Tag: International

Who’s pilot in command? A faulty assumption leads to an accident

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Maralinga is a 3,000 sq km section of desert in South Australia where the British Government tested atomic weapons in the 1950s. In the 1990s, the Australian government completed a successful decontamination of the site. Though my main work was based in Canberra, I needed to visit the Maralinga site about four times a year. I was an owner of a Cessna 172 and I used it to travel to and from the job. Canberra to Maralinga is approximately 2,000 km and I would always go via a different route to take in different scenery, and sometimes I would take my two young boys. I enjoyed my flights to Maralinga.

I was beginning to tire of CASA inventing mandatory ways for me to spend my money, such as unnecessary maintenance directives, insisting I pay for security passes when I already had higher level passes for my work, escalating tower charges, etc. I went to an air show at Narromine and met a friend who had recently built a Savannah aircraft, a two-seat, short field performer, could land in a farmer’s paddock or on clay pans in the desert. I flew back to Tumut with him and I liked the Savannah. I agonised for a week and then I ordered a kit for $60,000. There would be a three month wait.

About then I had a month of work at Maralinga. I flew there in the 172. By then the main work had finished and the site was mostly in mothballs and I was the only person on site.

Maralinga is now deserted, but once hosted bombers.

I heard that there were two Western Australian men then at the Brisbane Savannah agent’s hangar finishing off a new Savannah and they would soon be flying it home to Perth. I contacted them and invited them to overnight at Maralinga and they accepted and arrived a few days later.

When I meet new people there is a silent computer in the back of my head that assesses them: are they talking sense, is their story credible? We all do that, though some may not admit to it. Mick and Jim were about my age, they were jovial, their speech was a bit rough, but they had a lifetime of experiences and they quickly fixed a generator that had been giving me trouble and I was very impressed by their knowledge and skills. I quickly dismissed my reservations and developed a confidence in their judgement.

We agreed we would fly a few circuits in the Savannah after lunch.

They were good company and we got on well—maybe too well, because when we went to the airfield to fly the circuits, there was much joking and laughing about operating the Savannah, a small aircraft, from an 8,000-ft runway that had been built for nuclear bombers. The weather was perfect, we were in high spirits, but there was no discussion about our respective licences and experience or check procedures. We were just a couple of pilot mates going for a fly—what could go wrong? With hindsight, there was a lot that could go wrong.

As we arrived at the plane Mick said, “Dave you take the left seat.” I remember thinking that he wouldn’t have offered me the left seat unless he knew what he was doing, because flying from the right requires reversing your hand reactions and although not hard, it does require practice.

As we taxied out, Mick gestured to me to also have my hands on the controls and to make some of the control inputs, which I did. We taxied to the end of the runway, checked the oil temp, and commenced our takeoff roll. At about 200 ft, Mick took his hands off the controls and gestured to me that it was all mine. On reflection, there had been no discussion about lift-off speed or rate of climb or anything like that. Our start-up and takeoff had been more like a committee environment, with both of us making control inputs at our own discretion.

In comparison to my Cessna, I found the Savannah to be very light and to fly like a feather. Small changes in the controls caused significant changes in the flight and I had difficulty holding a steady height. I was not used to the centre stick and my movements were a bit jerky. I purposely did a very long downwind to allow a long final and I overran my turn out of base. I was feeling very uncomfortable and as soon as I had it roughly aligned on the runway, I decided that the safe thing to do was to hand control to an experienced Savannah pilot. So I said, “You take it, Mick. You have control.” To avoid any misunderstanding I placed my hands in my lap.

Mick looked very surprised. He had assumed I would fly the whole circuit, but he took control. My best estimate is that we were at about 300 ft above the ground when I passed control to Mick.

I was relieved that the plane was then under the control of a pilot with Savannah experience, but I soon realised that Mick was having his own troubles as he pulled off too much throttle and then over-corrected and we climbed momentarily before he pulled off too much throttle again. He was clearly getting flustered and making mistakes and he started swearing and shouting about the jumpy throttle. I did not know whether he was shouting at himself or whether he wanted me to make throttle inputs, but I considered that the last thing we needed was two pilots making inputs so I purposely left my hands on my lap and kept quiet as we continued a crazy up and down descent.

Then in response to one of his shouts and his hand gesturing for me to rotate the left side throttle friction nut, I completely loosened the left side friction nut. Out of all that chaos and a few more over-corrections by Mick, he managed to make a smooth touchdown and I was very relieved as we ran along the runway for a few metres.

Then suddenly the engine was at full power and the plane was climbing steeply. At about 40 ft, the engine suddenly went to idle revs and we nosed over and dived towards the runway at about 45 degrees. It all happened so very quickly. The nose wheel came up through the cabin floor and we skidded along the runway on the bottom of the fuselage with a collapsed left wing and the propeller making a sickening noise as it smashed itself to pieces on the runway.


Small, slow airplanes are still plenty fast enough to be dangerous.

The Savannah was badly damaged but not a write-off. Like most small planes, it was uninsured. After some discussion we decided I would fly Mick to Kalgoorlie in my 172 (about 1000 km west of Maralinga) and Dick would catch the train to Perth and bring back his truck to take the damaged Savannah home to Perth. As we flew to Kalgoorlie, Mick did not seem to want to talk about the accident but I was able to learn later from Jim that although Mick was licensed and had flown the Savannah from Brisbane, he did not have much flying experience prior to that.

Three days later Mick arrived back with his truck and we loaded the plane. We agreed that I would contribute to the repair costs and they departed.

It was not until about a year later, when I was assembling the throttle controls on my Savannah, that I realised what was a major factor in the accident. The Savannah has two push rod throttles, one on each side of the instrument panel but linked together forward of the panel. Each throttle has a hand operated friction nut and the flying pilot has his friction nut set at firm and the other side friction nut set at loose. If the friction nuts are set in reverse, it causes the throttle to operate in jumpy increments.

The Savannah has a Rotax engine with a safety spring on the carburetor so that if the throttle linkage breaks, the carburetor goes to full open throttle. This enables the pilot to fly on to an airfield and then turn off the fuel or the ignition and glide down and do a safe landing.

When Mick and I entered the Savannah, there would have been normal firm friction on the left throttle nut and nil friction on the right throttle nut. When Mick took control, he was operating the right throttle and it responded in jumpy increments, causing him to continually overcorrect the throttle. After he had me loosen the left friction nut, his control improved and out of all that chaos he managed a good smooth touchdown.

