The last flight of Sonex 604 occurred on June 24, 2009. I had taken a trip from Fort Leonard Wood to San Antonio, TX for work. I'd made this trip several times before, but always via commercial airlines. This was my first long cross country work trip, and I was pretty excited to be finally using my plane for travel. All went well in San Antonio, and I departed for home that morning. I planned to make the flight in 3 legs, taking on fuel approximately every two-three hours. I had completed the first leg of the trip without incident, refueled, and was about an hour and a half into the second leg when I decided to land in Mena, AR, to refuel and stretch.
I was cruising at 8,500 ft MSL and had the airport in sight approximately 30 miles out. At about 10 miles out, I reduced power from cruise power to a descent power setting, and began my gradual descent into MEZ. After 2 or 3 minutes of descending, at about 5,000 ft, the engine suddenly lost power. It continued to run, but was not producing any significant power. I attempted to restore power by adjusting the throttle, mixture, and mag switches, but after 30 seconds or so, the engine died completely. I was able to restart it once, but it barely ran, and died for good after 10 seconds or so.
At this point, I was over mountainous terrain with no suitable forced landing sites. I was able to glide the aircraft out of the mountains, just clearing the last ridge line, and land the aircraft in a field between two rows of houses. The aircraft landed under control, but I was unable to stop before running into trees at the far end of the field. Impact with trees and a stop sign severely damaged the aircraft, but I was uninjured. Minor damage was done to a barbed wire fence that I flew through just before landing, and a small decorative tree that I ran over on rollout. I estimate that I had been flying for about 1.8 hours prior to the engine failure, and had approximately 7 gallons of fuel onboard, equaling about an hour's worth of fuel.
The cause of the engine failure was never determined. I had fuel in the tank, line, gascolator, and it flowed freely to the carb. No plug wires were dislodged or damaged. The engine turned over by hand and had compression. There were no outward signs of damage on the engine itself. It simply quit, and wouldn't run. The FAA chose not to tear the engine down as part of its investigation, and the insurance company totaled the airplane and retained the salvage. I don't think I'll even know what really happened.
Looking back on the incident, I'm filled with mixed emotions. I have a great sense of loss, having lost the entire airplane. The plane may have been repairable, but closer inspection showed that nearly every major section of the plane had been damaged. Repairing the plane would really have entailed building a new airplane with a handful of old parts in it. By the time you drilled out the thousands of rivets to remove the damaged parts, you'd re-kit the plane anyway.
I'm grateful the outcome for me was perfect. I escaped without any injuries at all. Considering the extremely rugged, steep mountain ridges I was gliding over just 20 seconds before touchdown, this is truly amazing!
I can't help but replay the entire incident over again in my mind. Could I have done better? Part of me says yes, maybe. I certainly could have done worse, though. I've been in the military for 10 years, and deployed twice to Iraq. I've seen roadside bombs, angry mobs, sniper fire, and more mortar and rocket rounds than I could count. Until then, I'd never felt like I was staring death in the face. To say it left an impression on my is an understatement. When I close my eyes, I can still see and feel clearing that last ridge, making that last turn into the field, and crashing into the trees. I guess that will be with me forever.
There are lessons to be learned about basic piloting skills, and decision making, and what not. The last 10 seconds of the crash had me low to the ground, maneuvering aggressively to avoid obstructions (like someone's house), and trying to get it down safely. Making that last turn away from the house nearly cost me everything. The airplane was about to quit flying, I could feel it. A voice in my head screamed at me, "Don't spin it in!" I always told myself I'd fly into the side of a building before I let myself stall and spin, but when you're actually holding the stick, it's an easy trap to get into. I almost did.
So what now, everyone asks? I'm not really sure. I'm not giving up flying, or homebuilding else. Maybe I'll build another Sonex, or RV, or something. I never intended the Sonex to be my last airplane I built, and I guess that much hasn't really changed. Who knows, maybe the right project will come along to whet my appetite and I'll jump back in. I might even document another Sonex on this website. But, for the time being, I'm taking some time off, and closing the book on this chapter.
NOTE: photos link to full size image