Tag: I Can’t Believe I Did That

Flying loaded: what could possibly go wrong?

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I was a brand-new Private Pilot, my head was in the sky, eager to build my flying skills, and a perfect opportunity arose. The Barbershop Singing Lancaster, Pennsylvania, chapter needed some help transporting gear to Ocean City, Maryland, and my buddy Bob (always the organizer) we could fly the stuff from Lancaster to an airport closer to the destination.

The proposed load was professional PA equipment: big loudspeakers, mics, amplifiers, stands, cables, etc. Being a former engineering major, I was hesitant about the weight involved, and requested a complete list of every single item, showing all dimensions and weight of each one.

Having no aircraft of my own, my plan was to rent a Cessna 172 and take out the back seat. I would then carefully calculate where every item would have to fit, and the location of the center of mass of each item. The list of items arrived and I drew a layout where the huge loudspeakers and each of the other items had to go. Then I ran the weight and balance calculations, three independent times, to be sure it was right. It came out that with me and Bob in the front seats (both heavyweights back then; no offense, Bob), we would be at full maximum weight and just within the rear CG limit.

I know you must be curious: had I ever flown that make and model of plane before? Well… err… no. Had I ever flown any plane at maximum weight and maximum aft center of gravity? Err… no again. Wait—maybe in the trainer? It was a tiny Tomahawk two-seater, barely enough room for me and my 6 foot 3 inch instructor, and we always had around 10 gallons fuel (I always wondered about that).

But the math said we were OK, and as a former engineer I was very sure of my math. The deal was on, to fly the stuff from Lancaster to the Cambridge, Maryland, airport where others would pick up items and drive the rest of the way.

When the day came, our initial trip to Lancaster in the rental plane was a piece of cake. We were real light and real fast (no back seat), the weather was grand, and I was happy to be adding a new airport to my logbook.

Sample Weight and Balance Graph Langley Flying School 300x208 - Flying loaded: what could possibly go wrong?

Weight and balance is important, but only if you follow the plan when you load the airplane.

We met the Lancaster guy with all the stuff, and as he handed each piece to me I carefully identified and loaded each item into the plane in exactly the place I had planned. Everything fit perfectly, and I walked away to sign the bill for fuel top-off (the second not so smart idea?), made a final weather check, and soon we were cleared for takeoff.

I knew we were very heavy and would need much more runway than usual to take off, but was really surprised when the nose lifted off before we were even at 40 knots. I pushed the yoke forward and quickly dialed in nose down trim, but it happened again almost immediately—and more down trim went in. We were gaining speed slowly, but it needed a lot more nose down trim, and finally at around 110 knots airspeed we lifted off the runway, at the exact moment I ran out of forward trim. I told my friend Bob to lean forward as far as he could, but “don’t touch the yoke or the pedals”. We were in a very, very slow climb, long out of runway, and I had to keep pushing hard on the yoke to keep the nose down and the airspeed up.

By now I knew something was critically wrong. Foolishly, I pushed on to Cambridge—perhaps because I was very familiar with the airspace, there was ordinarily almost no traffic, and that was where the plane lived.

Approaching Cambridge, I called on the radio to ask for help from an instructor or anyone, but no one answered. I brought her on down, but as we crossed the approach end of the runway I realized we were much too high and way too fast to ever get down and stopped before going off into the marsh. I aborted the landing, and now I had to somehow climb again, very slowly and carefully, just to clear the terrain and not smack into grass, trees, sailboat masts, etc.

At full power we were inching up, just missing the big stuff, and it seemed like it took 20 minutes coming back around in a very large very low circle, with arms now weakening. This time, at full speed, I planted the wheels right onto the runway at the numbers, cut the throttle, and braked like hell. When we finally got stopped, we had 30 feet left of the 3000 foot runway.

After shutdown ,I was out pulling shredded tall grass out of the wheel pants when the owner came out of his repair shop, apologized for not answering the call, and asked what the problem was. He half listened, and then replied, “no problem—just do a normal landing.”

That would have been sure disaster. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have followed that advice anyway, based on my understanding of the problem, the feel of the controls, and the plane’s behavior.

But the math was right—wasn’t it??

Investigating together, Bob and I discovered that after I left to pay the bill, the guy had either miscounted or just threw in an extra professional mic stand, the kind with a gigantic, heavy, round foot. When I was busy signing the fuel ticket he slipped the heavy base into the only place left, the worst possible—the hat rack!

Recalculating, I found we were more than 6 inches beyond the aft limit and around 40 pounds over gross. I believe that if my friend Bob and I were not as heavy as we were at that time, then once aloft the legendary farm would have been ours.

Thank you, Great Spirit! Thank you too, ever so Great Bob (again, no offense)!

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by RC Thompson (see all)

Close call with a blimp

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Like all pilots, I don’t like to talk about the stupid things I did in the early days of my flying career. I have filed this one (along with a few others) in the file that says “never again.” A big lesson was learned that night, and I made myself a promise to never again make low passes in an aircraft.

I was flying out of Homestead AFB, Florida, in 1961. I called home to check on some medical tests my other had back in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Dad told me Mom was scheduled for thyroid surgery the following Friday afternoon. I went to the office of my commanding officer (CO), the 823th Photo Recon Flight Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Monty Monahan, a great pilot with whom I had flown with, and asked permission to take off that Friday, and take a T-34 to McGhee-Tyson AFB, in Knoxville. Lt. Col. Monty Monahan was the best CO I served under while in the United States Air Force. Any person under his command would walk through hot coals barefoot if he asked them to. He was that type of commander to his men.

South Pointe Fishing Pier Miami Beach 2048x1365 1 300x200 - Close call with a blimp

The perfect place for a low pass—right?

I had a date with my girlfriend, Lenore “Spook” (I gave her the nickname because she was always spooked at the slightest noise) on Saturday. Spook lived by the pier on South Beach in Miami, across from the famous Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant. I told her I was going home to check on my mother and that I would be back Sunday night. I would make a low pass over the pier at about 8pm and would flash my two landing lights so she would know it was me. I would then drive up to see her about 10pm.

I signed out a T-34A, #5518A, stowed my B-4 bag in the back seat, secured it, and took off for Knoxville at about 9am. The flight to Knoxville was routine, just a few puffy cumulous clouds at 3000 feet but smooth above the haze layer with visibility of 50 miles or more. As I got to the Tennessee/Georgia state line, the weather started to deteriorate fast. At Cleveland, Tennessee, I encountered some heavy rain and light snow, as I started my approach for Knoxville.

I dropped down to 5000 feet, when Approach told me the weather at McGhee-Tyson was 500 overcast and 2 miles visibility. They asked me if I would accept a GCA approach as they needed some practice. Overseas, that was all we flew, and l accepted with a grin. GCA brought me right over the threshold of runway 22 (it is runway 23 now) at about 20 feet, and I landed.

My brother had also come home, from Blytheille AFB, Arkansas. He was flying the B-52G and had just made aircraft commander. He picked me up at the airport and we went straight to the hospital, so we could be there when Mom came out of recovery. She was surprised to see both her sons there; she had no idea we were coming.

All went well for Mom and on Sunday I called Spook to told her I would pass over the pier at 8pm. She said she and Johnny (her 8-year old little brother) would be on the pier with flashlights to return my flashes and let me know they saw me.

At Jacksonville, Florida, I cancelled my flight plan and dropped down about ¾ mile off shore and about 50 feet off the water, so I could make my pass on the pier and not be detected. Around West Palm Beach it was dark, and the lights reflecting off the ocean were beautiful. Weather was clear, with good visibility and a smooth ride.

