Flirting with real (and financial) disaster

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.

Tow bar
I can (and does) happen.

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: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

6 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing your story, one which no doubt will save at least one other pilot from making the same mistake in the future.

    Because I’d heard similar stories in the past, long ago I adopted the practice of NEVER leaving a tow bar attached to an airplane … ever. The only time it’s attached is when it is being actually used to move the airplane. Once the airplane comes to a rest, the tow bar is removed and laid on the ground next to the nose wheel.

    I imagine, in your case, part of the reason it happened is because an inexperienced non-pilot was the last to use the tow bar and didn’t have the mindset to ensure it was removed – of course, the PIC is ultimately responsible just the same.

    Great story! Thank you for having the courage to share it.

    • Good rule, Steve. It’s like a fuel cap – either on and tight or in your hand. Never just laying on the wing/ground.

      • I had the same training with respect to the fuel cap and tow bar. Only difference being I was taught to lay the tow bar crosswise in front of the nose wheel so you can’t taxi away if you forget to stow it.

  • That exact thing happened to me many years ago on my C150. I was in the USAF at Edwards AFB and kept the airplane in one of the old original “X” plane hangars at what was the original part of the Base. I was taking a young guy for a night flight and told him to pull the airplane out after I preflighted it so I could get the approvals from Base Ops. It was pitch black outside in the Mohave desert and I didn’t think to ensure he removed the thing. Once airborne, I asked him what he did with the towbar. His answer … “What towbar?” He said my eyes got real big, were glowing in the dark while I was levitating looking behind the seats for it and yelling, “Oh S^%$! MY bad !! I decided that the nose wheel pant had held it up, it extended to take it further from the prop and so I’d just fly gently and return. I told my passenger that I was going to shut the engine down on final whereupon HE starts yelling, “I’m gonna die!” I calmed him, landed a bit fast and actually rolled right up to the hangar. And there was the towbar … sitting pretty on the pant. As the author said, had that pant not been there, the first seam on the ramp that it hit would have bounced it up into the prop. I was lucky.

    After that — and as Steve said — I never ever leave the towbar on my current airplane and I ALWAYS know where it is. I have a personal checklist item embedded in my noodle prior to engine start … “Where is the towbar?” No one but me touches it.

  • I know many pilots who’ve departed with a rudder gust lock left in place. Even when painted fire engine red, with 2 inch “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT” white letters. It happens. Best to follow your checklist, and if interupted, go back the last two items you remember, and start from there.

  • I was preflighting my aircraft for a day trip with my wife when she hollered, “they are starting up with the tow bar attached!” I looked over at the 172 and just as the prop started turning I ran well in front and signaled to shut down! The CFI in the right seat gave me a WTH sign and I pointed at the nose gear. He go out and took the tow bar off. I walked away, not wanting to hear the discussion. It happens.

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