It is easy to now identify the many mistakes that we all made:

  • When Mick said, “Dave, you take the left seat,” I wrongly assumed that Mick would not have said that unless he had significant right seat control experience. I should have questioned that. I now think he had so little general flying experience that he did not appreciate that flying the Savannah from the right side would be different.
  • Because Mick knew that I had ordered a Savannah kit, he wrongly assumed I had significant Savannah flight experience and would fly all of the circuit. I only had two hours as a Savannah passenger.
  • Mick was surprised and unprepared when I passed control back to him and he found himself, at short notice, having to use his left hand on the control stick and his right hand on a jumpy throttle, something he was not ready for and it flustered him.
  • When Mick eventually achieved a smooth touchdown, he felt so relieved that he let go of all of the controls. That is poor technique; a pilot should always maintain control, in the air and on the ground.
  • Neither Mick nor I were aware that if both of the throttle friction nuts are loose and the throttle is released, the carburetor immediately goes to full power, which it did.
  • The Savannah has a high lift wing and as soon as the engine went to full revs, the Savannah leapt into the air and began an uncontrolled steep climb. At that stage Mick or I could have pushed the stick forward and initiated a go around and sorted things out. Neither of us had the presence of mind to do that. Mick reacted by pulling off the throttle and we plummeted to the ground.

The way I see it there were two main factors in this accident.

  1. Every pilot, from their first lesson onwards, gets it drummed into their heads that they must do their daily checks, which include, among other things, knowing how the controls work and the ability and experience of your fellow pilot. We failed badly on that fundamental check.
  2. There was also a human factor. It was a remote site and I had not seen another person for over a week, so I was looking forward to their visit. When we all got on so well, it induced an almost festive feeling in the air, like being on holiday. I do not offer it as an excuse but that good feeling in the air partly explains how a normally boring, cautious pilot like myself dropped my caution and neglected the fundamental checks. It may explain it—but nothing excuses—the negligence of the mistakes that we made that day.

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 David Johns (see all)

A severe, multi-day case of “get-there-itis”

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This summer I used the pause between the second and third waves of Covid to do some international flying. My plan was to fly from my native Slovakia via Czechia to Peenemünde (the test facility for V-1 and V-2 rockets in WWII) in northern Germany. This got cancelled due to a stormy front coming from the North Sea, heading east. So I opted for plan B while on the same historical epoch and took off to visit Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s lair – Hitler’s eastern front headquarters between 1941-1944) in northeastern Poland.

This boasts an old Nazi-built airfield, nearby bunker ruin complex surrounded by pine forests, a museum of the famous Polish 303rd squadron of RAF, and some wonderful lakes to top it off. It seemed like a great destination to spend a long weekend. As for my return route, I planned to fly along the eastern border of Poland back to Slovakia, stay overnight at the lovely airport in Svidnik (LZSK) just across the border, and the next day fly back home to LZDV.

The Wolf’s Lair is a fascinating place to visit.

I reserved with my charterer a WT9 Dynamic, a beautiful and fast ultralight with a Rotax engine. However, since my destination got changed already, why not the plane too? A day before my planned takeoff, I learned the Dynamic was still somewhere in Croatia, so I opted for the trustworthy Cessna 150 Reims Rocket.

My route led through Warsaw Babice, an airfield familiar from my previous trip. The weather and service had been great, avgas and credit card payment was no problem, so it was a welcome stop after a 3.5 hour flight. Then I continued to Olsztyn, another 1.5 hour flight over flat but increasingly picturesque Polish countryside with plenty of lakes and forests.

My landing at the airport was smooth, a gentleman at the airport was quick to organize a hangar, bicycle, and transport of my suitcase to a nearby beautifully restored B&B. I even managed to visit the museum the same evening, riding on the paved road from airfield. I could not escape thinking how many forced laborers built the road with cobbled stones, probably commandeered from towns around the place.

The next morning all was great except the weather forecast: the aforementioned front was coming from Germany, with the outlook for several days of non-VFR weather. So I made a decision to fly back home before noon, shortening the trip considerably. I had to promise to Stanislaw to return next year and let him show me the former Me-109 stands where fighters had been on standby to protect their Führer.

I took off before noon, as planned, and headed south. Soon the sky grew dimmer, and clouds started turning from cumulus to a thick carpet around 3000 ft AGL. Rain patches started to appear and two hours into my 3.5 hour planned trip I had to dodge them. The Flight Information Service (FIS) was very helpful and kept briefing me on the weather along my route (I filed a flight plan – not mandatory for flights within the EU, but strongly recommended). Then about one hour from my destination a solid wall of rain appeared in front of me.

After some discussion with FIS, I took her recommendation to divert east and land at a Stalowa Wola, a well-known airfield with a great tradition of gliding sports. The last 15 minutes of my flight I was flying in pouring rain and headwinds up to 30 knots. When I finally found the airfield, it was empty (who would be sitting around the radio when no sane person would be flying in such a weather, right?) and managed decent landing in a headwind of 15 knots. I taxied to the apron and stayed in the aeroplane until the storm passed.

Then I dared to venture out and look for some humans. It turned out there was a group of teenagers staying in the airport building, having just completed their first solo of glider training, and they were looking forward to the next day. They gave me the phone number for the chairman of the aeroclub. Dariusz did not answer the phone nor responded to my text but sent a very nice colleague, who showed me to a spacious room where I could stay for the night and get a shower. My plane was hangared with the help of a crowd of fresh glider pilots. With a short taxi trip to a nearby town, a huge pizza and a beer, life started to improve.

The next day Dariusz came to organize a car and a driver for me to the nearest gas station to refill my Cessna. To my request that he should pull out his terminal so I could pay the fees, he just responded, “The gentleman should consider himself our guest.”

Scud from Cessna

Not a great view for a VFR flight.

So the following day I took off for my original destination (LZSK). Having landed there some 40 minutes later (and being received by a friendly gentleman who turned out to be the one-person staff of the airfield, chairman of the local aeroclub, and a very accomplished pilot), I was readily informed of another front building up on my route. Even coming there I had to dodge some low clouds, this time in the mountains of Eastern Slovakia—not fun. I decided to wait things out, only witnessing two thunderstorms between noon and 5pm, with another coming later in the evening. So I tied down my plane and prepared for staying the night—again in the clubhouse at the airfield, with a shower and two large dogs guarding my plane and myself for the night. We refueled the plane for the next day and hoped for a good weather.

The next morning, Monday, things were looking mixed. At any point somewhere along the 300nm route to my home base, there was some thunderstorm. But this time I was determined to get home. I had spent too much time waiting for the weather. And anyway, it kept changing so there was hope the storms would clear before I got to them with my slow 150. We said goodbye to the friendly flying colleague and I took off southwest, but the storms decided to wait me out rather than dissipate. I know the area well, having grown up in the East and travelled around, but you will agree things look very different from 3000 ft AGL than they look from a car on the road.

About 30 minutes into the flight I was approaching CTR of Kosice, an important regional airport. The tower let me in on my now-westbound route but advised me of thunderstorms along the western border of their area. And there it was. I told them I would deviate slightly southwest and continue; if things got rough I would turn back to land and wait it out.

