The day I almost didn’t take off

When you are a young airplane pilot, the world of flying is full of wonder. So many new things to do, new experiences to have, and yes, people to impress with your new-found skills. There are so many fun challenges out there and sometimes you don’t worry as you should about things like physics getting in the way.

I had wanted to be a pilot since I was very young. Some of my oldest memories were of air shows my father took the family to back in the 1960s. I was always the kid at the airport standing at the fence hoping and praying someone would see me and offer me a ride. Unfortunately, that never happened.

After a brief stint at college as an engineering major, I realized I was more interested in flying and fixing airplanes than designing them. I took a brief period off to figure out what to do, then enrolled in the A&P school at the local college. It was during this period that I finally realized my dream and started flying lessons.

I was quite troubling to my instructor. I was ready to go full bore into flying and had little to no time for studying. To me, there were many subjects I thought were not worth the time so I just concentrated on the actual flying and hoped for the best. When my written test came around, I walked in very confident but walked out just hoping I had passed… I didn’t. It seemed the subjects I had skipped all seemed to be on that test. I buckled down and finally passed my written and eventually passed my flight check also. Finally I was a Private Pilot and I didn’t have to worry about all that studying stuff anymore.

After getting my A&P license, I relocated to Los Angeles and began a career as an airplane mechanic. Soon after, I was renting airplanes from the local flight school and having quite a good time flying all over southern California. As my experience grew, I became more and more confident in my abilities. This should have been a warning sign, but I took very few things that way back then.

My roommate and some friends had been bugging me to take them up and that fit right into my new status as an ace pilot so I said sure, let’s do a night flight over LA and we can even go down and watch the fireworks above Disneyland.

Cherokee 140
Cherokee 140, or 180 – what’s the difference?

I had wanted to rent a Piper Cherokee 180, but it was down for an annual inspection so I took the Cherokee 140 instead. When asked about fuel so they could fuel it before everyone went home for the evening, I just said fill it up. I had almost 120 hours in my logbook so what could possibly go wrong?

I picked up my three passengers at my apartment and we drove the short distance to the airport, full of anticipation of the upcoming flight. None of them had ever flown in a private airplane before and they were very excited at the prospect of it.

It was beautiful weather: zero wind, the sun had set about an hour before and it was just a typical warm summer California evening. I climbed in and in short order had the engine running and the radios on. I taxied out and lined up on the runway. As I advanced the throttle, the acceleration on takeoff was less than I thought it should be, but I justified this with the thought it was a 140 and not the 180. No alarms were going off in my mind yet. What could go wrong with almost 760 lbs of people and full fuel?

The runway was 3500 feet long and at the end was a 10-foot drop-off, a chain link fence, then some houses across the road on the other side of the fence. I started thinking about this just past the halfway point of the runway when I rotated and the airplane did not fly. I thought if I just wait another couple seconds I know it will fly like it has always done. Now we were at about the 2500-foot mark and the wheels were still on the ground.

Now the alarms were going off in my head. I realized I had left myself with only two options: try to stop and end up going down the embankment and through the fence or try to get it into the air and possibly stall at very low level and risk everyone’s life. I’m afraid to say I took too long trying to decide and the wheels finally left the ground… at about the 3200-foot mark.

We were flying but just barley. I’m pretty sure I would have hit the houses off the end of the runway if they had not been that 10 feet below the level of the runway. The aircraft was very slow to respond and we had between 25 and 50 FPM rate of climb. I had the presence of mind to keep the nose down as much as possible and just keep it flying until we gained some altitude.

We went by some prominent landmarks about four miles from the airport and I was still only 250 ft AGL. I finally started to feel like it might be ok when we finally got to 1000 ft, an accomplishment that seemed to take hours from where I was sitting. I knew we must have been very overweight and possibly out of CG so I decided the best course of action was to burn off some fuel prior to trying a landing. We did end up flying around Disneyland but it turns out fireworks look great against a dark sky; not so great when you are above them and the background is a bright city. Finally we made a safe landing. I made absolutely sure a go around would not be needed.

That flight was one of the most tense and traumatic flights I have ever had. We finally landed safely and I went home feeling like I should never be allowed to fly again. It was almost a month before I had the courage to fly again. My friends never knew there was a problem and thought I had just given them the low, scenic flight so they could get better pictures. I guess at least someone was happy about the flight.

That flight was over 30 years ago and to this day I remember it. I think about it every time I plan a flight and I teach it and use it as an example for my students hoping that my cocky stupidity may someday keep one of them from doing something equally as stupid, and something that could turn out far worse than that flight did that night. And to my friends, I am truly sorry I risked your lives that night.

And as far as my experience goes as a kid that never got offered a flight, I now offer flights to any kid that shows any interest in aviation and to their parents also, especially if they are a kid standing at the airport fence hoping and praying someone will offer them an airplane ride.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of 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: editor@airfactsjournal.com

3 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing this story, I think most of us can relate. Fessing up helps us all be better pilots whether it was 30 years or thirty days ago.

  • Forty-five years ago, a astute FBO owner stopped me from doing something similar! 17 year old, new private pilot with three high school buddies in August, in Indiana. We probably would have hit the trees at the end of the runway!

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