Hope is a bad plan in an airplane

I learned to fly, like nearly everyone else in the 1980s, in a Cessna 150. And like most new pilots I could not wait to fly “real” planes with better performance.

Van's RV-4
With a hot rod like an RV-4, performance problems are gone, right?

I graduated up the GA performance hierarchy through the usual suspects like the Piper Archer and the Cessna 182. But it was buying an RV-4 with an O-320 and a constant speed prop that freed me from all the pedestrian performance concerns of pilots flying lesser airplanes. Or so I thought.

I was based in northern California and had always wanted to see the hot air balloon fest in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Southwest general aviation veteran flyers already have an inkling about where this story is going. All my experience in the hot rod RV-4 had been based in the Sacramento Valley of California, where airport elevations vary between 20 ft. MSL to a not-quite-ear-popping 300 ft. MSL. Most takeoffs in my RV-4 resulted in the mains coming off the ground right before the forward movement of the throttle reached its stop. Only to be followed by a 2000 fpm initial climb settling into a 1500 fpm climb in a steep crosswind turn. Great stuff.

The flight out to Albuquerque for the balloon fest was largely uneventful other than some challenging crosswind landing “practice” at one of my fuel stops. The balloon fest was even better than all the hype. I had some time available before simply pointing the hot rod back home so I decided I would fly up to the headwaters of the Colorado River and follow every turn of that crooked snake all the way to Arizona. A trip of a lifetime in the perfect little aerial sports car. More great stuff

It was getting later in the afternoon and I needed to make a fuel stop at Bryce Canyon. I was surprised to see such a monster-long runway at a very quiet rural little airport. It is nearly 7,400 feet long.

I landed and fueled up. It was hot so I rested in the air conditioned lounge and sipped on some cold water. The elevation at Bryce Canyon airport is 7,600. Runway 3 is downhill and there was about a 5 knot headwind that afternoon. But runway 3 was not in the direction I was heading. So I started taxiing for a takeoff on runway 21 because that was the way I was going. But I was in a hurry and I was baking in the brutal heat under the canopy of my mighty RV-4, so I didn’t taxi all the way to the end of the monster-long runway. I decided that half the runway was way more than I needed because I was flying a plane that flew like Superman.

Bryce Canyon Airport
When the airport elevation is almost 8,000 feet, the normal performance tables do not apply.

I did my run-up and remembered to finish with leaning for maximum power. That may have saved the day as every other decision that afternoon was biased by ignorant overconfidence.

I lined up on runway 21 for my uphill takeoff with a tailwind at the midpoint on a brutally hot day at 7,600’ ft. and throttled up. My mighty hot rod RV-4 was performing worse than any overloaded Cessna 150 I had ever flown. I should have aborted the takeoff to reevaluate the chain of recklessly bold decisions I had stacked up against a successful outcome, but there was so much more runway in front of me than I had ever imagined I would need for a takeoff in my hot rod. I continued to let the asthmatic Lycoming twist the Hartzell in a pathetically weak attempt to claw into the thin, hot air hoping the thick RV wing would begin to produce lift.

As my more experienced pilot friends often espouse, hope is a bad plan in an airplane. I would estimate the height of the chain length airport perimeter fence to be about 6 ft. because if it were 10 ft. high I may not be here to confess the embarrassing chain of knucklehead decisions I assumed could not possibly beat down the omnipotent capability of my hot rod airplane. Every airplane can be brought to its knees given the immutable laws of physics and a mountain of stupidity.

Don’t be stupid.

Editor’s Note: This article is from 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

8 Comments

  • Well written and to the point.

    Direct experience may be the only way to truly appreciate the effects of density altitude. And a post mortem sense of humor doesn’t hurt.

  • I second that comment, thanks for sharing. These are the kinds of experiences that you never will forget. Ever.

    Hopefully we can all continue to learn thru more stories like this where pilots who have the courage to step up and share their experiences. We are all fallable and the moment we think we’re not, that arrogance of overconfidence will no doubt lead us into a situation we may or may not live to tell about.

  • Always start a flight with the attitude that the “little lady” is going to try to kill you if she can !! Your job is not to let her.

  • That had to be somewhat early in your Aviation career because by the time I flew across the entire country in the backseat of your newly acquired BT-13 you had the best sense of energy management of anyone I had ever flown with. That made an impossibly fun and amazing trip even more impossibly fun and amazing! Thanks for sharing your story.

  • A lifetime of flying a Cherokee 140 in Northern Arizona from a five thousand foot airport has taught me valuable lessons. Before a flight and before checking the aircraft, the wind, the weather and other common chores, I check temperature an density altitude. I always remind myself — an overloaded 140 at five thousand feet and 100 degrees is no longer an airplane. It’s ground transportation.

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