Well, my get-there-itis was getting more severe by now—I was determined to at least try to get through the mountainous area of south central Slovakia. I was reminding myself of all the good things I read and watched in all those instructional videos: 178 seconds, conscious flight into IMC, etc. Well, soon enough I found myself flying some 500 ft. AGL ever-lower ceilings with ever-increasing hills around me. At one point I took a picture of a hillside on my 9 o’clock with the tip of it hidden in the cloud. On my 3 o’clock the view was identical (see picture above). When I was shooting that picture, I literally thought: “if this is the last photograph I take in my life then I will be remembered as an idiot.” It is a weird feeling when your navigation shows you are going to hit the terrain in less than 3 minutes (see picture below).

Track log

The track log tells the tale.

So I put down the camera and made a steep 180-degree turn to the right in order to get out of that valley. Remember you read you should fly along the side of a valley and not in the middle? That is some good advice, which I of course did not follow. Nevertheless, I managed to squeeze in a rather tight turn and head back. I called the FIS to inform them I would try a bit more south since the clouds looked thinner there. That would mean I entered Hungarian airspace and wanted to switch frequency.

The FIS suggested, however, that I should stay with them since they could hear me and “we will hand you over to Hungarians if needed.” A few minutes later I flew into another valley with a dead end under the ceiling, but this time I decided to turn back earlier and divert even more south. After that the sky started to clear, and 10 minutes later I flew into a beautiful summer day with some cumulus clouds but otherwise beautiful blue sky.

The rest of my flight was uneventful and with one stop over at LZLU (I hear that is the only airfield which has a memorial to sky divers) I landed tired but safe at my home base.


  1. All those good airmanship practices are written in blood. Follow them and you will not have to rely on dumb luck or provoke the Good Lord to keep you alive like I did.
  2. Aviator folks are one big family. When you need help, you will get it. This includes controllers.
  3. When you fly longer routes, have your water bottle full. But have it with a cap you can open and close with one hand when the other one is constantly on the yoke, compensating for gusts. You want to stay hydrated but also control the airplane. At one moment I thought, having the screw-on cup and the bottle both in one hand: when I lose the cap, I will have to drink it all in an instant or I will not be able to fly. What that would do to my bladder I will not speculate. 😊

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 Pavol Varga (see all)

Friday Photo: a patchwork quilt

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The view: Flying over fields in Victoria, Australia, after heavy rains

The pilot: Neil Sidwell

The airplane: ICP Savannah

The mission: My first flight over regional Victoria after lifting of COVID restrictions

The memory: Yellow canola, brown ploughed fields, green grass, and dark green wooded hills in the background melding into a patchwork quilt.

Want to share your “Friday Photo?” Send your photo and description (using the format above) to: [email protected]

Latest posts by Neil Sidwell (see all)

From Venezuela to Alaska and back

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It all started in May 1998, after we installed factory rebuilt engines in our 1976 Piper Seneca II, YV-850P, with 3,000 hours total time. We also added long range fuel tanks, GAMI injectors, Black Magic automatic waste gates, a JPI engine monitor, a Garmin 150 GPS coupled to an STEC-55 autopilot, LoPresti speed mods, and an Aerox portable oxygen system. The result was an improved Seneca II with a true airspeed of 178 knots at 12,000 ft. at 65% power, and six hours endurance (885 nm range) with a 45 min. IFR reserve.

My partner Mark Dominguez and I asked ourselves where we could go with these new capabilities. Rather jokingly, we said, “why not Alaska?!” After some serious discussions, we decided, “let’s go for it!”

A year later, around 2:30 am on June 30, 1999, we were flying over the Alaskan North Slope at 100 ft., enjoying the astonishing colors of the midnight sun behind us and its reflections on the many lagoons and rivers created as the winter ice melts during spring:

It was quite a long day, with no night for us. At 11:30 am, we arrived at Fairbanks after a 3-hour flight from Whitehorse (CYXY). After lunch and some rest, at 10:30 pm, in broad daylight, we departed northwest to Bettles and turned north, finally landing at 12:15 am at Anaktuvuc Pass (PAKP), an Eskimo settlement above the Arctic Circle. We were welcomed by several kids playing at the airport, surprised by our untimely arrival and who kept staring at what was for them an unusual plane. Their faces lit up when we invited them into the cockpit.

We took off at 2:00 am, flying north of the Brooks Range. A few minutes into the flight, the sun behind us remained low on the horizon, while in front we had a full moon—amazingly beautiful scenery. We landed at Fairbanks a few minutes after sunrise, ending the climactic flight of this first stage of our trip from Venezuela to Alaska.

The second stage started in mid-August, flying Alaska for 17 days, then heading back to Venezuela along the US Pacific Coast, from Seward to Long Beach with several stops. We carried on to Las Vegas, then Reno to watch the famous National Championship Air Races—a must for any pilot. We continued to Santa Fe, Carlsbad, and McAllen, then headed to Mexico and Jamaica, finally arriving in Caracas on September 28, 1999:

Venezuela to Alaska route

This adventure took us across five countries, including landings at 30 cities/towns, and we logged 105 hours over 38 legs; total distance was 16,020 nm. It was, from many perspectives, an unforgettable experience, one we want to share with our fellow pilots.

Planning the trip

A trip of this magnitude requires a lot of preparation to assure a legal, safe, and enjoyable flight.

Our first decision, the possible dates for the trip, was an easy one, since it was dictated by the weather. The best months for flying in Alaska are June, July, and August.

For added safety, we decided that all flights would have two IFR certified pilots, and for each leg we clearly defined the “pilot in command” and the pilot responsible for the flight plan, weight and balance, weather analysis, communications, navigation, etc.

Another safety related decision was to supplement our Venezuelan IFR rating with a US IFR course/rating, which we accomplished in 12 days at American Flyers in Pompano Beach, Florida, including the FAA flight check.

Alaska peak

Flying VFR in Alaska is common, but often IFR offers more options.

Even though the entire trip can be done VFR, in our experience the safest and easiest way to fly international and/or long trips through complex and congested airspace, is to file IFR flight plans. However, in Alaska most of the flights were VFR, between 500-3500 ft. above the terrain, to view the landscape and avoid any clouds. This also eliminated the risk of ice formation, which in Alaska during summer can be present as low as 4000 ft.

Once the routes were defined, we purchased the required VFR Navigation Charts, IFR Enroute Low and High Altitude charts, Terminal Procedures, the Airport/Facility Directory, and AIM. In 1999 all these documents weighed nearly 25 lbs., which we carefully organized for each leg.

An important issue was to make sure we complied with the minimum insurance requirements of each country. Venezuelan insurance policies normally exclude Alaska. Third party liability coverage in USA, Canada, and Mexico was a minimum of $500,000. In Mexico, insurance policies must be issued by a local company; if not, you risk a $10,000 fine, or worse, confiscation of your plane.

