It was a dark and clear winter night, somewhere between 1979 and 1980. I walked up to the Piper Archer with my three other buddies, in full fighter pilot swag, full of myself and the false confidence only a 20-year old can have.
I had earned my Private in just 54 hours and now, with a whole 61 hours logged, I was flying my buddies to the Playboy Club Resort at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
I loaded everyone up and performed my usual rivet-level preflight while trying to stay warm.
Airports are the coldest places on earth, but there was no snow yet; not unusual for Chicagoland before Christmas. We were originating from KDPA (DuPage County Airport) and 28 minutes from the DPA VOR on the 355 radial we’d look down and find C02 – Playboy at the time but now listed as Grand Geneva Resort.
The plane checked out fine for a night flight. We had full tanks and were all near the mythical 170 pounds the FAA suggested weight for seat occupants but well within gross and the weight and balance envelope.
Takeoff and cruise at 2,500 feet were normal. Soon, Playboy’s nearly 4,000 feet of runway lit up right in front of the spinner.
It was then that my buddy in the right seat, another guy named John, turned to me and said, “Hey, why don’t we overfly Majestic Mountain and see if they’re making snow yet?”
All of us had just learned to ski downhill, so the idea appealed to everyone.
Understand that in Illinois, the term “mountain” is used to describe any rise in the ground more than 50 feet. There’s a reason Wisconsinites call us, “Flatlanders.”
I turned left and headed westward along the southern shore of Lake Geneva. We found that Majestic Mountain Ski Resort wasn’t making snow, but at least I got to demonstrate proper turns about a point.
After several turns, I rolled out on 090 and started looking for the field to my left front.
VOR radials? We don’ need no stinkin’ VOR radials!
Seeing that I was looking again, my buddy in the right seat imparted what I’m sure he thought was sage wisdom.
“You know, Playboy is directly east of Majestic.”
Sectionals? Why would I need a sectional if I was following the VOR radial? Sectionals are for people who get lost at over 100 knots.
I turned to him, snorted and using my best pilot voice, “Um… no, it’s northeast of the lake. I think.”
By the time he and I debated it, there were the runway lights, oriented in the 4-22 magnetic direction for the C02 field.
Curse you, Red Baron! Showed up by a passenger!
But something was wrong; I couldn’t make out the familiar blue taxiway lights. Did I miss a NOTAM?
No, impossible; back in that era, the FSS was right at the airport, in the main office. It was really convenient to walk right up to the counter and get a briefing, in person. No NOTAMs reported for Playboy.
So I did the smart thing (for a change) and entered the pattern, announcing myself and where I was, what my intentions were, and buzzed the field to have a look.
The numbers flashed by quickly, but the runway was void of any construction equipment or pot holes.
So I came around again and landed.
It was a greaser. Truly, I was the best thing that happened to aviation since Icarus.
But as we rolled out, the strobes flashed off of very – very – nice houses with attached hangars. In some of the homes, curtains were pulled back and curious shadows peered out at us as if we were direct from Roswell or Area 51.
Oops, something was wrong – terribly wrong.
I had to smoke the brakes to stop the speeding Archer before we went off the end of the runway. When we came to the end of the runway, there was no golf course, only an interstate highway.
I asked the guy behind me, Jesse – an RC model flyer – to hand me the sectional.
After studying it, to my horror, I determined that we had landed at Lake Geneva Aire Estates (WI89), a full 2.7 NM and 159 degrees from Playboy.
Just as the initial shock of my mistake, no… BLUNDER wore off, I read the runway length.
At 2,300 feet, it was the shortest runway I’d ever attempted a takeoff from, in the heaviest aircraft I’d ever flown, at or near gross.
I taxied midway up the runway again, and looked for the windsock.
Well, there was none, so I asked my know-it-all buddy in the right seat to get out and tell me which way the wind was blowing, while he and the other guy in the back seat were laughing their “sixes” off at my expense.
All except Jesse. He knew. He was a fellow aviation enthusiast, and he had the POH ready to hand me before I even asked for it.
Meanwhile, prop still spinning away, my buddy John hopped off the wing and stood in front of the spinning wheel of death. He started blowing upwards to see which way his breath went.
Yeah, it was cold, but I was starting to sweat.
The POH claimed a test pilot, with thousands of hours of experience, at sea level, on a standard day, could make the bird break ground at gross in about 900 some feet.
At this time, John reentered the cockpit and closed the door. He pointed to the left wing tip and said, “As near as I can figure, the wind is coming from there.”
Oh joy. A 90 degree crosswind.
Spinning the plane around, I went to the DOWNHILL side of the runway and turned it around again.
Making sure my buddy was buckled in, I did a quick mag check then stood on the brakes, extended the flaps to the second notch and fire-walled the throttle.
But I sat there for a moment, staring uphill at the seventy foot Cherokee Munching Trees in a way that only Charlie Brown would understand.
The thought flashed through my mind that this flight was going to end up in Flying magazine; either in the column entitled “I learned about flying from that” or “Aftermath.”
Bets were on the latter.
From the back seat, Jesse put his hand on my left shoulder, and whisper-yelled in my ear, “I have faith in you.”
It was at that moment I lost all swag. I vowed that if I survived, I would dedicate my aviation life to one of humility and fanatical pursuit of safety.
Jesse’s words were louder than the straining Lycoming. They hung in my ears and echoed all the way through my tiny brain, down my spine and into my hands and feet.
I had gotten them all into this. It was all my fault.
Sucking the yoke back to my chest and stepping off the brakes, the Archer rolled toward destiny. About the midway point the wheels lifted off and the screech of the stall warning horn filled the cockpit, causing me to release the back pressure a little and, though we didn’t reconnect with the earth, we dipped, then soared like a homesick angel over the tree line.
As the trees dropped out of sight, I contemplated my next laundry bill.
Despite my best efforts, I managed to get the heavy Cherokee airborne in about 1,000 feet, not all together bad for a newbie only six hours into his rating, but I felt no swag, no confidence.
Just a huge sigh of relief.
So, late that night in my dorm room, staring at the popcorn ceiling as my roommate drifted off to a destination that escaped me – REM sleep – I ran the whole flight back through my mind.
I had been lucky; far luckier than I deserved.
Things I did wrong:
- I had abdicated PIC authority.
- I didn’t use a sectional or any other NAVAIDs available to me, and misidentified an airport, landing there without knowing the runway length.
- I had a novice passenger get out on a cold wing without shutting down the prop.
- I had two choices for departure direction – downhill with a 90 degree crosswind, or uphill with the same crosswind. I chose to take off uphill, toward a line of huge trees just beyond the runway threshold.
- I didn’t inform my passengers about the peril they faced, giving them an option to switch transportation modes.
- I endangered every one of us, and was an awful steward of a fine example of aviation hardware – the Cherokee Archer that was entrusted to me.
I vowed never to be so blatantly confident again. In fact, afterward, there were plenty of times I would get my buddies to the airport and look up just to say, “Nope. Tonight’s not the night, guys.”
I’m not proud of that flight. But since that flight, I am extremely proud of the flights I didn’t take.
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:firstname.lastname@example.org