A trip to Mexico in the best of the worst airplanes ends in a costly fiasco

A careful preflight always is a good idea, but it was a life-or-death necessity during the years of Rent-A-Plane’s existence at Van Nuys Airport. In preflighting an aircraft rented from Rent-A-Plane, it was not unusual to find batteries missing, dipsticks gone, tires flat and beer cans under the rudder pedals. Its motley assortment of aircraft always was listed on the roster as “ready to go,” and because the rental rates were the lowest of any FBO on the field, its planes, despite their imperfections, stayed busy.

A lone mechanic, Clem, maintained the fleet. Tall, gaunt and hostile, he distrusted all customers, especially those who had just returned from a journey in one of the planes, usually with a list in hand noting things that needed to be fixed. He greeted all complaints with disbelief unless the supposed fault had caused a forced landing, in which case he might reluctantly concede that something might be wrong. His response to all other complaints was to mutter something about the “plugs,” and wander off. To Clem, every mechanical problem, whether it was some terrible vibration or a power loss on takeoff, was attributable to plugs. It was a mystery to all who relied on his mechanical skills how, and why, he had become an aircraft mechanic. Clem was the only person Pooh Bear, my girlfriend’s Chow pup, had ever disliked immediately. Pooh took one curious sniff, growled and slunk away, always avoiding Clem thereafter.

Arrow IV
An Arrow IV can be a good airplane, but it demands good maintenance.

The high school girls hired by Mel, the owner, to run the office were trained only to make sure a cash deposit was made before an airplane left the ramp. Once this was done, they cheerfully handed over whatever keys they had. Because their knowledge of aircraft was limited to distinguishing the planes with two engines from those with one, they often came up with the key to an airplane being overhauled that had none, or cheerfully surrendered the extra set to the Mooney that had gone to Tucson that morning. It usually took several trips from the office to the ramp before a flyable, available aircraft was found. Attempting to reserve a particular plane in advance usually was futile. Not only was it impossible to determine over the phone whether the plane could be flown – “ready to go” was the invariable answer – but any reservation could be pre-empted by someone showing up first with cash in hand.

It was a sunny September morning as three of us and Pooh Bear arrived at Rent-A-Plane with the intention of flying to Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Looking over those aircraft that appeared capable of such a journey, I entered the office and emerged with keys to several of them. Starting with my first choice, I tried the Twin Comanche and found the right propeller would turn only a few inches before stopping. It had been plagued with an intermittent starter problem for weeks and today it wasn’t going anywhere. The old Aero Commander 500, next in preference, had an unusually large pool of hydraulic fluid under it – too large for a trip into a country where problems are easy enough to find without taking them with you. Turning to the singles, I dismissed the Comanche 260 because I knew from experience it only would go three hours before losing pressure from loss of oil. The two Vikings were unsuitable for our trip – the first because its only reliable instrument was the magnetic compass, while the second was the victim of a recurrent fuel system problem that caused it, several weeks later, to become a ball of wood and tubes on a San Diego street.

Several small Cherokees and Cessnas remained, along with a Turbo Arrow IV. The smaller planes were impractical for our 1000-mile trip, so I turned unhappily to the Arrow, our last possibility. I hated that plane. It was new, but the only thing about it that functioned consistently was the pretty velour upholstery. I had flown it several times before on trips to Tahoe, San Diego and Truckee, becoming more impressed each time by how easily the radio knobs came off in my fingers, the erratic reading of the gauges, and how slow it flew in return for the prodigious quantity of fuel it consumed. The engine had a disconcerting habit of suddenly misfiring and running rough while in cruise, a trait which always startled the passengers and left everyone on edge. There also was a glitch in the automatic landing gear system which allowed the wheels to extend abruptly halfway down, an event which invariably occurred just after carefully trimming for cruise and at irregular intervals thereafter. Cycling the landing gear switch several times would bring the wheels up again, and I had become adept at catching them before speed and trim had deteriorated very far. As with most of Rent-A-Plane’s aircraft, it was difficult to relax in the Arrow.

Checking with Clem, I asked if the bugs had been fixed since the last time I had used the plane. “It’s ready to go,” he answered, “that engine roughness was only the plugs.”

I began a preflight, noting the unbroken paint around the cowling fasteners. Clem had not even had it off and I knew I again would be carrying gremlins – unwelcome passengers ready to surprise me the moment I forgot they were there.

Culiacan
Ah, Mexico. What could possibly go wrong flying home from here?