I passed over Fort Lauderdale by Normandy Shores off Collins Blvd and could see the red light on top of the end of the South Beach pier. I rolled the aircraft, passing over the pier inverted, and flashed my landing lights. As I looked at the pier upside-down I could see two faint flashes of light from their flashlights. I was about 100 feet above the pier and started my roll back to level flight. After rolling back to level flight I looked back over my right shoulder, started my climb to 2000 feet to turn my IFF on and call Homestead AFB to make a jet two approach to the base.

5b7dd92795142.image  300x133 - Close call with a blimp

How can you miss traffic like that?

Just as I turned my head around, right in front of my windshield was a big sign that said “COPPERTONE” in red letters. I shoved the control stick forward with a -3G drop that threw me against my shoulder harness. I leveled off at 500 feet and looked back: I could see the Coppertone sign on the other side of the Goodyear Blimp N4C, outlined against the lights of Miami Beach. He had his navigation lights out and all that was on was the slow flashing Coppertone sign lighting up in the dark night sky. I climbed on up to approach altitude and landed at Homestead AFB and figured my flying days were over.

I didn’t dare tell anybody about what happened and waited for Lt. Col. Monahan to call me into his office and kill me. A week passed and no one said anything, so the following weekend I went up to the blimp base on MacArthur Causeway and asked for the chief pilot of the blimp based there. I told him I was on the beach last Sunday night about 8pm when I saw an aircraft fly close to their blimp. He called a couple of his pilots in and asked them if they knew anything about it. The pilot who was flying it that night at 8pm said he didn’t see anything.

Thank God no one was hurt or saw what happened. I made a promise to myself: never pull a stupid low flying stunt like that again unless I was flying an air show and everyone knew where everyone was. Not even to do a buzz job after that…

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by Bill Slover (see all)

Get-home-itis: be on the lookout

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If you watch any of the TV crime shows (my wife’s favorite is NCIS, in case you were wondering), they talk about BOLOs. It took me a while, but I finally got that this means “Be on the lookout.” This is a government agency’s terminology to alert their community to be alert to a person or situation that is important to monitor or address.

For us pilots, we can use this same intentional alertness to observe and influence our flying and specifically our choices. During a recent long day of flying I had a chance to experience aviation’s version of completion bias—the drive to complete a flight—also known as get-home-itis. I learned a great deal from it and want to share the experience. First the set up and then we’ll unpack what I did right and wrong.

Sack cockpit view 300x225 - Get-home-itis: be on the lookout

Even with ADS-B weather and on an IFR flight plan, staying visual is often the best idea.

That day’s mission was to retrieve an airplane three states away. It was a four hour flight just to get to the pick-up point. We made an early start to the day because the weather was forecast to steadily degrade in the area we were flying toward as a front approached. Traditional summer convection was possible in the afternoon for the return trip but no fronts or lines of storms between us and home. The flight out was smooth with great ceilings and visibilities until we were within about 20 miles of the destination. By the time we got to the end of our first leg, steady rain had started and convective activity was about 100 miles further west. Needless to say, it was in our best interest not waste time on the ground getting turned around.

I was out of the airplane as the prop stopped turning. I realized quickly that Murphy was firmly in charge when I couldn’t find the airplane keys and that the airplane needed gas as the rain got steadily heavier. The line crew was fueling the plane by the time I found the keys and began the pre-flight. My rain coat saved me from a real soaking. Thank you North Face!

I picked up my clearance and departed into solid IMC for the first 30 miles and then spent the rest of the trip deviating around build-ups. It was getting pretty hot out there and the cumulus clouds were steadily building. By the time I was an hour from my landing in the DC area, I was hot and tired after seven hours in the cockpit.

As I got closer to my destination, Martin State Airport in Baltimore (MTN), I started seeing areas of precipitation from the ADS-B Nexrad display. Two primary areas, one very close to Joint Base Andrews (formerly known as Andrews Air Force Base) and one near Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall airport (BWI). The cell over BWI was headed northeast toward my destination but MTN was solid VFR and I thought I could get in before the weather, based on judging the updates of the Nexrad images and the general look at build-ups through the windshield.

The MTN ATIS was telling arrivals to expect a visual approach to runway 15. Potomac Approach cleared me to arrive from the northwest, as I would have expected. Then Potomac told me to plan the LOC 15 at MTN and began to vector me toward the final approach course.

I could see build-ups off to the southeast of my position and started to watch the conditions, carefully comparing the ADS-B with the conditions out the window. Everything still looked good, though the BWI cell was now closer to MTN and another had now developed northeast of the airport. There was lots of VFR in between these.

Just as I was about to intercept the localizer, it started to get pretty bumpy and I was seeing more cloud—although I was still in visual conditions. I did not have a visual on the airport and I was starting to get rain on the windshield. As quickly as the rain started it intensified a great deal, started to darken and I immediately broke off the approach and told Potomac I wanted to divert back in the direction I came (toward good VFR) and land at Carrol County Airport (DMW) about 32 NM northwest, to allow the weather to clear. See the flight track below:

CloudAhoy - Get-home-itis: be on the lookout

In retrospect I made good choices and bad choices. Let’s look at a few of each.

Good choices:

  • I topped off my fuel before my takeoff so I had plenty of gas and had monitored/managed my fuel burn effectively.
  • I asked ATC for altitudes to largely remain in visual conditions as I got closer to weather at the end of the trip to allow continuous visual assessment and reduce my single pilot IFR workload.
  • I was well equipped to be able to monitor weather with ADS-B tools and used the gear to maintain my situational awareness throughout the flight.
  • I broke off the approach and diverted when the weather started to get worse while still in visual conditions and didn’t resume until the weather was well clear.

Bad choices:

  • I allowed myself to get too close to a cell. Recommendations are at least 20 miles. I was much closer as the cell little grew across the final approach course.
  • Weather is dynamic and was changing right in front of me and I was not reacting fast enough. I should have been reminding myself that what I’m seeing is changing in ways I might not necessarily totally observe.
  • I was fatigued. I should have eaten on the ground between the flights as opposed to just snacking on the way home. I was likely dehydrated as well. Your brain and body need nutrients to serve you well—especially making good decisions.
  • I allowed completion bias to cloud my judgement. When I finally diverted I was less than 9 miles from the runway threshold. I allowed the “I am almost home” to really distract me and I procrastinated.

As I have learned from mentors and tell my students, we want to be “lifelong learners” when it comes to flying and everything we want to be good at! So what did I learn for my next long trip?

  • During the trip I should ask myself, “how am I feeling and how is my flying?”
  • Watch the weather carefully and more holistically. Imagine what I while do if it’s worse than forecast so I’m already planning my next move. It’s less about reacting and more about planning if completion is doubtful.
  • Be “spring loaded” to divert quickly.
  • Remember the impact of bad choices in the cockpit on the ones who care about me (and you). Think carefully about the risks I am taking on in every phase and condition of flight. Most of us have friends and family who also are hurt if something happens to us.

I am thankful to learn from this experience and share it with the Air Facts family. Be on the lookout in your own flying for areas where you could have made better decisions and think through how you would choose in the future should something similar occur.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by Marty Sacks (see all)

Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

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Growing up on a farm in south central Wisconsin during the 60s was interesting. There was always work to be done. Since my dad believed the old ways are best, we seemed to always be on the back end of a hickory forklift (pitchfork). Out in the fields, looking up to see the smoke trails (contrails) of jets and wondering how fast or high they were kept your mind busy. When my cousins and I played in the woods we’d find aluminum strips (chaff) dropped from military aircraft; it made us wonder if they were escaping from Russian intruders and had to use counter measures.

