I consider myself a blessed person. Blessed for becoming a pilot, seeing the world in a way so many people can only dream about. Blessed for having a Skyhawk and being able to pay for enough fuel enabling me to fly at least a half-hour every weekend. Blessed for having it based in a closed community field, with a beautiful view, many nice friends around, a short, challenging runway and crosswinds year-round, a field where 2000+ hours instructors won’t take their students, despite being close to so many training centers. Blessed for being able to learn from the experiences my mistakes made me go through, so I don’t make them again.
My dad inspired me to start my flight lessons, and he always told me a pilot must be alert for the signs. And as I asked him, “How do I know if something is a sign?” He answered, “Sometimes we just realize we were warned after we get into and out of trouble.”
You might not believe in signs, or in blessings, might ponder that what some call “omens” or “warnings” are actually the fruits of lack of attention or knowledge, so it is not the world alerting you, it is just you short of your full potential, making mistakes.
Anyway, today I see that the day that this story happened, I had plenty of those signs if I would have been able to see them.
It was a nice hot summer day. I went to the field, did some touch and go’s in a neighboring city, and in the brilliance of my 70-something hours, I decided to warm the old Luscombe’s engine up, making the oil flow, battery recharge and so on. Although that Luscombe was old, the previous owner did a nice job installing a 120-hp engine, radio, transponder, GPS and having it registered as an LSA equivalent.
I landed the Cessna, pulled the Luscombe from the back of the hangar, where it stayed for the last two years without flying a single full hour, jumped inside and started the engine.
It started so smoothly, and it felt so good being inside, I thought it would be a shame to not try taxiing, spinning the tires a little. Just as I started on the grass, some people started waving, so I waved back to them, thinking, “Yes, it is a pretty bird, isn’t it?” As a guy then went running toward me, I realized maybe something was going on, so stopped as he told me I was taxiing with the towbar still attached.
I cut the engine, jumped out, kicking myself for how stupid I was. I put the towbar back in the hangar, climbed back in and tried to start the engine again. Only it wouldn’t start. I tried until I had the battery almost fully drained. I then tried to reason: first thing fuel, ok, spark… dammit I was trying to start with the magnetos off! Magnetos on, hit the starter button, the prop turned a quarter turn, slowed down as compression built up, and stopped for a second. When I was about to give up and abort the whole idea, it overcame the compression and the engine roared.
Well that was nice. Now I needed to keep it running to at least recharge the battery a little. I taxied to the intersection. As it was a quiet day at our field, why not do a run up on the runway? It sounded like a great idea, so off the grass I went, and onto the tarmac. Applying some power, building up some speed, tail up, power off, hold the line. Like I did at least 80 times before when doing my private pilot classes on taildraggers.
Only this time I had a runway with less than half the length, and some annoying crosswind gusts, that started taking me off the line, making me kick full rudder and still needing a little help from the brakes only to stay on the runway. As the 2000 ft runway end got closer and closer, I felt the right wing going up, tires losing contact (not fun at all) so I did what I recalled my instructor telling me: “If you have speed, take off and correct the instabilities airborne, instead of fighting the crazy horse.”
Throttle ahead, nose up, and gosh that plane was a flyer, so nice to fly, so stable now, so peaceful. I was fighting hard because I was keeping it on the ground against its will. (Later I discovered I was reading the IAS in the wrong unit, too). Then I heard, in the back of my head: “Congratulations, you took off in a plane you never flew, that hasn’t flown for two years, without checking fuel or engine oil, no preflight check at all, without flying taildraggers for more than six months, how are you supposed to land it safely now?”
Even my solo flights in taildraggers were on 5000 ft runways, winds less than six knots. How was I going to land? How was I? What if I break the plane? Or if I break the plane and myself in the process?
After the second it took to think this and many disastrous scenarios, I breathed deeply and said, “Do what you know. Fly the plane, watch attitude and airspeed, right height, flare and touch down.” I got the throttle to full power (OMG taking off with only half power!), climb attitude, programmed the GPS to the airport I had my classes in, in case I was unable to land but survived the attempt, so I could do a forced landing somewhere better prepared, reported on the radio and entered downwind.
Long story short, the first approach came incredibly high – I was used to arriving with 20 degrees of flaps and now I was arriving with none. The second approach, still too high, even tried slipping a little, amazed at the effectiveness of the rudder inflight, kept the axis of the runway in a low pass, went around for a third attempt. After the second failed attempt, the sinking came back to my stomach, thinking about oil, running out of fuel, or what the chances were this engine could let me down for waking it up from its rest.
Keeping in mind that this time I couldn’t miss, I did a long downwind, came low on final, carried by the engine, crossed the trees near the threshold, cut power, and went on to get on the right attitude for touchdown. I had the tail higher than ideal, but the landing gear absorbed without bouncing, and there I was, three wheels on the ground. Success! That is, only until I had to bring it back to the centerline and my shoe’s tip caught the radio harness, and the second it took for me to get my feet right was enough to get it totally off the intended direction. So stick full back, I braked hard enough to stop in the grass, 16 feet away from the hill so many planes fell off before.
I believe I am blessed to walk away from this, unharmed and with the plane unscathed. At the same time, it made me aware that I had the skills to survive, but I realized I lacked skills to perform it successfully. And independent of believing or not that forgetting the towbar and the magnetos off were signs that I should have backed off and stayed near the hangar door, I won’t start an engine, or even align anything on a runway if I am not 100% able to fly it safely, on so many levels.