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No One Believed That We Walked Away

The loss of an aircraft, and survival of a dream; a tribute to Bud Warren and Phyllis Ridings

By Phyllis Ridings
Photos by Steve Garvin

Photo by Eddie's Airshots
Photo by Eddie's Airshots

With the news that on the morning before Mother’s Day, 2011, Bud Warren and his daughter Phyllis Ridings  were lost in a fiery crash that occurred just after takeoff, we are reminded of the eerily similar accident that Bud and Phyllis walked away from in October 2007. So we are reprinting this CONTACT! Magazine article as part of our tribute to Bud and Phyllis. Read more

CONTACT! Magazine readers may remember seeing this plane on the cover of our July-August 2007 issue, #89. Although the staff at CONTACT! is deeply troubled over the loss of such a beautiful plane, we can’t help but be elated that our friends on board survived the accident unharmed and are in the process of getting back into the game. In a way, the accident has opened the door to new possibilities. ~Pat

burning wreckage
Narrowly escaping the burning wreckage, Phyllis Ridings had the presence of mind to snap this photo.

To see the photos of the scene, it is easy to see how no one believed that we walked away. My father, Bud Warren, and I were looking forward to our flight in the Wheeler that Thursday afternoon, October 18, 2007. EAA Chapter 774 had previously invited us to give a presentation for their members and guests regarding the use of Chevrolet engines in experimental aircraft. They were expecting us to fly in that afternoon.

Of particular interest to the group was Dad’s Geared Drive, a straight-cut spur gear propeller speed reduction unit (PSRU) with its fully automatic centrifugal clutch and flywheel assembly. We were planning to arrive at the meeting early so that we could remove the cowling from the Wheeler to allow everyone to get a good look at the installation. They were all looking forward to a question and answer session in order to learn more about Dad’s engine and PSRU setup in his Wheeler Auriga. What better way would there be to accomplish this than to fly the aircraft in for an up-close and personal look?

We just met our new friend James at our local EAA Chapter 302 meeting the Saturday before, and we invited him to join us on our trip to Brookshire, Texas, the home of Chapter 774. Since he was our guest, I offered him my spot in the right front seat, and I piled in the back with my laptop, big-screen monitor, and all the other magic electronic stuff that it takes to do a really thorough, professional, and entertaining presentation for an EAA chapter meeting.

Within a few minutes we were cleared to taxi to one-niner at Lone Star Executive Airport, located in Conroe, Texas, for a departure to the west. Ten-mile visibility, weather was fine, winds were light, and it looked like a nice afternoon for a flight to West Houston. We planned to fly back home later that night following the meeting.

Getting Off to a Bad Start
As we departed the pattern to the west and flew along just to the south of Lake Conroe, we pointed out landmarks to James. The air was really calm and stable, and the flight was smooth. However, several miles out we encountered some haze, so we dropped to about 1,500 feet in order to stay out of it. Moments later, Dad announced that his engine oil temperature was higher than normal. This alarmed us because he resolved all engine cooling issues years before, back when he first developed the engine package. Engine oil temperature indicating on the high side is never good news.

“The water temperature looks fine,” Dad said, “and the oil pressure is perfect. What the heck is going on?”

A second later, the engine coughed. “Now, this is not good,” Dad said. The engine coughed again. I noted to Dad that I thought the engine smelled like it was hot. I also thought it smelled like burning oil. The engine was losing power, and smoke began to fill the cockpit. Then those dreaded words were heard. “You guys help me find some place to land – we are going down.”
 
Picking the Place to Land
Dad immediately banked to the left to do a 360-degree turn and survey the area for possible landing sites, remembering that the closest and best place to put her down could be have been just behind us. There were no roads nearby we could land on. No smooth asphalt airstrips, nothing but piney woods all around. Then suddenly, about a mile in the distance was a beautiful hayfield. Believe me, to us there was never a more beautiful hayfield!

On the right-hand side of this rather wonderful hayfield was a nice, long, smooth and level area between the fence line on the right and a long row of huge round hay bales to the left. We weren’t sure if we would make it far enough to clear the iron ore strip mine that stood between the hayfield and us.

The iron ore mine was rough, with large holes and uneven pits all around and filled with water. At that point, the hayfield seemed so very far away. If we could make it there, it would be our grass landing strip, our only chance for a safe landing. Thank God for farmers, I thought as Dad trimmed for max glide and made for the hayfield. By now, the smoke was getting thicker and the engine was running weaker and weaker. The atmosphere in the cockpit was calm and matter of fact. This gave me a lot of peace, and I was able to just relax and take what was to come. I remember thinking, If anyone can get us out of this safely, Dad certainly can.

