Flying airplanes and sailing boats are similar as
both activities are ruthlessly unforgiving of mistakes and errors in
judgment. It is true that virtually
anyone who wants to learn to fly or sail can take the appropriate classes,
study the textbook, and learn much from a knowledgeable teacher. If all goes well, you end up with a license
which says you are “competent” and can proceed on your own. Basically, a new license is a license to
learn more, providing you do not kill yourself while trying to learn.
Aviators and skippers then set out on their own and
begin to acquire experience. No matter
how good your teacher was, he can’t cover everything. One is soon confronted with a situation that
wasn’t covered in class or the textbook.
This is when your native intelligence, what you have learned, and past
experience comes into play to aid you in devising a plan to deal with the new
situation. If your improvised solution
works, you have acquired a new item for your bag of tricks, to be pulled out if
a similar situation arises in the future.
You also get the right to regale your buddies with how badly you messed
up and how brilliant you were in coming up with a successful plan to defeat
death one more time.
After one has acquired much experience and seemingly
filled the trick bag, one may have a tendency to get arrogant and complacent,
which can be potentially disastrous. As
your skill level rises, so also might your mistaken belief that you can handle
just about anything. You might get
sloppy, which is not good in an airplane or boat. Let me give you an example, before I get to
A few years ago I owned a 1949 Mooney Mite. It was a low-wing fabric-and-wood airplane
with a retractable landing gear, variable pitch prop, flaps, stick and a
sliding canopy. It had the same airfoil
as a P51 Mustang. It was a hotrod among
airplanes and I loved it with a passion reserved only for my lovely wife. It was not difficult to fly, but it had two
unusual flight characteristics that had to be mastered immediately.
First, it was very slick aerodynamically. Have you ever pedaled your bicycle as fast as
you could go and then suddenly stopped pedaling? Your speed would continue for a few seconds
and then the bicycle would start to slow down.
“Coasting,” we call it. The Mite
did the same thing. If you flew downwind
to land, you would be turning 2300 rpms and doing 120 knots. If you pulled the power off to 1000 rpms, the
Mite would coast awhile before it started slowing down. It was the only airplane I ever flew that
would do that. It is not a big deal,
Second, it was extremely
sensitive to control input. If you
continued your landing, you waited till the airspeed dropped below 90 knots, so
you could put the landing gear and flaps down.
This created drag which reduced airspeed to 70 knots. If you moved the stick forward a quarter inch
while set up on final approach, you would find yourself doing 90 knots, instead
of the proper 70 knots. Not good. The
Mite was not going to stay on the runway doing ninety knots, even if the tires
did not blow. Of course there is no
excuse for letting this happen. Just
But on occasion I let it happen. So I developed a technique to deal with the
unwanted airspeed. I flicked the stick
all the way to the right and fed in full left rudder, which had the effect of
skidding the airplane sideways. It is
called a “slip” in aviation circles.
Sideways creates more drag and slows the airplane, dramatically, very
quickly. As soon as the airspeed was
back to 70 knots, I neutralized the controls and continued the landing. Always successfully, I might add. But that is not the point. It was sloppy flying and there is no excuse
for that, ever. There is a word used to
describe sloppy pilots, they are called dead.
Which gets me to my story, a confession really.
I invited a young pilot, Jeremy, to fly with me to a
Saturday morning pancake Fly In at a
small grass airstrip which runs parallel to State Road 26, just outside of
Kokomo. The strip was only about five
minutes from Kokomo’s airport and was reputed to be short and narrow.
While we taxied to the active runway at Kokomo, I
listened to the aviation weather channel tell me that the wind at Kokomo was from 090
at seven knots. (The wind was blowing directly west.) Since airplanes are to take off and land into
the wind, I chose runway 05 to depart Kokomo.
This would put seven knots of wind forty degrees off my nose on
takeoff. No big deal. Not much of a consideration at all.
So off we went and arrived over the proposed landing
strip. I immediately noticed that it was
indeed short and tight. I told Jeremy
that I was going to make a practice approach without landing to check out the
situation. I dropped down to pattern altitude
heading due west parallel with the runway.
I noticed that the entire side of the runway paralleling SR 26 was lined
by trees. Tall trees. So was the left
side. And the far western end was blocked
by tall trees, a large hanger, a house and various outbuildings.
As I passed over the eastern end of the runway,
which had no obstructions, Jeremy commented, “Man, this is short…and
tight.” True enough.
cake for men like us,” I boasted. As I set up for the actual approach, I said, “I am
going to drag it in low and slow and touch down in the first ten feet, so we
will have plenty of room to stop.”
Jeremy nodded and said, “Sounds good to me.”
I flew the
approach perfectly and plopped Tweety Bird down exactly where I wanted. And that is when my nightmare began. I almost killed us both.
Remember that seven knot wind? Well, instead of blowing up my nose, it had
increased to nine knots and was a tailwind, throwing me down the runway,
greatly increasing my landing ground roll.
So I hit the brakes early and hard.
Tweety started skidding and was definitely not slowing down.
Remember that it was early in the
morning. The dew was still on the grass,
creating a slippery, glass-like surface.
