing everyone in sight including the airport, so I caved-in and bit my tongue, selfishly putting my desire to keep my treasured hanger ahead of being truthful.
I have wondered about that decision ever since, because I found out that both of the pilots involved were jerks. The ultralight pilot had been illegally giving dual instruction at the time and had been shunned at a couple of local airports for making a habit of doing low level aerobatics near airport traffic patterns. A friend of mine said he had been flying alongside this guy at 500’ in another ultralight right over ARCO arena during a Sacramento Kings game, when all of a sudden this guy decided to do a snap roll and would have collided with my friend if he had not made an instant avoidance maneuver.
The Army pilot kept a Cessna at our field, and at a rare appearance at one of our airport association meetings I listened to him brag about how he would take Army Blackhawk helicopters on joy-rides to do errands for himself and his friends. The unanimous decision among the regulars was that he was the epitome of a first rate military pilot asshole. In the end the FAA blamed the accident on the ultralight pilot, even though he was only partly to blame for not avoiding the helicopter’s downwash when so close to his stall speed. Most of the blame should have gone to the Army pilot, who flew right trough the traffic pattern and should have seen and avoided the smaller aircraft, but did neither.
I never saw the official report, but I can say one thing for certain — it must have had some very big lies and omissions in it.