The Destruction of Decathlon 62973

When a building starts moving towards you, it’s time to think … fast. Only your brain doesn’t exactly comprehend what is happening … or what to do … because, most of us have never seen a building moving in any direction, especially not towards us. It is, however, advisable that when a building starts moving towards you, you get the bloodyfrknhell out of its way. Even if it means letting go of the airplane that you’re trying to keep from being blown away in a thunder storm so strong that it can move a building.

And that, ladies and gents, is how I said goodbye to my Decathlon.

Ready. Set. Go: group sigh.

She was a fine airplane, the prettiest airplane on the field and, despite her quirks, she was my love. I will miss her ‘til the day I die, because she was the first airplane I ever owned all by myself.

How did it happen? Or, more specifically, what led to the Decathlon being stuck outside a hangar for, most likely, the only time in her non-flying life is a sad tale that angers me as I write this, two weeks later.

A really freakish thunderstorm hit San Diego, Tuesday, 16Sep. It was fueled by that hurricane that beat the crap outta Cabo – Odile was her name.

I had decided to replace a radio in the airplane that produced static – and something sounding like synthetic music from a 50’s sci-fi flick. The local avionics shop, manned by a man I like and respect and consider a friend, suggested a used (he knew I wouldn’t buy new) radio. We had agreed on the price and I taxied the Decathlon to the avionics hangar on Tuesday morning, 16Sep14. The removal of the old radio, connectors and tray in which it sat went well and the mechanic assured me that the job would be done early the next day. I was happy.

On that day, I was scheduled to fly with the wife of a student who was considering her own private pilot certificate – or, at least, a pinch-hitter-type course that might enable her to land in case hubby cashed his chips in the air. We were scheduled at 5pm, but traffic and work caused them to text me that they’d be ½ hour late. No problem.

I arrived at the airport just before 5pm and drove by the avionics hangar, where I found the mechanic moving the Decathlon out of the avionics maintenance hangar. “Finished already,” I asked. He replied in the negative, explaining that he had to bring the Bonanza belonging to the chief of the maintenance operation into the hangar because it had a number of panels open and exposed by an ongoing, uncompleted job. I wasn’t tickled with the Decathlon living outside, overnight, but I didn’t want to argue the point.

I had brought the Skye dog with me to the airport. She loved the airport, my wife wouldn’t be home for a few hours, and my flight would only last an hour – it was an intro ride to see if the wife liked flying.

I had noticed an area of very dark cloud approaching Montgomery – odd any time of the year since SoCal averages 2-4 thunderstorms per year. I checked radar and it didn’t appear too intense, there were no t-storm forecasts and no significant weather warnings. When I emerged from the FBO, I could see that the t-storm had grown in height and that there was serious rain falling a couple of miles north of NKX, the Marine Corp Air Station 2 miles north of Montgomery. The wind was blowing it in our direction and it was increasing in speed.

I checked to make sure that the doors and windows of the Stearman Ale House (the hangar which houses our Stearman, the owner’s Super Cub on floats, and which rings with laughter during “Sunday Services”.) The hangar was secure – but the rain started to fall and the wind started to blow harder.

We drove to the edge of the ramp, watching the storm as it started pelting Montgomery with heavy drops of rain. There was some weenie in a 172 in the pattern, even after a special weather observation warned of winds gusting to 27 and reports of low level wind shear. (The weenie landed shortly thereafter, fast and long, and took out a runway end light when he skidded off the west end of 28R.) As the rain arrived in torrents, we decided to check on the Decathlon. The mechanic was hanging on to the end of the right wing strut, soaking, and I realized that the owner needed to help him out.

I got soaked on the ten foot run to the left wing of the Decathlon, and started hanging on to the left strut. When the rain abated, somewhat, I raced around to the pax door and fastened the seat belt around the stick – it hadn’t been fastened and the airplane wasn’t tied down. Then the wind and rain really started to blow. The airplane was pointed southwest and the wind was roaring outta the northeast, when a really weird thing caught my eye: the trailer just east of the hangar started moving towards us, and it was being pushed by a T-hangar.