Tweety was NOT slowing. And I had
fallen into a bad habit of retracting the flaps as soon as I had safely landed. Retracting the flaps killed all significant
lift. To get it back, I would have to
put the flaps down. Again, no big deal,
but it takes a few seconds for the electrical system to crank them down. Of course, I was so good, I never had to go
around for a second pass. Right! Until then!
Jeremy looked over at me and said, “You’re not going
to get it stopped!” He was absolutely
right. We were going to end up literally in the hangar at the end of the strip.
“I’m going around!”
I immediately firewalled the throttle and put the
flaps down, as Tweety hurtled toward the open hangar at the end of the runway. Tweety staggered into the air, hanging on her
propeller. She was barely climbing. That’s when the stall warning alarm went
off. As it screamed in the cockpit, she
started buffeting and rolling left and right.
The controls went mushy. I knew I
was right on the edge of a stall. When
airflow is disrupted over the wing, if left uncorrected, the airplane will roll
over and start to spin. This can be lots
of fun when you are 4000 feet above the ground and there is plenty of altitude
to recover from the spin, but when you are 100 feet above the ground, you are
going to be a smoking hole in the ground. Definitely not good.
I was out of options. There was nothing else I could do. And that is when I saw the trees at the
western end of the runway. Very tall
trees. Three of them.
About this time, Jeremy yelled, “We’re not going to
get over them!” He was right. We weren’t going to clear them.
The tallest tree on the left was stoutly made with
thick canopy. The middle tree was a
little shorter with not as thick a canopy.
The tree on the right was a little taller than the middle tree, also
with a scraggly canopy. If you have to
go down in a wooded area, you are taught to pick a short, thinly canopied tree
to land in, theoretically minimizing structural damage to the airplane. Once in a while, someone gets too low and
flies through the trees cutting branches with the prop and remains airborne and
survives. Rarely. I was not feeling lucky.
With Tweety hurtling toward the trees, I had to
think of something or Jeremy and I were dead.
So what I did was at the last possible second, I rolled Tweety into a
right bank to put her between the middle tree and right tree. Her right wing was almost pointed straight
down at the ground. Her nose started to
drop to the right. I slammed in full
left rudder to try to keep her flying and out of the developing spin. The stall warning continued to scream,
drowning out the roaring, stressed engine.
“Hang on!” I
yelled to Jeremy.
“Not going to make it!” shouted Jeremy.
And that is when to my absolute astonishment, Tweety
slipped perfectly between the trees. I had managed to essentially thread the
needle with an airplane. I instantly put her level and slammed the control
wheel forward to pick up airspeed. The
stall warning indicator went silent. The
shuddering stopped and she was flying again.
I pulled back on the wheel and she started climbing. We had made it!
I looked at the left leading edge of the wing and
then looked over at Jeremy and asked, “Did we hit anything? I didn’t feel any bangs. How’s the wing look?”
He turned and scanned the leading edge of the right
wing. “She looks good! I don’t see any dents and I didn’t feel us
hit anything. I think she’s OK.”
“Let’s land over at Glendale. It is only a mile away and check her
out. We may have damaged the tail or are
dragging some branches,” I said.
“Good idea,” said Jeremy. “And by the way, that is the dumbest thing I
have ever seen you do. We ought to be
dead, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, but not today. Skill and daring won out over treachery and
We landed safely at Glendale, got out and walked
around Tweety, who was undamaged. I went
into the empty pilot’s lounge and bought two Cokes for us. Nothing like a caffeine boost to an
adrenaline-loaded nervous system. We sat
down on the lawn chairs outside the lounge on the patio.
Then, I started shaking. My hands would not stop quivering. Jeremy looked over at me and said, “You are
as white as a ghost. You all right?”
“I am fine.
I’m just winding down. We got
lucky today. That should have killed us.
But it didn’t.” I started
laughing and Jeremy joined in. About
that time, a truck pulled up next to the patio and a pilot-friend of mine got
out and wordlessly walked around Tweety.
“I don’t see any damage. Am I missing it?” He asked.
“Not a scratch,” I replied.
“That was a fancy bit of airmanship I saw, you
slipping her between the trees like that.
Not bad at all. Very impressive. Where’d you learn that?”
“No where. Made it up,” I said.
“You both ought to be dead,” he said, very seriously
and matter-of-factly. “But nicely done, none the less.”
“It was adequate…for the occasion,” I offered.
“Well, I’m out of here. Glad you’re not hurt. I’ll tell the boys back at the breakfast that
you’re both OK. They all say that when
you come back next year for the breakfast, you should plan on staying longer.”
“I’ll do that,” I replied.
My friend drove away. Jeremy and I loaded up and
flew back to Kokomo’s airport.
I have tried to make this flying tale humorous. Maybe I have succeeded, maybe not. I can tell you that I still have nightmares
about that flight. They always begin
with the unstoppable ground roll and end with just before I slipped between the
trees. I always awaken in a cold
sweat. Maybe that is the airgods way of
reminding me that carelessness can make me dead.
Finally, it is no secret that I have always tried to
live up to the flying standard set by my dad, a naval aviator. I sometimes wonder what he would have thought
if he had been standing there in the open hangar, eating pancakes, and watching
me screw up so badly. I think he would
have shook his head and said internally, “I taught that boy better than that,”
and when I rolled it to the right and slipped away to fly another day, he would
have chuckled and said,“Nicely done.
Cheated death one more time.”