Caracas–Anchorage / June 1999

We started our journey to Alaska on June 18, 1999, landing at Fort Lauderdale (FXE), after a fuel stop at Puerto Plata (MDPP). As always, the Caribbean gifted us with plenty of sunshine, a beautiful variety of blue waters, and… a great surprise! Near Nassau, flying between layers at 12,000 ft, we encountered some precipitation, which in minutes turned into snowflakes. There was a cold front over South Florida and the Bahamas, bringing a lot of precipitation and low ceilings in the area, which required an ILS runway 26 approach down to 400 ft at FXE. This was my first IFR approach in the US—no sweat!

Two days later, we flew to Lafayette to visit our friend and fellow pilot Steve Gruver, owner of a BE-58P and a beautifully restored Piper Cub. Unfortunately, this was the last time we saw Steve and his family, because in 2002 they perished in an accident in New Hampshire.

After postponing our flight one day due to heavy thunderstorms, we departed for Glenwood Springs, Colorado (GWS), with a fuel stop at OKC. During the first leg, with the help of Flight Watch, we managed several thunderstorms, having to deviate about 40 miles east of our route. On the next leg, near the Rocky Mountains, we climbed to the MEA of 16,000 ft. with an extraordinary view of the snow-covered peaks. The landing was an interesting visual approach into GWS.

Alaska peak

The views in Alaska on a clear day are unforgettable.

We left Glenwood Springs two days later, eager to reach Alaska. The selected route was east of the Rocky Mountains, to Billings–Edmonton–Fort Nelson–Whitehorse and finally Fairbanks. During the last leg, we had our first encounter with ice, flying at 12,000 ft. in IMC. After a few minutes of tension due to communication difficulties, and with the help of an airliner, we were cleared to 16,000 ft., above the clouds. OAT was 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and we had no cabin heat! Some newspaper in our shoes helped to keep our feet warm.

As an anecdote, the pilot flying wanted to find out the effects of hypoxia, not using supplemental oxygen. After a few minutes, he was somewhat euphoric, confusing the VHF and VOR frequency knobs, and after finally finding the VS button on the autopilot, he erroneously selected a climb instead of a descent to Fairbanks. A very convincing experience about the need to use oxygen at 12,000 ft. and above.

So, on June 30, 1,999, after 11 legs and 34 hours in the air, we landed in Fairbanks, with a spectacular CAVU day with at least 100 miles visibility.

The day after our flight to Anaktuvuk and the tundra described at the beginning, we flew along the north slope of the Alaska Range, where we had an impressive sight of Mt. Denali, the highest mountain in North America at 20,380 ft. We crossed the Alaska Range at Windy Pass, continued to Beluga Lake and finally headed to Merrill Field in Anchorage, where we left the plane for 45 days, returning to Caracas on a commercial flight.

Flying Alaska / August 1999

Chakachamna Lake

Chakachamna Lake and the Triumvirate Glacier make for a unique mix of colors.

We returned to Anchorage on August 21, 1999. Next day, we took YV-850P on a test flight, heading west to the Lake Clark Preserve, where we enjoyed some beautiful views of the Chakachamna Lake and the Triumvirate Glacier, with its unusual black color due to ashes released by several eruptions of nearby volcanoes.

Returning to Anchorage, we used the very limited VFR corridor into Merrill Field (PAMR), which has to be flown below 600 ft. or between 2000 and 3000 ft. This is very congested airspace, since in a 10 nm radius centered in PAMR, you find five other airports: PANC, PALH, PAED, PAFR and CSR.

Once satisfied that YV-850P was in perfect condition, we flew to Kodiak, 220 miles south of Anchorage. There, we hired a Beaver floatplane and headed northwest at 500 ft. to the Katmai National Park, overflying many islands, glaciers, and lakes. We landed in a small lake to watch a family of grizzly bears catch salmon in a river from a nearby glacier. This close encounter with such beautiful and imposing animals in their natural environment was an awesome experience.

Bears on river

The following day, in YV-850P, we flew to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a remote volcanic area covered in ash from a huge 1912 eruption. We then set course to Seward, flying low over snow-covered mountains, magnificent glaciers, and the Kenai Fjords National Park. This includes the Harding Icefield, its outflowing glaciers, and coastal fjords of incredible beauty.

Alaska lake and mountains

Just another day flying in Alaska.

From Seward, we had to go back to Kodiak, in a foggy day, where I had forgotten my passport and other belongings. Then we flew to Anchorage to pick up Mark´s father, Joe, and his wife, continuing to Talkeetna, to visit the Denali National Park, where the landscape is dominated by the Alaska Range with the highest mountains in Alaska: Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter, and Mt. Denali.

Next day, we hired a Cessna 185 equipped with skis and flew low over the Alaska Range and its ridges, canyons, and glaciers, finally landing at the popular base camp for Denali ascents at the beginning of the 44 mile-long Kahiltna Glacier on the southwest slope of Denali. Later, we repeated this staggering flight, full of adrenalin, with YV-850P, circling the Denali summit at 23,000 ft!

Without a doubt, these air adventures were the ultimate flight experience of this stage of our trip, which we celebrated with a most pleasant evening and wonderful view of Mt. Denali, some 60 miles from our hotel.

Cessna on glacier

A skiplane is the best way to explore Alaska’s glaciers.

From Talkeetna we headed to Seward, through the Chugach Mountains, flying low over the Harvard and Columbia Glaciers, two of the more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska.

We started our return to Venezuela from Seward, a day earlier than we had planned, due to a low pressure system that was expected to bring bad weather for several days along the coast of the Alaska Gulf. On September 3, 1999, we departed for Juneau (PAJN), a 485 nm/3.5-hour flight. This proved to be the most challenging flight of our trip, especially for tropical private pilots used to the nice Caribbean weather all year long. The weather forecast was for clouds over our coastal route, between 5000 and 12,000 ft., with PAJN overcast at 7000 ft., broken at 5000 ft., drizzle and 8 miles visibility. For our alternate, Sitka (PASI), weather was overcast at 8000 ft., broken at 7000 ft., visibility +10 miles.

Our flight plan was initially VFR at 3500 ft. along the coast. As we progressed, clouds got lower, and we were forced to descend to 500 ft. above the water. In order to maintain VFR, we had to fly away from the coast for some 20 mins., climbing to 7000 ft. in VMC. When it became obvious that we could not maintain VFR, we decided to continue IFR, climbing to 15,000 ft. after some communications difficulties with Anchorage Center, and flew about two hours on top the clouds. In the meantime, Juneau weather had deteriorated, reporting overcast 6000 ft., broken at 4000 ft., visibility 6 miles, and light rain.

The approach into PANJ was an LDA runway 08, with a DA of 3200 ft. and MAP 3.2 nm from the threshold. We asked to stay above the clouds as long as possible and to minimize the risk of icing we planned a rapid descent at 1,500 ft./min from our cruise level down to 7000 ft. until SSR, and then 5600 ft. to LYNNS, the IAF. Visual contact of the runway was at about 6 miles and 3600 ft., with an uneventful landing under some tension in the cockpit, I must say, given the marginal weather, surrounding topography, no radar control, and the possible diversion to our alternate.