I was always interested in airplanes. I built one from the wood of peach crates and used the propellers from a few rubber-band, wind-up planes to power it. That was my first lesson in power-to-weight ratio. Ten pounds of wood airplane and four rubber bands never made it taxi, let alone move, no matter how tight I wound them. My Uncle Nubs was into flying, but lost interest in it about the time I was starting to take an interest in GA airplanes, so he gave me his battery-operated Gauer aircraft radio to listen to and his E6B along with the instruction manual. The E6B I still have and is a great remembrance.

Fast forward to 1972. I was helping my good friend Dick Rhody with a photography job. Dick owned a photo studio and a Piper Tri-Pacer. I was pretty good with the camera, but the airplane was a mystery. Dick had his PPL for a few years and flew quite a bit. One day after a photo shoot, he asked if I would like to go for a plane ride. Sounded good to me! You know how it is: when you do not know anything about something, there is no need to be afraid.

Tri pacer takeoff 300x169 - Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

The Tri-Pacer is a great way to hook someone on flying.

Dick kept his plane at the Madison (MSN) Airport on the east ramp. At that time it was called Truax Field, in honor of Lt. Thomas L. Truax, a Madisonion who lost his life in a training accident shortly before Pearl Harbor. The east ramp was known as Four Lakes ramp, as it was the home of Four Lakes Aviation, the Piper dealer owned by Louie and Louise Wuilleumier. It was housed in the old airline terminal building, a stone building built in 1938. The lower level was the flight school and the upper level was the national weather service.

Dick checked over the plane, we got in and by whatever magic he did, the engine was running. Picking up the mic, he talked to someone and they answered back over the tinny speaker in the ceiling. Then he gave it some throttle and the plane was moving. I can remember looking out the right window and asking Dick what was connected to the wheels to make them move as I did not see any driveshaft mechanism. He told me the propeller was pulling us along. That made no sense because this thing weighed a lot more than my peach crate airplane and only had one propeller (remember, mine had four propellers).

I do not know where we went, but I was hooked. The things I could see from the air were amazing. How you could know where you were was not exactly clear to me. I guessed if you did not get out of sight of the airport, you could always find it again. I decided I was going to learn to fly. I mean really, how hard could it be?

Eventually, I went in and talked to Louie about how to go about getting a license. He explained it all to me—plane rental, instructors, books, tests, just about anything you needed to know about obtaining a license. The one thing he did bring up was pre-paying for lessons. If you put down more than $500, they would automatically add 10% to your account. I needed about $1,200 to get my license. At that time, you could buy a new Pontiac or Buick for $3,500. So, I went to ask my dad if he would loan me the money. His exact words were, “You got any collateral?” I had some money saved from working as a helper mechanic at a car dealership for $90 a week. I would have to make it work.

On July 12, 1972, I signed up for my first lesson at Four Lakes. My instructor’s name was Ernest C. Shane. Little did I know he would become one of my best friends and mentors until his passing 25 years later. Ernie was a WWII pilot in Burma and flew “the Hump” in C-47s on hundreds of missions. He went on to fly the Berlin Airlift and was a flight instructor and corporate pilot. The man had tons of stories.

On August 9, 1972, Ernie started me out on primary lessons and let me solo with 9.1 hours. Little did he know how little I knew about flying. I was not taking it as seriously as I should have been, just thinking, “another lesson just gets me closer to 40 hours,” the number I needed to take my Private Pilot checkride. By September 6th of that year, at 20 hours, I was signed off to take my first solo cross-country trip.

This is where the wheels start to come off a little. Between airplane scheduling, my time, and finances, I finally got my cross-country scheduled for February 3, 1973. By then I had accumulated 25.1 hours of touch-and-goes and dual. The plan was to meet my instructor that day at 12:30 to go over my planning and weather briefing. At 12:15 I went upstairs to the weather station and got the fire hose of information they would give a student pilot. Basically, I understood it to be high overcast and light winds for the rest of the afternoon. By 12:30, I was heading downstairs to meet my instructor, go over materials, and get signed off for my solo cross-country departure at 1:30.

The wheels are coming off a little bit more now. I got downstairs and my instructor was not around. When I inquired at the front desk, I was told he had taken a charter flight and I was to contact another flight instructor for sign off. Problem was, he was flying with a student and would not be back for another hour or so. I wanted to depart at 1:30 to give me plenty of time on this trip.

WI sectional 300x287 - Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

It all looks so easy when you plan it on a sectional.

Well, the instructor did come back but he wanted time to give his current student some ground instruction and said he would get back with me. He did get back with me at about 2:15. After going through all my paperwork and oral questions, he did sign me off. I remember discussing my trepidation about getting off an hour later than anticipated but was told, “you got plenty of time for this trip.” Wheels just came off a little more.

The airplane I was scheduled to fly was 3970K, affectionally known as “70 Klank.” I had been flying it pretty consistently for my total of 25.1 hours, so I was familiar with it: preflight complete, sectional laid out, E6B handy, engine started, taxi, takeoff. Time: 2:35. We turned to the northeast to find and follow highway 151 and we were on our way! I checked off my tick marks every five minutes on the map.

I made sure the town to my right on the map was also on my right. Fifty-some minutes later, the town of Sheboygan was in sight. The non-towered airport, SBM, was due west of the city. I picked up the mic and announced my position and intentions, which probably sounded two octaves higher to the FBO on the ground. I did the obligatory student PIO landings on the runway.

Now, how do I get from where I am to where I’ve got to go? The only people that had access to that info would have been pilots using IFR approach plates (which I did not have). I spotted the FBO. It looked like it was going this way, around that way… I could get there. I finally made it!

Now I had to shut down and go into the FBO to have my logbook signed (that part was made very clear to me). I walked in and told them I was a student pilot and needed my logbook signed. They congratulated me, took my logbook, and used a rubber stamp. The stamp said, “Arrived solo at Sheboygan Municipal Airport.” And then they signed it! Wow. This was neat. I thanked them and told them I was headed to Baraboo Dells Airport (DLL), about 50 minutes away. I climbed back into 70 Klank, started it, found my way back to the runway and took off. Time: 3:45.

I got turned to a heading of about 265 degrees and found Lake Winnebago, then kept that off to my right. I kept my heading and kept checking off the tick marks. But you know, that high overcast was pretty thick. Visibility was good, just kind of dark. Feel that wheel getting kind of wobbly?

I was doing well. My landmarks were lining up with my tick marks. My buddy Ernie’s words were ingrained in my head: “Keep your heading. Correct if you need, but keep your heading.” Forty minutes later, Portage and the Wisconsin River were under me. DLL was just ahead. A few minutes later, Dells was in sight. I picked up the mic and announced I was landing to the north. I did the obligatory student PIO landings on the runway and shut down. I went inside to get my logbook signed and chatted for a few minutes. I went back out to 70 Klank and started it up. I had this under control! If this is all there was to flying, I could fly anywhere.

The wheels were falling off. Time: 4:50

Full power. Takeoff. I turned to what the heading bug was set to: 265 degrees. And I forged ahead. Klunk! The wheels were now off. Jeepers, I could see the next town on my tick marks, but it seemed farther away than on the map. But, “Heck,” I thought, “I am a seasoned pilot.” I continued onward, kept that heading. “OK, there is the town but next on the map is Lake Wisconsin. Must be further than I thought.”

I forged ahead, making good time. It was 5:00. Did I mention the sun was due to set at 5:30 and there was already a thick overcast? I needed to go to plan B. Crap. I had no plan B. But I did have this VOR that would tell me how to get back to Madison. I tuned in to the Madison VOR and turned the OBS knob to center the needle. Then what? I had no idea. I had centered the needle, but it kept going off to one side. Centered the needle again, and off to the side it went again. This is where my bag of luck was bigger than my bag of experience.