And this is where the story begins. It may have taken a nano-second – it may have taken five – before I realized that, if I didn’t get my touchas outta the way, I was going to get run over by a moving building. The mechanic and I let go of the airplane and jumped out of the way. He tumbled to the ground and I thought he was going to get hit by the hangar, but he rolled out of its way. I had to jump over the triangular-shaped steel beams that held the trailer hitch that was attached to the trailer being pushed to the south by the hangar.

We both got inside the avionics hangar and realized that we weren’t safe because the wind and rain were lashing it and the hangar roof was lifting up and down in the wind. We tucked inside his office – the bottom floor of a two-story wooden structure that was built into the hangar’s eastern edge. It was then that I remembered that Skye was still in the car, which was in the small alley just east of the hangar that had moved 60 feet in the storm.

I ran back to the car and saw Skye standing in the front pax seat, shaking. I climbed into the car, soaked to the bone, and she tried to jump into my lap – apparently, she had never seen a building move, either. We drove the short distance to the front of the avionics hangar, I had to coax her from the car into the rain and the rivers of water falling from the sky and rushing past us on the tarmac, and we ran into the hangar and she ran up the stairs to the second floor structure. She was still shaking.

We all moved inside the avionics shop structure and Skye calmed some. The rain and wind diminished. I ventured outside the office, stuck my head outside the hangar, and that’s when I realized that the Decathlon was no more. The moving hangar had pushed the poor thing south into the shelters. It had spun her around 180 degrees, had snapped both right wing spars, and her right wing and struts were on the ground. The right main wheel axle was bent, the right main spring steel gear was gent and half the right wheel fairing had been torn loose. The spinner was dented, the prop was bent, fuel was spouting from the right wing fuel cap, the rudder and elevators were smashed and there was damage to the vertical and horizontal stabilizers. There was a tie down chain that had wrapped around the right horizontal stab and crushed the right side of the elevator. She seemed so sad – like the one thing she was born to do had been taken from her by a freakish weather event that could move a building. Two days later, the insurance adjustor totaled her.

The hangar that moved 60 feet in the storm destroyed the airplane that formerly lived inside it – he is a lawyer and had stored a bunch of legal files inside the hangar, some of which, enclosed in plastic, became missiles blown by the storm. A Cessna 180 that lived under the shelter was shoved back into the steel upright I-beams that supported the roof of the shelter. Its flaps and ailerons were mashed by the I-beams and the moving hangar struck it under the cowl, lifted it into the air and bent the empennage 90 degrees to the starboard side of the airplane. It’s totaled.

My Decathlon was shoved into the wing of a Cessna 337, and I don’t know how much damage was caused to it – but wood and fabric wings usually lose when pushed into aluminum.

In any case, I’ll get a check that will pay for all the money/engine/improvements that I spent on 62973. I’ll use it to pay for part of a Super Cub. It won’t, however, pay for the hole in my heart. She was a sweet airplane and I loved her. She cost me more money than I could afford, but she flew like a dream and deserved a far better fate. I’m crying as I write this.

So … shed a tear for the sweet thing. Raise a glass and toast her, if you think of her. I’ll be a bit of a wreck.

The next day, a good friend said to me, and I paraphrase: “I know you feel bad for your airplane but think of this. In a year or two, you would have had to pay upwards of $25K to recover and repaint her. If you had sold her before she was destroyed, the most you could have gotten was $45K. The weather gods just handed you a huge gift.” He’s right, of course. But she deserved better. Beautiful airplanes shouldn’t die because some weenie wanted his Bonanza out of the storm.

Sorry for prattling on. I’m wallowing in self pity. I know that I’m better off, financially … but she deserved better.






Posted in Aviation Stories