Gillespie, I Have to Return

I had just finished the engine run-up and instrument check in a Cessna 172 and pulled up to the hold line for Gillespie Field's runway 27R at about 10:30 this morning, June 2. I switched to tower frequency to get clearance, but the airplane directly across from me beat me to it and taxied out. As soon as he lifted off, I heard, "Gillespie Tower, I have to return to the airport immediately, I have a canopy open."

We listened as the pilot in the troubled aircraft tried to call the tower to get clearance to return, and the tower trying to contact him. All we could hear was his open mic and wind. Then the squeal on the radio indicating two radios calling at once. A few seconds later, tower ordered the airport closed and all of us were told to change to the ground frequency and hold our positions.

The troubled pilot had attempted to make a 180-degree turn and return to the field and, as often happens in such circumstances, lost too much altitude in the turn and struck power lines at the east side of the field over Cuyamaca Street. The plane flipped upside down onto the street. El Cajon fire and airport authorities responded immediately. The pilot was extricated and taken by ambulance to a hospital.

The blocked communications we had heard on both frequencies were caused by ESL student pilots who were not paying attention to radio traffic and the emergency in progress. This has been an ongoing problem at Gillespie Field.

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I think your the only one that had this story about "how" it happened. Everyone else from TV to KOGO just reported that the crash happened. Good job being on the scene.

Quite the inside scoop! Thanks for bringing in this breaking news - I'd love to see followup coverage of the referenced ongoing communication snafus caused by irresponsible radio behavior --

Wow, this is the kind of inside story I love to read!

Thanks, great reporting!

One easy solution would be for the FAA to provide a special emergency frequency at every tower controlled field and start with the ones that do student training! This "emergency" frequency would have allowed the pilot in question to contact SEE's controller instead of being unable to do so because someone else (for any reason) was using the normal frequency... Whatever the reason, the pilot that made the improper 180° turn lucked out by being able to walk away from a crash that he as pilot in command could have prevented despite having his radio in effect "inoperable"...

As far as the radio frequency traffic being unusable; the "ESL student pilots" are not the only pilots that goof up using the radio and either their Instructors and or the tower controllers need to take a look at what can be done to make sure that all pilots (student & licensed) use their radio's properly...

BTW: The FAA has in place provisions for "communicating" with pilots using light signals that are used when their radio's are not working. This system was used (and is still in use today) successfully for many many years before the use of radios became commonplace and pilots flew all the time in aircraft with open cockpits...

Founder, thanks for the comments.

KSEE does monitor 121.5, however to switch while fighting a stalling airplane,one full of smoke, or one with no engine at all, is really asking a little too much of a pilot in trouble at low altitude.

I believe the problem is with CFI's employed by "mill" type flight schools under pressure to pass everyone along so more can be stuffed into the pipeline. The former Congressman Hunter's office received one investigation, however I believe another is needed and will take the appropriate steps to instigate one.

Light signals are great, I've used them when I was NORDO, however in a severe emergency, looking to the tower for lights just doesn't do the trick when you are lining up a dead stick landing with no flaps.


I hope that was not you as PIC of the crashed airplane! That said here are some comments about the problems that I believed caused that crash:

  1. Pilot - Commenting on only what I've read, it seems like the pilot made some wrong decisions based upon on having a "canopy open". I may be wrong, but does that aircraft's manufacturer consider a "canopy open" a life threatening event or is it more like something to just "deal with" (like a loose or banging door) until you can make a safe landing and correct it? I don't know the answer to that question, but my guess is the later. I do know that the combination of taking off, only to discover a problem at low altitude/low speed, with no tower communication and then trying a high rate of turn back toward the runway is a nightmare situation for most pilots...

  2. Flight Schools - They have their own set of problems and more than one "pilot mill" has lost both pilots and aircraft due to "expedited" training schedules. All CFI's need the ability to not sign off a student until they are ready to solo! It's also helpful to remember that instructors flying with other instructors also have their share of accidents; with the most of the accidents happening near airfields and while in the "pattern"...

  3. FAA - I'd also like to mention, that the FAA should require all student pilots pass a English test PRIOR TO SOLO FLIGHT. The test should be computer based and requires them to take part in a random set of radio traffic scenario's that would identify those that needs additional work on their required English skills, because English is the official language of aviation, it is silly in this day and age to rely upon a English Skills checked box on a form to allow students to solo (fly without an instructor) until they are able to communicate with the tower successfully. This test should include both ground control and flight traffic and would be another step in preventing future accidents and or loss of life!

  4. CFI/FAA -I've suggested often that the FAA should also allow student pilots to have their Instructor onboard (acting only as safety pilot) with the understanding that the student could still log that flight as solo flight time (unless the Instructor has to do or say anything in which case the flight would be logged as dual training) for at least part of both their solo and solo cross country flight time license requirements. This change in the rules would not only reduce incidents, reduce runway incursions, reduce accidents and save lives but produce better trained pilots than doing it the "old school" way, as it is done now...

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