Karen, Pooh Bear and Harry, a friend we were taking to Culiacan for business reasons, climbed on board as I added two quarts of oil and cleaned the windshield. I started the engine and taxied into position for takeoff, intending to top the tanks at Mexicali, where we would handle the formalities of entering Mexico and where fuel was cheaper. Not far into the takeoff roll, I noted with no great surprise that the airspeed indicator was hovering at 220 knots. Because it was a choice between the Arrow with no AI, or baking all day in a Cherokee or 172, I let our momentum carry us through the takeoff and climbout toward Mexicali. I had checked weather before leaving and found it to be the usual CAVU along our route to Culiacan. The airspeed indicator was dispensible… so I thought.

Other than the occasional interruptions of the gear dropping unexpectedly and the engine momentarily thumping, our leg to Mexicali proceeded normally. After taking fuel and obtaining our General Declaration and tourist cards, we proceeded to Culiacan, enjoying the beautiful combination of browns and blues below. Arriving that afternoon, we rented a car and took rooms at a hilltop motel which afforded us a view of the city and which lay within exploration distance of the shops and streets. Harry left us to arrange a business conference the following day while Karen, Pooh Bear and I sampled those distinct sensations available only south of the border.

The morning of our third day, I was completing my flight plan back to Mexicali when the official assisting me pointed to a roughly dressed campesino nearby and explained that he had been trying to return to his village where his wife was due to give birth. The road into the mountains was impassable because of washouts and the peasant had been waiting patiently to catch a ride with the irregularly scheduled mailplane to Tameapa, his home. “Porque es la misma direccion de su vuelo,” the official suggested, “quesas sera posible?” Checking the chart, I found the village was indeed directly on our path, and that stopping would cost us very little since it lay at 5500 MSL, about 15 minutes north.

I added our new passenger’s name to the flight plan, stuffed his old straw bag behind the rear seats on top of our luggage, and we were off to Tameapa. It wasn’t long before I spotted the tiny, rain-corrugated dirt airstrip perched upon a flattened mountain ridge. It was clear why the mailplane, a Cessna 185, had been avoiding the place lately. Not wishing to disappoint our hitchhiker, nor waste the time and fuel necessary for a return to Culiacan, I looked the strip over and decided it was possible to land. It was slanted steeply – a one-way strip – and the combination of gravity and brakes stopped us in a few hundred feet. Our grateful campesino invited us to stay for lunch, but we had many miles to cover before the day was over. I taxied to the highest point on the 1000-foot-long gash on the mountain, ran it up until the overboost light glowed steadily, and let it go. We accelerated quickly downhill. I had not missed our malfunctioning AI on our journey so far. Throughout the trip, the needle had danced around the dial, sometimes resting at zero, other times sitting on the peg. I had judged our approach and rotation speeds by feel and outside visual reference, but had neglected to consider the interconnection between the automatic retraction/extension system and the airspeed indicator.

Road
Road or runway? In some parts of Mexico it’s hard to tell.

Most of the airplane’s weight was on the wings as we rolled across a furrow somewhat larger than the others about halfway through our takeoff run. Bouncing slightly, the momentary lack of weight on the wheels fooled the “foolproof” gear system into performing its duty. The left wheel, now unlocked and slightly off-center, collapsed as the plane’s weight returned to the wheels. The left wingtip struck the ground, causing us to swerve to the left and off the runway. The other gear leg snapped off and the prop, with the throttle now closed, stopped as it dug into the dirt. We slid across the narrow margin that separated the runway from the edge of the mountain. I flipped the master off and Karen closed her eyes as we dived off the edge and began sliding down the mountainside. The thick underbrush and trees soon caught the wings, stopping our slide and saving us from plunging into the valley below.

Karen sat frozen next to me in the sudden silence. Harry, sitting in the back, kept whatever thoughts he had just then to himself. I slapped Karen’s thigh and said, “Out!” She opened the door and clambered outside as I pulled her seat forward so Harry and Pooh Bear could climb through. I turned off everything and retrieved our luggage, which we then struggled to carry back to the top, grasping at branches and bushes for support. While I was securing what was left of our airplane and grappling with the bags, Karen was taking pictures. These pictures show a red and white Arrow, incongruously sitting within a sea of lush, green vegetation, hanging by its leading edges from the side of a Sinaloa mountain – a plane, with its small wheels, faulty systems and marginal power, totally unsuited for what I’d attempted to use it for.