All the wheels were off and I was just along for the ride to who knows where at 120 mph. All the terrain was foreign to me. I recognized nothing. Suddenly, I remembered that just before I took off, my friend Dick Rhody had said, “If you run into trouble, call Chicago Center and see if they can help some way.” I had written the number on my notepad. 135 something.

MSN overhead view 233x300 - Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

Those lakes should be easy to find—but not for a panicked student pilot.

I tuned that into the comm radio and called. “Chicago Center this is Piper 3970 Kilo and I am a student pilot lost, trying to get back to Madison.”

They answered back, “3970 Kilo about where you at?”

“I am heading 265 degrees and I left the Dells about 15 minutes ago,” I said.

”Piper 3970 Kilo, squawk 1234,” came the answer.

Now this was before transponders were standard equipment. Training planes had no such radios. I was trying to fly the plane while looking at the radios to see if one on them was marked Squawk. I got a squelch. Turning that did no good.

Center came back with, “Piper 3970 Kilo turn to a heading of 180 degrees.”

Holding onto the mic with a death-grip, I squeaked back, “Ok!” and turned to 180 degrees. After what seemed like an eternity Center came back again.

”Piper 3970 Kilo turn to a heading of 090 degrees.” I turned to 090 degrees. Remember: hold that heading.

The overcast was getting darker and there was no horizon. Navigating was getting trickier. It was about 5:10 by now and someone was telling me to turn this way then that way.

Center came in again, “Piper 3970 Kilo, radar contact, turn to a heading of 150 degrees. You are 45 miles northwest of Madison. Stay on this frequency.”

“Thank you!” I replied, and turned to 150 degrees. Center gave me a couple more course corrections and I stayed with them until about two miles from Truax field when they told me to contact Tower. I contacted Tower.

Truax Tower replied back, “Welcome back, 70 Kilo. Heard you had an exciting day.”

I keyed the mic and uttered some gibberish. I was too pooped to talk. I made the obligatory student PIO landings and parked the plane. By now it was pretty dark. I grabbed my stuff out of the plane and walked into Four Lakes, hoping no one would be the wiser about my predicament. As I walked in the door, Louie Wuilleumier was standing at the big plate glass window looking out over the ramp. I probably got five steps away from him when he said, “I usually don’t let student pilots use radar vectors to do their cross countries.” He turned around to face me and added, “You did the right thing.”

Where was my big mistake, besides not speaking up and telling my instructor that the timing was too close? When I left the Dells airport, I never reset the DG bug to my new heading of 145 degrees. I was going west instead of south. And the VOR. By that time I was getting pretty shook up and I was cutting across the MSN VOR radials at 90 degrees, which is why the needle would not stay centered.

I finally got my license on June 14, 1973, with 47 hours in my logbook. I have built up quite a few hours since then. My bag of experience is way bigger than my bag of luck, so I keep filling the experience side and I never rely on the bag of luck. I have been fortunate to have some great airplane partners over the years. I have acquired my Commercial, Instrument, Complex, and Tailwheel certificates. Sometimes when I go flying I will turn off the nav radio and not have a magenta line to follow. And heck, when I fly out of DLL and turn to the south, at 3,500 feet, you can see the Madison lakes 31 miles away. It must have been a lot farther away in 1973.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by Tom Schuster (see all)

Breaking my own “rules to fly by”

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My passenger-side wing was pointed straight down at the mountainous terrain below us and, seated behind me, my good friend and her six-month pregnant daughter gasped in sheer terror. Just a moment before, we had been cruising in CAVU conditions while meandering along the windward ridgeline of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

How did I find myself in this predicament? What was sequence of events that led to this impending peril? As with many Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) stories, the moment of truth is easy to identify, but where the story begins is not always as clear. As I am the author, I would like to start at the beginning of the beginning with the hopes of entertaining the reader.

I have always wanted to fly. I remember, as a little boy, being mesmerized any time an airplane flew overhead. However, for a multitude of reasons, I never felt that learning to fly was a viable option. Please don’t take this as a complaint! Indeed, it is not. In fact, my life journey has been all that I hoped for—I married, raised a family, started and grew a small construction business, took care of aging parents, and so many other things. During these wonderful years, the pursuit of my infatuation with flight was postponed, but not forgotten.

Mountains bw 300x200 - Breaking my own “rules to fly by”

A pilot’s license literally offers a new perspective of the world around you.

In 2014, with children grown and on their own, I realized for the first time that I felt I had the free time (and funds!) required to pursue this dream of becoming a pilot. With perseverance, I passed my private pilot checkride and, as most who are reading this article know, a whole new world opened up to my wife and me. We bought a plane and the fun began. At the same time, so began subtle hints from good friends about looking forward to scenic flights 🙂

As I considered these hints, I realized that I did not yet feel comfortable going up with anyone but my wife or other pilots. I knew that I would feel a keen responsibility for my passengers’ safety and I did not feel that I had enough experience to, by my standards, fulfill this obligation. So, I flew and flew and flew, just about every day for a quite a while. The time finally came when I was confident that I could handle the airplane in most conditions. After hundreds of takeoffs and landings, flights along the ridgelines, through the valleys, and visits to short grass strips, I felt ready!

I also felt ready with my ADM skillset. As I was taught, I maintained a personal minimums contract with myself during all this practice. I have to say that it was wonderfully satisfying to adjust my personal minimums as I gained confidence and skills. But I soon realized that I needed another set of guidelines in addition to hard and fast personal minimums, and I began to assemble a list of what I call “Steve’s rules to fly by.” These rules of mine are a compilation of all the little lessons I have learned that I believe help me fly better and more safely. I write them down and review them frequently.

Because we live in the heart of the White Mountains, a number of my “rules” address mountain flying concerns. One of them is that I will only take sightseeing flights with passengers on board if the weather is calm and clear—turbulence can ruin the most scenic flight. Furthermore, I have a corollary to this particular rule which is that, with sightseeing passengers on board, while at lower altitudes I will only fly on the windward side of ridges, pleasantly surfing the updrafts in the mild wind conditions.

With this all in mind, I circle back to my story. One summer evening, as my wife and I were having dinner with our neighbors/good friends, we made plans for a scenic flight the following day. The next morning dawned and ushered in the most perfect flying day one could imagine. We departed our local grass strip and meandered our way towards Mt. Washington, circling their house along the way. We toured the Mt. Washington valley and hotel, circled the ski area, and then headed north along the windward (western) side of the Presidential Range. The views down upon the Appalachian Trail and the Lake of the Clouds hut were incredible.

In the right seat sat a young man who would love to become a pilot at some point. This was his first small airplane flight and he was in seventh heaven. Behind sat his mother-in-law and his pregnant wife. It was his wife’s first ever flight in a small plane as well. We were cruising at maneuvering speed (another of my rules to fly by when close to the mountains) and the cockpit was alive with chatter about how amazing the experience was. My right seat asked if we could cross over the ridge to take a look at the famous Tuckerman’s Ravine. He was and is a mountain runner and hiker and said he would love to get an aerial view of that side of the mountains.

Snowy mountains 300x200 - Breaking my own “rules to fly by”

The wind is calm—those mountains can’t bite, can they?

I thought for a moment: the air is perfectly clear, I have not felt even the slightest indication of any turbulence, the wind is light, and in fact I have flown over this ridge in similar conditions a number of times alone and with my wife. I replied “yes” and turned to cross the ridge on a 45-degree angle, aiming towards Tuckerman’s.

