Don’t take things for granted

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a traffic watch pilot in Phoenix, Arizona. Radio station KTAR provided the on-air reporter and the FBO at Deer Valley provided the Grumman AA-1C aircraft and pilots. The AA-1C certainly wasn’t the ideal aircraft for the task. It didn’t perform well in high density altitude operations. On a hot day with full fuel it would barely make it to 5500 feet. It was low wing and noisy, but it was inexpensive to operate. And for me, it was fun to fly.

To help reduce the noise during traffic watch flights, we would throttle back as the reporter started the on-air segment. Because of throttling back, we operated in an altitude block from 5500 to 4500 feet. The Phoenix TRACON controllers were normally very accommodating of the traffic watch operations. I enjoyed the flying and the variation kept if from becoming boring.

Grumman AA-5
Not the ideal airplane for high density altitude operations.

As an additional bonus, we also received special “press” privileges to be able able to operate in the temporary restricted airspace over the Salt and Verde rivers during the 1979 and 1980 back-to-back 100-year floods. I was lucky that my “real job” employer, Sperry Flight Systems, allowed me to have flexible working hours so I could fly traffic watch.

Usually the traffic watch reporter would meet the pilot for the flight at Deer Valley airport, north of the city. We would be up for a little over two hours. There was a normal pattern to check on the major freeways and sometimes deviations to check on an accident or fire. The traffic reporting happened for both the morning and afternoon rush hours. Infrequently, they would be asked to be picked up at a different airport in the Phoenix area. This situation was one of those. It was also a bit unusual because the FBO supplied an AA-5 for this flight. In comparison to the AA-1C, the AA-5 was a real floater. Even when stabilized slightly below the recommended approach speed, once it was in ground effect it didn’t want to settle in.

Laurie Fagen was the reporter for this flight, the normal KTAR reporter for both the morning and afternoon flights. It was late November and a morning flight. She asked to be picked up at Stellar Airpark, south of Sky Harbor. I had flown in and out of there a few times and I said no problem. Due to the time of the year, this would start off as a pre-dawn flight. I remembered that at that time there was a high voltage electrical transmission line that passed to the south of runway 35, and a ditch and road at the other end. As I remember it, the runway at that time was about 3900 feet long. There were no PAPI lights on either end in 1979.

I launched from Deer Valley and passed over Sky Harbor without any problems. Locating Stellar Airpark in the darkness was a little bit of an issue but I was able to pick out the beacon and runway lights. As I circled Stellar, the runway looked shorter than I had remembered. The wind favored runway 35 and, remembering the transmission line towers, I kept my approach high. I started my flare as I came over the first set of runway lights. As was the nature of the AA-5, it wanted to float.

Stellar Airpark
Not a long runway, but surely plenty enough for landing, right?

This wasn’t an issue until I realized that I was very quickly running out of runway. Rejecting the idea of a go-around, I planted it on the ground and got on the brakes. I was afraid the adjoining residences would be awakened by the squeal of the tires on the pavement. But that was of little consequence vs. going into ditch and road.

I got stopped on the very edge of the runway and taxied back to pick up Laurie. As I was taxiing back, I was shocked to realize that only the north end of runway 35 had lit runway lights. The lighting started mid-field!

I assume Stellar airport decided on this lighting arrangement to keep pilots from getting low and tangled up in the high voltage power lines. Not thinking that I had a short runway, I doubled their “safety factor” by coming in high. My safety factor almost became the major factor in an accident.

The remainder of the flight was uneventful. After I got back to the office, I checked the Jeppesen airport diagram. Right there in black and white: “only 2000 feet lighted at night” (which has since been changed due to the removal of the high voltage transmission line). If I had taken the time to review the airport diagram ahead of time instead of afterward, I could have saved myself some anxious moments and the possibility of a busted airframe.

Lesson learned: don’t assume you know the airport because you have been there before. Review all pertinent material ahead of time. Second lesson: when things don’t look right, GO AROUND.

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.

18 Comments

  • Wow….Sellers air park is now almost in the middle of town. I remember going there as a kid with my dad and participating in spot landing contests as part of Phoenix Fliers in the mid 1980’s. Man times have sure changed that area of phoenix.

    • Thanks Larry. We lived in N. Phoenix and then N. Scottsdale from 1976 to 2001. It was amazing the growth in that period of time. Bell Road and 7th Street had a stop sign! Phoenix was aganist more freeways for years before the log jam was broken in the late 1990’s. The photo of Stellar Airpark was from the mid1970’s. It was provided by John Morris.

      • Bob … I had family that had moved to 16th St & Bell Rd in 1972 so I made many driving trips from SoCal to PHX during that time. This was before I-10 was finished; as I remember it, you had to exit onto Hwy 60 around Quartzite and come in from Wickenburg. I’d catch Bell Rd in Sun City and come east. In those days, Bell Rd was a 2 lane road w/ many stop signs as you said. It even dipped down into the washes. I remember one hotshot who went shooting into one in a big 4×4 only to find out the water was deeper than he thought. What a difference to today’s Bell Rd. Everything north of there was mostly raw desert.