I don’t believe that anyone really ever expects to have an engine fire or a forced landing, but a pilot better be ready for one at any given minute. There was a moment of nothing but quiet in the cockpit. I think that the three of us were all going through our own emergency checklist in our minds. Suddenly I remembered something I could add, and I blurted out with a rather loud and forceful, “Pop the door, James!”

I had been watching my DVDs and reading my books, and as a student pilot, I had this detail fresh in my mind. I wondered why I had not thought to say it sooner. I guess that you never really know how you are going to react in an emergency until it really happens to you. All I remember is that Dad was intent on getting this airplane and his passengers safely to the ground. James was busy with his own personal checklist, and we were all busy watching the ground coming at us faster than we would have liked. It all happened so quickly.
 
Total Power Loss
Dead sticking the Wheeler in itself was not a big deal, but it certainly glides better with at least some power than when it’s without. We prayed that we could stay in the air long enough to make it over the fence and into the hayfield; our survival depended on it. But just as we cleared the jagged open-pit mine, the engine quit altogether. With the subsequent increased rate of descent, we didn’t quite clear the farmer’s fence and the Wheeler clipped two large posts with the left wing. This destroyed the wing and ruptured the fuel cell.

One fence post broke off, and one was completely pulled out of the ground. I remember seeing a broken post and dirt flying past the left window just before we made contact with the ground and thinking how very odd it looked. The aircraft made impact with the ground hard enough to punch the landing gear up through the wings.

Striking the posts with the left wing sent us rotating in a counterclockwise motion, on the airplane’s belly, as we slid across the slick grass of the hayfield. While we were spinning on the ground, all we could see from the windows of the airplane was bright, hot, orange and red flame all around us. We must have looked like a pinwheel on fire until we came to a stop.

Egress
It was a surreal moment. I sat in the backseat stunned for what felt like minutes, but could only have been seconds when I heard Dad yell, “Get out of the airplane!” I don’t even remember actually seeing who made it out first, but I know it was James. He raised the right-hand door that he previously unlatched and bailed out.

I made my quick exit from the backseat out the right side following James. Dad was the last one out of the airplane. The left side of the airplane was burning like mad, and it would have been impossible to escape through the pilot’s door. Thank God for cool heads and two doors on an airplane.

I ran a few steps away and looked up to see James and my father standing side by side. I thought that was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen; the two of them, safe and alive. I ran to them and gave them both a big hug, surveyed them for injuries, then turned to see the burning airplane for the first time. The sight of the Wheeler burning, with nothing we could do about it, made me feel sick. The reporter in me required that I reach in my handbag for my digital camera and get a shot of the scene, but by that time the entire cockpit was completely engulfed in flames.

Very Minor Injuries
James suffered a bruised ribcage, a few scrapes, and what looked like sunburn on his face from the heat of the fire. Dad had two large goose eggs on his head. The backs of his calves were burned, some of his hair was singed off, and his face was burned a bright pink from the heat of the flames. His seatbelt buckle got so hot that it burned his fingers when he removed it. In a moment of complete gratitude, I realized that as a passenger, I survived an in-flight engine fire, a forced landing, and total loss of an airplane with only a scraped elbow. My sense of elation was overwhelming.

We stood quietly in the hayfield, watching the airplane burn, wondering what to do next. We could not call anyone since we all left the aircraft so quickly that we didn’t grab cell phones or any of our electronics. I managed to grab my purse, but on my way out my cell phone must have fallen out. Dad wondered aloud how long it would take for someone to find us.

wreckage

Rescue
The black billowing smoke must have made it easy to track us, because in a matter of moments the farmer and his friends showed up in their pickup trucks. They stayed with us until the emergency personnel got there. They were kind to us and offered us their phones, so we were able to contact our families, our FBO, and EAA Chapter 774 members to tell them we would not make it to the meeting.

I looked up to see a friend of mine, Leslie, running toward me, shouting, “Phyllis, is that you?” She gave me a bear hug and said that she could not believe that I was alive. I told myself that maybe I lived in Montgomery County too long when the first person who showed up after we crash-landed an airplane in a field is a friend of mine! What are the odds?

wreckage

FAA
The next few days were gut wrenching for Dad. Friday was FAA day, that dreaded day when you must interview with the feds and submit your report. Then the NTSB gets involved, makes their notes, and you go away nervous, not knowing what they are going to do or say. Following the interview, Dad was told that the scene had been released, and he could go ahead and begin cleanup and salvage operations.