The walls of Tuckerman’s Ravine are nearly vertical and the view from the cockpit was spectacular. I started to point out the various ski routes and hiking trails. As we passed over the lip of the ravine, a wind vortex created by the steep gullies grabbed the plane and flipped it 90 degrees in the blink of an eye. It happened so quickly! Disoriented, I used my limited upset recovery skills and worked to correct the violent roll and to keep the nose down… thank the Lord that it worked. And equally thankfully, no one was injured. With profuse apologies and with my tail between my legs, I carefully guided the airplane home to a gentle and uneventful return to earth.

I have no defense for the choice I made this day. By making it, I broke a promise to myself (regardless of the outcome). In the breaking the promise to myself, I broke the unspoken promise I had made to my passengers to look after their safety as best I could.

I am happy to report that my passengers have forgiven me. Furthermore, I have forgiven myself and learned a valuable lesson. Every one of my rules to fly by have been made for a good reason, and for that exact reason it is most important I abide by them. My answer to my right seat’s request should have been, “Sure, we can do that. I don’t want to fly directly over the ridge today, but we’ll fly to the north end of the range and climb as we do. We’ll skirt the north end of the range and fly south at an altitude that should avoid any potential turbulence.” This plan of action would have taken an extra 20 minutes of flight time and I had plenty of fuel. There would have been an added benefit as well: more sightseeing for my friends! Win, win.

Be smart, fly safe, and follow your own “rules to fly by.”

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by Steve Chardon (see all)

Fire, fire, fire

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“To err is human, but to persevere in error is only the act of a fool.” —Cicero

I had qualified as a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force in 1966, completed the flight instructor’s course a few months earlier, and just upgraded to QFI Cat B a few days ago. In other words, I could do no wrong. I was indestructible!

I was carrying out an A&E check on a Harvard IV-D which had undergone a routine servicing. I was flying solo and the plan was to do the engine and trim checks followed by a stall and spin. If all was well, I was to do a few aerobatics before heading back and declaring the aircraft serviceable.

Having checked out and written down the engine temp and pressure readings, I got down to the pleasurable part of the flight—aerobatics. Doing aerobatics on the Harvard were a real pleasure; the deep throated roar of the P&W nine-cylinder radial engine was masculine and the controls so responsive. I did a couple of loops, slow rolls, and rolls-off-the-top (Immelmann turns). This was followed by my favourite manoeuvre, stall turns.  The first stall turn was to the left and she cartwheeled so beautifully.

iaf naga srk 3 647 091715083430 300x169 - Fire, fire, fire

The Harvard IV-D is a fun airplane, but it can bite.

The second one was to the right, which in the Harvard was always a challenge as she tended to get stuck if the timing of the rudder, aileron, and throttle wasn’t perfectly coordinated. Therefore, as the big yellow beast wheeled to the right ever so daintily at the very first attempt it gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. As the nose snapped to the vertically down position I kicked full opposite rudder and watched as the yaw stopped precisely in line with the reference road in the center of the huge round engine cowling. The rest of the manoeuvre was a piece of cake and, as the IAS increased, I gently pulled the stick back to pull out of the dive.

This is when an unusual flicker of light on the right attracted my attention. For a moment I thought it was a stray reflection from a shiny patch on the starboard wing. But a glance to the right revealed that the entire upper surface of the wing was covered by a thin sheet of flame! I watched in fascination as the flame crept rearwards, gradually turning from yellow-red to blue as the speed increased. It finally extinguished itself as the speed increased.

On levelling out I could see a small quantity of 100/130 octane fuel bubbling out of the starboard tank refuelling cap.  I figured that this fuel must have caught fire as a result of flames from the huge exhaust of the engine, which terminated at the wing root on the starboard.

The correct thing at this stage would have been to quickly thank the Lord for putting out the fire and high-tail it back to base. But rookie QFIs aren’t known to be very wise. This was mistake number one; but as old Cicero pointed out, this was excusable as it is natural for men to err!

Having gained some height, I decided to “confirm the snag” by doing another stall turn. Mistake number two (keep counting).

Once again, I put her into a dive and pulled out to point the nose heaven-wards. Once again the manoeuvre was as close to perfection as I could have wished for. The slight inside aileron and right rudder were perfectly timed, as was the gentle throttling back to coax her around to the right. I had by now forgotten about the “snag” and it was a bit of a surprise to once again find the starboard wing covered with a thin layer of flames which rapidly blew towards the trailing edge before disappearing.

It may be pertinent to mention at this stage that I have always been fascinated by fire. I can watch the flames of a warmly glowing fireplace or a bonfire for hours without getting bored. I am sure many readers share this fascination. But I am not so sure how many pyromaniacs fit the latter part of Cicero’s observation about persevering in error. That day I certainly gave this wise old man a chance to be proved right as I went in for yet another stall turn! Mistake number three, to help those readers who are counting.

16767529578 e1fe9da689 b 300x225 - Fire, fire, fire

Fascinating, but dangerous.

This time the Lord must have been having a coffee break. I pulled the Harvard vertically up, gave just the right amount of stick, rudder, and throttle. But wouldn’t you know it, she refused to yaw and hung there in the sky with the nose pointing heaven-wards for what seemed like an eternity.

I braced myself for the inevitable hammer stall, caused by the relative airflow of the tail slide catching the elevator from the rear and reversing Bernoulli’s principle. The hammer stall of the Harvard was not unsafe, but it was not for the faint hearted either, and its viciousness was directly proportional to the length of time the aircraft stayed in the vertically up position. Considering the interminable time the aircraft remained vertically up this time, almost as if held by an invisible string, I instinctively knew this time it was going to be a whopper of a hammer stall.

I wasn’t disappointed. Suddenly the nose started pitching forward and I hung on to keep the stick in a neutral position as we (my parachute and I) were lifted out of the seat due to the negative G. In a flash the nose went down past the horizon as fast as a bullet train. Then, almost as suddenly as the hammer stall started, it was over; the nose was now pointing straight down and the speed was building up. “No sweat,” I said to myself. I must admit I was feeling quite a hot rod!

But it didn’t take me long to realise why I was feeling like a hot rod—it was due to yet another fire! This time it wasn’t a thin layer of flame; the whole starboard wing, even the root area, was ablaze and I could feel the heat on my face through the canopy. I could also see the yellow paint bubbling and turning black. Even after all these years I vividly recall the smell of petrol fumes inside the cockpit. The prolonged negative G had obviously allowed a lot of fuel to spill. The thought crossed my mind that this was the end and that soon the whole aircraft would explode.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. Though I had done some pretty stupid things that day I fortunately hadn’t taken total leave of my senses. I held the aircraft in a dive, and carried on diving till the IAS needle would go no further. The whole airframe was groaning and shuddering as it hit Vne. But I could see we were winning (the Harvard and I). I could see the yellow flames turning to blue, like the ionised flow from a blow-torch, angry and hot. But nevertheless sliding back to the trailing edge, being blown away by the speeding airflow over the wings.

At last, at long last, the flames died and I started levelling out. A glance at the altimeter showed I was down to about 1000 ft. AGL. Needless to say, this time I did the right thing and headed back to base to land. Post-flight inspection revealed nothing more than a loose refuelling cap, but because of my folly the aircraft could have been lost. Fortunately, I got away with only a blackened wing. It could have been a lot worse… and Cicero’s wise observation would have claimed another foolish victim.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by Subhash Bhojwani (see all)

Lost in the Canadian Arctic

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I was a fairly new, 22-year-old bush pilot based in Cambridge Bay, in Canada’s Arctic (now Nunavut) in 1982. I had the only aircraft based this far north at the time and was the first call for medevacs, with our twin engine type E Aztec with long range tanks. It was usually single pilot night IFR, but on this flight, one of my two bosses had recently arrived to gain twin engine experience even though he was not multi-rated or instrument rated.