The passenger we’d delivered arranged for horses to carry us out of the mountains on what turned out to be a 14-hour expedition to the nearest highway. With everything in bloom, the streams swollen with water, the verdant hillsides dusted with yellow wildflowers, our passage through the mountains and valleys provided a beautiful and unexpected gift of misfortune. Upon reaching the highway late that night, we soon encountered a truck which made room for us amidst the produce in the back. At Culiacan, we hired a taxi to take us to Mazatlan, where, the next morning, we boarded a jet for Los Angeles. From there, I called the “jefe” at the airport in Culiacan and reported the accident. I’d flown enough in Mexico to know the safest procedure in case of accident was to flee the scene. He was understandably annoyed that I had not notified him in person and that I no longer was in Mexico. With us safely in Los Angeles, he could hold none of us for ransom, nor could he extract any fines or “damages.”

I brought the keys, logbooks and the pictures (having had them rapidly processed) back to Rent-A-Plane where Mel greeted my gifts with an incredulous, “Where. . .!” He flew down immediately to see what could be salvaged, but after I’d filed the accident report with Culiacan, “officials” had flown in and stripped the plane of its radios, instruments, seats and whatever else they could fit into a Cessna. Mel found an empty hulk. Several months later I was sued by his insurance company for operating the Arrow on unsuitable terrain.

What did I learn from this trip and its unhappy ending? Avoid planes with automatic retraction systems? Fill in the furrows on the runway before takeoff? Refuse to give rides to stranded campesinos? I had allowed the margin to become so small that a bump was all it took to terminate the journey and destroy an airplane.

70 Comments

  • Very well written, Mike; I enjoyed reading about your misery. 🙂

    Do you believe your experience flying the bush in AK may have given you more confidence in your skills than was warranted?

    • Absolutely. Coming into contact with people like Don Sheldon, Red Dodge and so many others, all the while having steeped myself in the journals of some of Alaska’s finest bush pilots, was a thrilling environment within which to learn. And yes, learning to deal with the weather and often rough-hewn runways has proven beneficial throughout all my flying life. Alaska flying was, and perhaps still is, a world of its own where the capabilities of an aircraft were not measured by whatever was in the operations manual. Alaska allowed operators an extra 25% over and above what planes were certified to carry and I would (I suspect) often extrapolate this margin into the other operation limitations. Although not with engines. Engines were to be treasured and treated as gently as possible.

      In other words, pedantic attention to CG limits, gross weight numbers, weather minimums, required runway lengths, etc. were things intuited over time. If you didn’t intuit them or otherwise absorb the wisdom necessary for Alaskan flying . . . if one religiously found their wisdom preached in the pulpits of the Cessna Pilot Centers of the day, you often either ended up on the side of a mountain . . . or became sufficiently insightful to find work more closely in tune with the individual’s skills and interests.

  • A terrible trip. What was so important that you risked three people’s and a dog’s lives in a known faulty aircraft, maintained by a known uncommunicative, overburdened mechanic and rented from a known lax, substandard company, staffed by known unqualified personnel, into a known-unsafe area, known to be peopled with crooks, with an added stop at an unknown, geographically difficult, poorly surfaced airfield, inaccessible by road?

    More tersely, do you have an ACE OF SPADES tattooed on your forehead? If not, perhaps you ought to consider getting one.

    • Amen to all this. Even though the author attempts to summon his inner Lewis Grizzard I could only make it halfway through the article before giving up. Thanks for posting a best-of-fail, Mike.

    • Joe Jew? What kind of a name is that? I like your picture.

      The trip was absolutely NOT “terrible”. Riding horses for 14 hours through some of the most beautiful country on the planet, everything bursting with life and color, was a treasure of a lifetime.

      • Great story, thank you for sharing. Great adventure! I can fully understand how it was ok at the time to accept the crappy aircraft. Great outcome too ! Life is to be enjoyed, some of the best adventures happen with things don’t go to plan. Automatic “stuff” aaggghhhhh Cheers Mike.

  • A good lesson on the added hazards of taking a retractable gear into a doubtful airstrip – and having renter’s insurance.

    Maintenance and/or engineering design of the “foolproof” gear seem to have contributed.

  • My understanding of the Piper system is that it is an automatic extension, not retraction, system. They only way the gear would have “automatically” retracted is if the gear switch was placed in the up position, and the squat switch (or in this case, airspeed switch) was relied upon to keep the gear down. Something that is a big no-no.

    • How that system worked and how it was supposed to work, were two things that had little to do with each other. It had far more than one or two failure modes and was liable to do anything.

