Rotor Current
By: Hal Hayden

I live in Northern Arizona, in the transition zone between the desert and the high Colorado Plateau. It's a beautiful area at about 5000 MSL with high valleys, foothills and mountains... really great for sightseeing in the C-II. In the summer we usually fly early due to the turbulence that is present by mid-morning. Often we fly low over the terrain in the valleys because it is landable just about anywhere and it's fun to chase the antelope.

One Saturday morning I was out flying with a hang-gliding friend of mine. It was later than usual (about 10:00), but it was mostly overcast and cool with little to no wind. We flew east, stopping to circle a friend's place and checking out the glider port to see what they were up to. Their wind sock showed calm. Our destination was the field where a fellow does aero towing of hang gliders with a trike. I had just installed a switch in my Challenger to allow me to use both a handheld navcom and my 2-meter ham radio. I wanted to see how well it worked talking to the hang gliding gang.

My passenger asked me to detour to a small group of hills along the way to see something. When we got there I made a pass along the hills from South to North about 100 feet AGL. We had been watching for wind direction along the way because it was calm where we took off, but it's very localized around here. Having seen no wind yet, I didn't worry about a possible rotor from the hills we were paralleling. As we reached the Northerly end of the hills, I turned east to cross over the ridge on our right and began to climb. As we approached the saddle on the ridge I realized it felt like we were being pushed down by a rotor.

This is where I exacerbated the situation. I was approaching the ridge at an angle, as was always drilled into me by my mountain flying GA instructors. This, of course, gives you a way back out to the valley if you run into this problem. I reacted by taking this escape route and beginning a left turn away from the ridge.

Too slow and too low. As soon as the plane began the turn away, we were severely dumped nose down and banked over to the left 60 - 70 degrees, no doubt stalled. I reacted with immediate stick back and full right rudder, which is the position they were still in after the crash. We were looking at the ground in the windshield about 50 feet away by this point, so I figured we would go in. I did not add power because it was already at 3/4 or more and I knew that with a pusher it would worsen our problem in the short term.

The plane responded to the control input and began to roll back level and get its nose up, but we needed about 10 more feet to make it. When we hit the hillside, the left wingtip struck first, then the lower nose and fuselage. We both remained conscious and began trying to extricate ourselves quickly. The motor was running at high revs - the prop had been sheared off by limbs - and it didn't stop when I switched the mags. We both got out and my passenger managed to kill the engine with the enrichners. I collapsed about 20 feet away because I couldn't walk or stay on my feet.

Anyway, we were extremely lucky. There are many lessons here - besides the obvious one of not flying too low or close to a hill. My passenger was not hurt too badly - just really shaken, bruised and sore for a couple of weeks. I came away with a compression fracture of one vertebra and a pretty good hole in my right leg.

Things I learned:

1. Don't always react to your situation as you've been taught. At least think for a second first. If I had just added power and maintained best climb, we might have made it over the ridge. Even if we had not, we would have just been forced down on the upslope at a low speed and probably not done any more damage than a broken gear.

2. The front seat in my plane had been replaced with a hard sheet-metal seat with a cushion. My passenger was in the sling seat. I got the back injury - he didn't. I'll be using a sling seat this time around.

3. A kill switch is a good idea.

4. Secure the plane as soon as possible. Despite being out in the country and not very visible, someone who checked it out in the 3 days before we could haul it away pulled the handle on the Second Chantz rocket and deployed it. It is now unusable and cannot be re-armed. An $1800 mistake.

5. Carry a cell phone, survival kit and water. Fortunately we had all 3 and each was very nice to have at hand.

In summary, it was a bad day!

By: Hal Hayden