The nearest hospital was Yellowknife, far to our southwest. Our patient, from a nearby community to the east, was a young girl in labour. On arrival I was told that they were going to attempt delivery first and to stand by. This soon changed to an urgent need to get to the hospital.

It was much faster to go directly across the tundra, but we only had one NDB en route, at Contwoyto Lake,  instead of the VOR west of us. The DEW Line was still manned at 100 mile intervals and I requested assistance with maintaining a heading and flight following for as long as possible (the groundspeed reported was not possible so I ignored that info). I also had a very bad head cold, but not going wasn’t a possibility due to the very lucrative charter flight and the presence of my boss. He had also lined up another flight upon our return and he told me that I could nap on the three hour flight with the autopilot engaged.

Aztec ramp 288x300 - Lost in the Canadian Arctic

Long range flight in an Aztec with only a single NDB? Just part of the job.

I elected to stay lower, at 8000 ft, due to the head cold and I told my “co-pilot” that he must regularly turn off the autopilot to home in on the NDB or he would get erroneous readings. I don’t believe that this was ever done and when I awoke, he had an IFR chart opened up on his lap (it was also very dark.). He assured me that we crossed right over the NDB and we should be picking up the VOR soon, 100 miles from our destination. We were not picking up either the VOR or the NDB despite our ETA.

I was getting urgent ETA requests from the two nurses in the rear and I started searching out nearby NDBs and attempting to make radio contact with possible overhead airline traffic. At about the same time I realized that we were picking up an NDB far to the north and west of our destination and turned us 90 degrees to the south. Shortly afterwards, a just-departed 737 called us on 121.5 (a radio search had begun).

I informed them that we had turned south and expected to get a signal shortly. A very sarcastic voice suggested that I should climb higher after inquiring about my altitude. I decided that my painful head cold was a lesser issue and acknowledged his suggestion with obvious embarrassment.

We soon picked up the VOR/DME; we were almost 100 miles off course and past our ETA. I was then informed that our destination was below minimums and our alternate was another 45 mins south, with questionable weather.

I acknowledged this and, stressing that I was a medevac, said we would be attempting the approach and to please turn the lights up bright. At 200 ft AGL, I was blinded by the runway lights and quickly called for them to be dimmed. A very smooth landing was requested by the nurse (like I needed added stress!) and I actually greased it, thinking I just averted a medical disaster. I learned later that the bedpan was chock full…

I told my boss that I was done for the night—he wasn’t happy—took my deserved violation phone call from the tower and then went to the hotel for badly needed sleep. The baby was delivered and reported to be healthy.

Epilogue

After Marten Hartwell had crashed many years earlier on a medevac in this same area, nurses were mandated to carry a large and heavy survival kit. As I had two nurses, two pilots, and a stretcher patient in a six-place, underpowered twin, I had to strongly urge that one kit be left behind or only one nurse could come. It was not lost on me that I then proceeded to fly off course like Mr. Hartwell had done that night and he wasn’t found for over 30 days.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by Erik Vogel (see all)

Overconfident and under-coordinated

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As a radar technician with the US Air Force in the 1970s, I spent many hours in the cockpit of the Air Force’s premier fighter at that time, the powerful McDonnell-Douglas F-4E. I loved being around and working on aircraft and often imagined what it would be like to fly an aircraft and be the pilot in command.

Father WWII shot 263x300 - Overconfident and under-coordinated

Like many pilots, the author’s love of aviation was partly inherited.

My love of aviation was born from the stories my father recounted to me from his experiences as an aviation machinist’s mate and plane captain with the Navy in WWII. While never a pilot himself, he loved working on aircraft and had many fond memories of flights he had taken on many of the aircraft he had helped maintain. Dad’s keen interest in aviation kindled a spark in me and I joined the Air Force to work on aircraft as he had. Soon after completing my enlistment, I started flight training to further my dream of flight. Soon after starting I found myself at the controls of the legendary Cessna 150.

I began my flight training at Smoky Mountain Aero, a small FBO and flight school located on McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee. TYS was a busy controlled airport handling a mix of commercial, military, business, and private air traffic. Smoky Mountain Aero was a Cessna Flight School and I was soon sporting a large red Cessna satchel filled with all the tools needed to complete ground school and flight training for the private pilot certificate. My enthusiastic instructor soon had me in the left seat, clumsily trying to duplicate his smooth flying. My first thoughts were that this was more difficult than I thought it would be. Those Air Force pilots had made it look so easy.

Following the curriculum, I was soon introduced to simple maneuvers including turns, slow flight, takeoffs and landings, maintaining heading, and generally keeping the aircraft under proper control. After several hours of instruction I was introduced to stalls and their recovery. From there we progressed to departure stalls, which demanded more skill at maintaining proper coordination of the controls, especially the rudder. We practiced these over and over and while I got through the exercise successfully, I honestly never felt comfortable doing them. I never told my instructor about my unease with departure stalls. This was a decision that I would soon come to regret.

Solo day finally arrived. I had accumulated around 15 hours of instruction and my instructor thought I could successfully fly the pattern of McGhee-Tyson Airport. I made three circuits around the pattern, properly communicating with the tower and making two touch-and-gos and a full stop with no problems. My confidence level was stratospheric. After solo, there was more training in slow flight, stalls and steep turns, along with preparations for a short cross country with the instructor. However, my instructor also released me for solo practice on my own with one condition: hold off practicing stalls solo until I had more experience and additional dual instruction.

My first solo practice flight was routine and uneventful. I was able to get the airplane out of the parking area, taxi to the runway, take off, and then navigate to the practice area with no problems. After practicing a few simple maneuvers and tasks for 30 minutes, I returned to the airport and landed safely. Again, my self confidence soared.

My next solo practice flight started off much like the first one. I flew to the practice area while climbing to the maneuvering altitude of 1500 feet AGL, practiced a few simple maneuvers and decided I could do more. Feeling confident, I decided to move on to more complex tasks. After practicing slow flight for a few minutes, I tried a few power-off stalls. Completing those successfully and returning to 1500 feet AGL, I felt that I could handle a departure stall with no problem. Despite the warning from my instructor and still being uncomfortable with the maneuver, I decided to proceed.

Configuring the aircraft for takeoff and slowing the 150 to its lift-off speed of 55 mph, I pulled the yoke back for a straight ahead climb and applied full takeoff power. This is where things did not go as planned. With only one aboard, everything felt different and very rushed. Due to my inexperience, coordination in the climb was very poor and I overlooked the fact that the ball in the turn coordinator was deflected far to the right, indicating the need for more right rudder than I was applying.

152 spin 300x200 - Overconfident and under-coordinated

That’s not what you want to see on a solo flight.

The stall came quickly and, to my senses, violently. The left wing dropped quickly, followed by the nose. Unknown to me, I was experiencing the beginning of an incipient spin. All I could see was the ground filling the windshield and rotation beginning to the left. Not really knowing what I was doing, I released back pressure, reduced power, and continued to hold the ailerons in the neutral position. Thanks to the good design of the Cessna, it quickly returned to near normal flight. Shakily, I returned to the airport and landed, wondering if I had what it took to be a pilot and if this may be my last flight.