Next day, we flew to Ketchikan (PAKT) for an overnight stop, to continue to Seattle Tacoma (SEA), a 609 nm, 4.5-hour flight, leaving behind Alaska, very happy with a great number of unforgettable experiences and memories that last forever, and very satisfied for making true a dream flight, as private pilots in a plane with the capabilities of our Seneca II.

From my perspective, after flying 4200 hours in 48 years, this trip from Venezuela to Alaska and back was by far the most special and extraordinary adventure as a private pilot.

Latest posts by Roberto Munoz (see all)

SportStar-ing it around Australia

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My first flight was in a Cessna 152, on my eldest brother’s 10th birthday. He got to go on a flight as a present and, seeing my long face, the pilot took pity and took me for flight. I was about 7 years old, but I still remember with awe seeing my fox terrier dog lying on the lawn in the sun as we flew over our house. It would have been a 10-minute flight—but wow.

The views from a small airplane, once you’ve seen them, are hard to forget.

At 14 I flew quite a few times, as our family had moved to Darwin in the Northern Territory. My horse-riding instructor was a pilot with a charter airline and flew parts and mail out to stations. It was a great adventure traveling to stations such as Delamare and Victoria River Downs. How could I forget flying over the large cattle feed lot and the experimental growing of sorghum to feed them? After cyclone Tracey destroyed Darwin on Christmas Day, all the horses in the Darwin area were trucked to Tipperary Station. My father and I had to go down to the station with the brands book and draft off the horses for the pony club. What an adventure flying back into Darwin, skirting around tropical thunderstorms, then some low flying around the mangrove areas looking for debris and carcasses from the disaster.

I had many interests and so while the thought of flying never left me, there seemed to be endless opportunities to do other things. Married and in my early twenties, I went for a trial flight in a new Jabiru. Sadly, with three kids and a mortgage (when rates hit 16% in Australia), it was unaffordable to learn to fly. Then came an open day at the local gliding club. Off a winch in a Blanik—how exciting was that! Yes, nearly affordable, so did a total of 12 hours. The spin training was unforgettable. Alas for flying, kid number four came along, work was more intense, and I decided to do a university degree part time so I could continue to work. No time or money.

My elder brother shared my passion for flight and obtained his pilot’s licence. Envious? You bet. Unfortunately, we lived hundreds of kilometres apart, so I didn’t fly with him often. One of his great mates was an aerobatic pilot. Now that’s experience you will never forget: having a spin (and I mean a spin in a Pitts Special!). As an agribusiness consultant I did get to fly quite a bit, both with airlines and charter. Every charter flight was memorable and would bring back the hankering of, “I really want to do this one day.” One memorable flight took place in a King Air on a trip to the US, sitting up front with an Aussie pilot. But owning my own business and intensive farm just took all my time.

The really “want to do this one day” day finally came, but not at my instigation. I sold my farming interests and was working as project manager five and a half days week. My wife had stopped working, so she took over all domestic chores. After being used to doing something seven days a week, I developed a habit of saying “I’m bored” about 15 minutes after getting home Saturday at lunchtime. My wife, bless her heart, bought me a Trial Instruction Flight voucher at the local flying school. That was it. Not only did I get my licence, I made a new friend—the CFI.


The SportStar is a fun and economical way to see Australia.

Before I had finished my licence, I was a proud owner of a Evektor Sportstar. I cross hire it to the flying school, where it gets used for the navigation training, and this pays for the fixed costs of hangarage and insurance.

This has opened up a new world for my wife and me. While I would never plan to fly if it was an essential birthday party of one of our 13 grandchildren, out of fear of getting a dose of get-there-itis, what a great blessing to wake up, look out the window and say, “let’s bomb in on some of the grandies.”

“Which ones?” the wife would say.

“Let me check the weather.” I’m flying a Sportstar; tailwinds are important!

All the family is within 2-3 hours flying time. A dash up to Waikerie, flying over the Coonawarra Vineyards and the Mallee grain producing districts, means I am greeted by the Murray River and Riverland vineyards and citrus orchards.

I approach over the river to eagerly awaiting grandchildren, spend the day and am home that evening. There might be a dash to Echuca across the edge of the Grampians Ranges—spectacular from the air—the Wimmera grain districts again to the dairy irrigation districts approaching Echuca. Perhaps even on to Henty to see another group of grandies.

I might take the coastal route to Adelaide over the unique Coorong mouth of the mighty Murray and sneak under the C class airspace into Gawler, keeping the eyes peeled for the gliders that utilise the strip. Family and grandchildren at every destination.

Maybe let’s have a day together and fly to the coastal town of Robe and walk in and have lunch, taking in the beautiful view of the coast and lakes along the way. There are stunning, contrasting greens of pasture and multitudes of deep green pine forests. Always a welcome sight, the volcanic Blue Lake and its eerie iridescent blue is on the way back home to the Mount Gambier airport.

We have had some adventures flying across the vast expanses of station country to Broken Hill, seeing the Murray Darling system at its worst. Rivers turned to puddles and lakes dry. Vast stations are measured in square miles devoid of stock and the only green splotches are around the station residences. The drought has broken and it’s time to fly the area again and see all its beauty.

View in flight

It really is all about the journey, not the destination.

Our 40th wedding anniversary is coming up, so I am planning a trip to Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia and then to Yorke’s Peninsula and across to Streaky Bay. Then it will be across the outback and salt lakes to the famous Wilpena Pound and Flinders Ranges. Then on to Broken Hill to see the changes with the drought-breaking rains over the Murray-Darling System.

When I am not flying or reading about flying, I am planning trips using the Oz Runways app. When the COVID thing breaks, we will be off. The little Sportstar has flown around Australia once with her previous owner and she will be doing it again in the future.

Flying: what a wonderful privilege and blessing to be able to fly and have a wife eager to share the experiences. Cherish every moment and share it with all you can. I hope all who aspire to fly finally get to, just as I have been fortunate enough too.

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Friday Photo: Le Bourget Lake

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The view: Le Bourget Lake, located in the French Alps

The pilot: Phillippe Platek

The airplane: Cessna 152 (F-GDIK)

The mission: A recreational flight from Annecy (LFLP) to Chambery (LFLB)

The memory: From snowy peaks to calm water, all in one shot.

Want to share your “Friday Photo?” Send your photo and description (using the format above) to: [email protected]

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A close call on the water in the Bahamas

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Rotating ten feet off the water, there was an ominous and very audible bang from the rear of the aircraft. Immediately the seaplane skewed 45 degrees into the east wind, heading us at 80mph toward a frightening scene.

Extrasensory perception becomes a gift to seasoned pilots: the slightest noise, even above the drone of an engine, can be heard or felt in milliseconds. Through a career spanning over 20 years, rest assured there are going to be noises. I have heard and felt something go quite wrong with the powerplant in front of me, noticing immediately, where my passengers remained oblivious.

