|5/8/2018 1:09:00 PM|
Sisters pilot uninjured in crash
Sisters Eagle Airport owner and pilot Benny Benson, along with two other occupants, walked away from the crash of his twin-engine Beechcraft 58P on Friday evening.
Sgt. Shawn Heierman with the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office reported that authorities were called out at about 5:50 p.m.
"When we arrived on scene we were told that the pilot, on his final approach, hit a downdraft," Sgt. Heierman said. "He lost lift and crashed short of the runway, tore off the landing gear, causing substantial damage to the plane."
Benson, the co-owner of the Sisters Airport and Energyneering Solutions, Inc. (ESI), has been a pilot for 15 years, and uses his plane extensively for business travel to attend meetings and visit job sites across the country.
Benson's passengers at the time of the incident are both pilots. Benny's wife, Julie Benson, provided detailed information to The Nugget on the incident.
She reported that one of the passengers was sitting in front next to Benson, the other in the back seat of the 6-place airplane. The trio had been in California for two days meeting with clients and visiting prospective projects.
"It was a great trip, up until the last five seconds," Benny Benson said.
As they neared their home base at Sisters, they listened to the AWOS (automated weather observation system), which told them the winds at the airport were 17 knots, with gusts to 28 knots. Although Benson normally prefers to land on the south end, the wind direction at the time dictated that he make his approach to the runway from the north, over the hill and trees, in order to avoid landing with a tailwind.
Because the pressurized Baron is a fast and heavy airplane, it requires more runway length to land and stop than a lighter single-engine plane, Julie Benson notes. Benson is very cautious of a tailwind at the short Sisters airstrip, which would increase his landing roll-out even further.
One of the most important techniques taught early in flight training is the "go around." If everything isn't in order to execute a good landing, pilots are taught to abort the landing and "go around" by continuing to fly another lap around the landing pattern, and try the landing again.
Benson's experience has ingrained a somewhat different philosophy.
"I look at it the other way around. A landing is an aborted go around. I've had so many unexpected things happen that I approach every landing prepared for and expecting to go-around. And only if everything goes just right, then I land the plane," he said.
The readiness to go-around saved Benson and his passengers from disaster when things went awry.
As they came over the hill and cleared the top of the trees making their final decent at 110 mph, the plane encountered significant wind shear at 40 feet above the ground, Julie Benson reported.
Wind shear is known to pilots as a sudden and significant change in wind direction. The passenger in the front, also an experienced instrument-rated pilot, recalled, "It was a strange sensation. It felt like the bottom just dropped out from under us."
Benson instantly initiated the go-around procedure, pushing both throttles all the way forward. But even full thrust of the two roaring 325-horsepower engines was not enough to stop the plane's decent. There was neither enough time nor vertical distance for the plane to defy gravity and climb, although the surge in forward momentum kept the plane from plunging into the ground.
They hit the ground on the main wheels, then the nose wheel, about 150 feet short of the runway. The landing gear buckled under the impact, and the plane hit its belly. It then turned slightly sideways and skidded across the ground, coming to rest less than 300 feet from where the wheels first touched.
After the plane stopped, the trio looked back and forth at each other, stunned at what had just happened. Each of them had been firmly secured into their seats when their seatbelts tightened on impact. The passenger in the back was the first to break the long silence.
"We should probably get out," he suggested. As they opened the doors, they heard the "hiss" of the still-pressurized fuselage release, indicting the integrity of the passenger cabin was still intact.
Uninjured, the crew climbed out and saw the true extent of damage to the aircraft. The two main wheels had buckled up under the wings, the front nose wheel was broken off and laying in the dirt 100 feet away, the right wing was bent upward with the de-icing boots scraped off, and the nose and tail sections were crumpled.
"I think I broke my airplane," was Benson's first comment on the wreckage.
Emergency responders arrived on the scene immediately. Although there were no fuel leaks, the Sisters Fire Department, headed by Roger Johnson, stood by with foam ready in case a fire was ignited. The medics in the ambulance examined each of the pilots for injuries. Officers from both the Deschutes County Sheriff Office and Oregon State Police responded to the call.
Neighbors from adjacent homes, and other pilots and flight instructors from the airport converged on the scene.
"The wind was very erratic at the time they came in," observed Outlaw Aviation CFI (Certificated Flight Instructor) Walt Lasecki. "I watched the wind-sock (next to the crashed Baron) blowing straight out and spinning around the pole. Strong low-level wind shear is extremely dangerous when it's swirling and changing direction like that."
The sheriff's office contacted the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) to report the crash. Both agencies said they do not consider it to be an "accident" because the passenger cabin was not violated, and there were no injuries. They categorized the event as an "incident," and likely will not conduct an investigation or inspection of the aircraft, Julie Benson reported.
On Saturday morning, Rob Berg, an airplane mechanic and inspector from Madras, undertook moving the plane to Benson's hangar to await evaluation by their insurance company.
"The airplane did its job, and that is to protect the passengers," he said. "All the impact forces were dispersed into the wings from the landing gear, and into the nose cone and tail section crumple zones, while keeping the fuselage bulkheads intact. This is a testimony to how sturdy the Beechcraft planes are. The Baron is a tank with wings. The landing gear would've come up into the cabin or through the firewall in some other planes."
"Benny did everything right, given the timing and conditions he encountered," said Brian Lansburgh, also a CFI at Sisters. "He did not have time to think, it was reflexive. And he never stopped flying the plane. If he had not responded as quickly as he did, and already had the plane configured to fly a go-around, they would've made a Baron-shaped hole in the ground, and they might not have walked away from it."
"If someone had to experience that scenario, I'm glad it was me," said Benny Benson. "I'm bummed that my plane got wrecked, but I knew how to react, and we were in a robust plane that allowed us to walk away from it. So I guess I should consider it a successful landing, and an opportunity for all of us to learn from it."
Julie, who is also a pilot, is determined to make improvements to avoid a similar incident.
"As owners of the Sisters Airport, our goal is to create the safest environment possible. We will be investigating if the AWOS reporting can be reprogrammed to warn pilots more accurately of wind shear conditions. We will also consider relocating the landing zone at the north end further down the runway, rather than at the end, to help guide pilots to be higher over the area where Benny encountered the wind shear," she said.
The Benson family extended a heartfelt thank-you to all that responded, helped, and supported them during and after the incident.
Editor's note: Freelancer Cody Rhealt contributed to this report.
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