an unconscious landing

Plane Lands Itself in Hayfield as Pilot Slumbers
By Douglas R. Burnett

Pilots love to describe their great landings, some of which are characterized (usually by others) as "unconscious." However, to land while being unconscious, yet able to describe it is an entirely different matter. Ordinarily, a pilot's in-flight incapacitation brings about tragic consequences.

On the afternoon of March 1, 1999, we were enjoying an exceptionally good Basic AME (aviation medical examiner) seminar. Dr. Allen Parmet, presenting aviation physiology (as always, on Monday afternoon), had started to tell the remarkable story of a pilot who lost consciousness while flying alone and woke up in a hay field. Before Dr. Parmet could finish, a voice from the back of the room exclaimed, "I was that pilot!"

Dr. Robert Frayser, from Hoisington, Kan., attending his first AME seminar, took over telling this incredible, real-life incident that had happened to him just over a year ago in central Missouri. He had left his home airport at 7 am enroute for Topeka, Kan. "I was flying alone in my Comanche 400, cruising at 5,500 feet on autopilot, with the sun coming up on a clear, beautiful day." All was routine flying activity as he switched the fuel selector to the auxiliary tank and set up the navigation system for his destination.

After that, it was anything but routine. "Then, I lost about an hour and a half of my life." The plane, trimmed for cruise flight and on autopilot, flew a perfectly straight course over Kansas until it ran out of fuel and glided to a landing near Cairo, Mo. When he awoke, confused, disoriented, and groggy from a deep sleep, he thought he was still in the air and went through landing preparations. As he became more oriented to his surroundings, he realized that he was now on the ground, in a hayfield. The engine was silent. The airplane's right wing was nearly torn off from an impact with a small tree, but the plane was otherwise intact. Aside from some minor cuts and bruises, he seemed to be relatively uninjured. Frayser says he had no memory of landing.

Frayser stated that there were no early warnings or symptoms to alert him. "I just went to sleep." Since the engine had stopped, no one heard the aircraft as it landed on the open field. "I was alone, disoriented, injured, and had a severe headache and ringing in my ears," he said.

Extracting himself from the aircraft, he struggled a quarter of a mile through snow-covered fields for help, finally finding a farmhouse. Still dazed, he says, "I tried to explain to the farmer what had happened," adding, "he probably thought I was crazy." Fortunately, the farmer called for help. Frayser was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where the emergency room physician put him on 100 percent oxygen. He had a few cuts and bruises, sore ribs, and a fractured left wrist.

What had caused him to fall asleep? It wasn't an "alien encounter" or a mystery. It was carbon monoxide poisoning from a cracked manifold that had allowed the deadly, odourless gas to seep into the cabin through the heater. The crack, which had apparently opened after the last annual inspection, was concealed by the heat shield and could not be detected during the pre-flight inspection. "The crack could have been there for a long time, just waiting for someone to turn on the heater," he said.

Frayser did not have a carbon monoxide detector aboard to alert him.

Was it luck that he survived? Of course, luck had a lot to do with it. Just a few feet shorter and his "runway" would have been a ploughed field. Had his glide angle been a little lower, he would have hit power lines. A slight wind gust could have changed the outcome dramatically. Another 30 minutes in the air and he probably would have succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

However, two things he did correctly probably saved his life. First, he had good equipment that kept the plane stabile until it landed. Second, Frayser says he had quit smoking six months earlier; that factor gave him a probable life-saving margin of an additional 8 percent on his oxygen-haemoglobin dissociation curve. His carboxyhaemoglobin level was estimated at 44 percent when he exited the plane (50 percent is usually considered lethal), and it was still at 36 percent when he arrived at the hospital.

The Piper Comanche, which Frayser says was "very special" to him, was removed from the field on a flat-bed truck and taken to an aircraft salvage yard. After the accident, 20 aircraft from the same airfield were inspected and three were found to have cracked manifolds—and only two had CO detectors.

Frayser says he now has a new Comanche 400, identical to the old one, "except it is blue instead of red—and, I now fly with a good carbon monoxide detector in the cockpit."

NEW AIRPLANE. Dr. Frayser (middle) with replacement Piper Comanche 440 and Matt Greel (left) and Don Brooks of Century Flight Systems. New aircraft does have a CO detector.