VFR pilots in the Pacific Northwest have a love-hate relationship with the weather. July to September/early October, we love it; the rest of the year… not so much. During the summer (at least the last two), I reserve an airplane for most of the day, the following Sunday.
Sunday, September 7th was a glorious day: clear skies, calm winds and unlimited visibility. My plan was to depart Boeing Field for Jefferson County Airport for lunch with friends at the airport restaurant, the Spruce Goose (well worth a visit for locals who haven’t been). Having arrived late, I saw my friends briefly before they headed out for a meeting. I had a sandwich, a salad and then returned to the airplane to plan my next leg. After opening the windows and doors to cool the interior, I planned a flight to fly south about 50 miles and land at Sanderson Field, a small uncontrolled airport with a parachute jump school.
So far, the day had been perfect; “all was going according to plan” with the exception of missing lunch with my friends. That was all about to change. Within minutes of taking off, I would face my greatest scare yet as a VFR private pilot with a modest 200 flight hours.
My sister and I are just under a year apart in age, Irish Twins as my mother likes to say. Sophie and I were close as siblings, our two brothers usually off doing their own thing, three and four years older. My sister and I spent a lot of time hanging out, playing and entertaining each other as kids. We had one agreement I was grateful for: if she found a spider in her room, I would “take care of it” (trap it in a glass and put it outside). And when I had a bee in my room, she would come in and without a lot of drama, remove it.
I really didn’t like bees as a kid and still don’t, never mind my 50 years of age. I am not allergic, it’s not rational, but there is something that switches in my brain, a very visceral reaction, when I am confronted with a bee that just, well, kind of freaks me out. Now as an adult, with some space and time to plan, I’m okay finding a glass and piece of paper, and carefully trapping the bee and letting it free.
“Jefferson County Traffic, Skyhawk 436 Sierra Papa departing runway 9, south departure, Jefferson County.”
Once visually verifying no airplane was on final, I taxied onto runway 9, gradually added full power and rotated at 65 knots. As I climbed out, I scanned the instruments and then the horizon, left to right. The engine sounded good, key gauges for a departure climb – airspeed, altimeter, turn coordinator and one of my favorites, oil pressure – all in the green. As my eyes reached the right side of the windshield, my eyes locked on, panic rising… as I saw two large yellow jackets buzzing around.
No! No! No! Not bees!
My immediate and primal thought: “I need to get out of here!” (AWAY FROM THE BEES). Second and not so primal thought: “I can’t, I HAVE to fly the plane… this really sucks!” You have to fly the plane, Rob (speaking to myself); you can’t freak out – however much I was feeling pulled there. My training kicked in: #1. Aviate, #2. Navigate and #3. Communicate. That’s the pilot mantra. Nevertheless, my inner child, Super Bee Hater of all Bee Haters – in a semi panic – was having it out with my rational, Pilot in Command mindset. It wasn’t going very well. Safe to say there was a lot of adrenaline flowing at this point.
There is an expression my former flight instructor, Xylon, shared with me years ago in an effort to relieve my frustration at having yet another lesson canceled due to bad weather: “Better being on the ground wishing you were in the sky, than in the sky wishing you were on the ground.” With my two uninvited passengers in the right corner of the windshield – occasionally meandering over to my side for a visit, I was experiencing loud and clear the wisdom of this advice. I considered opening my window, but the chance that one or both bees would be blown into my face or down my shirt from the turbulence nixed that option. I didn’t trust myself to keep my cool.
I have to kill the bees. That’s what I decided.
The discussion between me, myself and I didn’t last long, probably less than a minute. My logic at the time went as follows: they are a threat, an uncertainty and have to be eliminated. Period. In other words, I was in full fight-or-flight mode. If I couldn’t flee, I had to take them out (in hindsight, turning around and landing at Jefferson County would have been a far better choice, but it didn’t occur to me until after the flight was completed).
First, I tried using my laminated checklist, but it wasn’t flexible enough: the bees would fall to the floor stunned then fly back up into the window. I then shifted to using my Airport Facility Directory, a small paperback book, which turned out to be much more effective. I would lean over, take a couple of swats at the bees and then check the flight controls and instruments.
While I often found the plane was in a slight bank, climb, or descent, I stayed alert enough to not let the airplane get away from me. I’ll call it a C + for Situational Awareness. After killing the two bees, a third showed up, which panicked me further. What the f***! Is there a freaking nest in here?! I knew there wasn’t, the airplane is used full time for training, five-six days a week. The third bee didn’t last long, soon to join the first two on the floor by the empty passenger seat. I later concluded I must have parked near a ground nest and attracted a few visitors when I opened the doors and windows to cool off the plane prior to departing from Jefferson County. Add to my checklist: check for uninvited wildlife and remove from the aircraft accordingly.
The rest of the flight passed without incident. I flew south for half an hour over the Hood Canal, avoiding the rising, bumpy air over the land just east. I remember the clarity and beauty of the Olympic Mountains and yet, at the same time, how uninterested or able I was to enjoy them, just wanting to get back on the ground. While the bees were no longer a threat, I was definitely shaken up.
One thing I learned from this experience is that once adrenaline has been released into your bloodstream, it takes a long time to dissipate. It’s a good thing I didn’t have any other unexpected events happen on my flight to Sanderson Field. I was upset, frightened and exhausted – just wanted the flight to be over – having come fairly close to generating my very own NTSB report. Having read many accident reports and aviation safety related articles over the years, it was an eye opener to experience to what degree panic, stress and fatigue (never mind a good scare) had on my capacity for good judgment and overall situational awareness.
While I have no plans to stop reading a variety of aviation safety related magazines (currently subscribed to three on the topic of aviation safety), there is no substitute for a first person experience in an airplane.
I have gotten back in the left seat since this event, completing several flights including my BFR. I have also reflected on the flight, debriefed with my flight instructors and reviewed materials on topics including situational awareness, aeronautical decision making and single pilot cockpit resource management.
Following are a couple of insights and takeaways from this flight experience:
Just because everything is going according to plan, it doesn’t mean it can’t shift in an instant. And if it does, being mentally alert and ready to act is critical. Being unprepared or complacent increases the likelihood that should you become panicked, it could prevent you from taking control of the situation (or seriously impair it). And should you be panicked, know your brain will prioritize differently. This flight experience gave me a deeper understanding and respect to the accident category “loss of control.” I understand this category is often assigned when the specific cause can’t be determined. That said, having experienced a situation in which a response to an incident (in my case, killing the bees) was a higher priority to part of my brain than maintaining control of the aircraft, I can better understand pilots who, for whatever reason, lose their situational awareness and in turn lose control of their aircraft.
Training for the standard categories of emergencies is not enough. We must remain open to the unforeseen as well. Believing we’re on top of everything is a hazardous attitude and leads to a false sense of security. By their nature, unforeseen incidents and emergencies can’t be specifically prepared for, but they can be mitigated by our proactive attitude of regularly checking in with ourselves as the flight proceeds: “If something goes south, what are my options, what’s my plan B?” This can be added to our en route checklist or incorporated into our instrument scan. Having recently reviewed the closest airport information, tuned our radios to local frequencies and checked weather, we have greater mental reserves to apply to any unforeseen incident and or emergency.