‘Hey, honey, I’m in a cornfield’

Published 3:35 pm Monday, August 3, 2009

Tom GranvilleWithin seconds, he knew he could not put his Cirrus SR22 on the ground without a parachute. Thankfully, the plane had one.

Granville, 63, grew up in Clark Summit, Pa., near Scranton. After attending University of Miami, where he met his wife, Gail, he started his career as a mortgage broker in Miami, later running his own mortgage company in Orlando.

He had always wanted to fly, but had promised his wife to wait until their two boys had flown the coop.

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The opportunity presented itself sooner than that. He bartered on a mortgage deal with a flight instructor and took to the skies. &bsp;

After selling his company to a bank in the late 1980s, he and some partners began buying up assets from the Resolution Trust Corp., the &dquo;bad bank&dquo; for the savings and loan crisis. They bought bad loans for cents on the dollar and began &dquo;working them out.&dquo;

Through one RTC purchase, Granville wound up owning a restaurant in downtown Orlando. He converted it to O&squo; Boys BBQ, and now his son runs a chain of three O&squo; Boys BBQs in Florida.

Gail owns and operates Accents on Main in Landrum. The couple live parttime in Tryon and parttime in Florida.

Over the years, flying has helped Granville do business. He flew all over the country east of the Mississippi River, all the time. He is a commercial rated pilot, a certificate which focuses on a better understanding of aircraft systems and a higher standard of airmanship. He is instrument rated and can fly aircraft by referring only to the aircraft instrument panel for navigation.

Granville bought his Cirrus SR22 brand new in 2002. It is a single-engine, four-seater with fixed landing gear, simple operation engine, and state-of-the-art avionics for controlling and monitoring communication, navigation, weather, and anti-collision systems.

It flies very fast, up to 200 mph.

Granville had 2,531 hours of total flying time when the accident happened, 900 hours of that in his Cirrus, tail number N34TG (November-Three-Four-Tango-Golf). While that is not a long time in the age of the plane, that is a lot of time for a pilot to fully explore the craft, Granville said.

So last month, when Granville flew up to visit his sister in New Jersey, it was nothing unusual. He flew into Central Jersey Regional Airport in Somerset County, N.J. There was weather coming in, so Granville changed his return flight plans and began preparing for his flight home early evening on Monday, June 8.

It was to be a two-and-a-half-hour hop to Spartanburg. He filed a flight plan under instrument flight rules and was to be in contact with controllers the entire way.

At 8:15 p.m., he was about 30 minutes from Spartanburg, flying at about 6,000 feet above sea level, with Surry County, N.C., about 5,000 feet below. The sun was setting, there were clouds to the west and storms further west in Asheville.

Then, out of nowhere, came a tremendous noise.

The plane started shaking &dquo;like a paint can in the mixer at the paint store,&dquo; Granville said.

Granville switched off auto pilot and began &dquo;hand flying.&dquo; He slowed the plane to about 100 knots (about 115 mph). He called the controller and declared an emergency. The controller told him the nearest airport was located three miles northeast of the central business district of Elkin, a town in Surry County, N.C.

Amid the violent shaking of the plane, Granville struggled to enter the Elkin Municipal Airport&squo;s location indicator into his navigation electronics.

The plane&squo;s engine was still making power, so he turned the nose around and headed for Elkin.

Engine oil was beginning to completely envelop the windshield, and was wisping down the side windows. Granville couldn&squo;t see. He was strictly flying by the gauges.

&dquo;I knew I couldn&squo;t land the plane,&dquo; he said. &dquo;You just have to have visibility. And Elkin is a very small airport.

&dquo;I decided the only possible way to put the plane on the ground was to activate that parachute.&dquo;

The Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS&rade;) is standard equipment on every Cirrus aircraft. No other certified general aviation aircraft manufacturer in the world provides this safety feature as standard equipment, according to Cirrus&squo; website.

In the event of an in-flight emergency, pulling the CAPS&rade; handle on the ceiling inside the cockpit deploys a solid-fuel rocket out a hatch that covers the concealed compartment where the parachute is stored.

As the rocket carries the parachute rearward from the back of the airplane, the CAPS&rade; airplane harness straps release from the fuselage.

Within seconds (cross your fingers), the 55&squo; diameter canopy unfurls, controlling the disabled aircraft&squo;s rate of descent.

Granville told the controller his plan.

He had no idea what was below him at the moment, a forest, a lake, a highway. He also wondered if the parachute would work.

&dquo;I remember, just before I pulled the handle, thinking, &squo;I really hope this works.&squo; Because if it didn&squo;t work, any option of continuing to fly the plane would have been gone with a blown parachute dragging behind.

&dquo;That would have been the end,&dquo; he said.

Granville couldn&squo;t safely delay pulling the chute either. The engine was still running on five cylinders, but with all the oil flying out, it was going to freeze up quickly.

He might have controlled a powerless glide for awhile, but with no visibility, he wasn&squo;t sure how well he could have handled the plane. Once a plane starts to dive, it is too late to pull the chute, Granville said. The dive velocity will rip the parachute right off.

Granville pulled the handle.

&dquo;I heard this bang, and I could feel the parachute begin to deploy,&dquo; he said.

