It’s what you don’t see that usually gets you! That was the case when I landed my airplane January 26 in six inches of wet snow on our mountain top strip. We walked away unscathed, but it didn’t end well for the airplane.
I researched snow-depth-landing recommendations on the web and in flying publications. My research indicated half way up on the main wheels or six inches should be fine. The snow depth at the time of the accident was well below half way up the tires, and exactly six inches. I’ve flown eight years and a thousand hours in this airplane, landing on many types of surfaces, and couldn’t imagine this would be a problem. It’s what you don’t know or see that gets you!
Evidently there are different densities of wet snow. That was never mentioned in my research. This snow uprooted many trees in the area and broke off many branches. Local farmers reported that they had trouble getting around on their tractors and four wheelers to feed livestock.
As a result of this mishap, I’ve become friends with a Maule pilot in Alaska, who’s interested in buying and rebuilding the airplane. Mainly for my flying friends and backcountry pilots, I’ll record parts of our conversation about landing in wet snow to add to our collective knowledge base. Then, I’ll add a couple of spiritual lessons this may teach us.
PEOPLE WHO KNOW
Question: “What’s the deepest wet snow you’ve landed in? And what size were your tires? How would you say pilots in Alaska would typically answer the question: ‘How deep is the deepest wet snow in which one should attempt a landing?'”
Answer: “Six inches of wet snow and 31’s [big tundra tires] inflated to 5 psi. If you have tires like 850s [which is what I have], then maybe 4 inches of snow with full back yoke and some rpms to keep the tail down. I powered up to half throttle after I touched down.” He then added: “Honestly I wouldn’t recommend any snow — too risky.”
My immediate thought was, “Where have you been? Or where were you when I was researching this? This is exactly the kind of information that could have saved the day — and my airplane! Someone knew it, but I didn’t, and it didn’t turn up in my research.
Well, “Live and learn,” as the old saying goes. Or as a quote attributed to Mark Twain goes: “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.” I think the first applies, but not totally the second in this instance. It wasn’t bad judgment as much as misinformation or insufficient information after a diligent search that got me into trouble. But the results are the same. It’s what you don’t know or see that gets you!
THE WAY IT’S ALWAYS BEEN
Also, a kind of latent pride, or feeling of invincibility can get you too, or be a contributing factor. I mentioned I flew this airplane eight years, for one thousand hours, and in many challenging conditions. I felt like I knew it very well and trusted its capabilities, as well as my own. Two related memories now flood my mind.
In the middle of my fighter career, I was walking back from lunch to the squadron ready room with a close, fighter-pilot friend. He mentioned to me that, “I’m a major with 1000 hours in the F-4. Statistically, that’s when most accidents happen. I need to really watch myself.” He was one of the best fighter pilots in the squadron, but a month later he flew into a mountain killing himself and his back seater. Even with a heightened sense or awareness that success and comfort can be dangerous, bad things still happen.
During our trip to Alaska in 2017, I asked a mechanic in Anchorage who filed a nick out of one of my prop blades about the Maule’s reputation in Alaska. He said, “It’s a fine airplane, but it’s misunderstood because it’s a little short-coupled.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but I think I do now. He meant the center of gravity is forward enough that it has a propensity to nose over if stopped too fast. This threat is exacerbated by its flying characteristics being very much the same with any load and not betraying this propensity until it happens, suddenly, from an abrupt stop.
This issue is demonstrated by what my Alaska friend told me next: “The nose of my airplane is lighter too. I have a carbon fiber cowl (16# lighter), and my engine is 60# lighter than yours, and I only have a two blade prop, whereas you have a three blade prop.” He was saying, “Your nose is heavier than mine, therefore even more likely to flip over if stopped abruptly.” So, one can get too comfortable and not know the whole story quite as well as he thinks he does.
On a different side of the coin, or maybe the same side, as I think about it, I have a math, engineering, and physics friend named Sam who did a lot of research and pondering my landing-in-snow accident. He’s a fighter pilot, an American Airline’s pilot, and has flown his C-172 in the back country, so he was motivated and interested enough to spend considerable hours with algorithms, diagrams, and a calculator. The layman’s summary he relayed to me was: “Dense snow compacted quickly in front of your tires until it became like concrete blocks. I don’t think it mattered what technique you might have used, it’s like sliding into second base — when you hit the base, you’re going to stop.” The final truth is probably tucked between those two points of view, with the overall lesson being: “On unknown snowy condition days, leave the airplane in the hangar.”
The Maule MX-7 is a wonderful, trustworthy airplane in almost every environment, but a little tricky in this one — wet snow, which is seldom encountered, and to be avoided. It’s what you don’t know or see that gets you!
Do you think this could apply to the church in America and the West? Things have gone along pretty well for a long time. Could there be a sudden stop? One that changes everything? It’s what you don’t know or see that gets you! Read about the church in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Read Eric Metaxas’ book Bonhoeffer, and his short, strong book Letter to the American Chruch.
Do you think this could apply to our country and culture? Things have gone well for a long time and even with some major upheavals we’ve always been able to right the ship. Surely these chaotic times will be no different, right? It’s what you don’t know or see that gets you! Read the history of Israel and Judah around 722BC and 586BC. Or read the major and minor prophets sent to them in those times — Isaiah through Malachi.
It behoves all of us, especially Christians, the church, to pay attention to what’s going on and carefully navigate our times. We need to return to the fear of the Lord and obedience as quickly as possible. We need to pray for His help — His grace to do this. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8).
We must put away our idols, seeing them for the life and future-robbing activities and objects they are. Spend time with Him in solitude, silence, reading the Bible, and prayer. He will help you see clearly and to know what to do. This is in effect the message of my latest book Puzzling 2020.
If we don’t , I feel we’re in for a sudden stop, an upside-down upset, and a damaged church, country, and culture, with no clear way to getting back what we’ve lost.
““Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” (Jonah 2:8, NIV) Or as an earlier version of the NIV says, they “forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”
“Those who forsake the law praise the wicked,
But those who keep the law strive with them.
Evil men do not understand justice,
But those who seek the Lord understand all things” (Proverbs 28:4-5 NASB).