      • I think if you look closely at the piper gear system, you’ll see that it is impossible for it to retract unless the switch was up, regardless of any issues in the airspeed sensing system.

        • That is absolutely correct – it was only designed to lower the gear below a certain airspeed when the manifold pressure was below a certain amount. It also prevented retraction below a certain airspeed. The retraction prevention could be overridden by pulling up the lever between the seats which we often did when practicing clean stalls. It had absolutely no ability to retract the gear. If you let it extend the gear automatically by not putting the gear switch down it might have done what you said, otherwise not possible, sorry. It also had it’s own airspeed pickup and did not at all rely on the airspeed pitot. It was on the left side of fuselage just below the window on the pilots side. The rest of the mechanism was under the back seat. Good story, but……

  • “The airspeed indicator was dispensible… so I thought.”

    Um, 91.205 says right up front (literally, it’s the first item on the list) that the airspeed indicator is NOT a dispensable item, even for day VFR.

    The insurance company had every right to sue your dumb ass.

  • Hard to imagine the Aeronautical Decision Making process that led to a decision to fly such a plane. By law, regardless of how bad Rent-a-Plane was, the decision to fly a plane and expose passengers to these dangers rests solely with the pilot. Hopefully this particular decision was not part of a pattern. Glad you and your passengers are alive.

  • Sounds like an old bush pilot tale. Having flown in that realm for awhile I don’t doubt it’s all true as bush pilots usually have different benchmarks for reasonable situations.

  • Good yarn…in retirement, Mike is also fishing aviation stories to Hollywood for scripting purposes. He also hires himself and his KR-1/2 out as an aerial target for naval surface to air gunnery to the south of San Clemente Island.

    Mike sez: …”there I was, inverted at 200 feet and goin’ into a deep valley on San Clemente……..when all of a sudden the aircraft ailerons mechanism unjammed and I flew up the chasm wall to CAVU and into the direct fire of Naval 5 inch 38 caliber proximity fuses, left over from WW 2, exploding around me. I made a mental note to increase my rental fee as an aerial target………………

      • Yes…I tried to outdo….you…and failed. You are the master of hallucinogenic aviation spoofs. You’ll somehow plagiarize what I wrote about you on San Clemente…so you have my permission to use it in another one of your “yarns”.

        Has your gastroenterologist explained to you…yet…have you’re able to be so full of feces and still function?

  • Keeping in mind that this story is pure fiction, it was quite entertaining. Any “real” pilot will recognize it for what it is. Horse manure! No real pilot would ever intentionally act in this manner. Furthermore, no aircraft rental company in the United States would survive for more than one day conducting this type of operation. This ‘story’ belongs in a comic book, not in any credible aviation publication.

  • Your the type of person that keep people who report on accidents statistics in business. I certainly can’t believe this is your first “death defying” act either. Have you by chance ever heard of Aeronautical Decision Making?
    You should consider another hobby, something along the lines of bird watching, star gazing, watching paint dry.
    It’s a shame your “friends” are so ignorant.
    Please do a favor for all other aviators whom apply good decision making skills, before you attempt to fly next time….post a NOTAM.

  • God it’s good to know that there are still pilots out there willing to sacrifice their lives and limbs and those of their passengers as well as the family mascot and the aircraft to win the Darwin Award. I’m surprised that you didn’t go back down with the Rent-A-Plane mechanic, duct tape and super glue, pre-flight what was left and try to to fly it out of there with the other two dumb asses that went with you in the fisrt place.

    • ” . . .fly it out of there with the other two dumb asses that went with you in the fisrt place.”

      People who call other people dumb asses need to first check their spelling.

  • The automatic gear extension system on the Arrow is governed not by the airspeed indicator gauge on the panel or even the normal pitot/static system, but rather by a separate pitot-like mast on the side of the fuselage. It would not have allowed gear up even if gear up were selected on the switch unless the plane had reached flying speed. This was my final clue that this story was fiction. As such, a fun read, well-written.

    • Barbara, I realize you know, probably a great deal, about Piper’s AutoLand feature. You’re bringing to the discussion the logic of how things are supposed to work and how they are supposed to fail. That system was full of inconsistency of operation and unexpected surprises and has caused much more consequential accidents than mine . . . which actually turned out rather nicely. That Piper system should have been disabled with an AD many years ago. Perhaps it has. Certainly anyone who has the misfortune of owning an Arrow with this terrible thing on board waiting to kill them at the first opportunity, should disable it ASAP.

