3 flying mistakes – and the lessons I learned

Learning from others’ mistakes is more conducive to successful flying than creating your own.

FIRST EVENT: I was a CFII, and a friend had a Comanche PA-24B 260 with six seats (of which the two rear seats were less accommodating). The Comanche was based at Columbus, Ohio (CMH) and the owner was not instrument rated. I had many trips in this Comanche when the weather was IFR, sometimes on short notice, usually weekends. I actually became a de facto co-owner of the plane.

One Friday near midnight, my ringing telephone woke me up and I was told, “You need to fly to White Plains, New York (HPN), in the morning to attend a convention.” I replied that I would meet him at the plane for a 5:00 am takeoff.

Comanche 260
The Comanche has six seats, but that doesn’t mean it hauls six adults very well.

The weather was 500 overcast with consistent clouds in the Comanche’s aerial domain, solid to western New York. My early arrival at the aircraft found six people assembled for the flight. I made no comment; they sorted out the excluded person.

I suspect if I had initiated a discussion, they would have attempted to have seven in the air. The plane was tied down far from the FBO, Lane Aviation. For boarding, I assigned the two ladies to the third row, a couple of big fellows the second. Then Mistake #1 occurred.

The owner climbed in the left front, and I allowed this since I was a CFII, he the aircraft owner. We took off completely heedless of the mistakes which were to follow. I was busy transferring ATC’s instructions to the oblivious left seat. The owner could keep the wings level and turn to headings, and he previously engaged himself in significant “cloud flying.” This is an anecdote of a flying nightmare.

Climbing to our 7000 cruise altitude was very slow, with no attention paid to the four passengers, two of them big people. Constant flying by instruction then correction was not difficult in level flight; however, the airplane remained at less than typical cruise airspeed. I checked the cockpit and saw a mistake. The gear remained down and locked! We continued on and I noticed the backseat passengers were having a conference: “How much longer?” The group had to pee. I should have remembered to always lead your passengers and yourself to the toilet before a cross-county flight.

Anxiety exhibits its presence rather quickly for those not comfortable in little airplanes. We were approaching Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so I called ATC to request landing at Allegheny County airport. Soon after beginning the descent, those ailing notified us it would be OK to continue, and I did not inquire as to why the sudden reduction in need. We went back to our altitude and on to White Plains, where there was a very brisk departure from the aircraft and direct to the facilities for all. The return flight was VFR without complications.

SECOND EVENT: I was flying that same Comanche from Columbus, Ohio, to Mitchell, South Dakota, and return for a business meeting at the company’s manufacturing facility. I had made flights to South Dakota previously for business and for pheasant hunting. I just happened to schedule this meeting near pheasant season, and I delayed my return for the three days of hunting these magnificent birds. I was accompanied in the hunt by friends from the plant.

Night in cockpit
Those lights get awfully dim after a few hours at high altitude.

Hunting hours were limited from noon to 5 pm, and we walked the quarter mile fields from 12 to 5 each of the three days for all to acquire their limit. In addition to bagging my birds (limit of three per day), I cleaned the birds and then was off to dinner with my companions.

The South Dakota prairie is flat, with not much to interrupt the wind. Arriving at the Mitchell airport (MHE) late the next morning for my return flight, the wind was 50 gusting in the 60s and not aligned with the runways. It was a moot question whether I should have taken off at this time and I delayed until the wind subsided. Mistake #1 was not being conscious of how tired I was after the three days walking through the fields of South Dakota, cleaning birds, then enjoying the evening with friends.

Mistake #2 was waiting to join Mistake #1 at my selected altitude. I filed and headed for Columbus about 5 pm, unaware of the decrease in oxygen available at 7000 feet.  Actually, I remained ignorant for several years of the need for oxygen below the FAA requirement. The FARs require oxygen utilization for the pilot above 12,500 MSL; there is no distinction between day or night. Sometime later, I was flying at night in a newer airplane with a well-lit instrument panel descending from 7500 MSL and the panel lights became constantly brighter. I had attended the FAA/ USAF-sponsored seminar at Wright Patterson Air Force base where we experienced 25,000 MSL in the altitude chamber. Taking off the oxygen mask and then attempting to complete a simple test, I soon was vaguely aware of the Air Force fellow in my face yelling at me to replace my mask. We were arranged in pairs – my partner at the end of this section was as she began. People are different; I am not a sherpa.

I soon entered the overcast, and it was night by the time I reached 7000. I became very sleepy and had difficulty concentrating on the basic instruments: heading and altitude were the drowsy limit of my scan. I commenced a technique I used returning to college Sunday nights if I became sleepy. I drove with my left leg suspended above the floor of the car.

This did not totally prevent dozing. One night, driving in the rain, I had the window rolled down to assist the raised leg effect, but I was awakened by the red rotating light of the Ohio Highway Patrol car. I was speeding. It very well might have prevented my crashing. Back to the flight: I did keep awake, fighting drowsiness until over Illinois, then flying safe and awake, continuing to Columbus which was a total of 5.4 flight hours.

Carb heat knob
Lycoming engines may be less susceptible to carb ice, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

THIRD EVENT: I was flying a Cherokee Six from the North Carolina seashore to Lynchburg, Virginia (LYH). It was night in stratus clouds all the way to the approach. Soon after obtaining my license in a Cessna 150 at The Ohio State University where I was a student, I heard you did not have to use carb heat for a Lycoming since they ran hotter. I never used carb heat flying behind a Lycoming.

I had considerable time in the Cherokee Six and it was a smooth ride this night until descending for the runway 01 localizer. The airplane began to spring up and down in lively oscillations. Fortunately, these continued only until the wheels touched the runway and all appeared normal while taxiing.

I asked a mechanic to check the engine, but riding to the home of my friend, it hit me as an electric shock: carburetor ice! Of course, the mechanic found nothing wrong with the engine.

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