Draco Written Off

20 Sep 19 14 Comments

One of the big events of the aviation calendar is the STOL competition which takes place every May in Valdez, Alaska.

I wrote about the 2019 Valdez Fly In and STOL Competition a few months ago, specifically about an amazing home-built “bush plane” named Draco:

The STOL competition was broadcast live and you can watch the full four hours of the event on YouTube. I don’t have that kind of patience but I did want to see DRACO, the crowd favourite, a single engine aircraft modified to use a turbine engine. That’s right, it runs on jet fuel.

DRACO appears on the event video at about one hour and eleven minutes in but, luckily for the impatient, someone clipped together the highlights in this one-minute video:

His 750 horsepower engine set him up for a climb at 4,500 feet per minute.

Each aircraft gets two chances, where the better (shorter) distance is the one to count. DRACO failed on the first attempt but, on the second try, he took off in just 78 feet and landed in 121 feet.

As the only turbine class aircraft in the competition, DRACO was guaranteed a first place showing, but his distance was also just ahead of the first place winner of the Bush Plane category: a PA-18 flown by Dennie Serle which took off in 78 feet but needed 123 feet to land.

DRACO is a bush plane designed by Mike Patey with a turbine engine as opposed to the traditional piston engine used by small aircraft. When the engine blew in Patey’s Wilga 2000, he replaced it with a Pratt and Whitney turbine, with twice the power and half the weight of the original piston engine. After the conversion, the aircraft could no longer fly as a Wilga 2000 and the FAA approved it as an experimental exhibition aircraft.

One man designed and built the ultimate bush plane

Before its conversion, the Wilga took off in 400 feet, landed in 280 feet, and stalled at 57mph (92km/h). Like most bush planes, it wasn’t optimized for high-altitude flying. But DRACO can fly high. In fact, Patey designed and installed a four-passenger oxygen system that allows him to take advantage of PT6’s performance at altitude. DRACO will climb at 4,000 feet-per-minute (FPM) and cruise at 180mph (290km/h) at 16,000 feet. A Carbon Cub climbs at 2,000 FPM and cruises at about 115mph (185km/h) around 5,000 feet.

A few have questioned whether DRACO—which cost around $1 million to build not counting Patey’s time and which runs on jet fuel rather than more common 100 octane gasoline—can even really be considered a bush plane?

Patey points out that he can find jet fuel at most airports in the US and that, in other parts of the world, it is far easier to find than aviation gasoline. DRACO’s PT6 will also run on diesel and other fuel mixes, which potentially makes it more of a bush plane. He acknowledges that it’s expensive, but it’s what he dreamed of. “I have a plane that can go to 28,000 feet and do 180mph cross-country with four people and gear. Yet I can take it where a Carbon Cub can go,” he told Ars. “To me, that makes it the ultimate bush plane.”

You’ll need to click through if you are reading in an email client in order to see this heartbreaking video of Draco at Reno Stead Airport a few days ago.

There were three on board: Mike Patey, who built Draco and was flying it that day, along with his wife and a friend. Patey crawled out from under the broken left wing and reported immediately that he was dusty and dirty but was not injured. The two passengers were also unharmed. Draco, on the other hand, will never fly again.

Patey and his friends and family were in Nevada for the Reno National Championship Air Races. The day after, they were in a rush to depart, hoping to beat a fast-moving weather front.

Patey has released a ten minute video explaining what had happened, taking full responsibility for the crash after deciding to take off despite a heavy crosswind.

The wind is now calm. So silly, so dumb. And, also the wind that is still here is right down the runway that is being used.

If the wind’s tough, I just turn and take off across the runway if I need to. If the wind was that rough or I was in the back country, I’d need 25 feet in a wind like we had today. Not even that.

Instead, I kinda asked the tower if I could kinda crab a little bit to the runway and take off a little bit into the wind, because it was a direct cross wind up the runway that we were departing from.

In my head, I kept thinking, this wind’s so strong, I ought to just turn it 90° and take off. I don’t want to get the tower mad at me.

But if I didn’t want to get the tower mad at me and I felt that there was something wrong with that, then I should have just taxied back.

Local reports say that the METAR showed the wind as coming from the southwest, 24 knots gusting to 38. Patey was taking off from runway 26.

I had a wind bump like nothing I’ve ever felt and it lifted that left wing the rest of the way and turned the belly directly to the wind … I was a big giant kite and I was going for a ride and I had no control left.

The cross wind lifted the left wing as Draco accelerated down the runway, causing the aircraft to bank right, travelling on one wheel. As it came back down, the landing gear collapsed and the left wing broke off.

