I have two vivid memories of my private pilot training, now nearly 15 years ago. The first was the elation I felt after completing my first solo. On my “Intro Flight” lesson, I sat in the cockpit of a rickety old 172 with steam gauges that to me looked like the control panel of a nuclear reactor. To progress from bewilderment to actually landing an airplane alone gave me a bursting sense of accomplishment. The second memory was my incredulity in reading in the study materials about “Hazardous Attitudes.” Every student pilot knows the list: “anti-authority,” “macho,” “invulnerable,” etc. They seemed ridiculous, especially “Get-There-It is.”
What kind of idiot would knowingly take off into unsafe conditions, simply because they were in a rush to get home? I only skimmed this section of my training manual, secure in the knowledge that I was too smart, self-aware and cautious to ever fall prey to that kind of insidious thinking. Who could be so stupid and reckless? I now know the answer to that question: me.
This humbling lesson came to me on a beautiful, severe-clear Friday afternoon in early September 2013. I live in Morristown, New Jersey, but had accepted a new job in Wilmington, Delaware. My wife sensibly suggested that I try the new job before uprooting our family of six, so for the first six months I was sleeping in a hotel during the week and often did a painful, bumper-to-bumper drive home for the weekends.
My first week in the new job had been intense, working long days and socializing after hours with my new colleagues. By Friday morning when I woke up in the hotel, I was exhausted and I missed my kids desperately. All I could think about was getting home to see them for dinner. I looked out the window that morning and saw a perfect, blue sky day. I called my flight instructor – let’s call him “Bill.” I asked if he could fly down that afternoon in my plane to pick me up, as he had an extra set of keys and was listed on my insurance. Route 95 North on a Friday at rush hour could easily be a five-hour drive, but it would be only an hour’s flight. Bill immediately agreed to meet me at KILG at 5:00 pm, and I hung up elated at the prospect of making it home for dinner with my family.
My instructor Bill was straight out of central casting. He was an early-60s, chain-smoking, grizzled old school CFI with tan, leathery skin and a deep baritone voice. He claimed not to know how many flight hours he had (he had no time for the formality of flight logs) but bragged it was “well over 10,000.” He claimed to have flown everything, everywhere. He had a lengthy inventory of highly embellished stories of brushes with death, survived only due to his Yeager-like skills. As an instructor he was tough, demanding but effective, so I reluctantly stuck with him despite his rough manners and outsized personality.
I arrived at the FBO right on time, giddy at the prospect of seeing my family. Five o’clock turned into 5:30 pm, with no sign of Bill or my airplane. Bill’s cell went straight to voicemail. At 6:00 pm there was still no sign, and I was getting seriously worried. At 6:15 pm, just as I was about to give up and begin the drive home, I saw an antique looking plane taxiing towards the FBO. Out bounds Bill with a huge smile on his face. “This is my 1948 Stinson!” he exclaimed. “I figured you’d love to fly it, and I needed to give her some exercise!”
As I stood there in my expensive suit and tie, the rage rose inside me. He was over an hour late, putting dinner with my kids in serious jeopardy. I was expecting my modern, fast, air conditioned airplane and instead I was staring at an ancient canvass-winged airplane with open windows and a wooden propeller. Despite my reservations, I did a quick calculation: if we could get in the air quickly I could still make it home by 8:00 pm. I’d miss dinner, but I could still put the kids to bed. I held my temper, and turned to Bill and said, “Fine, let’s just go.”
I twisted my large body into the left seat of the small, ragged cockpit and stared in amazement at the original 1948 instruments that to me looked like something Orville and Wilbur might have used. It was a long way from my G1000, so I clarified to Bill that he was PIC. He started the engine, and immediately something sounded wrong. The engine coughed, sputtered and skipped badly. I wasn’t sure what a 1948 engine was supposed to sound like, but this one sure sounded sick. Bill shut the engine down, and turned to me with a confused look. “That’s funny,” he said. “It was fine on the flight down here.”
We exited the plane, and he quickly diagnosed the problem: water in the fuel. He said he had switched tanks after landing, and he thought the new tank might have “a bit of water.” He pulled a pint-sized fuel strainer from his flight bag and began to sump. I watched in horror as strainer after strainer of brown, murky water drained out. It took at least a half a dozen strainer-fulls before the fuel ran clear. Slightly flustered, Bill turned to me in a brusque voice and said, “Get in, we’re leaving.”
At this, point any clear-thinking person would have had serious reservations about getting back in that plane, but I was not thinking clearly. It was nearly 7:30 pm, and my fury with Bill was barely containable. Why hadn’t he just flown my plane like I asked him (and was paying him) to do? Why would he think I’d enjoy a joyride in a museum piece when all I wanted was to see my kids? If I bailed out now and drove, I would not get home until nearly midnight and would miss the kids for sure. If we flew, I might still make it home by 9:00 pm for bedtime. I called my wife and asked her to keep the kids up an extra hour, and after a few choice words with Bill, I got in the plane.
Bill started the engine. While there was some improvement, as we taxied, the engine still gave on occasional loud sputter which even in my state of road-rage struck me as unhealthy. Bill assured me it was “totally normal,” and as we got our takeoff clearance and taxied onto the runway, he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you home in time for a bedtime story.” Bill went full throttle, and the old Stinson crept down the runway. I had never flown in a 1948 aircraft, but our takeoff roll seemed to take forever and consumed much of the 7,000 foot runway. We eventually rotated, and it seemed we were barely climbing. The engine continued to sputter as we lumbered slowly and painfully up to about 800 ft AGL. Then it quit.
For all the terrible decisions made to this point, Bill made a good one when it mattered most. He immediately put the nose down to maintain airspeed and banked towards an adjacent runway. The angle of descent in a real-life engine out is surprisingly steep – I remember feeling like we were going to nosedive straight into the runway. I didn’t feel terror and I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I simply felt an overwhelming sense of stupidity. As the ground rushed towards me, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I cannot believe this is how I die.”
Bill made a hard, bouncy landing on the edge of an adjacent runway. Strangely, he was able to restart the engine just long enough to taxi off the runway before it quit again. It took another half a dozen re-starts to taxi the 50 yards back to the ramp. After making arrangements with the FBO for a mechanic to look at the Stinson on Monday, we got in my car and began the long drive back to Morristown. We did not speak a word the entire drive, and I finally arrived home to a dark house at 1:30 am. I have not seen nor spoken to Bill since.
In the years that have passed since, my anger at Bill has been replaced by a profound disappointment in myself. While not PIC, as a pilot I certainly should have had enough training and common sense not to get into an aircraft with an obviously contaminated fuel system. Yet I did, because I let anger and acute get-there-its overwhelm my ability to make rational decisions. In the comfort of home, studying hazardous attitudes in a training manual seemed absurd. I’ve learned the hard way that in the real world of flying, hazardous attitudes are an insidious and ever-present danger, driven by our own emotions and fatigue. Despite my student pilot overconfidence, get-there-itis got me.
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]