Kirby Chambliss, the former Air Race World Champion, was on his way back from a series of exhibitions and shows in South America, when he was asked to fly the Ilopango Air Show in El Salvador. Kirby was practicing a duel act with fellow pilot Skip Stewart, lots of pyro and a mayhem sequence that Kirby has been a part of many times. They were flying down the runway in a high alpha pass, low and slow in a knife edge attitude. The Pitts flies in that attitude very successfully, it’s much more difficult to get a monoplane to stay in that attitude for an extended period of time. As Kirby neared the end of the runway he experienced engine failure. At that moment there was several seconds to determine a course of action. There was a ravine at the end of the runway that dropped off to 250 feet. Kirby states, “There weren’t a lot of choices as I was hanging there at the start of this ravine, so I dumped the nose over to get the wings flying again. I was able to do that and I picked what looked like the softest spot to crash, but from the time the engine quit to the moment I hit the trees, was less than 10 seconds!”
Kirby’s left wing hit a tree and then immediately afterwards the right wing hit another tree and that took about 2ft off of each wing. The trees helped take a great deal of the impact and slow the airplane down considerably. Kirby then felt the airplane roll upside down and stop on the side of the ravine. He mentioned that there was only four feet of flat land between the two slopes; he wouldn’t have been able to get to it anyway. Kirby feels like if it hadn’t been for the ravine, he might not have been able to shove the nose over or the aircraft might have dropped towards the ground and he could have cartwheeled. Luckily it allowed him to put it in the trees to get it slowed down. Kirby says, “When the aircraft stopped, I was upside down and managed to open the canopy, which only gave me just enough room to crawl out. I had to unclip my parachute and leave it behind so I could get out. I was in a hurry, because I was worried that it was going to catch on fire.”
Kirby was close to the bottom of the ravine and had to walk about ½ a mile to get out of it. It was so dense that the helicopters couldn’t get down through the jungle to rescue him. Kirby came away from the incident fairly unscathed. Kirby’s right arm was deeply bruised and his neck received friction burns on both sides from the shoulder harnesses, and that’s a good thing! His neck was super sore as was the rest of his body. The airplane did not fair so well, the wings, the tail, some of the tubes in the cockpit that surrounded his body were bent and every tube in the front broke that surrounded the engine. It appears that instead of one big hit, he took three or four smaller ones instead. If it had been one big hit, he might not have been so lucky. Seriously, this man must have nine lives and at least four left.
“It worked to my advantage to take the smaller hits, but it destroyed the airplane. If I could have made a 7000ft runway appear, I would have, but I only had enough time to say a few choice words and to tell myself that this is going to hurt. It’s very unfortunate, but I am much happier when the airplane is damaged and I’m not.”
This incident happened on Wednesday afternoon and Kirby was back in the United States on Thursday evening. He rested on Friday and was back flying on Saturday morning. Someone said that to Kirby, flying was like breathing, and we have to agree. The former World Champion wakes up every morning and asks himself if it’s worth it and the answer is always, “Yeah, it actually is.”