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]
Beaumont is a word with two meanings to pilots of a certain age. Beaumont, Texas, was the home of Gordon Baxter—morning disc jockey, old airplane aficionado, and long-time columnist for FLYING magazine. He wrote the Bax Seat column for years and collected his writings into a series of books, the best-known of which was Log of a Pasture Pilot. Bax and I are not related, although we share a background in radio, a love for old airplanes and small airports, and a respect for the well-turned phrase. I gladly would have claimed him as my long-lost uncle.
Beaumont, Kansas, on the other hand, is known as home of the Beaumont Hotel and not much else. The town, what’s left of it, is in the Flint Hills south and east of Wichita. Those of us who have it listed in our logbooks remember the unique experience of landing in a grass field at the east edge of town, taxiing onto the road, stopping at the stop sign, and parking under the trees south of the old hotel. Don’t forget to stop at the stop sign. It’s the law.
The restaurant at the Beaumont Hotel was a source of comfort food—chicken fried steak, roast beef, pies and cakes, and plenty of iced tea. The meal was worth the flight, but it was the entire experience which made it memorable. It was the only time I actually taxied on a street without breaking the law or causing a commotion. Beaumont was a one-hour flight from where we lived in Tulsa.
In January 1984 I was a partner in a Turbo Dakota, and my family tried most of the possibilities for $100 hamburgers in the area. A meal at the Beaumont Hotel was a part of many test flight reports from aviation writers, and the winter weather had broken long enough for me to schedule my own visit. The preflight briefing was entirely unremarkable, and we were soon winging northward to Beaumont. My wife was in the right seat and my son and mother-in-law were in the back.
When I touched down in the pasture, it became apparent that the standard weather briefing had a glaring omission. While Tulsa had been cold and dry the previous week, Beaumont and southeast Kansas had snow. Even though the snow had melted and gave no clue from the air, the turf was soft and muddy. While the Dakota wasn’t stuck, it did sink deep enough to cause the wheel pants to drag in the muck.
I kept the airplane moving through the mud and onto the road. We continued westward on the hard surface to the hotel and ate supper. Since the winter sunset would be early, we wasted no time over dessert and headed out to the plane for the trip home. The normally pristine Dakota was splashed with mud, but the prop and wings were clean. We taxied back to the field and up the slope to the fence on the north side.
There was no table in the owner’s manual listing take-off distances from muddy pastures. My passengers helped turn the airplane into the wind as I applied the throttle. Back in their seats, relatively clean, the family buckled in. I picked the spot at which I would shut down the engine if we weren’t off the ground. There was a low line of trees ahead, but I wasn’t worried about braking ability. The suction of the mud would be an effective brake.
After a brief inner prayer, I advanced the throttle. My wife and her mother were praying aloud as the Dakota gathered speed and launched itself into the air, well short of my self-imposed cut-off point. The climb seemed sluggish—probably from the mass of mud clinging to the bottom half of the plane—but we rose above the trees and into the smooth air of the winter evening.
The one-hour flight back to Tulsa was a quiet one. My wife was deciding whether she would ever trust me enough to fly with me again, and I was kicking myself for not being able to predict the soggy sod of the pasture. The mud required removing the wheel pants, cleaning the brakes, and repacking the wheel bearings. The Dakota was never intended to be a bush plane, but it got the job done in this unexpected situation.
I continued to love grass airstrips; and when I reviewed Bax’s Log of a Pasture Pilot again, I didn’t find anything about muddy takeoff techniques or the need to ask the Flight Service briefer how long it had been since snow last occurred at the destination.