7 min read

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in 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].

The time period was September 1974 and I was taking a week’s vacation from my job and doing the “airport bum” bit. You know, hanging around the FBO, getting in the way and sitting on the bench in front of the office with the other bums critiquing landings and takeoffs. Those were the good old days. I owned a beautiful Cessna 172 which I kept at the Aviation Facilities Inc. (AFI) Fullerton, California FBO and spent a lot of time washing and waxing my “pride and joy.”

The owner of the FBO (Bill Greggs) called me aside one morning and told me of a problem he was having with an airplane that a renter pilot had flown to Sacramento. The renter pilot had left it there because he couldn’t get the starter to work for the return flight. It seemed that the FBO would have to send a pilot/mechanic to Sacramento and they didn’t have one to spare at the time. Bill asked if I would like to go after the airplane. He said the problem was probably only a stuck starter which I could break loose with the insertion of a large screwdriver. He also said they would pay for the airline ticket to Sacramento and I could fly the plane back to Fullerton at no charge.

Mooney M20E

Who wouldn’t want to fly a Mooney, even if the starter had a few issues?

Now this airplane was a very nice Mooney (M20E), tail number 9215V, and I’m sure that anyone would tell you that a guy would do about anything to get free flying in that baby. It so happened that I had checked out in that very airplane a few weeks before this incident took place so everything sounded great to me.

I appeared early the next morning to pick up my ticket and was greeted with a ticket and a box. In the box was a very large screwdriver and a new starter. It was explained that just in case the screwdriver didn’t work, the starter could be installed to fix the problem. It didn’t dawn on me that this job might be a little more complicated than previously explained. Anyway, I jumped in my car and headed off to the Orange County airport to catch the airline flight to Sacramento.

I arrived at the Sacramento Metropolitan airport, and box in hand, took a bus over to the Sacramento Executive airport where the Mooney was located. I arrived about noon and it was already getting very warm, with the temperature climbing toward the 100 degree mark. I found the airplane parked in “visitor parking” which happened to be on the blacktop, out in the open, in front of the tower.

One look at the starter and I knew that the screwdriver was going to be of no use to me. The teeth of the starter were all gone! The starter worked fine but couldn’t turn the engine over without teeth on the drive shaft. I got the feeling that I may have been sent on a Fool’s Errand, because I’m sure the renter pilot could have seen the problem and I’m sure he would have told the Bill about the real problem. I was wondering why he sent the screwdriver along.

My problem now was to find a mechanic to install my starter. If you have never worked on the inside of a Mooney cowling, you won’t appreciate the problem I encountered in finding a mechanic. Oh, there were several mechanics around the field, but none would take on the job. All claimed to be too busy. I finally found a mechanic who said he would at least take a look at the job. He checked the problem and quoted me a price to replace the starter. It seemed very high to me at the time, but I was desperate by then and told him to get started.

I thought the mechanic would pull the plane into a hangar close by but he said he could do the job right there on the parking ramp. It was now about three o’clock in the afternoon and the temperature was around 103 out there on the parking ramp. We rigged a sort of tent over the engine and he went to work with me handing tools and holding things to help out.

Thermometer at 100 degrees

Maybe not the ideal working conditions for replacing a starter?

It took a very long time to do the job. It seemed to me that the entire engine was disassembled to get to the starter. Every so often we would take a break and get a Coke to drink to try to hang in there with all that heat. Finally at about eight o’clock that evening, with only a handful of small screws left over, we started the engine and checked for oil leaks and anything else that might be amiss. Everything looked to be in good shape so I paid the man with a substantial tip (the price that seemed high at first was much too low for the work required) and checked the weather for the flight back to Orange County airport.

Flight Service said it was clear all the way to the Los Angeles basin and then would be overcast at about 1000 feet with the normal late evening marine layer. I left Sacramento at nine o’clock after a very long and trying day in temperatures over 100 degrees. The last thing the mechanic said to me was to be sure and keep an eye on the oil pressure just in case!

The three-hour flight back to Orange County was beautiful, with the lights of Interstate 5 guiding me all the way home. Just outside of the Los Angeles basin, I filed IFR for Orange County and was given a VOR approach to runway 18. I was a very current instrument pilot at that time and this approach should have been a piece of cake.

I entered the overcast at about 3000 feet and when I broke out at about 1000 feet, the runway was not where it should have been. I declared a missed approach and pulled back up above the overcast into VFR conditions to think things over. The controller tried to help me by saying that it looked like my directional gyro might not be set correctly. He was exactly right. I had forgotten to set the gyro and it was off enough to make me miss the approach. I realized then that I was not thinking too straight and went through the entire landing checklist again just to make sure I hadn’t missed something else. The next approach was on the money, but the landing could have been a lot smoother.

