December 1989. Louisville, Colorado (between Boulder and Denver)
Like most supers in Colorado, late November and early December had me playing the guessing game of applying snow mold protection and blowing out the irrigation system. Go too late and there can be absolute hell to pay. Go too early and well, there can be absolute hell to pay. In my situation, it was worse, as I had been growing in a course and we were pushing just as hard to get things up and growing as is possible. So the idea of hardening off into happy grass dormant wonderland was not happening.
I'll back up a bit. I had taken this impossible job where I was handling the finish of construction, grassing and grow in. My staff was 6 people. Yup, that's how we did it back then. A bizarre form of minimalism based on not having any money because the project spent all the money on entrance signs and clubhouse designs. We reverse change-ordered the general contractor and took the job over. Insanity. And I didn't know better. I was 24 years old.
A bizarre form of minimalism based on not having any money because the project spent all the money on entrance signs and clubhouse designs.
So it's December. And we are way behind. Way way behind. And I think to myself, what else could go wrong? Yeah... a bad thought. But you won't guess what's coming.
We had finished the snow mold sprays. We had blown out most of the irrigation system in a minor snowstorm, with just one small section to go that I wanted to leave on to try to get some last chance water on the last holes we had seeded. It had been cold, but clear and I needed the water.
We had managed to just about make it to some kind of seasonal stopping point. I was re-wiring an irrigation clock and a huge windstorm began. One of those kind of crazy Colorado winds that starts slowly and suddenly builds to "name your dog Toto" kind of intensity. Me and my red slippers, aka Red Wing boots, were hunkered down behind the clock, dirt in my eyes. Cold as the wicked witch's nipples and I thought I heard something. I wasn't about to break from my place of protection. So maybe it was just a flying cow or something.
I'd say the microburst lasted about 5 minutes. It seemed like an hour. It went from windy from a general direction to just outright swirling around me. I looked at some trees that were looking like those silly dancing men that car dealerships put in front of their places to entice you to look again. When it stopped a little I looked up. Happy that a tree didn't fall on me and something in my field of view didn't seem right. At all.
In the distance, an object. A huge one. Right in the middle of a tee box area. My brain took a moment to take in the scene and all at once, my entire system said, "airplane". I was looking at the remains of an airplane. Tail section in the air. Wings crumpled. I froze. Because back in those days there were no cell phones in my pocket to call anyone or start shooting video with and for what I am sure was just a brief moment, I totally froze. And then it occurred to me that I ought to see if anyone was alive. And so I started running. Not really knowing what I would do when I got there.
And then it occurred to me that I ought to see if anyone was alive. And so I started running...
(This is the part where, in any decent blog post, a picture of a plane crash on the golf course should be. I don't have any pics of any of this. The roll of slides that I took was mishandled somehow and the film was exposed. And I don't feel like putting a pic of another crash is in good taste.)
Being first on the scene isn't always a good thing. It was pretty clear to me that I just ran up on two dead guys. One body was completely decapitated. One had a steering yoke through his chest. My CPR training on a dummy with fake boobs and nice complexion didn't include the chapter on dudes with missing heads and stuff in their chest where you were supposed to be doing "compressions". Clearly it was time to back away. The smell of fuel punctuated this idea.
The resulting circus was crazy. Others had seen the plane go down and had managed to call 911. And so from a back road to the property, the first responders rolled in. The first fire guy that I dealt with was pretty much an asshole telling me to get the hell out of there as he cut a barbed wire fence and motioned for this huge truck to drive right up on a newly seeded area. The truck promptly sunk to its wheel wells. Earning me even more yells from Joe Volunteer Fire Dude. As if I meant for the truck to submarine. (it took two huge tow trucks to free the fire beast, but that's another story)
Another truck took out a sprinkler head and of course it was pressurized. Old Faithful drenched everyone around as the wind played the shot perfect and sent water all over the scene. I ran for a valve key and got that one handled. But not before the whole world was yelling at me.
My afternoon was spent trying to manage traffic from police, fire, news and NTSB people. The National Transportation Safety Board guys ended up being really cool. But I think in the beginning, they were as pissed off as I was at the muddy carnage that the scene had become. A day later when they interviewed me for the their reports, they laughed at me when I described the scene I saw upon first reaching the plane. "This wasn't even a bad one", the investigator said. And I replied something to the effect of only one missing head must be a blessing, or some such.
Years later, when I got my pilot's license I often thought about the headless and chestless dudes that, according to the NTSB, made a bad decision to fly that day in conditions that their plane couldn't handle. And I vowed to become a student of the weather and the situation I would be flying in. No matter what. What this ultimately did was show me that unless my backyard oil well came in, I couldn't afford to buy the aircraft that would be awesome enough to make me more efficient than Southwest airlines. But I still love everything about aviation.
So when people talk about December Turfhead things, those discussions usually lead to snow mold and irrigation. I tend to remember plane crashes, which I'm glad everyone else doesn't have in their brains.