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.”
I remember a flight, well, actually I remember many, but this one ranks up there, where if anything came up short, I probably wouldn’t be alive, let alone a pilot writing about this. Let me just put this out there now: I was young, stupid, and believed in the invincibility of me and my flight instructor, so let’s not go bashing the messenger here.
I had decided early on during the morning of January 1, New Year’s Day, to take a short flight and look over the Russian River Rendezvous lodge property at Lower Russian Lake down on the Kenai Peninsula. Just another still and tranquil New Year’s Day in the Alaska outback…
Beaumont, Kansas, is known as home of the Beaumont Hotel and not much else. Those of us who have it listed in our logbooks remember the unique experience of landing in a grass field at the east edge of town, taxiing onto the road, stopping at the stop sign, and parking under the trees south of the old hotel.
It was winter time in Brazil, São Paulo State. I was fresh from my private pilot course. I was young (21) and bold. The new engine installation was complete and I arrived at the city airport (SJWQ), with a field elevation 1339 feet, at 6:00 am.
The Angel on my right shoulder whispers, “This is not the time for you to be doing this, look at those clouds!” but the Devil on my left shoulder says, “Aw c’mon! You’re only going for a short flight, you’ve got to be able to fly in this, what’s stopping you?”