Pilot’s Testimony of Grumman TBM Avenger Accident At Fort Apache Mountain Range | Aero-News Network
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Pilot’s Testimony of Grumman TBM Avenger Accident At Fort Apache Mountain Range

Aircraft Remains On An Indian Reservation Where It Went Down

A 1945 Grumman Avenger went down early in May on a flight from Ak-Chin Regional Airport (A39), Maricopa, AZ, to Albuquerque International Sunport Airport (KABQ), NM.

The pilot and owner of the airplane, Ron Carlson, and his copilot whom he identifies only as Ken, bailed out of the airplane when it developed engine trouble over the Fort Apache Mountain range. The airplane is presumed to have been destroyed when it impacted terrain on Native American land.

Carlson provided an account of the accident to Aero-News that is excerpted for this article:

The TBM was flying level at 12,000 feet crossing the beginning of the most mountainous part of the entire voyage from LA to Chicago, with the highest mountain peaks and high ridges. My plan was to slightly deviate from the direct route to (KAEG) all along the way as required to cross over terrain no higher than 8000 to 9000 MSL. I was starting to angle more southerly towards a position 10 miles northwest west of Jewett (13Q) when there was a large bang that came from the front of the TBM. The first two things that I perceived immediately was very heavy gray smoke emanating from the top and top-sides of the engine cowling - and a very violent shaking from the front of the TBM. Both all at once.

The smoke was coming out the top and side airflow ports at the rear of the engine cowling. I had then presumed obviously that there was a major engine mechanical failure. Airspeed was already dropping rapidly, the TBM was already descending, which signified that the engine was not producing very much thrust anymore at cruise power. I then pulled back the throttle to just above the idle position in an effort to reduce the fire and smoke. (I did not initially observe any fire, but Ken did from his vantage point). After reducing power significantly, there seemed to be no reduction in smoke. I could see slightly in front of me. No smoke in the cockpit, just in the entire airstream surrounding the cockpit.

Then I logically brought down the nose slightly to maintain airspeed. I simultaneously looked out and down again to left and right for landing locations. (always looking, and at this stage I was on red alert because there seemed nowhere to land for the last 10 minutes). The airplane had now dropped to probably approximately at (or just above) 3000 feet AGL and still descending. The ridge line we were over was approximately 8000 MSL.

There was only one possible off field landing location - on the starboard side. But this terrain looked questionable, looking through the smoke coming from the front. From 15 years of bushpilot experience in Canada and the High Arctic, I know a little about judging terrain. This is critical for seaplane and tundra tire landings. I had previously made 2 successful deadstick landings, one of which was on floats onto tundra, with no damage to airplane either time. But this seemed like a 50/50 at best to not end up in a situation with the plane flipping over or worse.

The open terrain looked like a marsh with water in the center, surrounded by large trees. Significant water this time of year in spring. The marsh seemed long enough to execute a wheels up landing, but being unsure of the context of the terrain (water, muck, mud or worse, and - was it flat or did it slope down with the mountain?) and with thicker and thicker smoke coming from the engine area, forward visibility was already very much in question. The smoke was increasing. My initial thought was “what if the smoke got worse to where forward visibility was zero?” The airplane was now probably 2500 feet AGL and still descending. Still time to bail. Not at the point of no return. Many questions in so few seconds. So with the two factors of questionable terrain and worsening forward visibility, and coupled with Ken’s willingness to jump (Ken voiced this unsolicited on the intercom), I made a final decision to abandon the TBM in the air.

(Note: Ken later testified that there were sheets of oil spilling out the right side. Not a continuous flow, but continuous interval of sheets of oil).

Intercom intelligibility was sporadic. Maybe it was the increased background noise. (We could barely understand each other in normal flight, inherent with this airplane and configuration). I hand signaled back to Ken to bail out. In seconds Ken was out and gone.

At this time the TBM was down to probably just above 2000 feet AGL. (Note: I was unaware that, although Ken did exit the middle seat position from the airplane, he in fact climbed down hand over foot and kneeled on top of the wing, but did not jump off. In later testimony, Ken said that he grabbed the recessed hand grip on the side of the fuselage and, while then laying on his back, he rode on the wing root on his back, while his legs were hanging over where the split flaps are located, into thin air. It was only until I banked the TBM in the right turn, that Ken finally let go and fell, just missing the tail coming over above him).

Smoke was getting pretty thick now. I could not see forward very much at all. On instruments, I pulled the nose up 20 or 30 degrees and turned the TBM into a climbing 70° turn to the right. As I was doing this I thought to myself: “ Are we really going to do this?” That didn’t cause hesitation, but I did say it to myself. It was like I couldn’t believe what was happening, and what was going to happen.

I then bailed out, also successfully avoiding being hit by the tail. Bail out altitude was probably somewhere below 2000 AGL.

I was fully aware and lucid during every second of bailing out. I remember every microsecond. I recall vividly growling out loud and a surge of adrenaline pumping, helping me get out of the cockpit. I remember that it was very hard to pull myself out, even though when I had the plane in the climbing turn I felt somewhat weightless in my seat. The slipstream was strong. I don’t know how Ken had held on. I remember my legs coming out last, and once breaking free, I instinctively put myself in a cannonball position and closed my eyes, waiting for the elevator or rudder to smash me in the back. After about one second, I opened my eyes and I was looking straight up at the sky in the most surreal and peaceful free-fall. The first thing I saw as I was free falling was the blurred shadow of the TBM tail practically going by. Of course my right hand was already grasping for the silver D ring to the ripcord. As I pulled, I did also use my left hand to push, as I had learned. I knew I was low and I had to get this thing pulled as fast as possible.

I was in the wrong position facing up, falling on my back. I didn’t think I had time to put my arms out and try some rollover maneuver. I didn’t know where the ground was, but I assumed it was close. After I pulled the D ring, I did clearly observe the pilot chute deploying, then the telltale violent shock of the main chute opening. It felt as if I hitting a brick wall. A massive huge shock to the body, but a calming and relieved feeling.

I was already coming down near the top of trees, and they were coming up fast. I had just a few seconds it seemed to look to my right and I saw Ken floating down successfully in his parachute, almost the same level, not more than a quarter mile away. Biggest relief. He was very close to me considering that we were in two completely separate bail outs. I last looked to my left for the TBM, but saw no sign of it.

(Note: we dropped close together because, as stated earlier, Ken had stayed with the TBM until I started the hard climbing turn, which was just a few seconds before I bailed out. Ken later testified that he watched my parachute open, and then saw the TBM eerily start to level itself out, remaining in a somewhat gentle turn, while still maintaining a gradual descent).

Both Carlson and Ken survived the bailout with moderate injuries. The wreckage of the airplane has not been found.

"It has just been reported by the local Indian authorities that it does not appear that there are any more searches going on. They stated further that the area is recently or now closed due to the drought, so there are “not many people allowed in the area”," Carlson stated. "They expect that once fall arrives, they will reopen the area for hunting and hopefully locate the aircraft. They advised that if the TBM is located, they will notify us right away."

(Image provided by Ron  Carlson)

FMI: NTSB Preliminary Report

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