It was a chilly winter morning at my home airport in La Grande, OR (LGD), when I prepared for a 192 nm trip to Portland (PDX) to pick up a candidate for the position of CEO of our local hospital. As a hospital board member, I had volunteered to save him the 5-hour drive over icy roads for his interview. The Tanis heater on N5434A, my 1979 T210N, had kept the engine sufficiently warm so that I knew it would start with no more than three blades of rotation when asked.
It happened that a fellow board member had asked if his 18-year-old son, who was fascinated by airplanes, could ride along and I was happy to have the company. So happy, in fact, that after preflighting in the wind-protected hangar, I climbed in to get our clearance from the local remote communications outlet and asked the strapping young man to pull the airplane out of the hangar and close the heavy doors behind us.
He complied, and we were soon ensconced in the rapidly warming cabin, awaiting the oil temperature to cross the 100-degree mark before taxiing to the active. A 15-minute void time gave us plenty of leeway to have a comfortably warm engine and cabin before launch.
We taxied out to Runway 29 (later reassigned 30 with variation realignment) and performed an uneventful runup. Departure was without problem, and soon we were ascending at 1000 FPM over the frozen landscape. It was then than I happened to notice that the amber gear-up light had not illuminated. I cycled the gear down and back up to see if it was a temporary glitch. No change. I then assumed that the light was simply burned out, and not being the green light I needed before landing, made a note to change it at the first opportunity. The aircraft, however, seemed to be performing reasonably normally, except for a slight decrease in the expected cruise speed, for which I had no explanation but was not particularly alarmed, given that all other parameters were well within limits.
The remainder of the trip to PDX was uneventful, with none of the frequent ice-dodging that I had come to know after moving to the Pacific Northwest three years prior. Having learned to fly in the Deep South at rarely more than 3000 feet MSL, the white stuff was a new experience when I picked up my flying in my adopted region.
Cleared for a straight-in to 28 Right at PDX, the landing and short taxi to Flightcraft was routine, and we were soon marshalled into a short-term parking spot. As the lineman walked up to see what needs we might have, his jaw dropped as he pointed to the nose gear. There, for the last 192 nm, was the towbar, handle now resting in trail on the pavement. A closer inspection of the gear doors showed a very small indentation on each door where they had firmly clamped it for the entire trip. The paint on either side of the handle was neatly filed away by its takeoff and landing encounters with the concrete.
A consultation with the Flightcraft mechanic after an embarrassed admission of my oversight brought an opinion that there did not appear to be any other damage to the wheel or gear. The return trip to La Grande was without a hitch, and the gear and lights indicated full up and full down positions at the appropriate times.
Looking back, I realized how closely I had flirted with both real and/or financial disaster. Even a small transverse seam in the departure taxi pavement with a gap or different level could have buckled the towbar into the prop or directly sheared the gear itself. A conversation with my current A&P brought several stories of forgotten towbars or power-driven devices that went unremoved—with very expensive consequences. It was truly my lucky day! In the “Lessons Learned” category, every checklist I have ever prepared since then had a first entry that read, “Towbar Removed.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.