  • I’m not flying to “just make it” or maybe. This flight was a no go w the bad instruments. It was accident awaiting to happen. Complacency and bad airmanship and decision making into one. I’m glad they’re alive.

  • I used to have a boat. I don’t have an airplane (yet). I didn’t know that airplane stories were as great as boat stories! It always takes a lot of skill and luck to get out of a situation you never should have gotten into in the first place! Great job!

    • Thanks Andrew. I see a couple grammatical items I should have caught, especially since this is the second time this story has been published, but I’m glad you enjoyed the story. The 14 hour trip on horses out to the nearest highway was a magnificent experience. That’s really exquisite and Eden-like country, those mountains and valleys and rivers of Sinaloa. It was unexpected of course, but our journey through those lands on horseback was an experience of a lifetime.

  • I have 2 comments.
    But first, agreeing with other comments, I wonder if this is even a true story.

    Back in the early 70’s, I rented a PA28R, Bellanca 300 and PA34 Seneca from Rent A Plane at KPDK in Atlanta. Flew about 100 hours total with trips to Kentucky, Illinois, Florida, Virginia, North and South Carolina. Never had any issues, personnel were courteous and responsive to all requests. The airplanes were in top shape and well maintained. I made the decision to rent from them and not from any of the several other rental fleets at several airports in the Atlanta area. Stopped using Rent a Plane when our company bought a C55 Baron.

    Mike, you should send this tail to AOPA so they can create an Accident Case Study video on Aeronautical Decision Making. Based on what you have said about your experiences with Rent a Plane, I wonder why you would even start the flight -Bad Decision 1; No Airspeed Indicator -Bad Decision 2; 4 passengers plus a dog AND full fuel going into a dirt airport, as you describe, and at 5500 MSL -Bad Decision 3. Sometimes, like every time as required by FAR, you must avail yourself of ALL information on the flight – Bad Decision 4. I am sure that there are more.

    If this is a true story, everyone is glad that no one got hurt.
    If this is not a true story or maybe, after all these years, it is slightly embellished, no one appreciates a pilot spinning yarns in an effort to impress themselves or others. Stories like this make an impression on not only other pilots, but also on the general non-flying public about how unsafe General Aviation is.

    Say, Did I tell you the one About The Time I ……. ?

  • Geez people, lighten up! No need to call him names and rebuke him. He shared the story (real or fiction) to help ensure others don’t make the same mistakes. You should thank him for sharing it and thank God if you’ve never done anything stupid in your whole life.

  • Hey Mike, speaking of San Clemente Island, I used to tow target banners with Grumman S-2F Tracker aircraft off the southern coast of San Clemente in the early 70’s to provide the Navy gunners aerial targets. We were attached to VC-3 Fleet Composite Squadron NAS North Island. For fun after the exercise we’d buzz the herds of goats which inhabit the island :))

    • Dennis, I had nothing to do with San Clemente island. That was some delusion cooked up by Wrong Way Corrigan several posts earlier.

  • Ha ha ha. Really enjoyed the yarn. Lighten up guys, it’s an embellished tail. The problem with sharing any tale or mistake of judgement in aviation is that every pilot with a keyboard suddenly becomes an FAA lawyer. No information gets shared other than the government controlled NTSB reports. Stop being so judgemental. I know my judgement has not been 100% in the past. How many of us were?

  • Why in the hell would you accept as an un-airworthy aircraft that had known numerous issues? Especially putting your passengers at risk and continuing to rent from a fly by night outfit? The FAA should have suspended your license!

  • This is an old story (1977) and quite accurate, first published in Private Pilot magazine October, 1986. I responded to Air Fact’s invitation to submit flying stories and they agreed with me that the story has held up well over time. They did a very nice job in finding pictures appropriate to the story since the pictures I had of the event are long gone.

    The short-lived company called Rent-A-Plane was rolled out on a national basis in the mid-70’s but didn’t last long. Mel retained rights to the name and operated as a single-airport operation at Van Nuys until he lost his life in a motorcycle road racing event.

    Re some technicalities . . . that awful automatic gear system has killed a number of people, most recently a family in Pennsylvania who lost their engine over thick trees and couldn’t make it to the runway thanks to the automatic extension system dumping drag into their glide precisely when it was a matter of life and death. Quite aside from my own poor judgement in not filling in the rain-washed gully halfway down the airstrip prior to take-off, if the plane had not had that terrible design mistake of Piper’s, our departure would have been without incident. The gear position knob was in the “down” position when the gear began to retract. That system was rife with multi-malfunction scenarios and is responsible for many disasters. It’s hard to imagine how the company who designed the Cub and the Comanche could possibly come up with such a lethal device on their Arrows.