On this day I was only halfway through my aviation journey but with enough experience for reaction time to be instantaneous; this time there would be no hiding it from my client seated in the co-pilot seat. One can scoff at that expression of “doing things by the book” but in near every case of incident, almost all were resolved safely by resorting to this method—except this was not in the book.

A seaplane is a great way to get around the Bahamas.

After a hurricane had hit the islands, my insurance adjuster friend came to survey clientele damage. With the job complete I had elected to perform a seaplane crosswind takeoff for the departure, the lee of an island avoided rougher water further out. Split second reaction had me hit the opposite rudder pedal so hard that I broke the metal toe piece of the pedal clean in half. Nothing happened. The inhospitable, jagged rock face of the island with its torn shrubbery on a craggy apex came speeding toward us. Towering on top was an electric cable, appearing as if it were a tight-rope wire held aloft by its wooden poles that ran the length of the cay.

The approaching height of it all seemingly impossible to clear. We were headed to certain disaster at this low altitude with no directional control and mere seconds to play with. There was no choice; not enough distance remained ahead to land safely. If I pulled the power now we would have momentum enough to surely crash into the base of the rocky shoreline. I had to keep the seaplane flying, flat enough toward the solid rock, allowing it to gain valuable airspeed. Did we have enough time? When things are going horribly wrong the scene appears to take on an appearance of slow motion. Panic is no option—it becomes think, think, think. Those remaining precious seconds lasting forever, giving time to react.

In a flash of memory, I remembered the maneuver making BD Maule famous: his dramatic climb out of an aircraft hangar! I could see David’s body language shuffle awkwardly, bracing his hand on the interior windshield support that ran from the roof of the cockpit through the instrument panel, something solid to hold on to. We raced unabashed toward the land with its threatening wires above. I heard a slightly shaken “Oh Shit!” through my headset from my passenger as we came within the last few yards.

I heaved on the yoke and pumped the flap handle in that familiar movement from practice flying in tight places. The little seaplane obediently leaped skyward, like its factory name declared on its tail: “Super Rocket!” The wire whizzed just underneath and there was a very audible gulp of air coming from both occupants through their headsets.

“Damn that was a close!” David nearly shouted in excitement.

“I’m really glad I had an insurance adjuster onboard,” I replied, attempting to interject a little humour to ease the situation at hand.

“That was an amazing piece of flying Paul!” David exclaimed visibly inhaling.

“You can thank this amazing little plane for that one,” I said with conviction. “Now comes the fun part…”

“What do you mean?” he asked, facial expression becoming instantly serious, thinking all was saved and we could just go home.

“We have no rudder my friend,” I added gently, not wanting to raise further alarm. I demonstrated by showing him what happened when I pushed the rudder pedals from side to side: still nothing.

“Flying without a rudder is one thing but this aircraft is a rudder plane, that is one that you lead with your feet and follow with aileron control to co-ordinate,” I explained. “We can fly sort of straight but I’ll need rudder for the precision needed to land straight ahead, especially on water; slightly crooked and we could bury a float and cartwheel.”

“Oh crap!” came his short reply.

“We can land somewhere out here and try a fix but if it doesn’t work we could be stuck. I say we go home and use the harbour. At least we will be home and help close at hand if I screw up,” I said. I knew the only part of Nassau Harbour available to try this risky maneuver would be the large turning basin used by the cruise ships near the lighthouse entrance.


Flying a Maule with no rudder control—not in the manual.

The seaplane flew all the way back to Nassau slightly skewed to one side. It was incredibly strange to have no rudder control and this next landing was going to really test my skills. The flight home gave us time to talk about what had happened and how things can go incredibly wrong in a blink of the eye.

There seemed no point in declaring my emergency to the air traffic controllers in Nassau. They were very familiar that I was a floatplane, not landing at the airport where emergency services could be offered. Reaching the harbour, the last thing I needed were additional watercraft from the Harbour Patrol or Police Force that could impede my landing zone.

I had quite enough on my plate having to deal with the constant daily traffic of a busy commercial harbour: glass-bottomed tour boats, water-taxis, racing jet skis, government tugs, booze-cruise party boats, private yachts entering or leaving the harbour. That thin body of water presented some unique challenges for a seaplane pilot, ones eyes would have to dart in every direction, absorbing the movement of water traffic and the wake they all produced, also noting the effects of wind direction in that tight area, all the time maintaining the safe performance of the seaplane.

Here was a crucial difference from those who simply had to cope with landing on a concrete runway. Quoting a senior captain of British Airways who had flown earlier with me, “you are a lot busier in the cockpit than I am in a 747 landing at Heathrow!” A seaplane’s landing surface could be so disturbed simply from water traffic that has already cleared the area; wake, swells, tide, and wind can add untold hazards, forcing me to fly around until it settled suitable enough to safely put down on a calmer surface. Accomplishing this without a rudder was going to take a load of luck and all that I could muster from thousands of hours in the air.

Landing assured, I declared to my controller who bid me “good evening.” We were on our own from here. Circling the turning basin I could see clearly the wind lines drawing their clue of direction on the surface, favouring slightly to the northeast, a direction immediately favouring us, offering the longest portion of water to put down while praying the wind would hold us long enough in a straight line. The next visible problems became all too clear. There was a large cruise ship preparing to pull away from the wharf for its departure to Florida and those marker buoys that lined the entranceway of the channel where the ships followed the deep channel. I had to draw a mental line directly into the wind—not a degree off if I could help it—keeping free of any obstacles such as a 12-foot high ton of floating metal buoy chained to the ocean floor.

I alined the aircraft into the wind, keeping the image of my chosen runway. Down to the water we flew with one degree of flap set in. Closer and feeling confident, I applied the second notch of flap carefully, slowing the approach safely. It looked as if I would nail this first time with my feet trying in vain automatically for some rudder control that did not exist. Very near the water now and a sudden slight gust of wind slightly from one side had us careening toward a tall green buoy.

“Damn it,” I muttered, not able to control the drift. Full-power now, a go-around being my only option. “This is how we must keep trying it,” I explained to David through my headset microphone, who watched and wondered our chances without saying a word. I climbed out successfully over Paradise Island, making a left turn to set up the approach again.

Back down to the water we went, repeating the procedure for hopeful touchdown. The small seaplane this time stayed true into the wind. A quick, yet smoothly applied third degree of flap while we floated a few feet above the water, setting up the slight nose-high flare that would ensure an admired touchdown. Flying is an art form; strangely, landings in particular were not ever taught by any flight instructor or examiner during the learning phases of my own training. That short sensation of floating above the landing surface and wait, wait, wait, without moving the controls more than a fraction, waiting patiently for the surface to meet its mark and the floats or wheels. kiss the water or concrete hardly noticed by all onboard. This harbour landing today, even under these conditions, still had me strive for that effect with power now all the way off and the welcome sound of gentle slapping water against the metal floats. Success!

“Well done, very nice!” David sighed.

