Encounter At Santo Domingo Pueblo
by Chuck Fairchild
Phil (395A) and I (4156) had been to Albuquerque that Sunday morning just kicking around, and had departed for home about noon. Cruising up the Rio Grande valley at about 1,000 ft AGL we overtook a passenger train headed north on the AT&SF tracks. Since we were headed the same direction we decided to make a friendly low pass. Dropping down, we did just that, passing over the train from rear to front.
As we pulled away, I realized that the train would be passing between Santo Domingo Pueblo and a hill on its right, then rounding a curve to the right. I decided to make a left reversal around the hill to meet it head-on as it came around.
For some reason that I still can't explain well (the nearest I can come is to say that it was the excitement of the chase), my sense of caution near the ground deserted me. I came around the curve as planned, as did the train. I pulled up to 10 ft above the engine and was cruising south looking into the front of the raised compartment of the observation car. With the train moving north and my Mite moving south I moved along it pretty fast. Looking up from the train, I saw a wire or cable stretching across immediately in front of me. A God-awful WHACK! resulted as I hit the wire, and I just sat there stunned.
For a second the Mite simply continued along above the train, then the right wing dropped slightly and it started a slow turnout to the right. A quick look to the right revealed why the wing had dropped. There was about 3 ft of wing fabric ripped off at the end, and I could see the leading edge plywood was damaged for another 2-3 ft inboard. Also, I could see what looked to be fabric trailing the wing and could see through a hole in the wing just in front of the spar. However, the plane was still flying, albeit a little heavy on the right wing.
I didn't try to gain any altitude as I continued the gradual turn toward the Rio Grande, eyeing fields along the way for a forced landing. As I looked around for other damage, I called Phil to come look me over. He had continued on after our first pass over the train, so he was orbiting a mile to the north, waiting for me. He pulled up to the right side and under me to take a look as I was trying to climb up to Los Alamos pattern altitude without losing much speed. I didn't know what my stall speed might be with a crippled wing. It seemed to climb a little slowly, but did climb. Phil reported that in addition to some of the right wing being gone the bottom was torn up some and the aileron was sans some fabric, such that he wasn't sure it would work properly. After that I simply continued on toward Los Angeles in somewhat stunned silence when over the radio, from Phil came "Curses Red Baron, shot down again".
Approaching the airport, I gradually slowed the plane to feel out its slow-flight characteristics. It was against Phil's advice but I wanted to land at something less than cruise speed if I could. I wasn't even sure that the wheels would lower. Slowing to about 80 mph IAS seemed to do nothing except make the right wing heavier, with no indication of stall. I decided that was good enough and headed down. I did notice a slight engine vibration as I cranked the prop to low pitch but paid little attention to it. The landing was not unusual, so as I taxied in I started thinking about the possible repercussions and stopped in front of the hanger rather than going to the gas pumps. We looked everything over as we hangared it, finding the wing damage to be the major item.
As we gassed Phil's plane the repercussions started. A local police car came driving up as we nonchalantly filled Phil's plane. The policeman informed us that a little red and white plane had been seen in the vicinity of Santo Domingo when their power was cut off. He asked if we knew anything about that. At first I thought about pretending innocence and suggesting that he inspect the plane (Phil's) if he thought we were involved. However, I figured that I couldn't carry it off either morally or because our planes were fairly widely known locally. In fact, I suspect the policeman knew, as he asked, that we each had a plane. So I chickened out and admitted I was the culprit. Woe is me!
For days I was questioned, accused, filled out reports, had pictures taken of the plane, and had a representative of the Bureau of Indian Affairs lecture me on the evils of behaving hostilely toward the Pueblo and nearly starting a war. The FAA inspected the plane, took pictures, wrote reports, and coldly asked for my explanation in writing. I gave them a story that Phil and I concocted about seeing a loose railroad tie or tree lying across the track. We went down to investigate — no train in the vicinity — and to our surprise it turned out to be the shadow of a pole, but I hit a wire that the pole supported.
It took months for the FAA to render a verdict, during which time I wasn't supposed to fly (but I did in Phil’s Mite--I had to). The final decision was anticlimactic. A reprimand was placed in my FAA file in OK City, period!
Repair of the physical damage was more lengthy. I repaired the wing myself by replacing the leading edge plywood of the outer 5 ft. and covering it with ceconite. Finally, the Mooney bird was inspected and approved, ready to go and so was I. After a few tests, the plane and I departed for a meeting in Gatlinburg, TN — a very pleasant trip, but that's another story.
The power lines were actually (and fortunately) cut by the propeller, as I discovered by examining it during repair. The leading edges of the blades had scratches and burns on them that could have only come from the lines. That was probably the cause of the engine vibration on landing. Also, I found a couple of small burned spots on the metal control hinges in the wing. It may have been very fortunate that the Mite was mostly wood and fabric — I may have been electrocuted in an all metal plane. But more scary was that the radio antenna had been neatly flicked off by a whipping cable-end, less than 18 inches from my head. The electric company informed me that two 7200 volt lines, approximately 1/4 in. diameter, had been cut by the prop. That blew a main transformer somewhere near the pueblo, but not before the lines burned the spots on my plane. They had called me to demand payment for the transformer but I fortunately could refer them to the insurance company. I don't know the cost, but they declined to renew my insurance policy when the time came.
I've often tried to rationalize my forgetting to look for power lines stretching across the track. Normally, I was cautious about poles, wires, etc. But for some inexplicable reason on that fateful day my caution deserted me, eclipsed by excitement and exhilaration. Maybe the phenomenon isn't unusual; perhaps more accidents than we know occur due to temporary lapses in the self-preservation instinct. Whatever the reason, I often thank God for the small miracle He granted to keep those cables from ripping the Mite apart and/or slicing me to lunchmeat!
April 4, 2004