  • I agree with Steve!

    The whole point of these articles is to allow the rest of us to gain some vicarious experience and (hopefully) make us a bit safer in and around airplanes.

    If you are a perfect pilot and have never, ever made any mistakes or omissions that compromised the safety of your passengers, people/objects on the ground, yourself, and/or your aircraft, then ‘lay on MacDuff and damned be him…’ Otherwise, the article is very much worth reading and a valuable lesson learned.

    Also, the 70s were a different time and context… so there’s that.

    Well told, sir, and fly safely!

  • I’ve known Mike for the better part of thirty years. Ever since he arrived in Johannesburg South Africa on what seemed like a spur-of-the-moment adventure. Not knowing much about the place or anybody, he made his way to the local EAA gathering and we have been firm friends since.
    His exploits flying a C 310 around Swaziland and Mozambique ar not far removed from the Mexico trip. Mostly with amusing consequences.
    He may well not be airline driver material but delightfully colourfull bush pilots like Mike certainly make the world a more interesting fun place to be.
    Few of us, certainly not me, are in a position to point fingers.

    John Reeder.

    • Thanks for the kind words John. You’re absolutely right about my inability (plus complete lack of desitre to do so) to fit into a CRM environment.

    • Your comment “mostly with amusing results” bothers me in that it may leave an impression that leaving aircraft stranded on mountaintops, or anything even similar, has somehow been the “norm” in my flying life. As you well know, aside from this Mexico trip I’ve never had any accidents in my flying adventures nor caused damage to any aircraft. I’ve had nothing but great good fortune, including meeting you and Janet so many years ago at Chapter 322.

  • I lived and flew in California for 30 years. Early on — circa 1972 — working on my commercial in NoCal, I flew to San Diego. I rented a car but was warned NOT to drive it into Mexico. We walked in, grabbed a taxi which promptly took us to the scene of the robbery and that was that. Bruised but alive, I haven’t been back and won’t EVER go to that Country. It’d be safer on the south side of Chicago. Your story of escaping the Country before reporting the accident and then the thieves stripping the hulk … solidifies it for me. The seats are probably kitchen chairs someplace nearby?

    And writing and article confessing to flying an unairworthy airplane there … NUTTY!

    • Your attitude about Mexico is unwarranted. If you speak Spanish and get to know the culture I guarantee you’ll feel more comfortable there than on the South Side of Chicago.

      • Then why did you wait until you got back to California to report the crash?
        I speak English … don’t care to learn Spanish and don’t appreciate those who come into OUR Country wanting to take advantage of our social systems but not learning our language. I “get” that not all Mexicans are bad … but I also “get” that the Country — taken in the aggregate — is basically a lawless mess.

        • Mexico is like any other country on the planet. Just like the United States, there are places and people in Mexico you should not be around unless you are prepared to provide for your own protection. As regards the corruption of government officials, I would again suggest Mexico is not that much different than the US in the scope of the problem, just in the visibility. Mexicans are a lot more open and honest about it than Americans.

  • I would like to compliment Mike for being courageous enough to publish this story.
    In my world of flying there are two kinds of incidents: one that only others speak about – they are called “accidents”, the other ones are “experiences” meaning those adventures you are able to talk about yourself. You live and learn, hopefully, because I would not recommend trying to repaet this gig.

  • Hey Mike, great story and I believe every word of it. It is, however, really a boat story. I’m reminded that the hydraulic pump in the landing gear system is one used more frequently on boats. And, you are right about the Piper auto land system being the Russian Roulette of aviation. I have over 2500 hours in a Piper Turbo lance with the same surprises. Although the first thing I did after purchasing my Lance in 1995 was STC disabling the auto land system, I still had nose gear failures resulting in 2 engine rebuilds. Go figure, I still sold the plane for more than I bought it for and had some of the most memorable family vacations traveling all over North America and Canada. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your yarn.

    • Thanks for your comments. I didn’t know Piper put that device of the devil on the Lance. I occasionally rented a turbo Lance (or maybe it was a Saratoga) for coast to coast trips back in the & 80’s and don’t recall that it had that “option”. I would remember if it had and, in fact, would not have rented the plane if that system had been installed. That airframe was a great load carrier and was loved by passengers, as with the club-seated Senecas. Very spacious and comfortable aircraft and, with the turbo, quiet. Did your nosegear failures have anything to do with your disabled AutoLand system? Especially if luggage is loaded up front, that nose gear is carrying a lot of weight so I can easily understand it being vulnerable, AutoLand system or not.

