Towbar

Something just isn’t quite right. At the time I had that thought I was not sure why I would be sensing that. I had arrived a few moments earlier. As I drove up I noted that my T-hangar neighbor was finishing a preflight of his own. He looked up from whatever he was doing as I was parking and we exchanged waves. His unit was behind mine, but our dividers were an open wire fence material and we had become airport friends over the past couple of years. Bill is a bit older than me, a retired schoolteacher and high school football coach, an experienced pilot, and a great conversationalist.

It was a typical crisp, sunny, fall Saturday morning. The sky was blue, the clouds were high in the sky, and I had arrived at my local non-towered airport in central Oklahoma. My mission that morning was to simply take advantage of the beautiful day and fly as long as I wanted to spend money on a load of avgas. And if the day was going well, perhaps two loads of avgas!

I went about getting the doors open for my hangar and started my own preflight routine. A few minutes later I heard his large Continental fire up and settle into the deep rumble of a warmup. A typical Saturday morning. By this time, I had pulled my airplane from the hangar as Bill advanced the throttle and began moving from the hangar area to the taxiway. I glanced over and I had this impression that something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t see or hear anything to reinforce that impression and I turned back to my own task at hand to continue the preflight of my plane.

As Bill’s plane pulled onto the main taxiway and started to move to the opposite end of the runway for departure, I glanced over and again had a sense that something just wasn’t quite right. I walked a couple of steps away from my plane and closer to the taxiway. Bill’s white and blue low-wing plane was now 100-150 feet away. I started listening and looking more closely. I could hear something—it wasn’t his engine; it was something else.

Towbar

So easy to forget if you are distracted or in a hurry.

I started scrutinizing his airplane from the tail forward. Everything looked okay—but I could hear a faint, intermittent clanking sound. I didn’t see anything that looked suspicious with the fuselage, wings, or front cowling. As I watched the plane pulling away I was now viewing it from the rear-quarter line of sight. Again, I heard the clanking sound and looked through the tall grass closely at his retractable landing gear: I saw what was making the clanking sound.

And I knew that not only was something not quite right, I needed to stop Bill from taking off.

I had not yet powered up my electronics or even hooked up my headset to make a radio call. Instead, I jumped into my Jeep and quickly moved over to the taxiway. Bill had made it to the end of the runway, and I could see he had stopped for a moment on the taxiway turn-in for his runup checks but was now moving to turn onto the runway for departure. As I sped toward him on the taxiway I was flashing my headlights, hoping it would get his attention.

It did—and as I got within easy visual range I did a cutting motion across my throat a few times, hoping he would realize he needed to cut his engine. He did. I pulled over onto the runway adjacent to his plane and got out of my Jeep. Bill was doing the same with a perplexed expression.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. Bill was looking at his front gear and then looked up at me. He had a nice, heavy-duty towbar for moving his plane. It was still connected to his nosewheel. He disconnected it and stood there for a moment, then carried it over to his plane. I got back into my Jeep and drove to my hangar, parked, and resumed my preflight. Bill taxied to his hangar space, shut down, put his tow bar away, then came over and said thanks. I shrugged—it could happen to anyone. We shook hands, and I got into my plane, started up, and continued with my morning mission.

It wasn’t as fun as I planned it to be—thoughts of what might have been with that tow bar at takeoff were in the back of my mind. As I was flying, still on the local area frequency, I heard Bill give his takeoff info and he departed for his planned trip. I flew a couple of hours then came back to the barn and called it a day.

I was reminded of what my instructor had told me over and over—there is a reason why we have a checklist. I’d had a couple of “oopsies” myself. Nothing serious, so I could relate to Bill having one as well, but I remembered my instructor, Joey from First Landings Aviation in Florida, telling me this is why we use them. I was glad I had noticed something wasn’t right. I know Bill was, too.

Mike Hackney
Latest posts by Mike Hackney (see all)
9 replies
  1. Mark Sletten
    Mark Sletten says:

    Thanks, Mike; I made this very same mistake once myself, but I was not at my home drome. Thankfully one of the line guys saw my towbar attached after I started engines and got my attention before I started taxiing. I try to find ways to limit my exposure to those kind of mistakes. For example, the towbar is never attached to the aircraft unless it is also attached to my hand.

    Reply
    • JOhn T
      JOhn T says:

      I agree. In the hangar it’s lying beside the nose wheel, in a tiedown it’s in the aircraft. Plus, before ever starting the engine I walk around the aircraft – one last time! – to confirm cowl doors are closed, control locks are off, chocks & tiedowns are removed, fuel caps are on and secure, and the two bar is off the nose.

      Reply
    • Adrian Reedy
      Adrian Reedy says:

      Well, I actually made it off the ground in a 172 with the standard lightweight towbar attached. Flew from Hattiesburg to Laurel Miss. and back building night hours. I was amazed it never came up and hit the prop!

      Reply
  2. Roy Adams, Jr.
    Roy Adams, Jr. says:

    Mike, when I attended jump masters school at FT Bragg there was this statement on my certificate: the sky, even more than the sea, is terribly unforgiving of the slightest mistake.

    Reply
  3. Jim Macklin
    Jim Macklin says:

    Back in the 1970-80 period an incident happened at KICT.
    A pilot landed a PA28R and raised to the ramp. The plan was tied down on the line as the Sun set. To save time in the morning the tug driver left the bright red crowbar attached.
    After Sunrise the pilot departed with crowbar still on the nosewheel.
    Of course this jamed the nosewheel.
    The pilot’s CFI was the now FAA INSPECTOR based at Wichita. Oops
    The FBO bought the pilot a new prop and engine ” as customer relations “. Replacing the damaged high time engine.

    Reply
  4. Mike
    Mike says:

    Had a very similar event. I worked on the airport. On a Sunday morning a friend with a Mooney taxied by. I phoned the control tower who made him aware that he was pushing his towbar. He came back and hangared the aircraft (wise choice). He happened to be the instructor who checked me out in my Mooney a few years previous.

    Reply
  5. Bob B
    Bob B says:

    Well my story didn’t end as well. A neighbor in the hangar adjacent to mine in his
    C-177 with a “brand new” engine pulled it out of the hangar got distracted, etc.
    However, our taxi way is uneven and his tow bar went right up into the prop. What a noise it made.
    He thought the engine was coming apart, shut it down and started crying.
    I agree with John T above, always take the time for a quick walk around.

    Reply
  6. Allen
    Allen says:

    I always make it a point to leave the baggage door open on the plane after I pull the fuel sample bottle and stick and only close it after I take the towbar off and stow it after pulling it out of the hangar. I may miss the bar on my final walk around but it’s a pain to climb on the wing of an Archer with the door open!

    Reply

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