The following day, Saturday, Dad took truck and trailer to the site and cut the airplane into pieces, removing the wreckage from the hayfield. Sunday was spent cleaning up the hayfield and repairing the farmer’s fence that we destroyed. I felt so bad for my father; it must have been sickening for him to have cut up into little pieces the charred and burned wreckage and then to haul it away.

wreckage

The Aftermath
That airplane was a dear friend. Dad could hardly speak about it afterward, but once the pieces were home, he disassembled the engine and PSRU. Close inspection revealed that the engine caught fire along the right side due to the failure of a braided steel fuel line near the fuel pump.

Apparently the lining failed, allowing fuel to spray back along the right side of the engine, igniting it on the headers, burning the distributor completely off, and leaving the spark plug wires looking like wire mesh. The fire burned a hole in the aluminum firewall; the smoke we were seeing was in part due to the insulation burning between the firewall and the cockpit. We did not know how very close we were to having fire in the cockpit during descent until we saw that hole in the firewall. Thank God for the haze that appeared, requiring that we fly lower than we would have otherwise. We didn’t have any extra time to descend from a higher altitude.

Thank God that this fire did not happen on our way home that night. I am pretty sure that no one would be able tell a hayfield from the piney woods at night, not even my Dad. And thank God for Dad’s unwavering and decisive piloting skills. Never did I doubt that he could get us down safely. I was not afraid. My friends asked me if I would ever fly again. My answer: any time, any day, with my Dad.

The postscript to this story is that Dad’s Geared DrivesPSRU escaped the impact, prop strike, and fire completely unscathed. Inspection of the unit on the bench following the accident (with witnesses in attendance) revealed absolutely no damage to the aluminum case, shaft, gears, flywheel, clutch assembly, or any of the other components. We were both stunned and humbled at the same time.

Unscathed internals

Unscathed internals

The unscathed internals of Bud’s charred PSRU

Dad’s PSRU performed far beyond his expectations and under the worst of circumstances. One of our friends joked that we could now tell everyone that we literally “test-run ’em into the ground!” Sometimes laughter is what gets you through.

John Moyle, Phyllis Ridings, and Nicholas Wood.
Phyllis Ridings taking a monument to visit with the CONTACT! Magazine volunteers during the 2007 COPPERSTATE Fly-In. Left: John Moyle. Rear: Nicholas Wood.

The Monday following the loss of his aircraft, Dad continued on in typical style, fulfilling his obligation to attend and participate in the COPPERSTATE Regional Fly-In, and conducting several forums on automotive conversions. Dad is currently making plans to build his next airplane and is leaning heavily toward building an RV-10. He has already begun plans to build his firewall-forward package for this aircraft and plans to have an LS-1 engine with a Geared Drives PSRU on an engine stand to demonstrate at Sun ’n Fun 2008.

Of particular interest, he has just delivered three PSRUs to customers in New South Wales, Australia, for installation in their scaled P-51s. One is for use with a Chevy V8 and two of them are set up for use on BMW V12 engines. Dad has delivered another PSRU which is currently undergoing testing for possible use in a Reno air racer. His agreement with this customer is that if they can blow it up in testing, he will do what it takes to beef it up so that they can race it at the 2008 Reno Air Races!

Several other interesting projects are underway, not the least of which is the one-of-a-kind Mooney experimental that Dad has been working on for part of the last year. This airplane has a supercharged Ecotec 2.0-liter Chevrolet engine installed with the Geared DrivesPSRU, and at 205 hp it is really expected to be a super performer. We also have a customer in Canada who is flying a Chevrolet V8 with a Geared DrivesPSRU installed in his Cessna 182. The progress of these and additional projects will be posted at www.GearedDrives.com.

Note: The intense personal nature of the loss of our Wheeler has made it difficult to write about or to tell others about. However, the fact remains that we experimental aircraft enthusiasts can learn from one another’s trials and tribulations, successes and failures. Our hope is that perhaps someone will benefit from us sharing our experiences.

We humbly offer a special thank-you to our experimental aviation family for your support and good wishes throughout this time, which has been difficult for us, but know that it will take more than the loss of an aircraft to destroy our vision and dampen our determination. See you all at Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh in 2008!

Bud Warren and daughter Phyllis Ridings

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