The oil lights were all flashing and he was still talking to the controller.

&dquo;Tell me your altitude as you descend,&dquo; the controller said. &dquo;Because I am going to lose you (on radar) below 3,000 feet.&dquo;

The plane descended ‐ 6,000, 5,000, 4000 ‐ dropping at 1,800 feet per minute, a little faster than a person would, but certainly nothing like a free fall.

With an open, round parachute, it takes a body about 24 and a half minutes to descend from 40,000 feet, about 1,633 feet per minute, according to the Free Fall Research Page. At that rate, the landing speed is about 14 miles an hour.

With no parachute, however, in free fall, it takes a little over three minutes to fall 40,000 feet and the landing speed is about 110 miles per hour.

&dquo;The impact with the chute is about like jumping from 13 feet,&dquo; Granville said, a good hard jolt. The Cirrus&squo;s seats and landing gear are designed to take and soften the impact.

&dquo;Score Chute Save #19 For Cirrus,&dquo; the Aero-News.Net headlines proclaimed the next day, reporting Granville&squo;s survival. An ad in the June/August 2009 issue of Cirrus Pilot touts &dquo;33 saves to date&dquo; over an illustration of the parachute deploying.

As he was falling, Granville said he had no control over the plane, or where he might land. Out of his peripheral vision, he glanced at trees going by and then ‐ ugh ‐ he was on the ground, smack dab in the middle of a four-acre cornfield surrounded by 50- to 60-foot trees.

One lucky pilot.

&dquo;It was startling how sudden impact was,&dquo; he recalled. Receiving the jolt, he felt a searing pain between his shoulder blades and up into his neck. He&squo;s still working on some physical therapy from the accident, but recognizes how fortunate he is just to be alive.

&dquo;God was looking out for me,&dquo; he said.

As soon as he realized he was on the ground, he began to try to get out of the plane. The doors were jammed, but the Cirrus engineers thought to store a ball peen hammer in the seat armrest. He beat out the passenger window and crawled out. There was fuel leaking from the fuselage but no fire.

&dquo;I waited until I could get my senses back and started walking and thinking,&dquo; he said. &dquo;My cell phone rang in the plane. I got it and it was my sister calling to see if I&squo;d gotten back O.K. I let it go to voice mail.&dquo;

He should have been home by this time, and he knew his wife would be worried, so he called her.

&dquo;Hey,&dquo; he said.

&dquo;Hey. Where are you?&dquo;

&dquo;I&squo;m in a cornfield,&dquo; he replied.

&dquo;She was obviously blown away, but was relieved to know I was standing there and talking on my cell.&dquo;

In about ten minutes, Granville began hearing the sirens of emergency vehicles alerted by the air traffic controller. They were nearby on Still Water Lane and Mount Herman Church Road, attempting to triangulate his exact location using the plane&squo;s emergency locator transmitter signals.

&dquo;I heard the sirens, and it was obvious they couldn&squo;t quite find me,&dquo; he said. He called 911 and started hiking down a logging road where he found another cornfield and the rescue squad found him, waving his flashlight.

&dquo;The Surry County people were fabulous,&dquo; Granville said. &dquo;They took me to the hospital, gave me x-rays. Nothing was broken, no concussion.&dquo;

&dquo;He was up and walking around,&dquo; Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson told local news media. &dquo;He was extraordinarily calm for a man who had just survived a plane crash.&dquo;

&dquo;It was absolutely not his time,&dquo; said Johnny Shelton, Surry County Director of Emergency Services. &dquo;Everything came together for him. He was fortunate he did not land in a wooded area. To be able to hold his composure and make decisions had a whole lot to do with his survival. It certainly demonstrated his experience as a pilot.&dquo;

Surry County delivered Granville to a local hotel and Gail drove up to get him the next day.

&dquo;The look on his wife&squo;s face when they were first able to be together again told me a whole lot about their feelings regarding his good fortune,&dquo; Shelton said.

Meeting that day with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) at the crash site, Granville saw what caused the engine failure. A piston in one of the plane&squo;s six cylinders had disintegrated, and in failing broke a six inch hole in the engine casing.

That the engine would have failed at all is unusual. Most plane crashes are due to pilot error, Granville said, running out of gas or flying into bad weather being the two most common errors.

The Cirrus SR22&squo;s 310 hp engine had received its annual inspection last October, and was well shy of the 2,000 hour mark requiring a complete overhaul.

Granville said the Federal Aviation Administration has preliminarily ruled the crash as due to an &dquo;engine malfunction,&dquo; but the NTSB investigators will track the problem down to a certainty, if possible. Investigators sent the bad piston off for metal testing.

&dquo;There were perhaps thousands of planes with this engine, made at this time,&dquo; Granville said.

Granville hasn&squo;t flown since the accident. He definitely won&squo;t be flying November-Three-Four-Tango-Golf again.

He is, however, thinking about a twin engine plane. A second engine is insurance, like a parachute. If one engine goes out, the other can keep the plane aloft.

&dquo;Here&squo;s how I come out of this experience,&dquo; Granville said. &dquo;I just see that I made good decisions in the past. Just having that airplane (with a parachute) was a good decision.&dquo;