When I stepped out of the plane, I found that my knees were very weak and I had trouble walking and tying the plane down. I headed for the nearest drinking fountain and consumed a large amount of fluid which helped considerably. When I arrived home, I poured down more water to help overcome the dehydrated condition of my body.

Looking back on my experience, I found that I had been sent on a Fool’s Errand and I have to laugh about how naive I was, but the FBO owner and I are still friends. As I look back on this incident now, there were several major mistakes made by yours truly. We have all heard before to be extra careful in our flying chores when tired or not in peak physical condition.

After spending all afternoon in the hot sun, you are not in real good shape to fly. I didn’t have to get home that evening; I could just as easily stayed overnight in a motel. So why did I take a plane that had just been taken apart and put back together and fly three hours at night, over mountains and into an overcast instrument approach? The answer is that I was just young and stupid and was lucky to have made it home. I wouldn’t push those odds again!

9 replies
  1. JMR
    JMR says:

    I was just watching a video by John and Martha King where they talked about the accident they had over South Dakota. That accident triggered them to start a whole risk management discipline that they’re trying to get pilots to incorporate into their flight planning process. The majority of all GA fatalities have nothing to do with pilot skill or mechanical problems, but if you think about it that’s ALL our PPL training focuses on. Most accidents have everything to do with what happened in your story above — poor risk awareness and risk mitigation — either of your own status, the status of the aircraft, failing to thoroughly think through weather and other environmental things, and gotta-go-itis. They also mentioned a series of strategies they use to eliminate gotta-go-itis, and other things that cause us to make poor choices in the moment.

    Most accidents don’t happen because of a single issue. They happen because one issue induces another one, which induces another one, and before long you’re out of options, and you’re coming down in a way you don’t want to be. They emphasized always pushing back the boundaries of your “pool of choices” — don’t allow them to narrow. Minor electrical problem? Get your @ss out of the air and get the darned thing fixed NOW before it becomes a major electrical problem. Low on fuel, but you think you can make it to your destination airport anyway? No, get on the ground at the closest FBO and get it taken care of. Don’t risk your life, or the life of your passengers just because you “think” you know your aircraft.

    Pilots self-select to be people who push through tough things. Flight training is a great separator of those who are driven to complete a task and those who aren’t. The problem is, that very strength can become a weakness in the air. We need to learn to be more timid (more wise) about risk, and not treat it as a badge of honor to “get there on time” at the risk of our lives and the lives of our passengers.

  2. John
    John says:

    Can you elaborate on the missed approach and how the DG mislead you? I figure if you’re on a VOR approach with needle centered, the DG’s not doing much for you… just wondering. good story, long time ago!

  3. John
    John says:

    Thinking aboout it more, maybe there was a crosswind and the DG had you confused on where to be looking for the runway. Or maybe no crosswind but the DG not showing RWY heading made you look to one side for the RWY… thinking about this reminds me of how much can go wrong in single-pilot IFR. been years for me…

  4. SaferAviator
    SaferAviator says:

    I’ll not rehash JMR’s comment above, but add this: We all know how to do some level of risk management (How hard should I swing the hammer while I’m still holding the nail?), but the severity of a mistake in the aviation world is so great, we need to take the time to use some sort of formal process. There are many. Find now that works for you and use it every time.

    Well written and thanks for sharing

  5. Robert
    Robert says:

    Helpful write up. I can think of a couple of scenarios where Fool’s errand comes to mind.

    On one occasion a pilot was sent to recover a 182 with a collapsed bladder tank – he flew it back on the other tank, but the original pilot had filed an MOR and the local Feds (equivalent) had a conversation with the second pilot to understand why he had flown an a/c with airworthiness issues. Fortunately only a conversation.

    A second interesting scenario was a pilot who found one of the engines on the tired freight twin he was flying was consuming oil at a fast gallop. The operator suggested he take off and then cage the engine, and return to base SE – this was at night, and overwater. The pilot sensibly advised the operator to find a new pilot.

  6. Larry
    Larry says:

    A good lesson. Years ago I ended up flying an airline buddies body back to his home station after he crashed his GA plane. He was helping a friend re- roof his barn near Kansas City in July. Got dehydrated and passed out on the return flight. Very sad! Always self evaluate before a flight!

  7. Josh Scheid
    Josh Scheid says:

    Great example of how accidents (or in your case something that could have been) are always a procession of events leading up to the unfortunate ending. It’s never just one thing that will do a person in. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Thank you for a different story, but with a happy ending. Good reinforcing of the need for reviewing the ENTIRE situation, before getting in and starting it up.

Comments are closed.