  • Thanks for the funny story…nicely written. Most of us have done stupid things in airplanes at various times, but not many have done as many stupid things at *one* time as you did on this trip. And…if the airplanes at Rent-A-Plane were as bad as you say, why didn’t you rent somewhere else? Nice story, anyway…thanks.

    • We’re going back 40+ years (hard to believe), but I did rent from other FBO’s at VNY. It just came down to what was available at the time that someone wanted to go somewhere. That Arrow IV was the only thing available that was halfway suitable for that trip at that time. Many trips were short notice affairs . . . as is still the case with charter flying.

  • You Blame Clem often, as pilot in command it’s your call to fly the plane. While I’m not familiar with the Automatic Gear retraction, I would think there is an override. As my arrow has an override to retract the gears at air speeds below 100 MPH, which is handy in density altitude situations, to reduce drag. At the end of the day you an safe and had experience to share. Happy and Safe Flying to you.

    • I agree I was harsh with my description of Clem. I made him into a cartoonish character instead of sympathizing with the overwhelmed mechanic that he was. His name wasn’t Clem . . . don’t remember what it was but I clearly showed no sympathy in this old piece. I even went out of my way to bring Pooh Bear’s reaction into the description – something that in retrospect may or may not have happened. I used him as a source of humor in recounting this story and it wasn’t kind of me to do so. I may appear to be blaming “Clem” (although that was not my intention) but I know quite well it’s the pilot that’s responsible for having an airworthy craft. Thanks for your response.

  • Re; “with amusing results” I know that you never damaged aeroplanes Mike . I had in mind an incident of returning to Tete under the Tete bridge with the chief of a gorilla army in the back who had pissed you off. Or the fire crackers in the street of a war torn Mozambique town.

    • Yes, tossing firecrackers off the balcony, thus causing stress to people who were already way over-stressed, was an awful thing to do. Contributing to that was the fondness I’d developed for “gin & tonics” at the end of a hard day’s flying. My last attempt at drinking was a half-finished beer I’d bought just to be sociable when we met at S&F, 2006. I did and said many stupid things as a drinker . . . don’t know how you & others put up with me.

      Re the “gorilla” in the plane the day of the Tete bridge flyunder, he was actually Chief of Intelligence for Frelimo, the country’s fledgling government that was a proxy ally of the USSR. Our mission that day was to use, courtesy of my UN aircraft, to overfly and check on a boat supposedly delivering supplies from the World Vision food program to the starved villigers in the little bush community we had just left. Crowds of starved kids, many of them missing eyes from tsetse fly bites they’d received as babies, deformed limbs, extreme malnutrition, etc. I’d seen too much of this – starved children and women being delivered food that was actually being diverted to middlemen who sold the supplies and split the profits with people such as I had on board that day. Corruption in the abstract is one thing. Witnessing its results when I would daily see the consequences in the form of somehow still happy, starved, sick children who would always flock around the plane, was another. That day I had had just a bit too much of it and took the clowns on board for the ride of their life. I’m actually lucky I didn’t get shot when we landed . . . but I’ve always had good luck. That incident forced the company to give me a 90 day leave back in Jo’Berg (which of course was welcome, as well as overdue).

      I suppose those in the plane that day may still recount their trip that day when telling their grandchildren stories. It was memorable.

      Thanks for clarifying the ambiguity my friend. I suppose I’m a little gun shy from having received so many critical comments re this Mexican adventure. I didn’t want readers to assume I made a habit of having accidents.

  • Mike, it’s a well wrought story. Myself, I’m a baby pilot who got his ticket 5yrs ago age 53 and have only 600hrs, most expended training for and getting my IFR.

    SO I’m probably in no place to criticize you. I won’t call you a dumb ass. But I do find two faults with your pilotage that disqualify you any anybody I would aspire to be:

    Firstly, you flew without an airspeed indicator. Illegal. Wrong. Not allowed. The sign of a cocky attitude gone dangerous.

    Secondly, and most damning, there was no hint of “MEA CULPA” in either the original story or the many comments and replies. We can always improve, but not if we cannot find fault with ourselves. You seem unable to do this. Your failure to find fault with yourself means you will never be better making crucial decisions—it seems those hours in AK have convinced you there is no reason to, you’ve already arrived.