Probably one of the worst days of my life and it could have been a lot worse. I just totaled my baby, Draco, in just the most stupidest possible way.

I should have waited. I screwed up, made some bad choices, and as a result, I risked my family and friend. Draco’s gone. That sucks. I hope you all learn from it.

Draco was based on a Polish Wilga STOL aircraft which is no longer under production; the last aircraft was released 15 years ago; it’s not that easy/cheap to get a hold of one.

It would be nice to think that Patey will build another aircraft but whatever he does, it won’t be Draco.


  • My first thought was that with wind from the south-west and runway 26, it’s not much of a crosswind. Let’s say the wind was from 225 at 24kt (gusting 38kt). That’s only 35° off the runway centre-line.

    Then I got out my trusty crosswind calculator. The crosswind component is 18kt! Wow, no wonder he had issues. On my much, much heavier and more stable Saratoga, the maximum demonstrated crosswind component was 17kt and that was scary! There is no way that the little, light Draco could cope.

    Much kudos though to Mike Patey for taking full responsibility and for making that video showing how much can go wrong from a poor decision.

    • It’s worse than that: with runway headings being rounded (although a quick search doesn’t find the precise heading of runway 26) and “southwest” being imprecise, Patey could have been facing a 50-degree crosswind — maybe not the “direct crosswind” he says but closer to it. (I wonder what weather data Reno Stead’s designers were working with not to have had a runway pointing closer to that wind, especially considering that the field was built when the U. S. military was throwing up triangles and asterisks all over the country — unlike many such, this shows no sign that there was ever a 3rd runway.)

      I’m struck by “But if I didn’t want to get the tower mad at me and I felt that there was something wrong with that, then I should have just taxied back.” Getthereitis has probably killed more lightplane pilots than any other cause, but I don’t know where wanting-not-to-make-trouble falls on the scale. It’s a pity he lost a remarkable plane, and an unexpectable win that nobody was hurt.

  • I am happy to report that the Draco will be reborn. Mike Patey posted at video
    on Oct 25 2019 that he is building a new Wilga based Draco X. I am posting the
    link via YouTube.

  • I was wondering if the wing snapping off was worth a consideraion – surely it didn’t suffer enough stress in that incident alone to break it off ?

    • It looks to me as if the wing tip hit the ground, and because of the length, there is a lot of leverage near the body of the aircraft for some considerable force.

  • The world needs this kind of imagination and innovative energy. It only happens in a free society.

    • He owned his mistake. And furthermore suggests we can all learn from it – that’s humility in action folks. So glad they all pulled through OK!

  • I’ve watched pilots like this constantly pushing the limits of their aircraft get bit. And they wonder why. This guy had over one million into his aircraft fucked around and crashed it. For about half as much money he could have had a light turbine helicopter that would have done the mission better, cheaper, and more safely.

    • Mike just like’s his toys. Just because we don’t have a million dollars to sink into a plane we should not discount the joy he gets and the thousands of followers who loves his builds. Mike owned up to his mistake he made that day and was bummed that he put two others at risk. Flying as a whole is a risky proposition. But so is driving down the highway I do my part by being aware and follow the rules. What I have no control is the other drivers on the road. Oh by the way before he builds Draco Version 2 he is now building Scrappy, Not disputing your word but just another spin on things.

    • The world of aviation as we know it was founded on pushing limits. Think of how long people had the attitude that we would never make a flying machine. We’ll never make a plane to exceed the sound barrier, we’ll never do this or that. The human race as a whole has a wonder. We would never be in this modern society we have today if everyone had your passive attitude. We have this world of flying because pioneers were willing to push the limits, to risk it all to advance our civilization. Everyone involved in aviation knows the risks, yourself included. We pick a risk level in line with our tolerance to it. Additionally, Mike knew what he signed up for and he owned up to it. He didn’t “wonder why” as you put it. “A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” John Stuart Mill

    • Whether you’re driving or flying, the most important word you can teach yourself is “abort.” I use it daily when I make a turn across traffic. Mike could improve his already phenomenal flying skills by keeping minimums in mind all the time and being ready to say “abort.”

  • Man you said exactly what I was thinking… there are a lot of places in life where you can not follow the “abort” instinct and walk away… Flying is not usually one of them. You got your favorite people in the world with you and you go forward instead of saying abort.
    Hope this is a one and done learning experience. I fly with the guys that grasp that concept well.

  • Lesson?
    If you can take off into the wind, you should.
    Gusting crosswind takeoffs have screwed even large commercial aircraft.
    We’ve all learned from this incident, and each of us has his or her own takeaways.
    Mine is: follow your first instinct.

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