Kind of a bizarre one this week, an image I’ve had kicking around since the very early days of slide shooting – in fact, I held off on this one because I suspected that it was from a negative instead, the scan having been in my image folders for years. But since I recently confirmed that it’s from a slide, we’ll proceed.
In 1998, the pilot of a Cessna 195 making a night landing at Horace Williams airport in Chapel Hill, just after touching down, realized he was in a poor position to complete the landing and attempted to climb out again, commonly called a “go-around.” Apparently losing sight of the runway lights and unsure of the attitude of the aircraft, a series of maneuvers ended with the plane contacting the ground with one wing, disastrously.
Horace Williams is a small municipal airport owned by the University of North Carolina, and generally at night there is no regular staffing. Pilots flying in can automatically activate the runway lights by clicking their radio mic several times on the right frequency, and ‘clearance’ is obtained by routinely announcing their presence and approach; all other pilots in the area know to maintain vigilance for aircraft that may be in their vicinity. Otherwise, pilots are expected to be familiar with the airport, which has only runway edge lights and no further approach assistance, much less air traffic control (or even radar.) At night, once the nose of the place goes up, all visual references disappear, and without diligence to the instruments it becomes difficult to accurately ‘place’ the aircraft in a knowable position. This is apparently what led to the accident.
The three passengers were all seriously injured in the crash, and no one actually knew they were there. According to the story I was told, their calls for help were heard by someone who lived near the edge of the airport – otherwise they could have been there for a long time, perhaps even until another pilot flew out in the morning, which might have been too late.
The wreckage seen here was photographed several weeks after the crash, when the accident had been investigated by the NTSB and the pieces relocated behind one of the airport buildings. At that time, I was occasionally riding out of Horace Williams on short excursions with a private pilot friend, who took me back to see the fragments. In the bottom of the photo sits the floor pan of the cabin, with the rudder pedals clearly visible; just ahead of that point would have been the firewall that separated the cabin from the engine compartment, now clearly detached. It illustrates the savage nature of the accident fairly well, I think, even though this is not the accident scene itself but the deposited fragments after clearing the area; it’s safe to say that the wreckage wasn’t torn up to this extent by the accident investigation or the shifting of the aircraft. To me, the image has always been a bit poignant, which is why it’s been sitting in my folders waiting for an opportunity to share it.