Slowly but surely, my outs — the airports that I intended to be able to land at if need be, began to close up. First was Baton Rouge, as the overcast quickly engulfed the airport to IFR. I also noticed that the TAF had been amended to include IFR conditions for most of the remaining day. Next was New Orleans. Now the gravity of the situation began to take hold in my mind. What if everything closes up?
I then made a really bad decision. I climbed quickly to 8500, dodging scud patches here and there with minor course changes. Visibility worsened further over the next five minutes or so, dropping to 1-3 miles, with 50% ground contact, but hazy blue sky above. At this point in the flight, everything being reported seemed way too optimistic.
I felt I needed to expedite, because there was another Southwest 737 eyeballing me from across the runway, also holding short, and waiting for the little puddle jumper to get out of his way, so they could depart. I rolled out on the runway, and went to full throttle… and with a lot of right aileron and rudder. We lifted off and WHAM, we were 30 degrees to the runway. Yeah, I’d say there was a bit of wind shift!
It was a dark and clear winter night, somewhere between 1979 and 1980. I walked up to the Piper Archer with my three other buddies, in full fighter pilot swag, full of myself and the false confidence only a 20-year old can have. I had earned my Private in just 54 hours and now, with a whole 61 hours logged, I was flying my buddies to the Playboy Club Resort at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
A beautiful October afternoon in 1976 at El Mirage Field, California, saw my daughter and me taking off in our newly-bought old airplane en route to Palo Alto Airport (PAO). We were beyond excited and distracted, so I didn’t recognize clues that we were bound for more excitement than expected. Put another way, this was to become an unfunny, unsafe, head-up-and-locked comedy of errors.
I descended until I was, in fact, right on top of the waves. The visibility was better there, but, of course, at that altitude, I could no longer receive any VOR signals, and the airplane had no GPS equipment – no airplane did back then. All I had was a coffee-stained sectional chart, and it looked coldly aloof and insultingly bare of any useful information at the time.
I noticed a narrow, dark column of black smoke rising from the valley floor, directly in our flight path a few miles ahead. Being both young and ignorant, I thought to myself, “I’m instrument rated; we’ll pop out of the back of that thing in an instant and it will be fun.” So I aimed for the smoke column.
Forcing myself to stay calm, I faced the embarrassing possibility that a wheels-up landing might be the only way out. I was angry with myself for being such an idiot because failure to secure the freight was not only a clear breach of the regulations, but worse still, an example of poor airmanship. I vowed that never again would I be pressured into potentially dangerous situations by fears of job security.
For the first time in my flying life, I could feel the blood drain from my face and be nearly consumed by pure fear – because as I pulled the throttle back the nosed pitched up. As I tried to slow down, even with the stick nearly pushed all the way forward against the stop, the nose would start pitch up. And when it did, you could feel the onset of the stall start. There was no mistaking it and I knew that a stall would be unrecoverable.
I think the irony of the flight is that it was fear that drove me into that situation, when it should have been fear, or perhaps respect, that kept me out of it. Fear of failure and nerves pushed me to take off when respect for the weather and the lives that have been lost in that exact scenario should have kept me on the ground.
I had to make a decision within seconds, so I turned base. To my right I still saw him continuing before I focused on the airstrip. After a well-sectored pattern and a smooth touchdown, I suddenly heard the voice of my instructor over the radio: “35, retract your speed brakes!”
Recently my memories of earlier days were rekindled during a chat with a friend regarding wheels-up landings. It emphasised to me again, no matter how often you fly and how long you have been doing it, there is always something to learn, particularly in a demanding aircraft, as was the Gnat in an engine-out forced landing.
I’m so good at IFR, I have people from all over the country come to train with me. They all say how good I am – and I started to believe them! Have you ever noticed, when you start to “get good” at flying, reality likes to step in to smack you in the head?
As has been said, “Flying is very unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect.” That’s the rub, up there: even the simplest of problems, like a tiny broken spring, can be the precursor to a seriously bad ending to a good day’s flying.
Sliding quietly past the last of the Quonset buildings, and with 40-degrees of Cessna’s barn door Fowler flaps hanging out, I was pretty well committed at that point. I was ready for the touchdown, probably three or four feet above the grass runway, when the whole world exploded directly in front of the heavy Cessna.
My plane entered a pitch dark cloud. Instinctively I took three rapid steps: reduced velocity below VA; turned on the instrument and panel lights; and put the oxygen valve on full demand. Soon hell’s doors were open.
This story starts at the picturesque port of Madang on the northern coast of New Guinea. I was flying an RAAF Hawker Siddeley HS748 on a two week tour around New Britain and New Ireland, culminating with the training of a new squadron pilot in the finer points of Highland operations in central Papua.
The crosswind blew me a little past the runway line as I came around on final and I banked it left and added a bit of power to get lined up. Things suddenly got quiet and I had an epiphany! For the first time I really understood why my instructors had said never bank over 30 degrees in the pattern.
Back in 1979 I was working as a flight test engineer for Cessna Aircraft at the peak of general aviation’s heyday. One of the perks of my employment at Cessna was delivering aircraft to the dealers on weekends. Most times I would ferry the aircraft out in the morning and take the airlines home in the afternoon.
Sometimes in aviation we learn valuable lessons that reach far beyond the technical aspects of flying – like this story. I was young and full of youthful hubris at the time, and I thought I knew everything. I especially thought I knew more than all the “old-timers.”