First flight – memorable for the wrong reason

While growing up in Kentucky, my dad would often stop by our local airport and let me watch airplanes take off and land. In truth, he did this only two or three times. But at that age, these were very big events in my life and those few short instances made such an impression on me that I fell in love with flying before I had ever actually gotten in an airplane. Regardless of how I tried, weather, maintenance or schedules kept me from actually getting in the air.

Cherokee in field

Any landing you can walk away from…

Several years later, June 16, 1987 to be precise, at the invitation of an amazing local high school teacher, I drove myself to an airport outside of Hazard, Kentucky (then it was K20, now KCPF) to try once again. This airport was built on the site of an old strip mine. It was located on top of a mountain with each end of the single runway only feet from the steep slopes leading to the valley 400 feet below. To the north of the runway were rows of large metal hangars and another steep slope behind them. To the south of the runway was a large field that would later become runway 14/32, but on this day was dotted with large rocks partially hidden by tall, brown grass.

I brought along a good friend that day and the two of us were introduced to the gentleman who would be flying us. He was a local preacher who owned the beautiful blue Piper Cherokee 180. He had been flying for decades and I was impressed with his 323 hours of flight time and mastery of aeronautical terms. As he preflighted the airplane in the hangar, I was also in awe of how much he knew about each bolt and panel he showed us. He even removed the cowling to describe parts of the engine and describe to us how the propeller operated. I was certain there was no safer way to travel.

When it was time to push the airplane out I was torn between wanting to know more about the machine and the thought of finally getting to slip some surly bonds. But just as we began to climb into the cockpit, the pilot decided that the clouds to the south of us were actually one of the many summer “pop-up” storms that are as much a part of Kentucky as goldenrod and basketball. So, back in the hangar we went. Again we walked around the plane checking pieces and parts and finding out more about the airplane as we yelled at each other over the sound of the rain and wind on the corrugated aluminum walls and roof.

Only a few minutes later, the storm had passed and we pushed the airplane back out onto the steamy asphalt. My friend climbed in the back, the pilot on the left and I was the last to enter… I was FINALLY going to get to fly!

We hooked the funny-looking seat belts around us and started the engine. The pilot weaved the airplane between the hangars all the way to runway 6, completed his run-up, made one last radio call and taxied into position for takeoff. I could barely see over the instrument panel but out my side of the airplane I could see the teacher who helped set this up wave at us and smile at us from the FBO.

Finally the pilot pushed the throttle forward and we moved down the runway at what felt like a very high rate of speed. As the nosewheel left the ground, I felt myself stop breathing so I could catch every detail of what was happening. Once the main wheels left the ground, I could feel my cheeks start to get sore from the smile on my face.

I tried to take in as much as I could about every detail until at about 20 feet above the runway I noticed the pilot was visibly agitated. I watched him reach back and forth between the throttle and the microphone hanging below it without actually touching either. Then he looked at me and I heard him say, “Hold on boys.” I watched him pull the throttle all the way back and begin banking to the right… I was confused… but I remember thinking, “It’s OK. He’s a pilot…”

As the plane banked further toward me I heard a buzzer (which I know now was the stall horn), I placed my hands on the instrument panel and then I don’t remember hearing anything as the plane hit the ground and slid through the rock-covered field.

We all sat quietly in a puzzled daze for what felt like several minutes. Once we all three started coming back into reality, I remember my first thought was, “I still didn’t get to fly!” Our pilot asked if we were all OK – and we were. Then he started trying to hurry us out of the airplane. Neither I nor my friend knew how to take off those strange seatbelts, or open the only door the airplane had. After some instruction, I stepped out onto the bent wing of a formerly beautiful PA-28-180 and caught the first whiff of 100LL from the open fuel tank mixed with the dust still hanging in the air.

The right main gear was somewhere far behind us, and the propeller was misshapen by the rocks. A few other miscellaneous parts were strewn around but I didn’t want to spend too much time deciding what those used to be. As we walked beside the runway back toward the FBO, several people came running up to us to see if we were injured. Thankfully, the only injuries that day were to a beautiful airplane, the pilot’s pride, and my chances of getting airborne.

As it turns out, all the extra “inspecting” we had done during the storm resulted in us somehow unlatching the cowling and not securing very well. As we left the ground, the change in attitude caused the cowling to start to rise off the engine and the pilot had to make a choice as to whether or not he believed the cowling would significantly damage the airplane if it came off during flight. After seeing this happen to a PA-28-200R a few years later, I cannot argue with our pilot’s two-second decision-making skills. His execution left something to be desired, but I think he made the right initial call. Of course, the NTSB report lists three causes… all ending with the words “PILOT IN COMMAND.”

Around one year later, I soloed at this airport and 26 years later I’m still just as excited every time my wheels leave the ground. I’ve made many landings right beside the spot where my first flight ended. Fortunately, however, very few have been close to this interesting.

To this day, all my pre-flights end with a second walk-around… and a subconsciously compulsive check of the cowling.

7 Comments

  1. Louis Sell says:

    Well written. A very good article with a very clear message.

  2. Rick A says:

    Nice story. I have been interrupted a time or two on preflight and always start over unless the exterior is completed. If the interruption takes place in the cockpit, start over in the cockpit. If during walkaround, start over on the walkaround.

    So far, I haven’t missed anything except latching the door before takeoff once which is why I do it from the start if anything interupts the check list. The door free streamed and I just flew a closed pattern to get back down and latch it.

  3. JacquesT says:

    Wow, this story brings back a memory! I got my PPL at age 17 at Rand Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa (FAGM) in December 1989. I was at boarding school some 150nm from our home town and my sisters and I decided to use my new PPL to fly home for the weekend in a Cherokee 140 (with a 160hp conversion).
    Right at the beginning of the take-off roll exactly the same thing happened, the one side of the cowl popped open! I immediately closed the power and landed straight ahead on what was left of the fairly short runway (this being at Tempe Airfield, Bloemfontein FATP).
    We stopped at the end of the runway, shut-down, and re-latched the cowling! Those horrible clips weren’t the greatest invention.
    After back-tracking back to the holding point, I did the run-ups again and took off without incident.
    My sisters both automatically went into the “brace” position as the cowl popped open, and we still have a good laugh about it today some 25 years later!

  4. JacquesT says:

    I’m humbled by the thought chaps but sadly if was grounded by my bank manager in 1996 and then getting married and having kids took all the spare cash… There is currently a local Capetonian doing a round the world flight in his Ravin 500, this is a spectacular read and he’d be far more credible to write an article like this. Here’s the link to the forum thread on his travels: http://www.avcom.co.za/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=106885&hilit=Trollair

  5. John Swallow says:

    Stephen:

    Great story. Years ago, a Canadian T-33 tried to get airborne with one or both nose panels unlatched. Shortly after the aircraft lifted off, the doors opened. The resultant drag brought the aircraft back to terra firma in an off-airport landing where it promptly caught fire. Student evacuated and ran to get help to extricate the, by now, somewhat singed instructor. Both survived.

    John