“More fun coming my friend, this time it’s you who will save the day!” I smiled at him.

“What now?” he asked with a furrowed brow as we taxied forwards.

“Well, we still have no way of controlling this thing. The rudders are linked to the water-rudders which steer us on the water!”

“Oh crap!” came the familiar response in a deep Scottish brogue.


Once you’re on the water, the work is not done.

“I need you to exit the plane and crawl on your knees to the back of the float to push the rudder in the direction I yell out to you.” He laughed at the idea, removing his headset and starting to exit.

“Do me a favour David,” I said as he looked back at me. “Please don’t go for a swim because I won’t be able to come back for you; it’s only about 18 inches wide down there and to make it really interesting you now have an audience of several hundred people,” I said, pointing at the large cruise ship that had cast her lines. He rolled his eyes and headed aft, smiling in confidence as we both saw the humour of this insane method of getting back to the beach near the Hilton Hotel.

“Ready,” I heard his call.

“Push full left,” I yelled out of the open window of his door. The plane obeyed and turned around.

“Straight now!” I barked another command. Straight ahead we went. David was now on all fours facing backwards, recognising that he had full control of where we were going. We taxied across the waters of Nassau Harbour much to the amazement of hundreds of passengers watching from the deck railings of their ship as she passed behind us. They must have all been asking the same question: “what the hell was that crazy man doing on all fours on the float of a taxing seaplane?”

We approached the beach head-on and I pull the mixture to shut off fuel flow. The propeller suddenly stopped as we bumped gently onto the soft sand. Ignition and master switch turned off, I could hear clearly the instrument gyros spooling down from under the panel inside my cockpit.

“Good job crew!” I called back to my balancing passenger. Carrying small articles inside the passenger side float compartment needed for that quick fix was a necessary part of bush flying, and I soon found a small length of stainless safety-wire to repair the easily spotted culprit: a broken rudder turnbuckle that now fell limp under the rear of the plane.

Temporary fix in place, we restarted the engine and with both of us back inside we taxied eastward the full length of the harbour, pulling successfully onto my wooden ramp at the restaurant base I had rented since opening the Bahamas’ first commercial seaplane operation in 1990. We smiled at each other, shaking hands in a celebration of a good save—a very spooky situation that had a good ending. The ice cold beer found just a couple yards away went down very easily. David recalled in later years retelling that story several times in many bars around the world during his career. He exclaimed with glee in broad Scottish brogue, “I nay had ter embellish that tale wee one bit!”

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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.

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.


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].

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Hand flying across Canada

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2020 was an epic flying year for my son Daniel, his friend Theo, and me as we had the opportunity to fly our new plane across the country, to its new home in Nova Scotia from its previous home in Kamloops, British Columbia.

New airplane? Cross-country trip? Let’s go!

The idea for a new plane started in May of that year when flying in our 172 to the south shore of Nova Scotia. My wife suggested that a bigger plane with longer range would be ideal for future travel. Well, that was it for me—the hunt was on. After an exhaustive search of the usual plane ads, Daniel found a beautiful 1962 Cessna 182E in the unlikely Facebook marketplace.

After contacting the owner for more information and learning the annual inspection was due, I let the owner know that I was very keen on the plane and wanted to observe the inspection. Mountainaire Services in Kamloops (CYKA) put some work aside and agreed to help us out. Once the logistics of cross-Canada travel in a pandemic were figured out, one-way tickets from Halifax to Vancouver were purchased and the adventure was on.

The annual was snag-free with a few minor repairs that were taken care of. The previous owner, Carlos, was a pleasure to meet and work with. Although the plane was well loved and a great find for us, it was hard for him to let it go.

Lake Louise from air

Hard to beat these views.

As a flat land, east coast pilot, I felt it was prudent to hire a check pilot for the route through the mountains. With the inspection and sale complete and weather coming in for the next few days, we planned to leave the next day. Dan and Theo, licensed glider pilots and Air Cadets, were excited to be a part of the adventure and were helping out as much as they could. Hand flying for 2500 miles was a big task.

We chose the VFR route through the mountains from Kamloops (CYKA) to Revelstoke to Golden through Kicking Horse Pass, along Lake Louise, past Banff to Springbank (CYBW) in Alberta. The Purcell mountains and the higher Rockies were spectacular and quite foreboding in their sheer size.

We were lucky to have Tyler along as he gave me some more good tips on dealing with wind, what side of the ridge to fly, and pointers on weather and clouds that were at the tops of some of the peaks. Flying alongside a sheer cliff at 7500 feet with it continuing on up to over 10,000 was a memorable moment. As we flew along it felt like the wingtip would graze the trees and snow-covered peaks.

We landed without too much trouble in Springbank (CYBW), topping off tanks and dropping Tyler off to fly back to BC commercial. We were excited to see the continent ahead of us. 300 miles of the world’s most beautiful scenery were behind us and we were surprised at how fast it seemed to go by.


An ever-changing landscape below.

Our next leg took us over the flatlands of the Prairies. The horizon seemed to stretch beyond forever. We landed at Yorkton Municipal (CYQV) in Saskatchewan just at dusk. The FBO there, called Leading Edge Aviation, had someone waiting for us even though they had closed a few hours before. An almost 500 nautical mile and 3.3 hour leg. We had a nice tailwind and our groundspeed at times was over 170kts.

Our next day started fairly early as we planned to make it to somewhere in western Ontario, overflying Manitoba. So far the trip had been CAVU but the clouds this morning in Manitoba had us bouncing around at 3500 feet under a fairly solid layer of cumulus. The scenery gradually changed from orderly fields of canola and other crops to the hard, lake-filled wilderness of the Canadian Shield. We discussed the role that floatplanes have in a remote area such as this and the fun you could have in the wilderness with thousands of lakes to choose from. The stop in Dryden was as far as we wanted to go that day. We covered 479 nm that day, almost all of it in bumpy air. It was a long day.

That evening we thought we might plan the southern route along the shore of Lake Ontario due to forecasted weather further north in Timmons. It was calling for snow! The FSS controller suggested we try closer to the Great Lakes and down to Manitoulin Island for our first stop, as it was showing clearing later in the morning. The flight was a 7500 ft. cruise without a cloud in the sky as we passed Thunder Bay, Ontario. The combination of the remoteness of the wilds and the size of Lake Superior really had us talking about the vastness of our country. Our stop in Gore Bay, Manitoulin Island (CYZE), Ontario, was a quick fuel-up for us and the plane. This leg was a 4-hour, 510 nm stretch of pure Canadian wilderness.


The Toronto skyline is an unforgettable sightseeing flight.

On our way to Ottawa now we decided to do a fly by of downtown Toronto. Flying down the peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay was impressive and totally not what we expected to see. The clear blue water and sandy shoreline reminded me of flights to the Caribbean. The controllers for Toronto Pearson (CYYZ) airspace allowed us entry into the corridor along Lake Ontario at 2000 ft., flying past the CN Tower and Toronto Island. The city center controller allowed us a low, 200-foot pass over the runway at Billy Bishop Toronto City (CYTZ). After this fun diversion we were on our way to Rockcliffe (CYRO), Ottawa. Another 3.5-hour, 500 nm leg under our belt. This made for a 1000 nm day.

