Moments of sheer terror

In the summer of 1967, Piper Aircraft introduced the retractable-gear Cherokee Arrow and it took the general aviation world by storm. On the first of July, I joined the other Piper district managers in Vero Beach for the official introduction before departing for the long flight home to San Jose in the first production unit, N3700T.

I would be spending a lot of time in that pretty little white, yellow and black airplane the next couple of months, giving demonstration flights to distributors, dealers, prospects and members of the aviation press. We were the center of attention wherever we landed; everybody wanted a look at the most anticipated and exciting general aviation airplane to enter the market for some time.

I made the rounds of all the Piper dealers from Arizona to British Columbia, flying several demonstrations a day. I would take most weekends off, but the little Arrow continued with dealer and customer flights in the capable hands of the demo pilots. By the end of July, I was getting weary and looking forward to a break. I had spent the week with the distributor in Long Beach flying demonstrations in southern California and had agreed to stop at their Santa Barbara dealer to show the airplane on my way back to San Jose.

Morning fog
A layer of morning fog almost led to disaster.

Southern California had the normal summer coastal fog that Friday morning when I departed Long Beach on an instrument flight plan. I was above the fog shortly after retracting the gear and was flying in sun with a view of the mountains and the foggy coast line. This Arrow demonstrator was very well equipped for instrument flight with one exception; it did not have a glideslope receiver with either navigation display.

When flying a full instrument landing system (ILS) approach, the vertical and horizontal needles feed the pilot directional and glide path information allowing for a very precise approach to as low as 200 feet above the ground with as little as one-half mile of visibility. If the glideslope receiver is not included in the aircraft avionics package, the pilot still has the directional (vertical) needle, but must control his rate of descent and level off and maintain altitudes as depicted on the approach chart for that particular airport and runway.

Obviously not as precise as a full ILS, this localizer only (LOC) approach has higher ceiling and visibility minimums. On an aircraft equipped as well as this one, the glideslope receiver would normally be included with the #1 navigation display. Even though it would have only added a few hundred dollars to the list price, I am sure that Piper left it out in an attempt to keep the price down.

The Santa Barbara airport was still in fog when I arrived, but the visibility and ceiling were adequate for the LOC only approach. This Arrow was equipped with a two-axis autopilot which included the ability to couple itself to the localizer. After contacting Santa Barbara approach control, I was given radar vectors to intercept the localizer course.

After becoming established on course, I was supposed to make what is called a “step down” approach, leveling off at a couple of mandatory altitudes while inbound to the airport. This procedure was particularly important in Santa Barbara since the approach commenced out over the ocean and there was rising terrain between the shoreline and the airport.

At about the time that I intercepted the localizer course, I went into a personal “brain dump” that could have cost me my life and defines this moment of terror. I had engaged the autopilot coupler and was in that dangerous “fat, dumb and happy” mode as I flew toward the runway exactly on course. I was in clouds and fog when something made me glance out the window. As I looked down and to my left, through breaks in the clouds, I was horrified to see waves crashing against the rocky shore. A quick instrument scan brought my eyes to the altimeter and my entire being to near panic.

ILS rwy 7 at KSBA
The LOC/ILS 7 approach at KSBA.

As I recall, I was at about 1200 feet above the water in a controlled descent…almost 1000 feet BELOW the proper altitude for that particular position. Training and experience then booted brain dump and complacency out of the cockpit and I took immediate action. Full power, climbing right turn, gear up and on the radio to approach control declaring a missed approach. They calmly began the procedure of radar vectors bringing me back around for another try.

Given this second chance, I paid attention to everything that I was doing, completed the instrument approach and landed at Santa Barbara. I flew several demonstration flights that day and the first two or three required executing the LOC approach. As the morning wore on and the fog and low clouds gave way to sunshine, I would look down as we approached the airport and realized how lucky I had been. If I had not looked out when I did during that first approach, this pretty little yellow Arrow would be down there against one of the hills, a twisted, broken pile of metal. An accident report would find nothing wrong with any aircraft systems and conclude simply that the pilot went below the published altitudes for the approach. Just another CFIT accident – controlled flight into terrain.

I have asked myself many times what went wrong. Obviously, complacency and carelessness were the major factors. The ceiling and visibility were well above the minimums required and it would be a routine approach. By engaging the autopilot coupler, I was lulled into a false sense of security as we tracked inbound exactly on the centerline. I had set up my #2 NAV display allowing me to identify the first point requiring a mandatory altitude but then completely disregarded the altimeter. My instrument scan and preparation were terrible.

I learned from this near-deadly episode. I would go on to make numerous non-precision approaches during my career and always there was that day in Santa Barbara. As a result I took a more professional approach, studying the procedure carefully ahead of time and fixing all headings and altitudes in my mind. On the office wall of a Piper dealer a short time later, I noticed a plaque with these profound words that are so very true:

Aviation, like the sea, is not inherently dangerous;
but it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect

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5 Comments

  • One near death experience equates to 500 hours of blue sky flying. You wouldn’t wish them on anybody. But if you’ve never had one, you might argue the point. Those that have had one treat them like cattle branding – they’ll never forget or make that same mistake twice. But at the same time as we are glad for for the knowledge and have lived to tell the tale, we’d also be happy to live the rest of our lives and never see another.

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