I immediately knew that my current situation was extremely serious. I was currently flying at 4000 feet and was trapped between two layers of cloud in a wide band of clear air. This “meat in the sandwich” scenario at the end of the day, in a low speed, basically instrumented aircraft with a relatively low-time pilot was about as bad as it could get.
I was totally by myself. I aligned the plane with the 04 runway, with no one in sight, since it was the middle of the week. I took off and decided to test the new plane with some basic maneuvers and a lazy flight. It’s important to say that I was totally unfamiliar with the area, as I was used on flying my Cubs from another airfield some miles away. But the fates decided it was a good time to put me to the test.
I believe this is where things go bad for well-trained pilots. It’s not that we can’t improvise and come up with new plans, but when we’re a little lost and our original plan isn’t working out, we need a few moments to compose a new one. I was in the pattern in IMC, trying to descend well below pattern altitude to get below the scattered clouds while trying to do what I told the tower I would be doing – and also not get in trouble with ATC.
It was a humid early September evening after a hot day. In Minnesota, that means when it cools off in the evening, the clouds come up, and the thunderstorms start. I hadn’t considered what would be happening later in the evening.
So I poured the power on and hauled back on the yoke. With the lighter load, that yoke came right back and the nose of the plane pointed right up. For a split second I thought “that’s strange” and before I knew it, I was pointing straight down at the ground in a left spin.
This story happened many years ago to my father-in-law and me, and the statute of limitations has hopefully run out on any broken or bruised FARs we might have encountered during the course of events. Nevertheless, there is a debt to be paid: that is the debt to one’s own conscience when, years later, you look back on things and realize your own stupidity.
At an altitude of about 50 feet, the airplane stalled and Gus lost control. Given our present situation, a team of engineers, analyzing every available factor, would be hard pressed to come up with a set of circumstances that would make this event survivable. I closed my eyes just before the lights went out.
I always said of pilots who lived through fuel starvation that “God protects drunks and fools… and they probably weren’t drinking.” I never understood how someone could be so thoughtless. And then this…
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.