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]
To this day, some 30 odd years later, I reflect on this event because it’s the overlying errors in judgment that make it something to discuss.
It was early in the winter season in Wyoming. The wind was howling in Casper as usual, but it was CAVU all the way to Reno. It was a perfect flying day with high cirrus and hundreds of miles on the horizon. Another very normal winter flying day in Wyoming.
I needed to get Evanston, which was just at the SW tip of the state some 225 miles away. A fairly easy flight at 12,500 and an O2 bottle so what on earth could go wrong?
I worked in the oil field for an international oil field service company and we had an upcoming job in the morning that required a certain type of shape charge Class II explosive that we were fresh out of stock on. (It is important to point here that a “shape charge” explosive device needs another high explosive to set them off, so they are really quite safe to handle.) Our Evanston office had them in stock and we needed them… pretty simple in oil field logic. Oil field mentality stipulated back then that if you needed something, you just went and ordered it or hired a company to go get it. If something that was a “one-of-a-kind tool” was in, say the middle of Africa, then you sent an airplane to go get it. For a young kid a few years out of college, it was all very exciting indeed.
There were no available air transports anywhere in the state of Wyoming because it was the heyday in oil and everyone was working eight days a week around the clock. Standing around discussing this dilemma with my boss, I told him that for gas money (maybe $50 back then) I would go get the shape charges. He was desperate so he gave me gas money and said “go” – and like any good, young and dumb aviator that would have done it for free back then, I checked weather, headed to the airport, did my pre-flight and headed west into the setting sun.
The plan was to pick up 100 pounds worth of boxes of these small ceramic shaped charges. When I landed 1.5 hours later, the orders had changed – I was now instructed to load 450 pounds of these gems. They’ll fit, right? A quick back of the envelope calculation said I should be ok… or so I thought.
I don’t recall the exact CG limits of a Navy T-34 with a big Continental 520 in the front end, but I was always told that as long as the tail didn’t hit the ground you would be OK…. really? How and where do we learn this stuff?
Did I have the correct paperwork to even figure how far out of the CG envelope I would be in? No, I did not.
Had I ever done a weight and balance for that plane in the ten years I had owned it? No, I had not. Two people and fuel and you were always good to go.
Had I ever flown a plane that far out of CG before and would be able to anticipate the behavioral flight characteristics? No – not even remotely close.
But the old saying goes: “Never in doubt – often wrong” and so with very little thinking taking place and a lot of stupid bravado overriding all logic (since I didn’t want to disappoint my boss), we loaded boxes in the baggage, back seat and between my knees and the control stick. They were literally everywhere. I couldn’t move and the back seat was full and strapped in with them as well. We could barely close the baggage door.
When I stepped off the wing walk, the tail rested firmly on the now dark tarmac with a distinctive thud. I recall this like yesterday. The delivery crew drivers had left already and I stood there with the icy cold wind whipping snow off the ground with OAT at 21F. I walked around the plane with my flashlight trying to access the situation. Hmmmm I thought to myself…
And then I remembered that the tail had to be off the ground when the engine was running! “Ha!” I thought out loud as I fired up the trusty motor and pushed the stick forward and felt the tail lift. “Voila,” I thought – we are good to go.
It was a direct crosswind of 15 – again pretty normal Wyoming weather. But this was the old EVW airport that ran N-S next to the highway. It was as wide as my driveway and it was patched-covered with ice and blowing snow. And it was as dark as the inside of a cow out the canopy with my wing-mounted landing lights basically shining out toward the inky black sky because of the tail being so low.
There was no taxiway at the old airport, so I back taxied to the departure end. When I went to execute the 180 for takeoff, there wasn’t enough weight on the nose gear to turn the plane around. But if you ran the throttle up and held the stick forward all the way you could barely manage the turn. At this point one would have thought that quite possibly a spark of intelligence would have told me to stop this madness – but alas I advanced the throttle and off and I went… sort of…
I’m sure it’s obvious to the reader what happened next. The plane, of course, rotated by itself and was completely divergent in pitch. With both hands I held the stick forward in climb out up to 10,000 feet. And then I continued to hold the stick forward with a considerable amount of force all the way to Casper. I immediately started to realize that I was in a bad situation that was going to get worse. My stomach tightened with the thought. My arms were actually get tired pushing the stick forward.