Next day, the departure from Rockcliffe was held up by a low cloud base that was expected to lift. We planned to make it to Nova Scotia in one long leg. We spent a while dodging cumulus and had a hard time selecting an altitude to be comfortable. At 3500 we bounced around for most of Quebec and Maine. Our route took us past Montreal and southeastern Quebec, over Maine to New Brunswick and to our home in Debert, NS (CCQ3). It was our longest leg: 4.5 hours and 543 nm.

From the 28th of May, my first contract with the owner, to the 13th of June when we landed at home, was roughly two weeks. I am still amazed how everything worked out so perfectly for us. My wife Wendy said from the start it was the right plane at the right time. This trip will always be one of my fondest flying memories.

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Aerobatics in a 1946 Auster—and a lesson learned

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Some years ago, having left England for my French retirement, I imported an Auster from the UK with a view to displaying her at regional southwest events over the summer months. After several years of displaying in the UK a Nanchang CJ6, a superb radial engine plane that was used by the People’s Republic of China to train their recruits on before going on to fly Mig 15s, I thought it was time to try my hand at a something slow for a change, a plane with robust flying capabilities.

The Auster’s specialty is low and slow.

This J/1N Auster was a 1946 continuation of the type used during WWII as an artillery spotter, notably during the Italian campaign in 1944. It acquired a great reputation for flying low and hovering above German targets, chasing Panzers hiding amongst farm buildings or in the deepest forests before calling the shots, after which it was time to go back to camp at nightfall, landing on incredibly short strips surrounded by trees. Great fun, I imagined.

Let me tell you what makes this plane so incredibly fun to fly: it is a 900 kg, four seater cabin with a big prop fed by a 130 hp Gipsy Major (of the sort seen on Tiger Moths), its huge flaps when lowered to 40 degrees let you bring the speed down safely to 30 mph (28mph stall) to take off or land—shortly indeed in less than 100 metres. These are numbers that a microlight would struggle to achieve, should they be able to carry four adults.

So, I applied myself to develop a little routine around her flight qualities. J1/Ns are not cleared for aerobatics, so a display concentrating on a series of low passes at “top speed” (90 mph!) would, I thought, only achieve turning the crowd’s attention to their frites. It was therefore obvious that the six to eight minute display would be centred around slow flying. Conscious of the security recommendation I received a long time ago from my mentor, Brendan O’Brien, to never do more than 50% of what you and the plane can achieve, it would go as follows: after a short take off with mid-flaps and a climb at 60 mph, I would turn downwind at 80 mph and present her top and bottom. Then I would turn upwind slowing down, with full flaps, at 40mph and proceed to make a series of tight left and right orbits. I would do the same again while climbing and descending.

If the wind was kind enough, I would do a series of flat turns followed by slow climbing turns. At a good height, I would regain speed and proceed to do a couple of lazy eights and chandelles. Then I would work a series of approaches, as described earlier, touching down and up again with full flaps to impress on the Auster’s ability to climb steeply at 40mph. A very short landing preceded by a falling leaf completed the routine.

Auster on final

Short final is not the time for a wing to drop.

Everything had been rehearsed to satisfy Bob Hoover’s motto: “Know what you can do with your airplane and then, when you’re caught short, you’ll be successful in saving that airplane.” A good thing I always keep in mind. In that first summer, we produced a handful of displays for a public eager to discover a plane they’d never seen before.

During the last display of that first year, this happened: at approximately 300 ft, reaching the end of downwind and getting ready to start the first of my slow orbits to the right, without any warning, the right wing fell abruptly 90 degrees and the nose pitched down, an incipient spin if anything. I had never experienced this with Miss Piggy (her affectionate name) before. The trees at the side of the runway were coming up too fast for my liking. Immediate full application of left rudder fortunately prevented serious aggravation of the situation.

I decided there and then to abort the display and to land at once. I radioed in and, on short finals just before touchdown (still at about 20 ft), the same happened again! Same event, same reaction, and I managed to land safely. Upon cursory examination of the tail plane, elevators, ailerons, struts, and a look at the wings themselves we couldn’t find anything obviously wrong to justify such severe occurrence. In cases like these, one always questions oneself whether the flight was handled properly, but I knew I had done everything as usual.

In fact, during a rehearsal, prior to the display, everything had happened as expected and nothing unusual was noted. As my routine involves operating at or near stall speed, I am particularly sensitive to the plane’s behaviour. I rely on, and rightly receive from Miss Piggy, slight buffets from the controls to warn me of impending loss of flight. When this happens, it is just a case of reducing slightly the angle of bank or of adding a little power to put things back to normal. Everything is gentle, no problem.

I remember discussing this event with friends and colleagues before departure. Some put it down to possible weather or previous traffic occurrence on this dull, drizzly day, with no wind over the trees bordering the runway. Somehow, I doubted this was the reason. During the return flight, I was particularly attentive to any unusual behaviour and we landed at base without further problem. Just in case, I had added 5 mph to my approach speed.


There’s no glass panel to give real-time angle of attack information here.

Very perturbed by this incident, I did further stall tests at altitude. On every occasion, the right wing would drop massively. I no longer recognised Miss Piggy in this violent behaviour and, literally, I was feeling disappointed, if not plain angry, with her as if she had broken the bond we had managed to build together. I had to find out what was wrong with her. Many an engineer had inspected the structure of the plane, the angle of the wings, etc., and I realised that no one had fully investigated all possible causes of the problem.

Having borrowed a stepladder, I wanted to look in detail at the wings themselves. I didn’t have to go far. As I was passing my hand over the leading edge of the right wing, my fingers felt what appeared to be a fine, eight inch wide, slit in the fabric right behind and parallel to the edge. It didn’t take me long to understand what had been happening. As speed neared the stall, the disturbed airflow would lift the fabric and form a pocket and the air would rush inside the wing, thus creating a violent gush and precipitate the stall. The sudden distortion of the fabric had happened at the worst possible place in terms of lift. I had found the culprit. Of course, on a low wing aeroplane, this would have been spotted earlier.

Paradoxically, I felt relieved that my flying was not the cause of the incident. Some will say that a series of cursory pre-flight checks over time was responsible, and I have to admit it. A simple glance at the state of the fabric from the back of the wing is quicker than climbing a stepladder before each flight but would have not spotted the thinning of the fabric. I have learned a lesson from this and now, being tall enough, I do pass my hand over the leading edges before each flight. The slit was promptly covered with duct tape and a further flight confirmed only a benign stall. Things were back to normal. The bond was reformed. The previous owner had assured me that the fabric, not at its best, would last another two years before needing replacement. And how right was he.

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