I confessed what had happened to my flight instructor. Patiently, he explained why it happened and what I had done wrong to cause the problem. But, he also told me I had done well to have made sure I was at a proper altitude to perform the maneuver. Continuing his post flight analysis, he thought that while I had not quite performed the spin recovery procedure correctly, the fact that I had held the ailerons in a neutral position, reduced power, and most likely still had some right rudder applied, helped in the recovery. The design of the 150 as a trainer also contributed to the recovery before the spin fully developed.

On our next flight, we practiced the departure stall while he walked me through it, explaining each step in detail and why it was important. He also explained spins and the importance of vigilance to avoid them, especially at low altitudes.

Years later, as a CFI myself, I often look back on that experience with disbelief, while thankful of my good luck. The potential for much a more serious outcome was very real. I was lucky that I was at a good altitude to recover and the Cessna C 150 was a very forgiving trainer. Now, when demonstrating stalls as a CFI, I always think back to that experience and make sure the student understands the importance of proper maneuvering altitude and proper coordinated control, as well as the dangers of overconfidence.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

Latest posts by John Galyon (see all)

Three minutes before the fan turns off

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This is a story on how, at 10 minutes after midnight and after 5 hours of flight time, in an unfamiliar airplane, over a highway, I gambled my life and an airplane against a very tempted fate and scythe-wielding death and won the whole pot.

At some point in our training, we are taught about fuel management. 14 CFR §91.167 establishes fuel requirements for flight conducted under IFR. (a)(3) tells us that in addition to fuel to fly to an alternate if required, we need enough to “fly after that for 45 minutes at normal cruising speed.” I’m paraphrasing of course.

Besides fuel, students are also taught about risk management. Every accident has a so-called accident chain. Usually, going from the accident backwards, we can figure out what those links were, and how to avoid making those mistakes ourselves. This is a lot easier to do at 0 knots and 1g to prep our mental tool bag. In flight it can be hard to grasp the gravity of the situation. Some pilots use risk matrices, which are fantastic, but they have limitations. To be most effective, they assume you know all risks. Sometimes this just isn’t possible. Besides, the same risk (i.e. weather, maintenance) can be perceived differently between two pilots.

At one point, that was me learning all those things, and putting them into practice. As a staunch 200-hour glider and airplane pilot building time for my commercial ASEL certificate, one could say I was quite an aeronautical genius, as all low-time, young pilots are—in the killing zone. I often gazed into the mirror while washing my hands and contemplated my staggering cognitive endowment. Okay, maybe I wasn’t that smart, it’s possible.

All joking aside, I try to be open-minded, and to be aware of my ignorance, realizing that I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m no naval aviator or airline salt, but while my total time and training hours were low, it wasn’t of low quality. My instructors were all very well educated and experienced, including naval aviators and airline salts (go figure), even examiners to boot. Lack of adequate instruction and resources is nonissue for me, and I had a very conservative mindset of flying beat into me. As a result, I had high confidence with a deeper than normal knowledge base. Though complacency was not in my cockpit, sometimes stupidity was, and it sure was on this flight.

This was a return flight from a long cross country. Before this, I dropped my instructor off to surprise his family. He was planning on driving but flying beats driving! We decided to take the slightly faster and more powerful Cherokee PA28-140 (well, more powerful than a Cessna 152 anyway). We left late morning, arrived before dinnertime. They loved the surprise!

Wing view 300x224 - Three minutes before the fan turns off

Perfect weather on the way down—what could go wrong?

The flight down was with typical sunny summer weather: cumulus at 4000 but a low chance for convective weather along my route. I decided to file an IFR flight plan because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. My route was very straightforward. From Lehigh Valley (ABE) to ETX V29 V1 ASHES then a visual into Grand Strand (CRE). And the return trip was a mirror.

But alas, there were some issues (are any flights without problems?). Using the PAVE checklist, let’s start with the Pilot: I didn’t have too much experience in Cherokees, as I usually flew the school’s Cessna 152s, so I wasn’t as familiar with its performance (like actual fuel consumption) as the Cessna. This was my first solo flight in this type as well.

The Aircraft: The intercom was a cheap one, (as the owner would rather spend money every year or so if at all for an avionics guy to reground a shoddy intercom, but that’s another article) so there was an annoying buzz caused by a sort of feedback loop in the background that bled through the radio. Unless ATC was talking or I was keying the mic, it was blaring with whatever the volume was set to. Quiet buzz, quiet ATC. Those who know this annoyance can understand the fatigue this can cause, and communications difficulties it can create. Another factor was this Cherokee had green needles only, in other words, no GPS. I had an iPad to help with situational awareness and charts, but I was using those needles for navigating (legally). And the most fateful condition, the engine, burned more fuel than anticipated—even more than the “old engine vs. new engine” rule of thumb, but I didn’t know that yet.

The enVironment: The winds were not as strong aloft as I anticipated coming back, so I was behind schedule on the return flight. The high pressure system moving off the coast didn’t move the speed or direction that was forecast, so I didn’t have the tailwind I planned.

External Pressures: I was tired, and I wanted to go home, however I wasn’t against the idea of landing early and taking a nap in the plane, though I’d prefer to avoid that inconvenience.

Well, the flight to Grand Strand was uneventful, and lunch was great. I got to meet my instructor’s family and they were very excited and happy for the surprise visit. Then, after a rest, it was back to flying. I topped the plane off and figured an actual burn of around 9 gallons per hour from the last flight. Not bad but not great either; certainly more than the book said. Interestingly enough, the fuel gauges indicated accurately. I got a full weather brief, filed another IFR plan back home, and off I went.

Remember the fuel requirements? In this case, with the lack of weather, following the 1-2-3 rule, I didn’t need to file an alternate, so I calculated with power settings, altitude, and wind, a 9 gallon/hour fuel rate gave me a 4 hour, 30 minute flight. With 48 usable gallons I calculated 5 hours 20 minutes of endurance.

Wheels up came a bit before sunset, but I don’t mind night flight. The first hour was fine, but the static created trouble. Getting near the Washington SFRA, I didn’t hear a handoff from Myrtle Beach approach. I tried to get a jet flying into Grand Strand to relay for me, but they got just out of range before working it out. I tried guard, but nobody was listening, or meowing for that matter. I thankfully hung onto my previous flight’s kneeboard notes. I had frequencies on it but didn’t know who to contact for where I was. Nearing Norfolk I gave them a call.

“Norfolk, Cherokee —- radio check”

“Loud and clear, how me?”

I explained I never got a handoff.

“No worries Cherokee —-, you’re talking to the right guys now.”

“Sweet” I thought to myself.

Five minutes later: “Cherokee —- did you get a phone call from center?”

“I don’t have cell service, so no. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine, just if you get it, disregard it. Don’t worry about it.”

Oh boy. I wonder what they said! I can’t wait to find out.

I moved my seat back and sprawled across the cockpit, taking advantage of the lack of instructor next to me. It was a clear night, some bumps but mostly glass. Too bad the seat was worn out and felt closer to a wooden bench than a seat. The stars were clearer away from the cities. It was one of those nights I remember thinking about buying a proper camera to take with me flying. And that damn buzzing was driving me insane—this felt like a 10-hour flight. I turned the volume down on my headset, but I couldn’t turn it down too much without missing a radio call.

By now I was approaching Philly from the south. I was paying attention to those fuel gauges. Even though they read accurately as far as I could tell, I still based everything off time and my checkpoint ETAs. Annoyingly, the tailwind I planned on went away. I went from 10 minutes early to 15 minutes late over the course of the flight thus far.

