As I was being vectored for an instrument approach into Thomaston, Georgia, the airplane suddenly lurched to the right. An engine had failed, as I’d suspected it might. I was rusty on my instrument flying skills, but I was flying only by reference to instruments. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
Where to go when perfect early September weather presents itself on a Sunday and there are no commitments to either the weekday boss who pays the bills or the boss at home who spends the paycheck? It used to be that one could fly to the grand metropolis known as The Windy City and land at an airport conveniently located right on the downtown lakeshore, but as we all know, Meigs Field is no longer the pilot’s gateway to Chicago.
Bellevue’s one small FBO sported a “Piper Flight Center” sign above the door, with a couple of relatively new Cherokees parked in front. I went inside and presented myself to the combination receptionist/ cashier/ scheduler/ Unicom radio operator, and told her I was interested in taking their $15 intro flight. She leaned past my shoulder to yell at someone behind me.
Despite all the times I’ve practised these things, both in the aircraft and the simulator, you know at the back of your mind that it’s not real, and that if things do not work out as planned, you can always open the throttle and go around. Only when it’s the real thing do you know whether you can actually handle it or not.
When we approached the button, we saw the visibility had dropped to ¼ mile in S+ and, as we rolled onto the runway heading, there appeared to be half an inch of wet snow on the surface. The F/O was doing the flying and just after V1 he shouted out, “Jim she won’t fly.”
When the Cessna went up ever so slowly, pausing when the cowling slipped into the snow cover, I still thought we’d be all right. Instead of settling back to earth, though, the tail paused for an eternity—and then went slowly over to put us upside down on this very remote bush strip. Our world was upside down and we were now really in for it…
I have given a lot of people rides in both my RV-6 and now in my RV-12, and I always enjoy it as least as much as they do. What I have failed to realize, though, is that what I consider to be nothing more than a small favor may very well be measured at a far higher worth to the recipient. Phil was one of those passengers.
I decided to descend to 3000 feet, by cutting power and setting the nose down slightly. Suddenly all hell broke loose, and the airplane felt like it was being pushed by a force from above. My airspeed was approaching 160 kts with power pulled back.
Weather was almost never an issue in California, but I sure learned about the effects of density altitude in ways I’d never experienced in Alaska. Off-airport landings and gravel takeoffs are common enough in Alaska, but I sure learned the value of understanding Air Traffic Control procedures and complex airspace flying through the Lower 48.
I taxied onto runway 9, gradually added full power and rotated at 65 knots. As I climbed out, I scanned the instruments and then the horizon, left to right. The engine sounded good, key gauges for a departure climb – airspeed, altimeter, turn coordinator and one of my favorites, oil pressure – all in the green. As my eyes reached the right side of the windshield, my eyes locked on, panic rising…
I sat in the complex glass cockpit and looked over an array of instruments which I had no idea how to interpret. This was the most advanced and expensive aircraft I had ever been in, but I was not the pilot. In fact, to reach this point, I had flown in an aircraft many consider the archetype of simplicity…
It was an unremarkable flight so far, but suddenly the large letters “TRAFFIC” plastered across my screen with corresponding alert. Three hundred feet below and slightly behind was an airplane, approaching fast. I banked left and right in my low wing craft, looking for the guy, who must be right below me, now 200 feet. On a collision course.
I am so lucky. Every flight, I am accompanied by nine extraordinary pilots, looking over my shoulder and whispering in my ear. They have made my flying safer, more enjoyable and less expensive. They’ll go with you, too. All you have to do is ask.
At approximately 200 ft. AGL there was a thud and the 140B shuddered as a glimpse of red passed by my left-side window. Then a red airplane (type still unknown at that point) passed in front of my windscreen, hit the nose of my aircraft, and disappeared under my starboard wing, all in about three seconds.
As I finished my private pilot training in 2006, my instructor told me that we start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck. Less than three months later, the ink barely dry on my certificate, I had occasion to test that maxim.
It feels good to be a mentor. I have never been one before – at least in aviation. If anyone out there reading this has any words of advice I could give to the young man I would sure like to hear them. Seeing his passion for flying kind of rekindles my own.
It was on a Friday the Thirteenth, in April of 1956, that I soloed out at Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage, Alaska. I had waited for several months for this date, as I had, for some misguided reason, always thought of Friday the Thirteenth as a lucky day for me. I’d had eight and one-half hours of dual instruction up to that point, and my instructor thought that I was ready.
To be honest, flying didn’t really save my life. It did, however, make me a better person, dad, husband and surgeon. Unlike many who grew up dreaming to fly, I didn’t start in aviation until I was 30. I never really thought that it was a possibility for me to become a pilot. This all changed with a free hamburger at a hangar at a small airport.
Ask airline pilots where they want to be during the Christmas to New Year holidays and most say… home with family and friends! In December 1982, we split the difference; being with wives and kids, but on a 707 odyssey to Tianjin, China, celebrating Christmas Eve in a frigid airport dining room with the leaders of China’s airline, CAAC.
The Glasair came from behind and below, just under the right side of my fuselage. The flash of white made me pull up and barrel roll to the left. My right wing and his left wing overlapped our respective longitudinal axes. I’m not sure how his prop missed my right main gear. My best, no BS guess is we missed each other by maybe 10 feet.