    I crave to be a better pilot and know I need more experience to become one. But I pray that once experienced, I never become so complacient that I ignore rules and imperil the lives of innocent passengers. Your story taught me there is a real risk in becoming anything like you, blinded by self assurance. Who wants to be or fly with a blind pilot? It was an instructive yarn, and for this I am grateful.

    • If you’re certain you need an airspeed indicator to fly the plane, I urge you to abandon any further attempt to become a pilot. Such a dependency can eventually kill you, or at least wreck your plane with a stall when turning final.

      As for this mea culpa nonsense, I clearly summed that up at the end by stating my accident was the result of allowing my margin to become too small. As pilots we all should try – even in marginal situations as mine was – to give ourselves as much of a margin as possible – altitude, speed, redundant systems, etc. All I needed to do to retain some available margin was to fill in that gulley halfway down the strip. Harry, the passenger, had even suggested I do that before we took off but I, being in a hurry, didn’t think it was necessary. Turned out Harry was right. The gear retracting prematurely completely caught me off guard. That Piper Autoland system had/has a habit of doing unexpected things. Filling in the gully would have not given Piper’s design disaster an opportunity to do us in. It was very bad judgment on my part to not listen to my passenger . . . and he wasn’t even a pilot.

      If there’s any practical wisdom to be gleaned from this experience I’ve written about, it is to advise anyone who may still have that Autoland system . . . to disable it . . . as Dr. Hacker did with his Lance as soon as he bought it (see above).

  • I loved the story and I agree, some of the best experiences come from the unexpected. I disagree with your constant berating of the Piper design. The engineers would have been tasked to find a way to prevent gear up landings. I seriously doubt that bouncing down a gully washed road was in the design criteria for the system or the basic gear design. You were a test pilot on that run. It is wrong to attempt to shift the blame.

    • I’d thought for the longest time that the airspeed indicator was involved with the erratic behavior of the autoland gear design in that Arrow – the reason it would suddenly extend when in cruise configuration and the reason it retracted prematurely when the squat switch was released when we crossed the little gully on that last attempted take-off. These days I’m not at all sure the AI played a role in the misbehavior of that system. All I’m really certain of is that the autoland design has a reputation for erratic behavior. I like Dr. Hacker’s description (above) of that system wherein he refers to it as the “Russian Roulette of aviation.” I think you’ll find most A&P’s and pilots familiar with that system have quite strong opinions about it.

      In the years since my incident in Mexico I’ve paid particular attention to accident reports involving what I certainly think to be a severe engineering mistake. I know what the engineers were trying to do and I know that Piper marketed it as a “safety feature”. In actual fact, far from being a safety feature it has been the cause of fatal accidents, most recently that of a family back East who lost their engine and were close enough to a runway to have made it had not the automated gear system dropped all that drag into their attempted glide. I know there’s an over-ride (if it works – like everything else with that system you never know) but fiddling with a gear override when you’ve just lost your engine and there’s nothing but thick trees below and a family on board . . . is really asking too much, especially if it was a rented plane and the pilot not completely briefed on the quirky landing gear system. Gear up landings don’t kill people. They often actually do very little damage if done correctly (and you don’t have three-bladed props). Aside from these “what if” factors, that autoland gear feature was/is plagued with glitches from its inception and is more than likely the reason it was soon discontinued by Piper. The FAA should have issued an AD to disable it (and perhaps has, for all I know) but lacking that, if anyone is still using that set-up they would be wise to do what Dr. Hacker did as soon as he bought his Turbo Lance. Given enough opportunity, Piper’s marketing gimmick will eventually bite.

  • I wasnt able to read this entire article. You have to be kidding that you considered attempting a flight in any one of these planes, considering you knew your history. I dont know what happened, or how it ended because I didnt get to the end. I didnt need to read any further than you picked a plane to you knew flew like complete shit to know that your decision making skills as a pilot are disturbingly in need of an FAA ride along.

    • > “I wasnt able to read this entire article.”

      > ” . . . I dont know what happened”

      > ” . . . “I didnt get to the end.”

      I’m sorry about having to use polysyllable words sometimes. I know it makes it hard for the barely literate. Perhaps English is not your native language?

  • Great article Mike. A good reminder to make sure we’re operating with healthy safety margins. I’m perplexed by the negative comments on this blog. Piloting is a job of managing risk, and occasionally we all miscalculate. Thanks for sharing.

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