Certified flight instructor George Schmalz has taught many students the protocol and procedures that need to be followed when a plane is on the verge of crashing.
On Thursday, he had to follow his own advice.
Jacob Karp, Schmalz’s student, was flying a Cessna 172 from the Billings International Airport on Thursday night toward the Big Timber Airport.
Karp conducted a low approach about 200 feet above the airport's runway, quickly turning around and climbing up to altitude for takeoff back to Billings.
At 400 feet in the air, the pair started to hear “a vibrating, clacking sound in the engine” for about 30 seconds. The plane began losing speed.
Schmalz took over the controls on the passenger side and turned the plane 180 degrees toward the airport's flatter terrain.
“It happens real fast and you’re just making a lot of decisions as quickly as you can, so you’re hoping you made the right decisions as you go along,” Schmalz said, who is an instructor for Aviation Adventures in Billings.
It was a dark, moonless night, he said, and the cockpit had gone dark since the plane was losing power. Schmalz said he didn’t even see the ground approaching. All he could do was maintain control of the plane.
It crashed nose first on its left side and slid over the snowy grass for about 125 yards on the southwest corner of the airfield around 8 p.m. that night.
After the crash, Schmalz and Karp were able to escape the wreckage and call 911 on their cell phones. They were met by emergency medical response crews and the Sweet Grass County Sheriff's Office on scene. They were taken to Pioneer Medical Clinic with bumps and bruises.
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Within an hour of getting medical treatment, they were able to walk away from the clinic.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash according to FAA spokesperson Allen Kenitzer. Schmalz said that reports are often used to identify if it’s a manufactured mechanical issue and to prevent future crashes.
As the site is being investigated, high winds in Big Timber caused the plane to flip over on its top on Friday.
“It appeared to be a total loss on the aircraft,” Schmalz said.
Aviation Adventures is a flight school in Billings and offers in-air instruction as well as a flight simulator. The school certifies students for private pilot, instrument and commercial licensing.
The Cessna 172Q Cutlass was the only aircraft the school had, but plans to file an insurance claim on the plane are in the works after the investigation. Renting, leasing or buying another aircraft will be the next step.
One of the requirements during training is to have a student fly during the night, Schmalz said. The idea was to fly more than 50 nautical miles in the dark and return back to Billings that night. Schmalz said Karp learned a lot from the experience and should be continuing his training.
The incident reminded Schmalz of the recent plane crash about 25 miles north of Billings that killed four men last weekend.
The Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s Office, the Big Timber Volunteer Fire Department and the Sweet Grass County Ambulance Service responded to the scene within minutes. He said they owe their lives to the crews who helped them.
“They did a really good job taking care of us,” Schmalz said.