        I went to Deer Valley to rent an airplane in 1973. When they saw a fresh commercial done at an Air Force Base, they just handed me the keys to a brand new C172M. Try that today.

  • Some decades ago when ADCUS was all you needed on a cross border flight plan, I flew an AA-5B from Toronto Island to Philadelphia. After clearing customs at the big field with big runways, I hopped over to Wings field.

    The tanks were much lower than I had ever before flown in the Tiger and I was solo – the Tiger floated and I took it around. On the second approach, it was still floating, but I was below the hump ⅔ or so down the runway and had enough energy to flare uphill.

    The Tiger can benefit from adjusting the approach speed for weight.

    It remains my favorite nosedragger.

  • Yo, I read your article. You wrote you worked for Sperry Flight System. Around that time that you were flying in Phoenix, I was working also for Sperry. I think, I remember you from Cessna ARC before the company was sold to Sperry. Perhaps, I am wrong. That’s all for now.

    • I wasn’t with Cessna ARC, but I worked closely with some of the ARC guys after Sperry acquired and moved the operation from Booton to Phoenix.

    • Not nearly as good as your Nov. 29, 2017 article. An alternate title could have been [Almost] Gone With the Wind. WOW!

  • Great story, Bob. When the Grumman airplanes were introduced, they made much of their high cruise speeds, at least for the four-seaters. I saw them land and run to the far end of the 2600’ runway at the home drome and concluded that these were hot airplanes for exceptional pilots. My first flight in a Tiger (AA-5B) was solo (long story) and I was pretty nervous about handling this very demanding airplane. On the way to the destination airport, I did a few stalls and some slow flight to get an idea what my approach speed should be. I quickly learned that the cruise speeds advertised were a little optimistic and more importantly, the Tiger was a big pussycat. It slowed down nicely, handled beautifully at low speeds and stalls were docile. After that, I flew all the Grumman singles except the Traveler (AA-
    5) even ferrying a new AA-1C Lynx from the factory in Savannah to it’s new home in Oxnard CA. (KOXN). The four seaters were all great airplanes, but I think the book approach speeds are too conservative. About 10 kts below book is perfectly safe and reduces that float considerably.
    Haven’t flown one in years, but the Tiger is still one of my favorite tricycle airplanes, too!

  • It’s rare that a story hits so close to home. Literally. I started at Sperry Flight Systems in 1985 and have been flying out of Deer Valley ever since. My trip to work at Honeywell takes me through the intersection at 7th Street & Bell everyday. Not long after getting my license in 1978, my dad and I were renting a Grumman Cheetah for a while. I loved hanging my arm out of the cockpit as we taxied around with the canopy open (I imagined it was a P-51).

    Thanks for a great article, Bob!

  • Bob, that’s a good story and lesson for all. It reminds me of an old adage one of my Boeing instructors used to say to me on occasion: “Those mundane preflight tasks will save your hurry up a–.”

  • I have chosen to go around twice in the past year. Rarely done or practiced in 36 years of aviating, I was very greatfull for the Tailwind’s performance and that it all went well.

  • I remember taking lessons out of KSDL (Scottsdale Muni) in 1990. One of the Cessna 152s I rented from Aero Mech had very faint letters “KTAR” on the cowling … as if it was painted on at one point but had been removed. I had always assumed that airplane had previously served as a traffic watch airplane!

    I still listen to KTAR. It sounds like Detour Dan doesn’t fly anymore, he does all the traffic reporting from the studio nowadays. Bummer there are no more live aircraft up in the air for reports! I suppose modern technology (traffic detection using cameras and phone apps) has eliminated that job.

    Great lesson for us all, thank you for the article.

  • Great story! I flew traffic watch in Phoenix in the late 90’s out Scottsdale in a 172. We started flying in the class B at 5500 feet but we were soon kicked out and had to fly around the perimeter at 2500 feet which was a lot more fun for us.

    I was actually interviewed live in the air by one of the tv chopper pilots during their morning show, I had a VHS tape of the interview but unfortunately misplaced it during on of my several moves after hiring on at a regional airline. Good times and great memories.

  • Hi Bob!

    Great article…thanks for sharing. I worked for you at Sperry from 1980-82. We also have some other things in common…I became interested in learning how to fly in Syracuse in 1974…I then worked in radio-TV engineering and started riding with the pilot who did the traffic reports for Syracuse (a Cherokee 140, plus he was the pilot and reporter). Moved to NC after Sperry in 1982. Wow. It would be nice to send you a private message… do you have a Facebook account or Instagram or email?

    Mike Tucker

  • Bob, I’ll bet those Grummans were provided by Professional Aviation at Deer Valley which was operated by Lem Cooke. I used to rent the Traveler and AA1 series from Lem. Later on, I owned an AA1A for 22 years. The difference between the AA1 and AA5 series is that the AA1 sinks like a brick if book approach speed is not maintained while the AA5 feels like a low wing Cessna 172 and is just as forgiving. Both great airplanes in my book and so reasonable to maintain. Good times during good years.

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