“Not a big deal,” I thought. “I still have that reserve to get me home; that’s what reserve is for.” I didn’t want to stop for fuel for a few reasons, mostly because of nobody being open at 11pm, my iPad didn’t have internet to search for self-serve, and also that I’d land with a little less than the planned amount but I’d make it home. Fifteen minutes became 20, eventually getting to 30 minutes late. I calculated my groundspeed talking to Philly, and it wasn’t looking ideal.

Sunset over wing 300x264 - Three minutes before the fan turns off

Why do things get more uncomfortable after sunset?

Thankfully, the controller working Philly helped me out. “Cherokee —- proceed direct destination.” I wasn’t GPS-equipped in the airplane, but I took it. It was clear as could be anyway, so I could cancel IFR if I wanted to. I put in a present position to destination course on my iPad and set sail direct to Allentown (ABE). The iPad said I’d be home in 30 minutes. That meant I’d have 20 minutes of fuel to spare based on my calculations, but my gauges were reading less than I wanted to see. I’d land with a neat 5-hour total flight. Cutting it close on a razor thin margin.

By now I had changed from switching tanks from left to right every 30 minutes to 10 minutes. I could land short, sleep in the plane and get fuel in the morning, but watching the needles move closer to zero, they were going down proportionally. I thought I could definitely make it, and I would be on fumes more or less, but I was confident I would make it.

I flew the straightest line I could, got a handoff to Allentown Approach, and held my breath. The ATIS said landing and departing 24, but I requested 31, as approaching from the south it was more or less straight in. Winds were calm, so I got what I wanted: “Proceed in for the left base 31.” As I got closer and closer, the tanks got closer and closer to the E. Legally they’re supposed to read zero when empty, and the gauges were bouncing off empty. I knew where I was flying over, and on a moonless night, an off-field landing would not be easy.

Finally, after getting handed off to tower I was practically over top of Queen City airport, 5 miles southwest of ABE. I seriously considered chopping the throttle and gliding down and getting fuel in the morning when they opened. The gauges both read empty—I knew I didn’t have much time left, but I had backed myself into a corner. I estimated about 10 minutes of fuel in my right tank based off my kneeboard log. I decided to fly the rest of this flight on the left tank. I would switch to the right side if I ran out. I was a couple minutes from home, so I’d be fine—I’m practically there.

I glanced at the Hobbs: 4.9 hours ticked over to 5.0 over middle ground between ABE and Queen City. I was feeling a little uneasy to say the least. The Cherokee couldn’t glide to either airport at 2000 feet indicated from there. It was the most stressful part of the flight.

I kept the speed up and hung onto my altitude for as long as I could, then I came in high on purpose in a dog leg base to final. Then what I was anticipating (but hoping wouldn’t happen) happened: the engine coughed and sputtered into a windmill just as I was coming up to the highway. I ran her dry.

Everything went into slow motion; I swear I could count the propeller blades turning past the windscreen against the lights on the ground. I established best glide and switched to the right tank. I brought the throttle up a bit, trying to convince her to start running again. As I was gliding short of the numbers the engine roared to life, and it was a welcome roar. I shoved that nose down with a lot of throttle to give me the energy to make the runway. From there, I brought her down to a pretty dang nice landing considering the flight leading up to it.

I taxied a little bit faster than a brisk walk to the parking spot so I wouldn’t have to push it. As I lined up to the spot and put the brakes on, the engine was starting to sputter again. I shut her down: 5.0 hours of Hobbs time. It’s a little weird taking a fuel cap off and not smelling fumes. I talk to students about the legality of landing an airplane empty. Of course, so long as you planned the reserve, you can always run out, and burn more fuel than you planned, legally (aside from the careless or reckless catch-22 reg). It’s a whole different thing to actually do it, though.

As I was descending into Allentown, my phone buzzed a few times. After getting out of the plane, I checked my phone and there was a voicemail from center, and a text too! The voicemail I lost unfortunately, but I still have the text. It says; “Good evening. We are looking for the pilot of N—–. You are flying through Washington Center airspace. If you receive this message, please contact Wash center on Freq 123.85.”

I just wonder what would’ve happened had I not been on a flight plan! The next morning, I asked the guy behind the desk how much fuel it took when the next guy topped it off. 47.8 gallons. The Cherokee holds 48 usable gallons, 50 including unusable. That was 0.2 usable left. As I calculate it, at an actual fuel burn of 10 gallons per hour, that gave me about 3 minutes left before that big metal fan in front of me stopped keeping me cool a second time.

Ironically, the next time I opened up an aviation magazine, would you believe it had a story about running out of fuel? There are many lessons to take away here, but the biggest one is be a pessimist when it comes to fuel, especially if you’re a natural optimist.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

Flirting with real (and financial) disaster

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It was a chilly winter morning at my home airport in La Grande, OR (LGD), when I prepared for a 192 nm trip to Portland (PDX) to pick up a candidate for the position of CEO of our local hospital. As a hospital board member, I had volunteered to save him the 5-hour drive over icy roads for his interview. The Tanis heater on N5434A, my 1979 T210N, had kept the engine sufficiently warm so that I knew it would start with no more than three blades of rotation when asked.

It happened that a fellow board member had asked if his 18-year-old son, who was fascinated by airplanes, could ride along and I was happy to have the company. So happy, in fact, that after preflighting in the wind-protected hangar, I climbed in to get our clearance from the local remote communications outlet and asked the strapping young man to pull the airplane out of the hangar and close the heavy doors behind us.

He complied, and we were soon ensconced in the rapidly warming cabin, awaiting the oil temperature to cross the 100-degree mark before taxiing to the active. A 15-minute void time gave us plenty of leeway to have a comfortably warm engine and cabin before launch.

We taxied out to Runway 29 (later reassigned 30 with variation realignment) and performed an uneventful runup. Departure was without problem, and soon we were ascending at 1000 FPM over the frozen landscape. It was then than I happened to notice that the amber gear-up light had not illuminated. I cycled the gear down and back up to see if it was a temporary glitch. No change. I then assumed that the light was simply burned out, and not being the green light I needed before landing, made a note to change it at the first opportunity. The aircraft, however, seemed to be performing reasonably normally, except for a slight decrease in the expected cruise speed, for which I had no explanation but was not particularly alarmed, given that all other parameters were well within limits.

I can (and does) happen.

The remainder of the trip to PDX was uneventful, with none of the frequent ice-dodging that I had come to know after moving to the Pacific Northwest three years prior. Having learned to fly in the Deep South at rarely more than 3000 feet MSL, the white stuff was a new experience when I picked up my flying in my adopted region.

Cleared for a straight-in to 28 Right at PDX, the landing and short taxi to Flightcraft was routine, and we were soon marshalled into a short-term parking spot. As the lineman walked up to see what needs we might have, his jaw dropped as he pointed to the nose gear. There, for the last 192 nm, was the towbar, handle now resting in trail on the pavement. A closer inspection of the gear doors showed a very small indentation on each door where they had firmly clamped it for the entire trip. The paint on either side of the handle was neatly filed away by its takeoff and landing encounters with the concrete.

A consultation with the Flightcraft mechanic after an embarrassed admission of my oversight brought an opinion that there did not appear to be any other damage to the wheel or gear. The return trip to La Grande was without a hitch, and the gear and lights indicated full up and full down positions at the appropriate times.

Looking back, I realized how closely I had flirted with both real and/or financial disaster. Even a small transverse seam in the departure taxi pavement with a gap or different level could have buckled the towbar into the prop or directly sheared the gear itself. A conversation with my current A&P brought several stories of forgotten towbars or power-driven devices that went unremoved—with very expensive consequences. It was truly my lucky day! In the “Lessons Learned” category, every checklist I have ever prepared since then had a first entry that read, “Towbar Removed.”

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

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