As I got closer to Casper, the turbulence picked up. The plane was two handfuls to control at best and it was all could do try to keep everything in pitch under control. It was approaching 11:00 pm when I got over the Casper airport. The turbulence there is special – you just have to fly there to appreciate it. It recalibrates your level of “Holy Crap! Is the tail still attached?” turbulence. Do that at night in a poorly lit airplane with about a 3 feet out of aft CG and you’ll wish you had taken up another hobby.
For the first time in my flying life, I could feel the blood drain from my face and be nearly consumed by pure fear – because as I pulled the throttle back the nosed pitched up. As I tried to slow down, even with the stick nearly pushed all the way forward against the stop, the nose would start pitch up. And when it did, you could feel the onset of the stall start. There was no mistaking it and I knew that a stall would be unrecoverable. And so for the first time I really thought I was inevitably going crash.
I was sick to my stomach, but trying not to let it control me. I practiced slowing above the airport in the dark. The tower was closed, there was nothing they could have done anyway, but I felt very stupid and very alone. I thought about what the accident report would say… the NTSB would laugh at this one and shake their collective post-mortem heads in disbelief. When you are that dumb, you deserve what you get, right?
After a few more attempts at slowing down, I came to grips with that an approach of 140 knots indicated was what was going to be needed. It was like a low pass with the gear down and zero flaps. I got within a foot of the runway and inched it down and eased the throttle back until it hit the ground like a go-cart and stalled. I am not sure exactly but I recall that I was still going 120 when it stalled… some 60 knots over normal stall speed. My legs were shaking as I applied the brakes and tried not lock up the wheels on the patches of ice. The only thing in my favor was the wind was straight down the runway and it was blowing a nice steady 30 knots.
I had missed the high-speed taxiway and had to negotiate a 90 turn onto the next taxiway and you guessed it, with the wind blowing that hard and no weight on the nose, it was an impossible task to turn away from the wind. I shut the engine down and saw the crew coming to collect the cargo in a pickup truck. The tail slammed onto the runway and I crawled out of the cockpit onto the wing.
I was an idiot. I should not fly airplanes because I was irresponsible for sure and lucky at best. In retrospect, the number of mistakes is alarming. But the overlying error was a massive and unbelievable amount of disregard for all of the basics. At the time, I had over 2000 hours accumulated in my logbooks and lucky for me a thousand in that airplane, so at least I had a fighting chance trying to figure out what to do.
The error chain is long and again in retrospect it started with the following:
- Ego drove a flight that should have never left the ground.
- Although I have 1500 hours of night flying, some 30 years years later, I don’t fly at night single engine anymore. That is a disputable practice and surely open for discussion, but it’s my choice.
- There were numerous clues to abort the mission that I simply ignored. High winds that were forecast to worsen, icy runways at both destinations, and a flight over some very unforgiving terrain.
- Weight and balance calcs were something that you did for your exam and then tossed aside the practice as if the laws of aerodynamics could be ignored suddenly. Where did that attitude come from? Why did I so blatantly blow of something that is so basic?
I am sharing this story, although it’s a bit extreme and unusual, because flying is a true privilege and when the brain and thought process get overridden and compromised for various reasons, we can only hope that we have enough sense to say “no” and push the airplane back into the hangar for another day.
I have had many airplanes since then and have been lucky enough to have maintained my flying privileges for almost 40 years now. I do weight and balance all the time ever since then. Truly understanding how all of that really works is an amazing study and it should be understood all pilots.
Having enough sense not to fly when the tail is on the ground with aft loaded weight is a forgone conclusion, right?